Nitin Gadkari has lined up mega plans in his second innings as the minister of road transport & highways. In an interview with Prerna Katiyar, the Nagpur MP, who now also heads the ministry of micro, small & medium enterprises, speaks about the lofty infrastructuretargets of the government, the immediate agenda to revive stalled highway projects and his ambition to globalise products made by Indian small businesses to boost exports, among other themes. Edited excerpts:
What is your ministry’s agenda in this term?
When we faced the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, there was a lot of anger towards the UPA government. We benefitted from that angst. In the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, we got people’s blessings for the work we had done in the last five years. The mandate proves people want development.
Now I am working on highway projects worth Rs 15 lakh crore, including 22 green expressways. We are developing petrol pumps and other roadside amenities under the new green model. For the Mumbai-Delhi green highway, land has been acquired and work is under progress. The build-operate-toll mode of building highways is being revived. Last year, the ministries and department that were under me contributed 3% to the country’s gross domestic product. I want to improve on this.
What can we expect for you in the next 100 days?
My priority is to roll out all stuck highway projects, including many of the IL&FS projects, within 100 days.
How do you intend to solve the problems in the micro, small & medium enterprises (MSMEs) sector? It has been underperforming despite talks of huge potential.
I believe MSMEs are the backbone of growth of any country. They have a huge potential in increasing employment and contributing towards overall growth.
I have taken up the challenge to contribute more towards growth and employment, reduce imports and boost exports. At the same time, I will work towards making the sector more investor-friendly. Secondly, I feel, rural and tribal areas need more employment avenues. I recently had a meeting with the Asian Development Bank(ADB), World Bank and KfW (a German state-owned development bank) on development projects. We have identified 115 districts in rural and tribal areas. My target is to generate more exports via MSMEs and, thereby, cut imports.
We want to develop 300-plus technical skill centres with the involvement of industry. Industry will set up these centres and help the underprivileged. Our own investment will be less this way. While we will give sops to industry, they will give us the commitment of providing employment to the needy. I am sure in the coming days, we will be successful in generating employment and contributing more towards improving growth in this way, thereby contributing towards achieving (PM Narendra) Modiji’s dream of making India a $5 trillion economy and making it among the top five economies in the world.
Just like there are websites such as Alibaba and Amazon for ecommerce, I am developing a website — Bank of Ideas, Innovation and Research — to give MSMEs a marketing platform. I am working on increasing exports of drumstick powder, honey and bamboo, as well as making khadi popular across the world. Globalising MSME products and khadi products through joint ventures is what I am looking at.
There seems to be a major push to ensure India has more electric vehicles(EVs). What are the challenges on this path?
The country is going to adopt EVs in the natural course — be it electric bikes, electric rickshaws, electric cars, trucks or buses and even electric highways. We are working on that front. This will help us to reduce imports and tackle the pollution problem.
In Delhi, I am working on projects worth Rs 50,000 crore related to EVs. I have accepted the challenge to make Delhi pollution free in two years. Look at Dhaula Kuan. Hundreds of people used to be stranded there due to traffic bottlenecks. We build the Dwarka Expressway, Gurgaon Road, the Jaipur-Delhi Highway and we are developing a 14-lane Eastern Peripheral Expressway. The Delhi-Meerut Expressway will be completed in two months. It takes four and a half hours to travel from Delhi to Meerut. The expressway will bring it down to 45 minutes. Work is in full swing on the New Delhi-Mumbai Expressway. Visit any city, and you will notice that work on infrastructure and the road sector is very much visible. But I want to now focus on the MSME sector also.
But there is a deficiency in cobalt and lithium (raw materials for EV batteries). The absence of charging points is also a problem in rolling out EVs.
I do not see any deficiency as such. Everything is an interplay of demand and supply. When something gets into use, options immediately emerge via innovations, research and investments. When I was talking about electric buses, people were laughing at me. Now hundreds of electric buses are plying in so many cities. There are 150 electric buses in Pune. There are a thousand buses in Nagpur. In Nagpur, biowaste is being converted to CNG to fuel buses.
This Republic Day, our fighter jets and helicopters were run on biofuels. Biofuel was also used to power a Spicejet aircraft. This is just the beginning.
Several projects you had initiated under the shipping ministry in the previous government are now under Mansukh L Mandaviya, the new shipping minister. How would these projects pan out?
In shipping, we developed Rs 16 lakh crore worth projects under Sagarmala (programme to develop ports along the coastline). We completed inland waterways project over the Ganga. Bharatmala (overall programme to enhance road connectivity) and Sagarmala were big flagship infrastructure projects. On a broader term, in the last tenure, I had seen a spend of Rs 17 lakh crore, which included Rs 11 lakh crore in the highways sector alone.
What about the progress of Sagarmala project?
Some Rs 16 lakh crore worth of work was planned under it. Projects worth Rs 6 lakh crore were initiated by me when I was the minister. Some 10 waterways became functional as well. I had initiated a project to ferry cargo by waterways from Delhi to Bangladesh. A DPR worth Rs 12,000 crore for developing a waterway from Delhi to Mathura, Agra, Etawah and Allahabad was submitted. The plan is to connect Allahabad to Varanasi, Haldia, Bay of Bengal and finally Brahmaputra — so that Maruti cars will be transported from Delhi to Bangladesh as part of this plan.
What would be the specific contributions from the ministries under you this term?
I have achieved whatever I had said I would. But I do not want to commit in a hurry this time. I will work very hard to achieve the PM’s targets and to achieve a growth target of 8.5%. We want to move towards becoming an export-oriented and import-substitution economy. I have made a list of initiatives for this. A lot of policies are also being made to achieve this.
Do we lack funds for infrastructure projects? Or are the projects stuck due to red tape, acquisition problems, poor Centre-state coordination and such issues?
Apart from land acquisition, cost of capital and cost of electricity are the major impediments. We have decided that all MSME factories will put up a solar photovoltaic shed on their premises, in collaboration with KfW, so that the power bill comes down from the current Rs 11-12 per unit to Rs 2.5 per unit. All industry units must generate power. Cost of electricity has to drastically come down. Similarly, the cost of water and capital should be curtailed. Most importantly, cost of logistics must be lowered. We are making waterways and highways as well as using electric trucks instead of diesel vehicles to bring down costs. But look at the logistic costs: it is 8-10% in China and 12-13% in Europe. In India it is 17-18%. I want to cut logistic costs of MSMEs to 6%. To cut the cost of capital, we are working on schemes in cooperation with the World Bank, KfW and Asian Development Bank. But we must not be dependent on such agencies alone. We must also work with cooperative banks, NBFCs (non-banking finance corporations), credit cooperative societies, SIDBI (Small Industries Development Bank of India) and financial corporations of state governments. We will get appraisals done by professional agencies. We will only be policymakers and will see that the projects are sanctioned in 15-20 days. We are researching on developing such a model.
Innovation is the key here. Take the case of our fishermen, who were not allowed to go beyond 12 nautical miles (India’s territorial waters). There was hardly any fish left inside the zone. There is a lot of competition in the sector. When I was the shipping minister, we gave trawlers to fishermen in coastal states so that they could go up to 200 nautical miles (Exclusive Economic Zone). This way, their catch could increase five times. With such a rise in output, we can also plan to set up seafood processing plants, packaging plants and export units to catapult the growth of the blue economy 10-20 times.
RoRo (roll-on, roll-off ) services are available on waterway at 17 locations. Rather than using diesel vehicles to cover long distances over land, waterways are being used to cover the distance within minutes. A vessel can carry cars, trucks and buses as well as people. They can reach their destination within minutes. To reach Mumbai airport, for example, a project is on to finance water taxis, just like people use Ola cabs on roads.
Taking forward the idea of Antyodaya of Mahatma Gandhiji and Deendayal Upadhyayaji, I want to give maximum benefit to the maximum number of people. I am developing 100-odd schemes to ensure large-scale employment opportunities. We will give sops, bear interest costs and involve more industries.
What about improving on Ease of Doing Business and cutting red tape?
I want to develop a system that will end red tape, Inspector Raj and government control. My aim is to bring in fast-track decision making with transparency, end corruption and deliver time-bound results.
So are you satisfied with what you have achieved in the previous term?
I do not like the concept of being satisfied. When our children get 80% marks, we encourage them to try for 85% next time. Then we ask them to try to get 90%. This goes on.
Are you aiming to secure the legacy of being the greatest infrastructure builder of modern India?
See, as far as infrastructure is concerned, I have already done what I could. I achieved a rate of building 30-31 km of roads a day. The Mumbai-Delhi Expressway, which is being constructed, will halve the travel time between the destinations to 12 hours. I am working on Rs 50,000 crore worth projects in Delhi itself. Now even the Opposition is sitting quietly and appreciating the progress that has been made. Crores of people who visited the Kumbh Mela this time appreciated the efforts taken to purify the Ganga. 30% projects related to Ganga were completed. I had said Ganga will become aviral (uninterrupted) in a year — that has been achieved.
Whatever I had promised, I have achieved. I wanted to complete the river-linking project. Now we have a new minister in the new Jal Shakti Ministry, Gajendra Singh Shekhawat. I will offer my complete cooperation to him. Water is a big challenge in our country. The PM is himself focussing on the issue. I will cooperate fully with the new minister. The dream is to build a $5 trillion economy and make India among the top five economies. My motivation, inspiration and vision is to achieve this and to ensure how best my ministries can contribute towards this end.
Are you satisfied with the cooperation from states?
I always say this: there are some people who convert an opportunity into a problem and there are some who convert a problem into an opportunity. I am a person who turns problems into opportunities. My job is to find a way to solve problems.