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‘Against 1 Hour, Cabinet Meetings 3-hr Long Under Modi’
Union Minister for Food & Public Distribution, Consumer Affairs and Lok Janshakti Party President Ram Vilas Paswan, in an exclusive interview with BW Businessworld, says strengthening the consumer is his priority in days to come
Photo Credit : PTI
Union Minister for Food & Public Distribution, Consumer Affairs and Lok Janshakti Party President Ram Vilas Paswan, in an exclusive interview with BW Businessworld’s Suman K Jha, says strengthening the consumer is his priority in days to come. An ally of PM Modi’s BJP, Paswan trashes the perception that the PM doesn’t allow space to allies, and says that Modi ministers are also inspired to put in 20 hours of work a day.
As a senior Minister in the Narendra Modi Cabinet, what do you think are the major achievements of the government in the last three years?
The earlier government was steeped in corruption. The biggest achievement of this government is that there is no trace of corruption here.
There’s time-bound delivery of schemes and programmes. In the earlier regime, when a decision was taken, no one knew when it would see the light of the day. IN this Cabinet, all decisions are taken in a time-bound manner.
Modi means work; work means Modi.
Then, this government has the enormous ability of risk taking which no other government had. When the Modi government undertook the demonetization move, apprehensions were raised, especially by the affluent that the government would go. The poor were solidly behind the government. So, there was not a trace of agitation against the government on this.
Even former Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh had said that the GDP would take a hit by 2 per cent in the wake of demonetization. Nothing of this sort happened.
This government believes in power to the people. This government is running the world’s largest food security programme where as many as 81 crore people are being provided with subsidised rice and wheat.
This government believes in moving ahead, whether it’s in education, healthcare, education, cleanliness.
You are running the Ministry of Consumer Affairs and Food Distribution. What have been your ministry’s achievements?
When we took over, the Food Security Act was limited to 11 states. Today it has been extended to the entire country. We are providing wheat at Rs 2 per kg and rice at Rs 3 per kg to the 81-crore population across the country.
Among our fair price shops, we are moving towards, a cashless system. We have already achieved the status in 50,000 shops.
In the three states of Pondicherry, Chandigarh, and Dadra Nagar Haveli, direct cash is being transferred to the beneficiaries.
We undertook an audit of ration cards and found that 2 crore 33 lakh of them were fake. So, newer beneficiaries are being targeted. Ration cards are being linked to Aadhar.
We are stressing on PDS reforms, although it’s a state subject. FCI complaints are a thing of the past.
Price rise has been checked due to our pro-active measures.
Digital initiatives have been taken towards consumer protection. When I came, there were 14 consumer helplines. Now there are 60 consumer helplines. We brought out with direct selling guidelines.
We ensured that the consumers don’t have to pay more than the MRP. Also, service charges in the restaurants are not mandatory.
Your initiative on service charges is fine, but how will it be implemented?
If a consumer is being forced to pay a service charge, he/she can complain to us through mobile apps. They can move consumer courts and such fora are well-equipped to deal with such types of cases.
You recently came out with a strange order, asking the restaurants to limit the portions they serve to the consumers. What was that meant to achieve?
I merely said and I stand by that, that the consumer, under the Consumer Protection Act, has a right to know how much food and what quality of food is being served to him. Under these circumstances, if a restaurant serves five portions of food to one consumer, when one can do with just one or two, naturally food is being wasted. Like with the pizza chains, which have the options of small, medium, large and extra-large pizzas, the consumer should have a choice before him. The Act empowers him to this end. I merely reinforced this.
What more are you doing to empower the consumer and protect their rights?
To strengthen consumer rights, we are coming up with a new Consumer Protection Bill, which is currently with the Law Ministry. I had introduced the bill in 2015 following which it was referred to the Standing Committee. Many new provisions have been added to the bill to empower the consumer. Among other provisions, there’s a provision for the Consumer Protection Authority which will bat for the consumer. Upon receiving complaints, the authority can investigate, seize goods, withdraw goods, and even arrest the culprit. This is going to be a far-reaching move.
There’s a great deal of politics around the Food Security Act. You give the subsidy and state governments claim it’s their move.
This is really strange. We buy wheat at Rs 22 / 24 per kg and sell it at Rs 2 per kg in fair price shops. Similarly, we pay Rs 30 per kg for rice and sell it at Rs 3 per kg. We bear the costs. Yet, some state governments, like the Bihar Government, claim it’s their own schemes. Therefore, we have asked the states to clearly write on boards at fair price shops, how much subsidy is coming from the Centre and how much from the state. Some states may be contributing, but this appropriation of credit is shameful.
You have handled various portfolios in the past. Which has been the most challenging assignment so far?
I have handled many portfolios. I was the welfare and labour minister in the VP Singh government. It was my department that at was at the centre stage of implementing the Mandal Commission report. You are fully aware the agitations and social upheaval it gave rise to.
Then I was the Communications Minister. That was the age when a mobile call – including receiving it – incurred a cost of Rs 16 per minute. I said one day we will revolutionise the mobile network and sell cellphones at cheaper rates than vegetables. That is happening today. I also introduced WLL.
I later became the Railways Minister. I commissioned rail lines for many far-flung areas and zones. You see the rail lines in Jammu and Kashmir today. They were commissioned during my time.
In 2005, I took up the issue of generic drugs.
Some people are known by the departments they head. And some departments come to be known by the people who are associated with them.
It’s believed that PM Modi doesn’t give adequate space to others, especially alliance partners. What’s been your experience?
This charge is absurd. We openly put across our viewpoints in Cabinet meetings. Others also speak out. You can understand the changed dynamics thus – since I have been a Minister in other governments too, I know that Cabinet meetings used to last for an hour or at most an hour and a half. Now under Pm Modi, Cabinet meetings go up to three hours and we routinely clock over two and a half hours. My experience with this government has been very good.
What can one learn from PM Modi’s leadership style?
When your leader works for 20 hours a day, naturally, you are also expected to clock those many hours. This is the least that a Cabinet Minister can do.
You have already announced that the 2019 elections would be contested under PM Modi?
I said this specifically in the context of Presidential polls. When the Opposition doesn’t have numbers, it’s unnecessarily creating a hoopla around it. In fact, I believe there’s no vacancy at the top till 2024, not just 2019. The Opposition parties will learn this the hard way.
Last year, there was a huge crisis is pulses. IS the crisis well and truly over, ad are you confident that there will be no recurrence of the crisis in the future?
I am no foreteller. We should understand that dynamics of pulses in the country. The demand for pulses in the country is increasing by 10 lakh tonne per year. Ideally, the production too should match this spurt in demand. For the current year, there’s been a production of 224 lakh tonnes of pulses, while the demand has been 246 lakh tonnes. We imported 50 lakh tonnes of pulses to meet the shortfall. IN the immediate future, I don’t see the pulses crisis happening.
What are your future plans?
I am striving for total transparency in the way my ministry is run. Among my immediate plans is the one on foodgrain procurement. Under the present system, foodgrain is procured from a state, stored in FCI godowns, and then dispatched to states needing it. This incurs a cost. My vision is – why not directly procure from the farmers and dispatch to states needing it? The logistics may be an issue. The procurement period stretches to a month and a half in many states. And the amount procured at the time could be huge – up to 100 lakh tonne.
I am still dealing with the problem and hope to arrive at a blueprint very soon.
Among other things, I want to strengthen consumer rights. For instance, I keep hearing complaints whether a particular juice drink is pure or not. I have asked FSSAI to randomly pick samples and conduct surprise checks.
I also want all the manufacturers to adhere to the manufacturing date/expiry date guidelines strictly.
Many garment manufacturers were facing the problem of specifications on labels. For instance, a shirt manufacturer had to put a number of specifications on the label. I suggested – simply put labels like small, medium or large and make things simpler.
Strengthening the consumer rights while making the business climate easy would be one of my objectives.