‘Trump’s team will be briefed on the advantages of trading with India’

Amiti Sen New Delhi | Updated on January 15, 2018


Commerce Minister Nirmala Sitharaman spoke to BusinessLine on a broad spectrum of issues including the intricacies of demonetisation fall-outs, India’s approach to the US under the Donald Trump regime and the fate of tobacco farmers in the country. Excerpts:

What will be India’s strategy to deal with the newly elected US President Donald Trump, who may not be looking at issues related to work visas too favourably?

We are looking for the earliest opportunity to put forth our side of the story. We will point out how Indian investments have actually contributed to the welfare of the American economy and created jobs, rather than take away jobs. We are sending goods, including our high quality generic drugs and other items, that are competitively priced. I will certainly have our officials brief President Donald Trump’s team on the advantage of trading with India in both goods and services the moment he takes charge.

Will India continue to pursue issues, including the pending bilateral totalisation agreement and the high visa fees affecting IT professionals?

These issue will be high on our agenda and the first thing we do when we negotiate with the new government, which takes over in January, will be to hold discussions on these issues. I will interact with the Ministry of External Affairs to ensure that when our Embassy officials have their first briefing with US government officials, the issues of totalisation and high visa fees are taken up.

Following the government’s demonetisation move, many workers in the plantations sectors, especially in Tamil Nadu and Kerala, are not getting paid because of a cash crunch. What is the way out?

If there is a difficulty in payments being faced by plantations under the current circumstances, I am willing to talk to the Finance Minister about it. I will take the example of Assam where the tea garden owners were given the option of disbursing cash through the DMs’ office. The DMs were allowed to pay the workers with cash once the estate owners gave them the money (through bank transfers or cheques). Subsequently, West Bengal, too, was extended the facility. We could do the same for Kerala and Tamil Nadu if the States want and I am willing to talk to them.

Some plantation owners argue that the Plantation Labour Act, 1951, mandates them to pay workers in cash if they don’t want cheque and that many workers don’t want bank accounts due to apprehensions that their BPL benefits may be taken away....

Workers’ apprehension is something which can be dealt with by building awareness about the greater transparency and better protection of their rights.

People dealing with labour welfare fear that minimum wages are not being given. Now if you actually are a plantation owner, who is giving minimum wage, you can establish that only if you put it directly in the account of a worker. So, it is no longer an argument that some legislation somewhere tells me to give only cash.

Exporters have represented to you seeking enhanced cash withdrawal limit. With each passing day making things more difficult, how soon do you think a decision can be taken?

Actually, it is the other way round. The RBI is releasing more currency to go to the different currency chests and from there to banks. I think the crunch itself is reduced. But if they still demand more cash withdrawal, we will certainly take the issue up.

But the matter is no longer as pressing as it was earlier.

Has the Commerce & Industry Ministry sent the proposal on banning FDI in the entire tobacco sector to the Cabinet? Won’t it affect tobacco farmers?

We have cleared the proposal from our end and it should be going to the Cabinet soon. We have committed ourselves at the World Health Organisation that we will not expand on the cultivation of tobacco.

I am not at the moment cutting down drastically on production of tobacco though. We have urged the Agriculture Ministry to ask their research centres to look into alternative crops that farmers can grow. Today tobacco gives farmers adequate income. We can’t ask them to shift to another crop because of our commitments to the WHO unless there is an alternative crop which gives them equally good yield and good return.

NITI Aayog CEO Amitabh Kant has proposed that DIPP should be made the nodal department for e-commerce. Your comments.

NITI Aayog was asked to look at various issues related to e-commerce. You have an FDI policy which comes from DIPP. The e-commerce related issues of the customer are still with Consumer Affairs Ministry. E-commerce is very vibrant. Customer-seller issues are also there. NITI Aayog is looking at at the whole issue and a decision should happen at the earliest. It has to be ensured that the customer is not being cheated and the discounts being offered are not violative of any principles. These are multi-layered issues and all the three-four ministries will have to work together.

How does India plan to deal with China if all countries in the proposed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership are to be given equal market access?

At the last Ministerial meet of RCEP in the Philippines, we have said that while we will give one offer for everybody, you should allow us differentiated staging processes, which means that the time for implementation should vary. And without mentioning the country (which was obviously China), we wanted to be sure that we would be given the option of holding back at least on one country. We left it at that.

Published on November 23, 2016

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