A product of the Jayaprakash Narayan movement of the early 1970s, Union Minister for Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution Ram Vilas Paswan has been in active politics for more than five decades. Starting his career as a Samyukta Socialist Party legislator in Bihar in 1969, he was elected to Parliament eight times from the Hajipur constituency.
He has been a Union Cabinet minister since 1989 and worked with six prime ministers holding important portfolios including Social Welfare, Railways, Chemicals and Fertilizers, Steel, Coal and now Food and Civil Supplies.
He was the Social Welfare Minister in the VP Singh Government when the Mandal Commission recommendations were implemented. As Railway Minister he regularised more than 57,000 casual workers. For the first time he introduced railway passes for porters and their family members.
He also initiated railway work in the Kashmir Valley. As Steel Minister, he made the loss-making PSU Steel Authority of India (SAIL) profitable and offered a 10-gram gold coin to all SAIL employees. In an interview with VIJAY THAKUR, Paswan spoke of the progress made by his ministry in the past four years. Excerpts:
Q: You are probably the only minister in the Narendra Modi government who has worked with six prime ministers ~ V P Singh, H D Deve Gowda, I K Gujral, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Manmohan Singh and now Narendra Modi. How do you find Modi’s style of functioning different from other prime ministers?
A: Every prime minister has a style of functioning. They must have some good qualities, that’s why they were made prime ministers. Having said that I would say Narendra Modi is different.
He is always full of energy. I have never seen such a hard-working prime minister. He is a workaholic, innovative and all his schemes target poor and downtrodden people.
He is always focused while launching a scheme. Take any scheme of his, whether it is Jandhan Yojna, PM Jeevan Beema Yojna, PM Fasal Bima Yojna, soft loans to small businessmen, Saubhagya Yojna to ensure power to all or the recently launched national health insurance scheme for the poor.
None of them is just on paper. They have yielded results at ground zero and been appreciated worldwide. This government has managed to give a clear message to the bureaucracy and policy-makers in the country that Modi means business. The same message has been sent out worldwide.
He has managed to maintain his attraction overseas and at home as well. You may criticise him for anything, but even his enemies would admit that he has changed the political game in Delhi. And the best thing is no one can accuse him of any corruption charges.
Q: The government has started linking Aadhaar card with the public distribution system in India. How do you see these initiatives and do they really help?
A: See Aadhaar is an authentic number. Its linking with PDS has weeded out many duplicate and fake ration cards. It has not only helped government in curbing corruption but has also given the benefit of the scheme to those who really deserve it.
Further, highly subsidised food now will not be diverted to the black market. As per our estimates, nearly 2.92 crore ration cards were either found fake or duplicate.
The subsidised food of these fake ration cards was apparently being diverted to the black market. Linking of Aadhaar cards with ration cards has stopped it to a great extent.
This one step alone has helped government save approximately Rs 17,000 crore in a year. But government is not putting this money in its coffers, instead it is asking state governments to add more deserving people to the list of ration cards so that more and more poor people can get subsidised food.
Q: There has been a lot of criticism of Aadhaar linking. Some people say it has adversely affected the very purpose of the scheme.
A: So far nearly 82 crore people have Aadhaar cards. We started this scheme almost four years ago with special instructions to officials not to deny ration to deserving people even if they do not have Aadhaar cards.
It has not been made mandatory. This is helping all ~ the state governments, Centre as well as poor people. Whoever is criticising Aadhaar linking is doing it for the sake of politics. In their heart of hearts, they know their criticism holds no ground.
Q: Besides Aadhaar, what has your government done to strengthen the public distribution system in the country?
A: When we came to power, Food Corporation of India was infamous for many reasons. The first thing the Modi government did was to constitute a high-powered committee under the leadership of Shanta Kumar to look into all aspects of FCI and suggest how it can be strengthened.
We now have accepted and implemented most of the recommendations of the committee, except a few which were not considered feasible. Like the committee suggested bringing down distribution of subsidised food to 45 per cent instead of the existing 67 per cent.
We did not implement it since it would have denied poor people subsidised food. Second, the high-powered committee suggested splitting FCI into three corporations, one for procurement, second for storage and third for transportation. Had we implemented this recommendation, it might have complicated it further. So, we rejected this recommendation.
We are giving an annual subsidy of Rs 1,40,000 crore for food. To avoid the complaints of non-availability of food, we told states to distribute it to dealers and restricted the Union government’s role in making foodgrains available in FCI warehouses in the state. Now no state can complain about non-availability of PDS foodgrains.
We have also asked state governments to put the names of all beneficiaries in the public domain or in government websites. We asked states to go for end-to-end computerisation, which would stop the diversion of food grains to the black market. The computerisation is almost complete.
Another new initiative is use of PoS machines. We are also introducing doorstep delivery of foodgrains for dealers, while trying to increase dealers’ margin and give special incentives to PDS dealers using PoS machines.
Q: The Centre has introduced a Consumer Protection Bill 2018 to help find early solutions to grievances of consumers. How do you think it would prove to be a game changer for the consumer and check people who are into unethical business practices?
A: We have introduced the Consumer Protection Bill, 2018, to further empower consumers and help them redress their grievances in the minimum possible time.
There is a long list of changes which we have proposed in the Bill that certainly would prove a game changer. First and foremost, the judicial process would be simplified to give justice to a consumer in a time-bound manner. We have increased the customer helplines from 18 to 60 all over the country.
The Bill has proposed constitution of a Central Consumer Protection Authority (CCPA) to promote, protect and enforce the rights of the consumers.
The Authority has been empowered to investigate, recall, refund and impose penalties on defaulting companies. It has proposed product liability action in cases of personal injury, death or property damage caused by or resulting from any product.
It has also suggested provision for mediation as Alternate Dispute Resolution (ADR) making the process of dispute adjudication simpler and quicker and simplification of the process of adjudication by consumer fora.
But unfortunately, we could not pass the Bill due to hungama in Parliament. However, we hope it would be passed soon to make the new consumer protection Act stronger, efficient and consumer-friendly.