Smriti Irani, in an interview with
ET, took on the Congress leadership for “not showing any remorse on the opposition’s treatment” of Rajya Sabha deputy chairman Harivansh Singh, and for urging Congress-ruled states to bypass the Centre’s bills on agriculture reforms. She said women issues are “not political but national”. Edited excerpts:
Congress leader Rahul Gandhi has called the farm bills ‘Kaala Kanoon’. Your comments?
It was the UPA government that had pronounced the agenda for abolishing the APMC Act. Is Rahul Gandhi saying the Congress manifesto in 2019 was a Kaala manifesto? In 2005, agriculture minister Sharad Pawar spoke on the need to break down the APMC system. There is evidence in the form of videos. The opposition presumed the country will not be informed of the position taken by the then UPA government, and that when they take a stand that is anti-reform, anti-farmer and anti-economy, they will not be questioned. Rahul Gandhi himself is on record in 2013 on how he wants to link the farmers to freer markets. Isn’t that a kaala statement?
The fact that both houses deliberated the bills and the Lok Sabha worked beyond midnight, shows the commitment of the Indian parliamentary system and the resolve of the government to bring in reforms to fight the pandemic. Those who have raised a ruckus on the agriculture agenda of the government need to answer why farmers should be denied the freedom to pursue enterprise or leverage the market to get a better price for their produce or use technology that will help them have a better future. The hypocrisy of the opposition is writ large on their faces.
This parliament session saw the absence of not only the current Congress president but also the former Congress president. Do they deem these legislative agendas so insignificant that they chose to remain absent from the whole parliamentary process? The government is, however, steadfast. We are not touching the APMC Act that comes under the state, and under the aegis of it the market place as they deem fit. What we facilitate is the farmers’ right to move to free movement in ‘one nation, one market’.
The fact that the Congress today speaks for middlemen and commission agents should not surprise anyone. What shocks me is the arrogance of the Congress president to say let every state government under the Congress constitute laws to bypass a law mandated legislatively fit by the parliament and given approval by the President…That Congress president Sonia Gandhi can subvert democratic processes so openly should worry those in the Congress who claim themselves to be democratic.
On Akali Dal walking out of NDA..
Narendra Modi has worked continuously for the larger benefit of the country. He has never cared for the personal and political cost he had to pay…it is his commitment to free the farmers of middlemen and he is standing by that..while the opposition is standing by commission agents.
There are farmer protests happening across Northern India..
There is an admission by Punjab CM that the Congress youth workers got a half burnt tractor to the nation’s capital..Is it not proof enough that it was a Congress protest, not a farmers’ protest.
The opposition has alleged that the passage of the agri bills was undemocratic..
I have served in the house for two terms. I could never imagine someone could climb on the table, tear not just papers but also the rule book, not just heckle the chairperson but also charge towards him. Is that the opposition’s definition of a democratic debate?
The BJP and NDA had the numbers, the parliamentary affairs minister has said that. It is Congress and the opposition that did not have the numbers, and to prove this disability of theirs, they pulled a stunt. The opposition attacked the chair, the Vice-President of India occupies, just for their myopic political benefit, and this tells us the depth to which they can fall. There was no tweet by Sonia Gandhi or Rahul Gandhi denouncing this kind of behaviour. The Congress president actually encouraged and facilitated an attack on Harivanshji. Look at what the Congress president has done –– one told the MPs to attack the deputy chairman and two, told the state units to bypass a legislation that brings reform to farmers and industry. So, when Arun Jaitley spoke about tyranny of the opposition, he meant the tyranny of Sonia Gandhi.
The rape of a dalit woman in Hathras has caught national attention…
It is a law and order issue that comes under the state government. The NCW(National Commission for Women)
An NCW official had visited the hospital and spoken to the family and officials in charge. I personally spoke to UP CM and home ministry officials regarding this case. I reached out because I wanted to ensure speedy justice. An SIT has been announced. The CM has assured us that the accused will get the harshest punishment, which I hope is hanging them until death. In my constitutional position I have reached out to everyone possible to ensure the girl and the family justice….I feel assured by the CM that a fast track court will ensure a speedy trial.. but as a woman, can I get her back? I am sure a speedy trial will be done, but I hope they hang, and they hang soon.
This government has assured, specifically while dealing with sexual assault on children, a hallmark amendment that includes punishment for child pornography. In the WCD ministry, we are working on a new trafficking bill that seeks to go beyond providing relief and rehabilitation of victims. We had had discussions with the home minister and found a lot of support for breaking down the organised crime syndicate that is behind trafficking of women and children. This is a government that ensured legislative support for the death penalty to those who gangrape a child.
The government’s commitment to women’s safety can be seen in how one-stop crisis centres for women are functional in all districts. They are working even during the lockdown. We are working with states legislatively and administratively on this..The state and society have to come together to ensure women are safe and that the forthcoming generations understand that the robust judicial system will instantly punish those who break the law. More importantly, the mindset challenge that has been a subject of debate, regardless of political ideology, needs to be addressed because women’s issues are not political issues, but national issues.
What are your views on the ongoing drug probe in the film industry?
I don’t think the country owes the media business a separate constitution. When serious issues are under investigation by agencies, those who are not privy to the probe should not make irresponsible statements. But I hope people do not leverage their separate biases and expect that the law will not treat every citizen equally. We are not unequal or above the law just because we have been part of the TV or film industry.
Did you encounter the drug menace when you were an actor?
In my career of 20 years I had never encountered it, but I was part of the TV industry. The fact that we used to work 18 to 20 hours a day and the fact that I had come into the industry with empty pockets from a middle-class family, I can proudly say that (in) the industry I was part of (and the operative word is here is ‘was’)…I never encountered it. If it is rampant I am sure the investigating agencies will ensure justice. But I hope the issues that emanated from Sushant Singh Rajput‘s death that there are mental health challenges that need to be addressed at the societal level are addressed. I hope we don’t have to wait for someone to die for others to wake up and say we should have addressed this.
Jaya Bachchan has taken on people who are ‘maligning’ the film industry. She has said that they are harming the very hand that feeds them..
We are a democratic country, and not part of a zamindari system. I feel when you expect a free pass, just because you are part of the industry that is popular, that means you are an extra constitutional organisation. When a doctor commits a malpractice, does the medical association demand a free pass…when someone from the business fraternity breaks a law, does any industry captain say just because they employ many people, he should get a free pass. The country does not owe the media and entertainment industry a separate constitution.
Tell us about the diet chart for every constituency that your ministry has come up with..
Since 2019, we have focussed on nutrition being a jan andolan as the PM said, of facilitating with proper budget and anganwadi services to meet the needs of women and children, and getting public representatives involved in this. We implored every MP to adopt this in his or her constituency. Both the Vice-president and Speaker were supportive of this. The Speaker then suggested a region-wise chart for pregnant and lactating women. After that we formed a team within the ministry, and we reached out to ICMR for data that is medically attested by experts. We are working with 15 ministries on ‘Poshan abhiyan’. We are working with panchayats on poshan gardens and with the sports ministry on leveraging the support of scouts and NSS. The multi-ministry approach was absent in the nutrition programmes of the erstwhile government.
Both UNICEF and Global Hunger Index reports have said our nutrition levels are low…
I have it in writing that the agency had used outdated data to calculate our global hunger index levels and that they will use the right data next year. Under the PM Matru Vandana Yojana for ensuring institutional deliveries, nearly 1.3 crore women have received Rs 5,200 crore directly into their bank account. Programmes such as Ayushmann Bharat have helped to address the reproductive and general health of women. Nearly 70 lakh women could get themselves screened for breast cancer, while 50 lakh women got themselves tested for cervical cancer. This speaks of the healthcare revolution.
Time and again, we have implored the ministry of statistics to ensure updated data from states is sent to global organisations. We are hopeful that statistics accrued from states is supplied to the agencies. Most states want to work with the Centre to meet the needs of women and children. Odisha was not on board in Poshan abhiyan. I spoke to them, and they agreed. The government in West Bengal is still not on board, but they have told me they might consider having some programmes under Poshan Abhiyan…My engagement with that state continues even on the floor of the house, be it with Adhir Ranjan ji or Kalyan Bannerjee. I have told them this is a national programme to give better prospects for the future of the country, not a political campaign. This is for children who don’t vote. They have claimed helplessness, but I shall continue with my efforts.
There is criticism that a significant portion of the budget of the national nutrition programme goes into technology and monitoring
Poshan Abhiyan has had a re-look at some aspects –– apart from re-positioning millets and local recipes, we are looking at homegrown food, because we want it to be affordable nutrition for families. What we give in anganwadi are supplementary nutrition inputs. If we need to monitor the growth of the child or nutritional impact of programmes, we need to empower anganwadis with monitoring devices. We cannot make announcements, and absence of such devices will affect the quality of data we get to make improvements. In poshan mah, we made a concerted effort from health and WCD ministries to states and we asked them to identify the severely malnourished children. There was a presumption about India that we have around 8 million SAM (severe acute malnutrition) children. States gave an approximation of 1.4 million. We then asked states to give us an exact number and to do a survey in every district. Many states –– Gujarat, Maharashtra and UP, and UTs such as Dadra Nagar Naveli –– have started it. We have asked them to involve the local medical community in cases that require immediate medical intervention and sustain the care post recovery of the child and the mother.
Are cash transfers in place of Take home Ration not working?
We had evidence from states that cash transfers were not being utilised to meet the nutritional needs of women and children. We got these reports and we shared them with Niti Aayog. They are satisfied with the evidence. We are formulating the guidelines for THR. My insistence is on transparency and nutritional norms are being maintained, and that a nutrition garden is available in every anganwadi. We have collaborated with the ministry of agriculture and National Seeds Corporation to give seasonal seeds to every anganwadi. The corporation has assured us that this outreach will begin by March 2021, and we will begin with aspirational districts.
How did the Textile ministry step up to the PPE challenge during Covid-19?
It is to the credit of the prime minister that he believed that we need not dilute the global standards in the production of PPE suits. In March, there was an outcry to dilute the norms, but we took a stand that it will put the lives of our health workers at risk. We were a country that never produced a PPE suit on its own. Our import needs were limited to 55,000 suits for the country. For us to have a turnaround is an example of how this government works.
When we began testing, we just had one lab –– SITRA in Coimbatore. Secretary Textiles reached out to the government, specifically to the defence ministry, and we asked them, ‘can you help us use DRDO labs to test PPE suits?’ We collaborated with the MEA to get machines that need to be imported. We held meetings with health officials to ascertain the needs of the states.
We had samples run from Punjab and Bengal, all the way to Coimbatore for testing, thanks to the government of India. The PPE industry today stands at over 1,100 companies. We today produce 26 lakh N-95 masks a day. We are already exporting. We have become the second largest manufacturer of PPEs in the world. We were the only industry functional during the lockdown, and the government provided all the support and logistics and did this, without giving the industry subsidy. The turnaround time from start to finish is at least 40 weeks for exploring any technology in this sector, but with various arms of the government collaborating, it took us just four weeks.
Does the ministry have an active plan to discourage silk imports from China?
We are looking at enhancing our capacities with local production. We have looked at diversifying the use of silk raw material, apart from apparel, be it carpets or pharmaceuticals…silk waste is also used in the beauty industry. The central silk board has actively reached out to farmers to monetise silk waste. Given the PM’s clarion call for Aatmanirbhar Bharat, we are helping farmers with testing and other compliances to increase their prospects for exports. We are leveraging relationships with countries we can pursue active partnerships with. In February, we had suggested to Bangladesh they have a steady supply of quality cotton from India to benefit their spinning industry while our retail of ethnic garments can be done there at zero duty. We are encouraging them to import more fabric and yarn from India. Bangladesh has asked us today if we can supply raw material for PPE suits to them. We have been fighting a problem that is three decades old to revive the industry that was neglected by the erstwhile government. They had surrendered 60% of the schemes, shut down the textile commissioner’s office. I wonder if there was any move done by them to strengthen the industry. The PPE-N 95 story shows this is an industry that, despite challenges, can step up and be at the front of Aatmanirbhar Bharat.
On the PM’s Independence Day push for Rs 1 sanitary napkins…
When the pandemic struck, I had a conversation with MoS Mansukh Mandavia who is in charge of Jan Aushadhi kendras. We wanted to ensure that these centres identified women-centric products and made them available even in terms of information, so that people knew which was the nearest centre. We identified 41 essential items, including sanitary napkins. The home ministry made it an essential commodity to ensure the supply chain was not affected. For the first time, the PM, from the ramparts of the Red Fort, speaking about menstrual hygiene, is nothing short of revolutionary. Not only did he speak about it, but is also ensuring that the country has an administrative protocol for menstrual hygiene.
For the first time, anganwadis have been brought under National Educational Policy. Your comments..
I welcome this as this is for the first time that children from economically challenged families will have the opportunity to go to the bal vatika. The poor have been denied pre-school facilities for long just for affordability concerns.
How do you plan on increasing the legal pool of children for adoption to make the process simpler?
We are working on an amendment to the Juvenile Justice Act. A GoM has recommended it, and we are working on it.
On the committee that is looking at the correlation between age of motherhood and marriage..
That committee functions under the Niti Aayog and we are awaiting the report. I am sure the Niti Aayog will direct us, once they have consulted all stakeholders.
The labour codes passed by parliament have been criticised for giving too much control to employers. Your comments?
I think when you announce an Aatmanirbhar Bharat package, nearly 10% of your GDP is committed to bringing about economic stability in a global condition where nations are struggling to survive. There are constraints of movement and consumption. At a time like this, to deny your country of a manufacturing prospect, or wanting to push the country into chaos might be a Congress culture, but it cannot become a work culture of India. Is the Congress saying that those who run industry are not Indian enough to understand their responsibilities? The new rules also allow night shifts for women in many industries, why does the Congress want to deny them that opportunity, and the freedom to do any vocation.
Amnesty has alleged the government is cracking down on NGOs working on human rights violations…
I don’t think Amnesty is above the law of the country. It shows how autocratic their team is to denounce a democratically elected government. Previous governments too had taken a stand against their way of operating, based on evidence. The FCRA amendment passed seeks to strengthen NGOs working transparently for the welfare of the people. The move should in no way be seen as debilitating the NGO work in the country. Anyone who upholds the law doesn’t need to fear it.