Interview: Praveen Khandelwal, CAIT

‘A lot of doublespeak by Prime Minister’

Print edition : March 02, 2018

Praveen Khandelwal. Photo: K.V. Poornachandra kumar

Interview with Praveen Khandelwal of the Confederation of All India Traders.

“THE traders are an extremely disappointed lot today. We were hoping for some incentives since the Prime Minister keeps talking about strengthening the SME sector, but what he says does not reflect in what he does. It is a lot of hollow talk,” says Praveen Khandelwal, national secretary general of the Confederation of All India Traders. Excerpts from an interview:

What is your reaction to the Budget?

We are extremely disappointed because we had given a big charter of demands to the Finance Minister. We were hoping to see policy decisions that could have solved these issues. We were very hopeful because the Prime Minister, whether at domestic or international forums, kept talking about strengthening the SME sector. Since this is the last full budget of this government, we were all the more hopeful. But we have been disappointed because we have been totally ignored. The SME sector is self-organised, there is no government support at any level, so this sector does not have a structured growth. Since the Prime Minister showed so much interest in this sector, we kept hoping he would do something. Now we realise there is a contradiction in what the Prime Minister says and what he does because what he says does not reflect in official documents like the Budget. Now we have realised we are not a priority for the government.

What were you expecting?

The SME sector contributes substantially to the economy. The retail trade alone contributes Rs.40 lakh crore annually. But there is neither a policy for retail trade, nor a separate Ministry. We have to deal with multiple Ministries for our requirements. This creates roadblocks in our operations. Since we believed the Prime Minister to be sympathetic towards traders, we were convinced he would do something about this. Unfortunately, he only kept assuring us for the last three years, eventually nothing has come out.

We had also suggested to the Prime Minister that if not a Ministry, at least a department for retail trade could be created under the Ministry of Commerce, but even this has not been done. We had also demanded a national trade policy, but even this has been ignored. It is painful to realise that there is a lot of doublespeak by the Prime Minister on issues relating to the sector.

Did you give your demands in writing to the Finance Minister?

Yes, we had presented him a charter of our demands long back. Besides the demand for a separate Ministry/department, we were alsohoping the government would announce some schemes to incentivise digital transactions, like tax rebates or a reward scheme, because the Prime Minister has talked so much about our transition to a digital economy. We had requested the government to subsidise banks so that the burden of transaction charge is not passed on to either traders or consumers. We had given these demands to all the Ministers concerned, and they had all said these were good and workable ideas.

We had also requested the government to announce schemes to upgrade, modernise and computerise the retail trade because the government’s policy push is towards inviting MNCs into this sector. If we have to compete with MNCs, the retail sector will have to be modernised. But this demand too has fallen on deaf ears. It is unfortunate that the government only keeps talking about adopting new technology but does nothing to facilitate this. The post-GST mess is a prime example. Even after such a long time, the GST portal is not functioning properly, but we are expected to comply fully with GST. Traders are penalised if they don’t follow the format, but no action has been taken against Infosys even though they are responsible for maintaining the portal. In view of the problems faced by traders on account of GST, the government could have announced a task force consisting of traders and officials. But even this has not been done. It is a bitter realisation that traders are nowhere on the government’s priority list. Institutional financing is another huge problem. Only 4 per cent of retail trade is able to get funding from the formal sector. This is a scenario tailor-made for corruption. With the Prime Minister talking so much about removing corruption, we thought he will pay attention to this problem. After all, unless you bring the informal sector into the formal sector, how can you remove corruption.

Do you think the banking sector being in a mess already, maybe the government did not want to burden them with another liability?

The banks are in a crisis because of huge NPAs, which stand at 21 per cent today, from the corporate sector. The NPAs from the retail sector are only 0.1 per cent. The only reason we can see for being neglected like this is that we are not a priority for the government, no matter how much the Prime Minister talks about us. It’s a lot of hollow talk.