NEW DELHI – With Prime Minister Narendra Modi completing 75 days Aug. 14 in his second avatar as the nation's helmsman, he speaks extensively to IANS on his priorities going forward and also touches upon various sensitive issues varying from Jammu & Kashmir, medical reforms, criticality of education to taking the knife to the tumor of corruption within the bureaucracy. In an extensive conversation with IANS editor-in-chief Sandeep Bamzai, the prime minister walks him through the most contentious issues facing India and his remedies for maladies.
Excerpts from the interview:
You complete 75 days of your government today. Every government passes through such milestone numbers and talks about steps taken. Why should we think your government is any different?
We have set an unprecedented pace within just the first few days of our government. What we have been able to achieve is the result of 'Spasht Neeti, Sahi Disha (Right Intentions, Clear Policy)'. In just the first 75 days of our government, a lot has happened. From children's safety to Chandrayaan-II, from action against corruption to freeing Muslim women from the scourge of Triple Talaq, from Kashmir to Kisan, we have shown what a resolute government with a strong mandate of the people can achieve. We have taken a head-start in tackling the most pressing issue of our times, with the formation of Jal Shakti Ministry for a mission mode and integrated approach to improve water supply and augment water conservation.
Did the unprecedented mandate help you firm up your commitment to the people of India with an unstinting resolve that reform has to percolate down? And you have used your political heft by going beyond the executive and using the mandate in the legislature?
In a way, it is also the result of the government coming back with a stronger mandate. What we were able to achieve in the first 75 days was the outcome of the robust base we were able to build in the last five years. Hundreds of reforms in the last five years have ensured the country is now ready to take off, powered by the aspirations of the people. The first session of the 17th Lok Sabha has been a record-creating one it was the most productive session since 1952. This is not a minor achievement but, in my view, a historic turn for the better and one which will make our Parliament much more responsive to the needs and aspirations of the people. Many momentous initiatives have been taken such as pension schemes for farmers and traders, reform of the medical sector, important amendments in the Insolvency and Bankruptcy code, beginning of labor reforms. I could go on and on. But the gist of the matter is that when the intentions are right, there is clarity of purpose and implementation, and there is people's support, then there's no limit to what we can do.
There has been some noise on the medical reforms front from various quarters. Do you think the changes you have brought in are well thought through?
When we formed the government in 2014, there were many concerns about the existing system of medical education. Earlier, courts have used strong words for the institution overseeing medical education in India, calling it a 'den of corruption'. A parliamentary committee did rigorous study and took a very dull view of the state of affairs in medical education. It pointed out mismanagement, lack of transparency and arbitrariness.
Earlier governments too had given a thought to reforming this sector but could not go through with it. We decided to go through with it because this is not a matter that can be taken lightly, as it concerns the health of our people and future of our youth. So, we set up an expert group to look into what is plaguing it. The expert group studied the system carefully and brought out the problems and improvement areas. It is based on the suggestions from experts that we came to the current bill.
Why is there so much hullabaloo about the Bill then?
The National Medical Commission is a far-reaching reform in this space and seeks to correct the prevalent problems. It contains multiple reforms that curb avenues of corruption and boost transparency. At a time when nations are looking at India to power the next wave of growth in the world, we realize that this can happen only with a healthy populace. Freeing the poor from the vicious cycle of poverty that lack of health perpetuates is very important. The NMC serves this purpose well too. It will ensure transparency, accountability and quality in the governance of medical education in the country. It aims to lessen the burden on students, increase the number of medical seats and reduce cost of medical education. This means more talented youth can take up medicine as a profession and this will help us increase the number of medical professionals. Ayushman Bharat is bringing about a revolution in the healthcare sector. It is increasing awareness as well as affordability of quality healthcare, especially in tier-2 and tier-3 towns. We are also working to ensure that there is at least one medical college between every 3 districts. With rising awareness about healthcare, rising incomes and greater focus on aspirational goals among people, we will need thousands and thousands of doctors to fulfil the demand, especially in rural and urban areas. The NMC seeks to address these issues for a better outcome for all stakeholders. You must have also read that the academic year 2019-20 will see the biggest addition of medical seats in government colleges in a single year with the creation of around two dozen new government medical colleges. Our roadmap is clear a transparent, accessible and affordable medical education system leading to better healthcare outcomes.
Education is critical for a young nation. However, in the conversations surrounding your government, education seems missing. What is the government doing on this?
Education is not just critical but the most important component in the overall spectrum of skilled human resource for a technology-oriented, inclusive, people-centric and people-driven growth model. It not only has the potential to positively transform lives but also has a bearing on the future of the nation.
We are working on all aspects of education. At the school level, special focus is being paid to improving quality of education, improving learning outcomes, giving a boost to innovation and scientific temper, improving infrastructure, using technology to improve understanding among the students. We are trying to leverage technology like Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning to improve school education. In higher education, we are constantly striving to increase seats, increase presence of premier institutions across the country, give more autonomy to institutions, and while boosting research and innovation. We set up a Higher Education Financing Agency (HEFA) with an aim to provide funds up to Rs one lakh crore by 2022. Rs 21,000 crore has already been sanctioned till now. Sixty Higher Educational Institutions, including 52 universities, have been granted autonomy.
These universities will remain within the ambit of UGC but will have the freedom to start new courses, off campus centers, skill development courses, research parks and any other new academic programs. They will also have the freedom to hire foreign faculty, enroll foreign students, give incentive-based emoluments to the faculty, enter into academic collaborations and run open distance learning programs. Progress has been also made in taking forward the mission of National Education Policy. The first draft of National Education Policy (NEP) got lakhs of inputs and suggestions right from the block and panchayat level. Looking at the response and the interest of various stakeholders, the committee went for another round of consultations.
A couple of important decisions related to corruption sent shock waves in the bureaucracy – what message were you intending to send?
Since India's independence, one of the biggest things holding us back was corruption. Corruption spared no one, neither the rich nor the poor. People resorted to corruption either due to some greed or to make a quick buck or due to some compulsion. But even these people wanted corruption to stop. The question in everyone's mind was that who will start the fight against corruption and from where. The fight against corruption always had the support of people, media, institutions, because everyone agreed that corruption was a major obstacle in India's development journey. And this was not only an issue related to money. Corruption eroded trust in the society, be it a government office or the market. A person going to the police station would think whether he will get justice and similarly a person buying something from the market will fear adulteration.
We decided, right from day one, to attack the menace of corruption. Someone had to make a start somewhere, we decided to do this, without caring for political consequences. The results show that we are succeeding. Not only is corruption coming down, but trust in society is increasing. The number of people filing income tax returns almost doubled in the last five years. We have systematically clamped down on corruption and made tax filing and refund process online. Already, refunds are being credited directly to bank accounts of income-tax payers, without any human intervention. Going a few steps further, we aim to make faceless assessment of income tax return a reality. This would be a game-changer in ushering a new era of transparency in the tax system. We are firm in our commitment that neither will we allow corruption nor will we tolerate any form of undue harassment. Hence, we took tough steps and compulsorily retired some tax officials in the last few weeks. In the previous term also, hundreds of government officials were removed from service when there were reasons to do so. We have also leveraged the power of technology through DBT which has resulted in a savings of more than Rs 1.4 lakh crore.
Your decision on Article 370 has been welcomed by many and also been opposed by a few. There seems to be an uneasy calm at the moment. Why do you think the people of J&K will stand with you?
Please see the list of people who have opposed the decisions about Kashmir – the usual vested interest groups, political dynasties, those who sympathize with terror and some friends in the Opposition.
The people of India, irrespective of what their political preference is, have supported the steps taken in Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh. This is about the nation, not politics. The people of India are seeing that tough but essential decisions that were earlier assumed to be impossible are becoming a reality. It is now clear to everyone how Articles 370 and 35(A) fully isolated Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh. The status quo of seven long decades clearly could not fulfill people's aspirations. Citizens were kept away from the fruits of development. The greatest casualty was the lack of any proper economic avenues to increase earnings. Our approach is different – instead of the vicious cycle of poverty, the people need more economic opportunities.
What is your message for the people of J&K in the new dispensation, unshackled and unfettered to reap the future of reform in India, one replete with jobs and a better life?
For years, intimidation ruled the roost. Let us now give development a chance. My sisters and brothers of Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh always wanted a better future for them but Article 370 did not enable it. There was injustice against women and children, ST as well as SC communities. And, most importantly, the innovative zeal of the people of Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh was not harnessed. Now, from BPOs to startups, from food processing to tourism, many industries can avail investment and create opportunities for the local youth. Education and skill development will also bloom. I want to clearly assure my sisters and brothers of Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh that these regions will develop as per the wishes of local people, their dreams and ambitions. The growth of these regions will first and foremost be powered by those belonging to these regions. Articles 370 and 35(A) were like chains that kept people tied. These chains are now broken, people have been unshackled from such dominance and they will now shape their own destiny.
Those who are opposing the decisions on Jammu and Kashmir should answer one basic question – what is their defense for Articles 370 and 35(A) remaining? They would have no answer to this question. And, these are the same people who are used to protesting when it comes to anything that helps common people. There is a project to provide water to people, they will oppose it. There is a railway track being built, they will oppose that. Their heart only beats for Maoists and terrorists who have only bullied common citizens.
Today, every Indian is fully standing with the people of Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh and I am confident they will stand with us in the aim to boost development and bring peace.
But aren't there concerns about democracy? Will the voice of the people of Kashmir be heard?
Kashmir has never witnessed such a strong commitment in favor of democracy. Remember the turnout during the panchayat elections? The people voted in large numbers and did not get cowed by bullying. In November and December of 2018, there were 35,000 sarpanches elected and the turnout in the panchayat elections was a record 74 percent. There was no violence during the panchayat elections. Not a drop of blood was shed in poll violence. This, when the main parties there were lukewarm to this entire exercise. It is very satisfying that now panchayats are back at the forefront of furthering development and human empowerment.
Recently, the Jammu and Kashmir administration did the 'Back to Village' program, where the entire government machinery went to the people instead of vice versa. They went just to mitigate people's problems. The common citizens appreciated the program. The results of these efforts are for all to see. Swachh Bharat, rural electrification and other such initiatives are reaching the grassroots. This is what democracy truly is. In any case, I have assured people that elections in Jammu, Kashmir will continue and it is the people of these regions only who will represent the larger public. Yes, those who ruled Kashmir thinking it is their divine right to do so will dislike democratization and peddle incorrect narratives. They do not want a self-made, younger leadership to emerge. These are the same people whose own conduct in the 1987 elections has been suspect. Article 370 has helped the local political class avoid transparency and accountability. Its removal will only empower democracy even more.
How do you see the developments in Congress Party where Sonia Gandhi became the President after Rahul Gandhi had publicly said that he doesn't want any Gandhi to get the role?
What happened in the Congress party is an internal matter of their family. I would not like to comment on it.
It was believed in 2014 that you would not be able to establish friendly relations with Gulf countries, but we have seen that India's relations with the Gulf countries have been improving since 2014. Currently, it may not be wrong to say that India's relations with Gulf countries are the best now in the last seven decades. How do you explain this?
I feel that there are two aspects to this. First, a certain section of people believed that my government – and I personally – would fail on the foreign policy front not just in the Gulf region, but also in the wider context. The reality is that my Government's successful track record on foreign policy across the world is there for everyone to see. In fact, after assuming office in 2014, the very first Foreign Minister my government received on an official visit was that of the Sultanate of Oman. So, what others thought of me, and what the reality turned out to be, is for them to introspect. I want to focus on the second aspect instead – the importance of the Gulf region to India. This is a region that has deep-rooted historical and cultural ties with India. It is home to almost 9 million Indians whose remittances are a significant contributor to our economy and they have also contributed immensely to prosperity in the region. I have always found that leaders of the Gulf countries value the enriching presence of the Indian diaspora and care for their well-being like a guardian.
This region is also our major partner in ensuring our energy security. We have gone beyond a buyer-seller relationship with them. UAE has participated in our strategic petroleum reserve program, and both UAE and Saudi Arabia are to invest in the world's largest oil refinery project in India. For the first time, Indian companies have secured rights in offshore oil fields in the Gulf region.
I have made a special effort to focus our foreign policy on enhancing our ties with all countries in the region. Our outreach to the region has been unprecedented, right from the official level to the political level. I have myself visited the region many times, and we have also hosted many leaders from the region in India. Some of my closest and warmest interactions anywhere in the world are with leaders in the Gulf region. We are regularly in touch. And, I think our policy has succeeded to a large extent because of this outreach, this constant engagement. We have not allowed any miscommunication, any doubts to play spoilsport. We have been very open with all the countries, and they have also reciprocated with warmth and friendship. I firmly believe that India and the Gulf countries have only begun to explore the true potential of a partnership which will go far beyond mutual benefits and can anchor peace, progress and prosperity not only in our common and extended neighborhood but also in the larger world.