Indian Finance Minister Arun Jaitley in conversation with Australia India Institute Director Craig Jeffrey
“Apart from poverty, India has been worse affected by the curse of terrorism,” said visiting Indian Finance Minister Arun Jaitley. The high profile lawyer politician is also the Minister of Corporate Affairs and Minister of Information and Broadcasting in the Cabinet of India.
He was addressing the 400-strong audience in a town hall-style, panel discussion held at the Elizabeth Murdoch Building at Melbourne University. The event was organised by the Australia India Institute in association with the Indian Consulate in Melbourne.
The Minister was referring to the recent uproar caused in India due to protests at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi and Hyderabad University. Citing the incident in 1993 when 300 people were killed and thousands were injured in an attack in Mumbai, the Minister said after years of trials and appeals only one man was found guilty in that case and a celebration was held at Hyderabad campus in support of that man.
To start off the discussion, Prof. Craig Jeffrey, Director of the Australia India Institute, requested the Indian Finance Minister reflect on the three intertwined, major challenges facing India over the next two decades. The first challenge facing India, according to Craig Jeffrey, is a need to further regulate the economy to ensure fair competition, accountability and transparency.
Prof. Jeffrey also sought comment from the Minister on India’s ability to provide training, educational opportunities and jobs for its vast and growing population. He also wished to know how India would simultaneously balance its economic, social and political objectives with the need to protect and nurture the environment and those lowest in its social hierarchy.
In response, Minister Jaitley agreed that the social hierarchy and resultant disadvantaged people in India is a stark reality. Despite replacing a highly regulated economy into a market-oriented economy, the Indian model has to have a social conscience. According to the Minister, the Modi-led Indian government has put in additional resources to help those who are economically, socially or historically disadvantaged.
The Minister outlined how the historical backlog of deprivation means there are socially deprived sections that still need to access the benefits.
“Job reservations bought the first ray of hope for the scheduled castes and tribals,” said the Minister. He was very clear that India might not be able to get rid of reservations in near foreseeable future.
Over the course of the evening, the Minister took questions on subjects ranging from comparisons between India and China’s development to India’s first global brand, subsidies for farmers to a budgeted increase in spending on women and children’s aid.
The Minister was accompanied by a high-powered Indian delegation led by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI). The packed audience comprised of heads of several universities, academics, media, community representatives and business people.
While discussions were being held on Australia partnering with India in its development agenda, a small protest was being conducted outside the venue against the controversial Queensland Carmichael Coal Project led by India’s mining magnate Adani Group. According to environmental activists, mining in the region will threaten the Great Barrier Reef. There was speculation in the media earlier on whether the Adani project would figure in Jaitley’s discussions with his Australian counterparts, but this did not come to pass.
Holding posters and placards that read, ‘Coral not coal’ and ‘No future funds for coal’, the Australian Youth Climate Coalition (AYCC), peacefully voiced their concerns.
Towards the end, the session felt a bit rushed due to lack of time and there were allegations that some people were not allowed entry, despite having tickets, due to the venue being overbooked. Barring a few minor hiccups the BJP spokesman managed some ‘productive’ discussions during his four-day visit to Australia.