The Narendra Modi government completes two years in office on 26 May, an eventful two years that have seen many controversies. Union Minister for Road Transport, Highways and Shipping Nitin Gadkari, however, has been Mr Dependable for the present dispensation. Ranked the top performing minister of the Modi Cabinet, Gadkari spoke to The Statesman on a host of issues. Excerpts:
Q. Delhi to Agra in a luxury boat on the Yamuna. I can’t wait to know more about this Yamuna waterway project. What is the progress on it?
A. We are all working on the project. We are going to launch the first route on the Yamuna in three months. We have to coordinate with the water resources ministry on how to maintain three metres depth in the river throughout the year. Several agencies are involved in this project. The DDA is responsible for development of the river front. We will see sea planes, catamarans and hovercraft in Yamuna.
Q. Do you really think it is possible? In Delhi the river is filthy and there is little water flowing through it for most of the year.
A. Cleaning up Yamuna is the responsibility of the state government. Regarding development of the river front, that is with DDA, but I am confident that we will succeed. We are converting 111 rivers into inland waterways. We have started work worth Rs.3,000 crore in the Ganga. Varanasi, Haldia and Sahibganj will work as hubs. We are developing five rural waterways and working on 40 water ports.
Q. You are doing a lot of work in the highways sector. How much is happening on the ground and how is your approach different?
A. When I took charge as minister, 403 projects at a cost of over Rs three lakh crore were stalled. Today there are only 13 to 15 such projects involving Rs.30,000 crore.
Q. I spoke to a couple of private sector players. They complain that banks’ behaviour towards industrialists is still not positive.
A. I think you are right but I am not responsible for that. The problem is with the environment in the country. People and media are creating a feeling that is against the investor. There are bonafide defaulters and malafide defaulters. The former need our support and a way out of the problem but the latter should face stringent action.
Today the atmosphere in the country is such that every defaulter is termed anti-national or a criminal. Everywhere inquiry begins, everywhere CBI or CVC goes to the bank and the bank manager morally is not in a position to sanction loans.
Q. Toll bridges have seen opposition from local politicians and local communities, saying their lives get disturbed. Do you think there is a need to change the policy?
A. We have rolled out a “fast track” design. There is a sticker on your car that you can charge through mobile phone and you don’t need to stop at the toll gate. Thousands of people are using it. If you want good service you have to pay for it. The government doesn’t have enough money for building that infrastructure. When I constructed the Mumbai- Pune expressway it took 9 hours from Mumbai to Pune. Today it is just 2 hours. You save time and fuel.
Q. Tax payers have been doing their bit. Do they have to pay for the roads as well?
A. All over the world, including in the US and Canada, there are toll roads. My department has started many policies. In hybrid mode, contractors get 40 per cent grant and have to invest 60 per cent, out of which 30 per cent or more is financed by the bank. If there is trouble with toll nakas, the authorities collect the toll.
Q. You have indicated that the atmosphere is against the investor. Going forward your task is immense. What is the one thing that is needed?
A. Fast track decision-making process in administration is very important. A delay of one month can cost investors hundreds of crores. There are lots of committees and each one of them is taking too long to take decisions. My approach is whatever decision you want to take, take it quickly. Do it within three days.
Q. Cement concrete roads are getting your support, but there is a view that they are not entirely safe. Then why do we opt for them? Is it true that this is a bid to promote and support the cement industry?
A. That is not the reason. When I declared that we will make cement concrete roads, cement companies increased prices from Rs.300 to Rs.350. So we created a trading platform where buyers and sellers can come together, and now cement prices have stabilised. For the first time we have blocked the cement cartel. We are planning a similar platform for steel. Our effort is to reduce costs and improve the quality of our infrastructure.
In India bitumen roads are not a permanent solution. The life of a cement road is 60 years and in some places up to 100 years. Bitumen roads collapse in three years. People should follow the discipline required on express highways. We are going to have an international code for roads and bridges soon.
Q. Your government is completing two years. Do you think these two years would have been better without embarrassments like Uttarakhand?
A. Politics is a game of contradictions, compulsions and limitations. Sometimes we are in a good position and sometimes we are not. Our politics is for development, for unemployed people and for those who are socially and economically backward.
Q. That&’s precisely what I am asking. In the middle of the development agenda, when someone comes up with an idea to change Akbar Road to Maharana Pratap Road, isn’t that an embarrassment?
A. These are issues that are blown up by the media. We are a democratic party where people speak their mind. Our party is not owned by a family. Venkaiah Naidu immediately declared that this is not on our agenda. The party is not interested in these no-balls. Only the media is keen to start a debate on such issues.
Q. Are party leaders uncomfortable with some decisions taken by the finance minister?
A. Not at all. At the same time as a government we have limitations, as a party we have a different role. In the government you have to consider the economic situation of the country. We have to work to eliminate poverty and help the farmer. And most importantly we have to focus on creating jobs for unemployed youth. It is the basic mission of our government.
Q. That&’s something the government has been receiving flak for, not creating enough jobs.
A. Hundred per cent. That is why we have Skills India and other programmes. In 2020 the world will have a shortage of 50 lakh skilled people. Now we are giving skills training. After this they can go anywhere in the world and get jobs.
Q. You are supposed to have good equations with Nagpur or the RSS headquarters. Are there any thoughts on what needs to be done in the remaining three years of your term? Is the RSS happy?
A. Sir, everyone is happy and everybody has great expectations from the government. But you must understand that a person who has a scooter dreams of owning a car. Satisfaction depends on the nature of the person. I am satisfied because we are doing a lot of things but people have more expectations because we have created hope. The Congress got an opportunity to fulfil hopes for 60 years, we have got just two years.
Q. You have initiated a campaign on road safety. Don’t you think this campaign needs more support like Swachh Bharat or Make in India?
A. This is a subject that is close to my heart. Saving lives is more important than constructing roads. We have identified 726 black spots on our national highways and are spending Rs.11,000 crore to minimise accidents. Thirty per cent of driving licences are bogus. We have to improve the system by e-governance. We have to amend the Motor Vehicles Act. We are preparing an amendment Bill.
Q. We wish you all the best for this and all your initiatives.
A. Thank you very much.