Sitharaman holds session on Twitter to address concerns on economy, policies

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In a first, Union Minister (Commerce & industry) Nirmala Sitharaman initiated an AMA on Twitter to answer queries related to her ministry--a good PR exercise as GST era begins.

Union Commerce and Industries Minister Nirmala Sitharaman has started a new trend on social media when she took to Twitter for a live video chat to address concerns about her ministry and clear misconceptions about the government’s policies. It is also being seen as a public relations exercise with the Goods and Services Tax Act coming into effect from July 1.

Ask Me Anything is a PR exercise by Union Commerce and Industries Minister Nirmala Sitharaman.

In the session titled ‘Ask Me Anything’, the minister invited live questions on Thursday (June 29) afternoon with the hashtag #AskNirmala.

To a question whether the government was doing anything to set up hi-tech infrastructure in India, the minister said the centre was setting up industrial corridors which included Mumbai-Delhi, Delhi-Kolkata, Kolkata-Visakhapatnam, Visakhapatman-Tuticorin, and Chennai-Mumbai via Bengaluru.

Sitharaman said the industrial corridor would not only provide jobs but also ensure development of regions such as Orissa and parts of southern Tamil Nadu.

The main purpose of setting up these corridors is that the share of manufacturing in India’s Gross Domestic Product should reach 25 percent. She added,

“Areas on both sides of the infrastructure corridor will be developed and the corridors are in line with the Prime Minister’s Make in India vision which promotes domestic manufacturing.”

The Asian Development Bank will also help finance the corridors as well as develop the infrastructure, the minister informed.

She also answered a few questions relating to the startup space and insisted that Small Industries Development Bank of India (SIDBI) was not merely a post office, as one questioner put it.

SIDBI is the custodian of the Startup India corpus of Rs 10,000 crore, which will be disbursed by 2025. Startup India is a flagship programme of the NDA government to help chug the entrepreneurial spirit.

She informed that Startup India had released Rs 600 crore through SIDBI last year and this year it had already released Rs 623.50 crore to 17 venture capital fund houses, which, in turn, had committed double that amount. All this money would be used to fund eligible startups across India, she added.

When asked why Mangaluru (Mangalore) in Karnataka was selected as India’s first startup district, Sitharaman said apart from being elected to the Rajya Sabha from Karnataka, she felt the three coastal districts of the state—Dakshina Kannada, Udupi, and Uttara Kannada—had a number of educational institutions from where youth were coming out with fresh ideas.

She added,

Bengaluru is the startup capital and the innovation has spread to the districts. I have started a 60-seater co-working space in Mangaluru that has been financed entirely from my MPLAD funds. I will be connecting them with Indian Institute of Technology, Chennai, to mentor the selected companies.

Replying to another question whether startups would be given any relaxation under current rules to manufacture arms and armaments (defence equipment), Sitharaman said given the security scenario and its implication, the government has so far decided not to provide any such relaxation. She, however, did not rule out the participation of startups in the defence sector in the future.

The 30-minute programme was the first in a series where the minister hopes to interact with people directly on social media. Though she had some questions already printed out, her staff also handed her questions that were being asked live to. She replied to them and promised to make information public soon where she could not get details off-hand.

She said her ministry was looking at artificial intelligence and robotics in a big way and said she would soon be having a detailed dialogue with stakeholders. “Are we ready for it?” she asked and added that by September this year, things will get clearer as she expects to put forth a road map on both AI and robotics.

Replying to a question on rumours regarding her health, she said she had a good laugh when some of her colleagues went to a hospital looking for her following rumours that she had been admitted there.

The minister took many questions from Twitterati on a broad range of topics which tested both her knowledge and skills.

To a question on whether India was heading for a crash as imports were increasing and exports were not showing any growth, Sitharaman explained that between 2015-17, the country had a positive growth in exports and promised to reveal all the figures and the correct factual position shortly.

With regard to the trade and services industry, especially the IT industry, Sitharaman said that in the joint statement made by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Donald Trump, the Digital India policy had been mentioned and how both the countries could benefit from it.

The half-hour session ended with a question that seemingly stumped her but she recovered with a witty remark. While speaking on various steps that the government had taken on ease of doing business, her staff handed her a question asked by Unicon Baba, a popular anonymous Twitter handle that tweets all things startups.

“Are you talking about the 7,000 steps that you took on fitbit, Nirmala Sitharaman?” asked Unicorn Baba tongue firmly in cheek.

Unicon Baba, who has the habit of trolling people in the startup space, asked Sitharaman this question when she was explaining the work of her ministry and the several steps that she and her officers had taken with regard to startups as well as issues such as ease of doing business that figured when Prime Minister Narendra Modi met US President Donald Trump.

Sitharaman who held up Unicon Baba’s question towards the camera, assured him and the Twitter audience that her ministry and the government had taken more than the 7,000 steps needed. Fitbit is an app used to measure exercises one undertakes to become fitter. The minister clearly understood its import and also added a bit of her own brand of humour by answering how she wished she had the time to take that 7,000 or so steps on fitbit.

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