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Second wave will not affect big reform push, says Nirmala Sitharaman

Nirmala Sitharaman said India was importing medical oxygen to meet the immediate challenge, and had the testing capacity and vaccines to tackle the second wave. “

By: ENS Economic Bureau | New Delhi |
Updated: April 23, 2021 7:24:06 am
Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman with P Vaidyanathan Iyer, Executive Editor (National Affairs), The Indian Express, Joseph Leahy, Asia News Editor, Financial Times.

Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman Thursday said the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic will not affect the institutional reforms, including the disinvestment plans outlined in the Budget, although the focus right now was to take steps towards meeting the “immediate requirement of saving lives”.

Speaking at the first of a series of online, agenda-setting debates organised by The Indian Express and Financial Times, the Finance Minister said the situation in 2020 (when a nationwide lockdown was announced) and the situation now are very different. “Micro containment zones would be the way forward (now),” she said.

“Even that said, there are numbers and the surge in certain pockets that is so significant — as in Delhi — we have gone in for a week-long lockdown, which affects the movement of goods. Also, industry suffers because the movement of raw materials gets affected. I think it’s a bit too early for me to think, and this is what I have also got as an impression from industry, that this is going to affect us beyond this week or further. We will have to wait and watch a bit and then we will take a call. But at the moment activity is all happening, industry is still on it recovery mode. And therefore I will not rush to think that this will hurt us if we are able to coordinate better, as much as people would have us believe,” the Finance Minister said.

She said India was importing medical oxygen to meet the immediate challenge, and had the testing capacity and vaccines to tackle the second wave. “The pandemic is something which all state governments are addressing, however, perfectly or not so perfectly, all of us are helping each other. At this stage, I think our focus is to address the immediate requirements for saving lives and also making sure that vaccination is ramped up,” she said, kicking off Thursday’s discussion on ‘India’s Quest for Economic Power’ as the keynote speaker.

The first part of the series organised under the broad theme ‘India’s Place in the Post-Pandemic World’ began Thursday, wherein policy, business and finance leaders from India and overseas discussed the challenges and opportunities for India in its quest for economic power.

“…Our economy is kept open even today. There are part lockdowns, but hopefully they will be (lifted) once the (infection) chain is broken. In the context of lockdown not really having been imposed, however, lives being in difficulty because of the pandemic, I would focus on these (life saving) measures such as supply of medicines and oxygen, and then see how best the economy will have to be addressed,” Sitharaman said.

The Finance Minister was in conversation with P Vaidyanathan Iyer, Executive Editor (National Affairs), The Indian Express, and Joseph Leahy, Asia News Editor, Financial Times.

While the second wave has been challenging on many grounds, including supply of medicines and oxygen, the government has been taking decisions, including on imports of medical oxygen and boosting supply of medicines, she said.

Sitharaman said the Budget announcements were on track. “This morning, when I met with Secretaries, the mood and also the way in which we have planned out for disinvestment, setting up a DFI (Development Finance Institution), looking at the Asset Reconstruction Company (ARC) – everything is on course. In fact, the message from Secretaries was that we are going as it was before and therefore we don’t suspect that that will be affected. In fact, even if there were one or two centres where lockdowns were to happen, they may not affect our disinvestment programme, or the plan to set up DFI or any other institutional reforms that we have announced,” she said.

The government has set a disinvestment target of Rs 1.75 lakh crore for the current year; BPCL, Air India, Shipping Corporation are among the key strategic sale proposals under process.

To a query on the recent tariff hikes announced by the ministry, Sitharaman said these have been done to strengthen domestic capacity, but the government was cognisant that tariff measures should not be regressive. Responding to another query if another loan moratorium or other measures for the banking sector would be required given the mounting pressure on companies, she said, “Although I am monitoring the economy in a very detailed fashion on an everyday basis, at the moment I don’t have a plan as yet.”

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