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In Conversation With Arun Shourie

Ranjani Saigal

Journalist and Parliamentarian Arun Shourie, was one of the keynote speakers at the PAN IIT Conference held in North Bethesda Maryland. Known for his insightful writings on a range of subjects, Shourie shot to fame as the editor of the English-language daily the Indian Express.  He exposed major scandals and government corruption, including what is known as “India’s Watergate.”  He was elected to the Rajya Sabha under the BJP regime where he held several important ministerial portfolios.  He was the minister of Communications and Information Technology and implemented policies that help the telecommunication industry in India grow by leaps and bounds. He undertook the difficult task of privatization of ailing public sector companies during his tenure as minister of disinvestment.

Shourie has won several awards including the Padma Bhushan, Magsaysay Award, Dadabhai Naoroji Award, Astor Award, International Editor of the Year Award and others. He was acclaimed as one of "World Press Freedom Heroes" by the International Press Institute, a "Star of Asia" by Business Week and "Business Leader of the Year" by the Economic Times jury.

Shourie received his Ph.D in Economics from Syracuse University and returned to India after a brief stint with the World Bank.  In an exclusive interview with Lokvani, he talked about India and his work during his tenure as minister in the BJP government.

Despite holding a prestigious position at the World Bank, why did you leave the US and go back to India and start a career in journalism?

My heart was always in India. I really wanted to go back and do things in India. I had a lot of family back home. One day I made the decision to quit and return home. When I reached India, there were no suitable jobs for me in the field of economics. Jayprakash Narayan and I knew each other and I started to do some work with him. Later I met Mr.Goenka and was offered a job at the Indian Express and that was when I started my career in journalism.

Later you made the switch to politics. You are famous for being honest and straightforward and yet you chose to go into Indian politics where politicians do not have a good reputation. Could you describe the experience?

There are two ways you can make an impact. As a journalist you can influence a large group of people and hope that the people convince the politicians to act. If you are the policy maker you have the power to make a change directly. When I became a minister I was able to implement many ideas which have benefited the nation.

I was fortunate to work under the leadership of Atal Bihari Vajpayee. He is a very astute person.  He had such a clean slate that no one dared question his moral authority.  He was very supportive of my actions. Having his support made it possible for me to make some changes which were not easy to implement.

When I took over as the minister of Telecommunications, I found that the system was complicated and very inefficient. I made a lot of changes. I implemented the Universal Access License where for a nominal entry fee anyone could provide any service. For my doctoral dissertation I had studied the Indian licensing system and my study did not support the system.  The Universal Access License resulted in the increase of mobile phones by a million and a half each month.  It was the fastest growing industry. The changed enabled people from all walks of life to own a mobile phone and that has had a deep impact on the Indian way of life.

I am a strong supporter of privitazation of ailing public sector companies.As minister of disinvestment I was able to lay out a process and develop a set of procedures for disinvestment which are being emulated in other parts of the world.

Your disinvestment efforts were not very popular. Could you explain why you felt it was important to privatize and why some people oppose it?

When I took over there were 240 public sector companies in the central government and about 1,000 in the state governments, and they were not doing well. The average rate of return from the central government enterprises is only about 4 per cent, when the government itself borrows at 10-11 per cent. And, worse than that, if you take away the areas in which the government has a monopoly, like petroleum, then the rate of return is minus 4 per cent. All efforts to revive these companies had not really succeeded. Bringing in aggressive private partners was the best way to make them more competitive.

If the company does well its employees do well and there are higher wages.  In the case of Modern Foods, which makes bread, the sales went up ninety per cent in just one year. Workers average pay increased. The people who complain about disinvestment are politicians who often consider the public sector as their own private company and abuse the privileges. They have a political base among the labor unions who do not like to see change.  I always hold that there is one truly private sector in India and that is the public sector. 

The BJP’s slogan “India Shining” was contested during the election. Do you believe India is Shining? What matrix would you use to evaluate success?

I really hate it that people run down India to score a political point. India was shining and I hope it continues to shine.  Comprehensive national strength is the right matrix for evaluating success. That includes economic strength, food security, energy security, military strength and strategic thinking and if you look at these factors India was shining bright under the BJP government. Vajpayee was one of the greatest strategic thinkers that India has had and his vision has helped create a strong position for India.

Does India have the resources and the money to provide the infrastructure required to sustain growth?

Money and resources are never the issue for India. There is enough water. There is technological know how and enough resources to provide adequate power. The problem in India for power and water is the problem with distribution. Most state electricity boards are bankrupt because of theft. The boards claim that losses in transmission and distribution are up to 53%. Privatization of distribution will be helpful over the long run.

Under the BJP regime our plan was to use the money from the sale of Public Sector companies to invest in infrastructure. We had plans for connecting the rivers and buildng roads. The problem in India is not lack of resources. It is a lack of focus and execution.

What do you think is the difference between India and China in terms of operation?

Vajpayeeji asked this very question to David Lim who worked as a project manager on some projects in IT Park in Hyderabad and who also had worked in China. His answer was simple – just one word - focus.  The Chinese are able to be focused and execute on their plan of action. We need to learn from that.

What is your opinion on research and intellectual property rights as it pertains to India?

I think intellectual property rights are very important. We need to protect our traditional knowledge. India has great minds that can do research and development that can make a huge difference. We must become leaders in technology. We have seen examples of leadership in many areas.  India has successfully made optimum use of scarce financial resources in science and technology, sending satellites into space and enabling patients of epidemics like AIDS to buy cheap drugs. Work at companies like Shantha Biotechnics has enabled creation of vaccines which are now being sold for 50 cents. Treatment of AIDS, which western companies sold for 20,000 dollars a year are now sold by Indian pharmaceutical companies in South Africa for 50 dollars. 

What do you think of the contributions of NRI to India? What should they do to help India?

NRIs, through their hard work in their area of expertise have changed the world’s perception of India in a very positive manner. My message to NRIs is to beam India to the world and beam the world to India. India can learn a lot from other countries.  The value of private enterprise, the need for focus and execution are ideas that need to be reinforced and NRIs can help spread the word about this.

Thank you for your time.

Thank you.

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