Sajjan Jindal, Chairman, JSW Group, has always been an optimist. When his business was floundering several years ago, he kept calm and built a $14-billion empire spread over steel, cement and energy. Now, JSW Steel is close to commissioning a major expansion project despite a slowdown in the sector. Jindal is betting on the demand picking up as the economy gets back on the growth track. BusinessLine spoke with Jindal to garner his views on the economy and JSW Group’s growth plans. Excerpts:

How was your meeting with the Prime Minister on Monday?

The discussion revolved around how to take the economy to $5 trillion and everybody expressed their opinion on achieving it. The mood among the participants in the meeting was positive. I would not be able to divulge more as it was private.

Do you think India will really become a $5-trillion economy?

Unless we plan for an ambitious target we are not going to achieve it. There is no harm in putting a stiff target. By 2025, even if we reach $4.5 trillion, it is not bad. That will propel us to the (world’s) No 4 economy. In India, we do not have an option but to achieve that kind of growth. We have 135 crore people and 1.5 million youth coming to the job market every year. China is a top-driven economy in the sense if the government decides (something), no questions asked. Whereas, in India, we are a bottom-driven economy where the citizens have more voice. The last one year has been a challenging one for various reasons. Geopolitical issues will continue to affect India and we are not isolated as we were in, say, the 1990s. In spite of all this, I believe we do not have a choice but to grow.

What gives you that optimism?

After the 2008-09 Lehman Brothers crisis, governments across the world announced policies to kick-start the economy. The Indian government is also working on a similar strategy on a war footing. It has increased infrastructure spend from ₹60-lakh crore to ₹102-lakh crore — which is a more than a 70 per cent jump. From where the money will come is a secondary issue and I am sure the government would have done its math including asset monetisation. India is a big fly-wheel, so once it slows down it takes a big effort to kick-start. There are a lot of honest efforts to take the economy back to 8-9 per cent growth. Government initiatives in low-cost housing and direct benefit transfer are a big reform.

Economy was growing at 7-8 per cent and now we are struggling at 4.5 per cent. Have we lost an opportunity somewhere?

In hindsight, it looks like a lost opportunity. Lot of global factors have played in. General Election came in when the focus on growth got diverted. I am sure in next 3-6 months, things will change. Today, preferences of people have changed. Cars and two-wheelers have become less of a priority because of Uber and other services. Even if there is surplus money, everybody wants to buy a smartphone, laptop and iPad. There is a huge churning in spend happening and it will continue. New ideas will come and I believe we are at cusp of huge revival.

JSW Steel’s capacity expansion is coming when demand is slowing. How do you see it?

I am a firm believer in the saying that the best time to invest is when there is lower growth. In 2008-10, when there was a slowdown we made our biggest expansion of 4 million tonnes (mt) to 10 mt. In 2010-11, when economy was still struggling, we acquired Ispat. Now, we are commissioning 5 mt at Dolvi. We have acquired Monnet Ispat and Bhushan Power. We invest in counter-cycle. It has really helped us. Warren Buffet always says the best time to buy is when everybody is selling. The best time to invest is when nobody is building — when machine manufacturers, contractors are sitting idle — so that you can negotiate a good deal.

Are you really seeing green shoots in the economy?

Absolutely. Since December, we are seeing steel demand increasing steadily. We (JSW Steel) are not much worried as we can export steel easily because of our cost competitiveness; but 75-80 per cent of our steel sold in the domestic market. All the major steel producers are running at full capacity.

How do you see competition from ArcelorMittal?

ArcelorMittal will definitely add value to the Indian steel industry by bringing in new technology. It will bring more stability in the market. Over the years, there has been consolidation with just five large companies — SAIL, JSW Steel, Tata Steel, JSPL and Essar Steel, which is now ArcelorMittal. When there is consolidation, it is good for consumers as they get good quality and technology improvements.

Given that you have acquired four assets under the IBC process, is the investment cycle over for JSW?

The consolidation part is almost complete. By 2025, JSW Steel will be 40 million tonne based on which our investments are planned.

Do you expect some talent moving from JSW Steel to ArcelorMittal?

We have a large talent pool in the organisation. It will not impact anyone. Essar Steel itself had good talent and I really do not know whether they need any fresh talent. It was running well even with the previous management.

Any move to shore up your backward integration?

We have been waiting for auctions. We have acquired a few mines in Karnataka and Jharkhand. We are waiting for the auction in Odisha by the end of this month.

Is the huge premium quoted at merchant miners a concern?

A few miners in Karnataka went overboard and bid very high. Their strategy was to win the mine and not produce anything to create an artificial shortage of iron ore. This will result in spiralling prices of the ore. The State government had made a mistake by not putting a penalty on winning bidders for not producing to the optimal level. If you do not apply for forest clearance, they will obviously not get it. Even if you apply, you need to do regular follow-ups. They will not produce anything and if penalty is levied then they will go to court saying they have not received forest clearance. The court will obviously see them on the right side and strike down the penalty. Odisha has corrected the anomaly and said the winning bidder has to produce 30 per cent of environment clearance approval in first year, second year 90 per cent and third year 100 per cent. Therefore, there will be some rational in bidding.

Do you think the free-of-cost power a viable option?

Absolutely not. Somebody should file a PIL in the Supreme Court which should rule that all the discoms should be privatised. The country loses about ₹80,000 crore due to inefficiency in transmission and distribution of power. Give farmers free power and make the people living in cities to compensate it. People in the cities should get 24-hour power supply. In Bhiwandi (an industrial city close to Mumbai), the T&D loss was about 50 per cent then Torrent came in as a franchise. They reduced it to 25 per cent in one year and to 9 per cent in the second year by putting in smart metres, etc.

Why did you roll back plans to enter the electric vehicle space?

It started with our plan to acquire a GM plant. But that did not happen so we did not pursue that plan. Now, we are focussed on our core businesses, so there is no plan to revive it.

Where do you see JSW Group in terms of revenue five years from now?

The steel business should grow to ₹200,000 crore; while overall we should be about ₹250,000 crore in five years.