Hardeep Singh Puri, India’s Civil Aviation Minister, has been credited with the successful Vande Bharat Mission and the air bubble with the UAE that has brought home millions of stranded Indian expats. In this exclusive interview to Khaleej Times, he speaks at length about the Covid situation and the reopening of the aviation sector. He also talks on the state of the economy, Air India disinvestment and farming sector reforms.
For how long do you think the air bubble will continue with the UAE? Would you consider another phase?
Covid crisis had a direct and crippling impact on the aviation sector throughout the world. We had to devise unique mechanisms to deal with the various entry restrictions, quarantine regulations and lockdown measures imposed by different state and federal governments. We started the Vande Bharat Mission, which is the largest evacuation mission ever conducted globally, on May 6 2020, to bring back our citizens from around the world.
Presently, we are in the sixth phase of the Vande Bharat Mission. As lockdown restrictions gradually eased, we operationalised bubble arrangements with 18 countries including UAE and are in talks with several more. There are still restrictions world over on international air operations. We are continuously assessing the situation and once the situation due to Covid-19 eases, we will consider resuming normal international operations. Till such time, air bubble arrangements will continue.
With reference to the Vande Bharat flights, there are fewer passengers to India from UAE after six months. Are you planning to review the arrangement?
Like I said, we are constantly monitoring the situation. As of now, over 635,000 passengers have travelled to India from UAE. Presently the situation has eased and there are no reports of people in distress, who want to travel between India and UAE. However, we have established an air bubble to facilitate movement of people between the two countries. Not only we are bringing Indians back home but also facilitating travel of Indians and foreign national to other countries including UAE.
When do you expect the Indian aviation sector to recover, considering the fact that corona cases continue to be high in India?
Our corona cases seem large as we have the second largest population in the world. However, our mortality rate (CFR) is only 1.52, one of the lowest in the world and our recovery rate is over 87 per cent. If you look at deaths per million, it is only 83 per million which is 7-8 times lesser than other major nations affected by the crisis. Our number of cases have been falling steadily through the last month to around 50,000 a day now. We have been testing over a million people everyday and have the requisite hospital facilities to deal with all the corona patients.
The air services were suspended from March 24, 2020 due to Covid-19 situation and we started Vande Bharat Mission on May 6, 2020. The initial estimates of the MEA about the number of persons to be evacuated were about 190,000. This was based on the number of persons who had registered themselves with our various missions. However, we have brought back close to two million people from across the world.
Air India has flown more than 3,600 flights so far and more are on the anvil.
The India-UAE aviation sector is one of the most lucrative. Would you consider normal flight operations to the UAE from November?
The resumption of full international operations depends on the situation around Covid pandemic – behaviour of the virus, the domestic civil aviation traffic (as domestic flights feed into international traffic) and the entry restrictions put up by the other countries. If the situation eases, we will see more international flights between India and UAE.
How much progress has happened with regards to the Air India sale and disinvestment? Would the Tatas be the best fit and how soon do you expect it to happen?
The government is committed to disinvestment of Air India. Preliminary Information Memorandum (PIM) for inviting Express of Interest (EoI) from the interested bidders was issued in January 2020. However, the Covid-19 situation has impacted the process. The last date of submission of the EoI has been extended to October 30, 2020. The process of disinvestment is progressing as per the guidelines of the Department of Investment and Public Asset Management (DIPAM). Air India is an excellent asset with trained manpower, aircraft and lucrative slots. I am sure that investors will be more than eager to acquire Air India.
We have seen lot of protests in the country over the farm Bill. One of your oldest allies, the Akalis, have walked out. Do you feel there might be a political cost to the party over this?
Our opposition parties have been telling the farmers that MSP procurement will go away. It has been clarified several times that these bills have nothing to do either with the fixation or with the procurement at MSP. In fact, MSP procurement has been happening at a much faster pace this year than the earlier years. We have implemented Swaminathan Committee recommendations of paying 1.5 times of cost of production to farmers as MSP. Our farm budget has grown more than 11 times in past 10 years and we have created 10,000 Farmer Producer Organisations (FPOs) and have implemented Rs 1 trillion Agri Infra Fund. So, where is the evidence that this government has any inclination against MSP?
APMC mandis will continue to function as they function today. In Punjab and Haryana, over 80 per cent of income of the mandis is earned through MSP procurement by government. As MSP procurement will continue, mandi’s financial health and the States’ tax revenues will not be affected.
Third set of apprehensions centre around the baseless argument that farmers land will be taken away by corporates and they will end up becoming labourers. The fact is that sale, lease or mortgage of farmers’ land is totally prohibited in the bill and farmers’ land is also protected against any recovery.
Rather, the legislations on farm sector give our farmers a choice to sell their products at a price and at a place of their choice. The legislations empower the farmers and intend to create an ecosystem where more investment can come in our agriculture, wastage is reduced, consumers have access to better quality produce and farmers can also get better prices. Unless we open the market with due safeguards, how is our agriculture going to grow?
The agitations are politically driven and based on misinformation and I am sure that farmers of Punjab will also realise how they are the real beneficiaries of these Bills. Our farmers have the wisdom to see through the façade of misinformation and they are aware of the commitment of our Prime Minister towards their welfare.
How do you see the investment climate in India, in light of the fact that the Indian economy is not doing too great?
There is no doubt that Covid-19 pandemic has impacted the economy world over and India has not remained untouched. Despite the hiccups, the economy is on track. The figure of GDP contracting is also to be seen in perspective. We imposed a complete lockdown on March 23. There was near zero economic activity during April to mid May 2020, so naturally the numbers for the Q1 were expected to be bad.
However, as the lockdown was gradually eased, the economy has bounced back. For example, our GST collections for September 2020 are 4 per cent higher than September 2019. Similarly, our manufacturing PMI Index is at 56.8 in comparison to 51.4 last year. Our rural demand for tractors is up by 28 per cent and our passenger vehicles sales are up by 9.5 per cent vis-à-vis last year. So, our economy is back on track.
In terms of the investment climate, our PM has used the Covid crisis to unleash labour, agriculture and FDI reforms along with several measures to further the ease of doing business to make India a favoured investment destination. We have positioned ourselves as an attractive partner for global companies who wish to diversify their supply chains and have announced sector specific packages in electronics, pharma and other sectors to encourage investments.