Union Minister Hardeep Singh Puri is clearly a man of the moment: perhaps, among Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s chosen few, given that he is handling crucial portfolios namely Urban Housing and Civil Aviation.
As Housing Minister, he is in the eye of a storm thanks to the controversial Central Vista project; in Civil Aviation, he is firefighting because the sector is badly hit, thanks to the pandemic. Outspoken and forthright that he is, Puri makes it clear that doling out cash is not the Government’s model. As for the Central Vista, he defends it as vociferously as the critics decry it.
In HT’s series The Interview, Puri talks at length on several issues: controversial and informative. If he defends industrialist Gautam Adani bagging the contract for six airports, he also talks about expanding the aviation sector, and the phased roll-out of transporting the vaccine.
More importantly, he clears the misconception that the old Parliament building will be functional along with the new: “Only the usage will change and it will not be converted into a museum”, Puri asserts.
For the uninitiated, the Central Vista project which includes a new Parliament complex there are misgivings about the iconic Parliament building being converted into a museum, once the new complex comes up.
On taking safety precautions against the new Covid strain with the UK virus variant, Puri said that suspending flights between UK and India is not the answer: “However flights were reduced to fifty percent : from sixty plus, flights a week we were down to 30. But look at the other side: if we close flights from the UK are you suggesting that we close flights from everywhere else? Flights from Dubai are operational as are flights from European countries. The easiest thing to do is to listen to people who are saying you should not do this and clamp down. By doing that we would be causing more damage than the virus itself. So, I am clear that it was a sensible decision as was the decision by the Prime Minister to lock down in March and then opening up in a calibrated manner. Decisions relating to life and livelihood are equally important and if you don’t open up economic activity you would have inflicted a hard blow”.
The hope, Puri said, is in the vaccine: “We should celebrate the fact that we have been able to manage the difficult part of the challenge and now we are looking towards recovery. With the kind of stocks of vaccine we have from the Serum Institute and Bharat Biotech, we would soon have more than we need. Today we are among the five countries in the world which is vaccinating people with indigenously produced vaccine. India under Prime Minister Modi is resonating with self-reliance”.
On the road map for the aviation sector, Puri said: “We have already opened up 80 percent and most of the airlines are operating; we have rationalized air space. We are going to look at cargo in a big way. Two airports, Bengaluru and Chennai, have shown positive growth in air cargo. I am keen that Indian carriers regain the GDP when it comes to international aviation.
“Going forward let me tell you that airlines expansion will take place; the number of aircrafts in the sky will further increase; Delhi Indira Gandhi International airport will get the fourth runway; with Jewar airport coming up in 2023, we will ensure that the traffic Delhi and Jewar airports will carry, will exceed the combined traffic of London, Heathrow, Gatwic and Stanstead. With Mumbai and Navi Mumbai airports coming up, we can look at an increase in traffic there too.
“We are opening a hundred new airports in the coming years. That apart we will step on the gas on aircraft leasing; engine manufacturers are being brought here obviating the need to take aircrafts from here to Singapore and other places for servicing. With all this civil aviation will provide a big boost to the economy ”.
Simply put, Puri said that the target is to reach pre-Covid levels before March end this year; take it to 40 percent beyond pre Covid levels by next year: “I predict that there will be robust growth by April 2022”, he claimed.
On the much-awaited roll-out of the vaccination, Puri said: “Vaccine Maitri is for the foreign countries; the first phase of vaccination transportation was from January 12 when eleven million doses from Serum Institute and 2.40 lakh doses from Bharat Biotech were distributed to all states and Union Territories; Phase two was from January 19 which also is over. Now so far as the next phases are concerned, we will make an assessment in a day or so when to roll out. The first phase was tough but now the infrastructure is in place and people know how to go about it”. However, he said that the next roll out should be “within two days” adding that the states have a surplus.
On a lighter note, one took Puri down memory lane: back to school in Germany when he was bullied because as a Sikh he kept long hair. Had it not been for his teacher, he probably would never have stood up to bullies: “Don’t get bullied; bully them instead” she had then told him.
Politics was not Puri’s calling: it was the Foreign Service. He says as a diplomat “he lived dangerously” including flying in LTTE chief Velupillai Prabhakaran from Jaffna: “When we were flying him from Jaffna to New Delhi, he was nervous and told me that someday his deeds will catch up with him”. Ominous.