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'I have never been kept down by the PM'

August 22, 2014 11:59 IST

Nirmala Sitharaman'It is my right as an Indian to decide, my government's right to decide how much subsidy I will give my poor farmers. That cannot be dictated from somewhere else. I want that right to be retained by us.'

'I am almost tempted to say there is some kind of a vested interest operating to play down the achievements of Modi.'

'I think the focus should be on what has been achieved in 70 days and not on how this government functions.'

The second segment of Commerce Minister Nirmala Sitharaman's exclusive interview with Sheela Bhatt/Rediff.com on how the Modi sarkar is changing India.

Tell us, in spite of the entire world being against India, how and under what circumstances and with what kind of understanding did India take a decision to veto the Bali World Trade Organisation agreement? Why did India back out?

We didn't back out. Even now we haven't backed out. We have raised concerns that from among the 10 items or pillars on which the Bali agreement was signed, just one is tied to a time framework. That is the trade facilitation agreement.

My party and the government's feeling was, why is it that, for instance, on trade facilitation you have tied yourself to a particular deadline which is July 31? For us it was a question as to why no commitment or deadline was made on the public stock holding of food.

If only the first agreement to be signed was the public stock holding of food, where they find a permanent solution, had been agreed upon in Bali, there is nothing to complain. But the fact that this cannot happen because we all believe and understand that the WTO, subsequent to the Doha round, also and even during the Doha round, went on the principle of single undertaking. Which is, nothing is agreed till everything is agreed.

That is the meaning of single undertaking. If nothing is agreed till everything is agreed upon, how come only on the trade facilitation agreement we are going forward? Why is only that being agreed upon first? And the rest are being left with a loose end? So that distortion which happened in Bali, last year, is something that has to be corrected at some point of time.

And what we are doing is reiterating that we are committed to the Bali agreement, meaning that we want the agreement signed in Bali be fulfilled. But based on the single undertaking principle, solve our problem, give us a permanent solution on the public stock holding of food.

We have nothing against the trade facilitation agreement, we will go ahead with it. That is what is happening now.

We have not taken any backward step. We have not withdrawn. But we are saying, follow your principle of single undertaking.

The Western media alleges that India has already crossed limits of 10 per cent on rice, they say it stands at 22 per cent, about wheat we don't know yet.

I have explained this on the floor of the Rajya Sabha.

If you compare a price that prevails based on prices that prevailed during the base year of 1986, you will say that we have crossed the subsidy limit. Whereas our argument is, if you take 1986 as your base year, how much of inflation has hit us, what is the currency rate in exchange with the dollar, can you forget all this?

And in 1986 the quantum of wheat which is exported or imported from India and today's agriculture production in India are all completely different. And how can any economic principle be guided by what happened 20 years ago?

Therefore we say there are a lot of distortions in the way in which WTO policies are being tied up. And those distortions will have to be corrected now. So we are now in a state where we are correcting the distortion.

Is your decision connected with the minimum support price condition which would have come into effect after four years and you were worried about Indian farmers? Is it true?

The minimum support price condition applies even now. But they said in Bali till we give a permanent solution even if your subsidies cross the 10 per cent limit, we will not take you to court. Either till 2017 or till a permanent solution is found. But the word 'or' is missing in the agreement which was signed. It only said...

Why?

It says a permanent solution is to be found by 2017, and in the interim a peace clause will prevail. It doesn't tell you that by 2017 if a permanent solution is not found, the peace clause will continue. There is an ambiguity there.

(Former commerce minister) Anand Sharma held a press conference immediately after your Rajya Sabha statement and he gave a very detailed reply and he was very robust in his opposition to your statement. So is it politics or beyond that?

I really don't know what to say. I am asking a pointed question, is there a guarantee that in 2017 if we don't get a permanent solution then the peace clause continues? That is only in the interim, and therefore what does the objective do? I am working for a permanent peace clause.

If I am working for a peace clause which will be for perpetuity, is there an objection? So what is the objection? Specifically, if I may ask from the Congress side, are they not with us in this? Let them respond to it.

They never said that.

I am asking a question since it is... So what is the objection to what I am doing? I am saying that I agree to Bali.

Your objection carries an implied allegation that they succumbed there last year. That is the objection.

Just a minute. Let me clarify on that. My statement in the Rajya Sabha, particularly when I was giving you the clarification on the questions which are being asked, is in a way that we are only reinforcing what was done in Bali, but with course correction.

In fact, my predecessor Anand Sharma had said on the floor of the House, yes, it wasn't one of the perfect agreements, and he repeatedly tied it up only to the LDC (Least Developed Countries) related issues. I am sorry, I am also concerned about LDC issues. But I am more concerned about my public stock holding deal.

The imperfection in the agreement is not only applicable in the LDC- related issues, but is equally applicable on public stock holding. Then my predecessor also says food security is never on the agenda of the committee.

He is right.

He is not right, I am sorry to say that.

If you read his statement...

No. Let me ask you a question. If you don't have public stock holding without trouble, if you don't procure on an administrative price, if you don't give subsidy for procurement of grains, your public stock holding is going to be at risk.

Without your public stock holding, how are you going to ensure food security? Food security kahaan se aayega? Kinka food security ke upar aap baat kar rahe ho? Isi liye if you want to give a tenuous argument of food security was not on agenda of WTO or Bali, I want to ask you, without the public stock holding, without the guarantee that they won't take us to court, even after 2017, without the perpetual peace clause already in our hands, isn't your food security under threat?

Because you can't hold food stocks. You can't have administrative price mechanisms, you can't protect poor farmers, you can't therefore provide the food stock holding through the Public Distribution System to the poorest of the poor. So the expression 'food security' may not have been there, but in spirit that is what is getting impacted. So please let us not get into that.

So what next? Is it fitting into what 'liberal' Modi stands for?

Before I move on to answering what next, if I have understood you right, it doesn't match with Modi is not right. Modi also cares for the poor of this country. Modi also cares for an inclusive agenda. Modi also, even in Gujarat, had attended to the distribution of PDS rice and wheat in really backward areas.

So let us not forget that a progressive developmental CM also understands, and that's what he did in Gujarat, his duty towards the rest of the poor. So that is corrected.

Now what is in the future? We are going to be engaging ourselves with the WTO. We will hope that they are able to understand the concerns that we have. That's what in a way sort of was implied by not going ahead with July 31.

Will your stand impact on public stock holding or will it have a direct impact on the minimum support price the government gives to farmers. What have your voters gained?

The direct fayada (gain) is that the decision on agricultural prices, quantum of subsidy, support to the poor farmers, keep our PDS as it was, make it even more efficient, are the direct benefits of us by not going ahead with trade facilitation.

What is the link? If we had signed the trade facilitation, there is no guarantee that the developed countries will come back to you to say alright, we've got a trade facilitation, now tell me what you want to do on agriculture and the public stock holding of food grains and for your concern of the poor.

Are they going to come back? What is the incentive they will have to come back and talk to me about my sovereign decisions? It is my right as an Indian to decide, my government's right to decide, how much subsidy I will give my poor farmers. That cannot be dictated from somewhere else. I want that right to be retained by us.

Was there pressure to not take this decision?

Absolute and a lot.

Recently, the image has gone down that the Prime Minister's Office has become more powerful and ministries are less powerful and they are actually taking the agenda or the things-to-do from the prime minister. Ministers are turning into glorified bureaucracy, who are doing the job. Is it true? Do you have any independence?

If that kind of an image has gone down, I am really shocked and surprised that an independent assessment may not have been probably made. Otherwise that kind of an inference is completely wrong. I would, in fact, in turn ask what is the basis on which any such conclusion is being made?

Cabinet meetings are happening at regular, in fact more than regular, intervals. Cabinet meetings are running not just for half an hour or 10 minutes, they are running for hours -- where decisions are discussed threadbare. I repeat, discussions happen before decisions are taken. All of us... a minister like me, a junior minister, has participated in the Cabinet, the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs, of which I am an invited member and I speak openly.

And if decisions are being centralised as is being alleged, Cabinet meetings need not happen this way. So it's sad that such conclusions are being made of a government which is not even 3, 4 months old. Whereas just for a comparison, and not to take a pot shot at my opponents, for 10 years they said things will happen, things are happening, and didn't have a hard word to say, are playing so harsh in commenting on a government which is just 70 days old. It is really sad that they do it. And I totally reject it with these examples.

Cabinet meetings as one example, too many of our decisions are being taken at our levels and when the Cabinet sees it they ask us for the merits and then clear it. I have taken quite a few decisions. I have never been instructed or kept down by the PM. If there is a... I am almost tempted to say there is some kind of a vested interest operating to play down the achievements of Modi.

Look at what happened. On the last day of this Budget session. I was so proud to hear when the chairman of the House, Vice-President (Hamid Ansari), read out how effective this session has been, how much legislative business had been achieved. And how many activities of the government have been taken up.

I think the focus should be on what has been achieved in 70 days and not on how this government functions.

Sheela Bhatt/Rediff.com in New Delhi