On April 26th, the Stanford India Policy and Economics Club (SIPEC), in conjunction with the School of Medicine, held an in-person roundtable with India’s current Minister of Finance, Dr. Nirmala Sitharaman. The Finance Minister’s visit came as part of her official visit to the United States for the annual meetings of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank in Washington, D.C. In the Bay Area, she was hosted by the Consulate General of San Francisco and met with tech and business leaders working on a wide range of issues.
Students were able to engage with Minister Sitharaman on a wide variety of Indian and Indo-American issues, such as the COVID-19 pandemic. Minister Sitharaman spoke about the lessons that India has learned and how it plans to prepare itself for future infectious disease outbreaks. She discussed recent initiatives to dramatically increase the number of virology institutes across the country and highlighted that over 2000 testing facilities have been opened as part of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Atmanirbhar Bharat program (a self-reliant India).
The conversation then transitioned to an in-depth discussion of economic issues, and the Minister covered topics such as India’s growing digital economy and the development of the agricultural sector. Students were interested to learn about India’s current balance between cash and digital payments, especially in the wake of the 2016 Indian banknote demonetization. The Minister acknowledged that while India’s adoption of digital payments has increased tremendously, the level of active cash in circulation remains much higher than many expected. She strongly believes that this is a transitional phase in the economy and that the continued rise in digital payments is on track to overshadow cash payments.
Continuing on the theme of economic development, the Minister was also asked about the November 2021 repeal of the Farm Bills, which deregulated a system of government-run wholesale markets, allowing farmers to sell directly to food processors. Despite moving to modernize India’s agricultural sector, it was met by the longest farmer’s protest in the history of the nation, which ultimately prompted a repeal of the bills last November. The Minister shed light on a relatively unknown side of the story: while the national law has been repealed, the intended institutional changes are already underway at the state and local levels. She gave many examples of farmers being able to easily search for markets that offer the best prices for their goods and sell their goods in those desired markets. Such stories provide evidence that the goal of modernizing the Indian agricultural sector is in fact being achieved, but in a more subtle, grassroots manner.
In wrapping up the discussion, the Minister was asked what Indo-American students can do to contribute to India’s lightning-fast growth. Citing the benefits of a large research institution like Stanford, she noted the importance of developing solutions for global problems rather than restricting oneself to isolated ones. Remembering her talks with Indo-American tech and business leaders in the Bay Area, she emphasized that in today’s world, being physically present in India is no longer a necessity to contribute; innovation and entrepreneurial ventures can benefit India’s people and its economy in tremendous ways.
However, above all, the Minister asserted, Indo-American students must step up to counter the false narratives that are spread around the world about the issues that India faces. She explained that the social issues that India faces today are not new; they have been part of India since its earliest days as a nation (and many of them, for hundreds of years before that). India is growing faster than it ever has, and the Modi administration has nonsensically been branded fascist even as it tries to modernize India and supercharge the nation’s progress.
Minister Sitharaman concluded with an inspiring and broadly applicable message for all students: the voice of the woke, of the bigoted and close-minded, must never overpower the voice of reason. College students must employ reason to discuss complex political issues and rationally disagree with their opponents. In the wake of recent political tensions in the United States and in India, the Minister’s message could not be more pertinent.