Union Minister, Smriti Irani takes the right stand with Anand Narasimhan, Executive Editor, CNN-News18 on the initiatives taken by the textile industry towards making India realise its dream of becoming a truly ‘self-reliant’ industry. She talks about how India went from making zero PPE kits before the lockdown to one of the leading manufacturers of PPEs in such a short time.
Excerpts from the interview:

Q: First up kudos to the textile industry, the ministry for the hard work and where we are today – the second largest exporter of PPEs in the world from our nation which was making zero PPEs before the lockdown

A: I think the true compliment that should be given is to the sheer up capacity, the entrepreneurial skill, and the innovative mind of the average Indian who is now a part of the textile sector. Within the government segment, I think that this credit is as much as the Health Ministry, as the aviation ministry, as the railway ministry and all those DRDO and ordinance factory, lab technicians who actually came together to work out this possibility for India – the only industry in the world which came up in lockdown times, that to an industry which is very scientifically inclined where test results are supposedly taking years on end. But here, we came together in times of crisis to turn this crisis into an opportunity for India. We put India first and that’s something that as an Indian I am extremely proud of.

Q: Can you take us through the initial days and how the entire industry achieved this? How was this possible?

A: The Prime Minister’s been tracking the world COVID challenge for a very long time. He was prepping every arm of the government to ensure that we, beforehand, ready our service capacities. If those service capacities are non-existent then we start thinking as a team as to what solutions can be brought forward with regards to the needs of post- covid or pre-covid recover or during covid circumstance. He made various empowered groups of officers and ministries that came together to estimate what are the needs of India during lockdown and if and when the virus spread spikes in our country. In the month of January itself, the empowered group of officers sat together to see the needs of India from a medical point of view and a citizenry point of view. We’d recognize that till now we have never been a PPE kit producing country. We’ve been heavily dependent on imports. Our yearly consumption did not go beyond 50,000. Given that it has been the statistics that the nation has been confronted with – we readied ourselves for imports but we also readied ourselves for a possibility of sealing of international borders.

WHO came out with its specific guidelines around the end of February with regards to hazmat suit which is meant for medical personnel and what are the parameters for it. Hence, I could also highlight here that while we were in the government getting ready, to prep for the times when COVID will hit large numbers in our country, we were also awaiting specifications from international agencies with regards to what kind of implements would be needed especially in the PPE segment. On 1st March, while we were ascertaining whether the particular scientific specification espoused by the WHO was possible in India, we recognized that most of the material was internationally available. India did import a few, there are few donors who were happy to step up in the business community but we also were very cognizant of the fact that we cannot only rely on imports, we cannot only rely on the good nature of certain Indian NGOs or establishments. That is why pre-covid, we had only one lab in our country, in Coimbatore – called Citra, that was doing testing. We spoke to DRDO, the ordnance factory team and they converted, reoriented their labs for testing facilities for PPE specimens. The Ministry and the entire textile industry was in talks in February itself, awaiting specifications from the WHO. We saw our garment making capacities and we actually calculated how the industry could reorient those capacities. We also were hand held by the Ministry of Health. Dr. Harsh Wardhan has been more than kind to not actually bask in the glory of the stupendous work done by his Ministry. I would like to recognize Preeti Sudan’s efforts, her steadfastness in this entire endeavor and all segments. I think, this is the time where India came together to find a solution. So, from a country which did not produce PPE kits, we found fabric manufacturers and we pleaded with them if they can now reorient their capacities to do medical textile, medical fabric. As I speak today, 25 organizations have stepped up from 0. On 1st March, we had 0 production capacity, today, we are producing 3 lakh PPE suits per day. We had 0 companies doing this, today, we have more than 200 companies who are providing support.

I think the beauty of working under the leadership of the Prime Minister is that he always says ‘focus on the goal, do not bother about those who will want to take advantage of these challenges, who will want to disobey you. Stick to your goal.’ I am grateful that the industry, state organisations, our fellow colleagues across ministries came together and did not pay any heed to the cacophony of those who wanted to become a part of the black market. We owe it to our doctors to ensure that we live up to the standards the world thinks the medical community deserves and, today, from zero, we’ve become the world’s largest manufacturers of PPE kits.

Q: This is phenomenal. It’s a story in itself but it’s not limited only to PPEs but to masks and swabs as well, the testing kits became an impediment because of swabs and that’s the unique story in itself. I believe the textile ministry played the role of catalyst in bringing people together who can do this such as Johnson & Johnson, Reliance, Tulips etc. That’s also a story in itself.

A: We had two industrial giants in the country who were willing to help. We had National Institute of Virology which stepped up and did our test. We took all this material and it was passed on to an MSME. I think that is a part of the story that should be recognized. While you have Johnson & Johnson and Reliance, the end of manufacturer turned out to be an MSME. I’ve heard from market sources that Reliance, in some instances, ended up giving the raw material theory of cost. Johnson & Johnson which was not a part of the segment at all, became a part of this entire exercise. I think these are two very fantastic stories post we became the pharmacy of the world with regards to Hydroxychloroquine. I think this is the time where the Indian engineering and scientific prowess is coming to the fore and its meeting and partnering with the manufacturing capacities in the large heartedness of the industry as well.

Q: True. Now let’s look at the road ahead. Let’s talk about self-reliance, Aatmanirbhar Bharat and of course what’s happened in the course of the last two to three days where the Prime Minister talked about an economic package of 20 lakh crore rupees. The biggest focus was on MSMEs. Textile industry is the second largest industry after agriculture and about 70% to 80% is reliant on MSME. So, what’s the road ahead?

A: When you say that the Prime Minister’s package is predominantly focused on MSME, I think the main focus of the Prime Minister’s thought is on every citizen of India. While the lockdown was announced, Prime Minister’s office simultaneously announced ‘Garib Kalyan Yojana’. 80 crore citizens were getting their food grains and three months of supply. We had 20 crore women who were benefiting from direct bank transfers. Today, the Finance Minister spoke about two months more of ration. She’s expressed her support financially not only with the 3 lakh crore bank guarantee for MSMEs but she was equally passionate about providing support to the farm community. She also announced the credit card schemes for farmers and animal husbandry. So, every vertical, every segment including street vendors of our economies have been addressed by a comprehensive package of 20 lakh crore. NDRF ensured that over 14,000 crores went to State so that vibrant labours could be looked after in quarantine shelters. The collaboration that you saw between Centre and States under the Prime Minister’s leadership speaks volume about the kind of governance we’ve seen in our country.

Q: The way we live is going to change. We’ll have to recalibrate how we think. Is this the right time to look at clothing because if my clothes can protect natural bacteria – will I worry about physical distancing? How can I do this in an industry which is the second largest employer in our country?

A: When the Prime minister says that our new normal will include social distancing and face covers. He is cognizant of the fact that those face covers have to be affordable. I think those are the reorientation of a manufacturing processes that are taking place which are giving us better economic prospects. While we are concentrating on PPE kit, I also would like to include efforts for Weaver’s and artisans. For a finance minister to talk about SMEs and at the same time talk about the street vendors, I think that is the detail to which the Prime Minister’s efforts have gone in.

Q: What is the roadmap for textile hubs?

A: I know some manufacturers, let’s say in the Thirupu region or Coimbatore region, who used to supply only t-shirts. Now, they are getting calls from international buyers asking if they can match the t-shirt with a face cover as well. This means that when we are talking about reorientation of our manufacturing processes, we are also seeing a reorientation of demand. Apart from supplying to the world, we are the largest market of the world. We have engaged with all the IITs under the leadership of the Principal Scientific Adviser to the Prime Minister. We have looked at IIT Chennai and told them that we have mapped what machinery is used by the textile sector in our country. Most of that machinery is imported many of that machine systems is secondhand and that is what hurts our productivity. IIT Chennai is now looking at the whole machine tools and textile machinery requirement. We are mapping who are those machine manufacturers who can customize and actually provide to the means of the textile industry.

We are known as the largest jute producers of the world but when we spoke to our industry we were told to diversify income and embrace technology. The National Textile mission was announced on the 1st February with an allocation of 1480 crores. It is unfortunate that we were immediately struck with COVID but work did not stop. We are now in the stages of looking at how to provide certified seeds to the farmers so that the production of high quality jute can take place in our country. Once the high quality jute is produced, it also gives the industry an opportunity to diversify and get into geotextiles. In fact, jute will not be reduced to just making gunny bags. So, we are looking at diversified opportunities for the industry and textile, I think, is the new hero of the Indian textile industry.

Q: Can we look at the MSME strengths within the textile industry to spur that?Are you looking at tehsil level planning even for the ministry, setting up new industrial blocks so that the shramiks who have gone back home can find work there and can continue to in this their respective blocks and talukas?

A: The textile industry in collaboration with State administration and Ministry of Textiles not in isolation but including Ministry of Jal Shakti, Ministry of Niti Aayog, Ministry of Road Transport, Ministry of Shipping, Ministry of Health, Ministry of Aviation and Ministry of Science and Technology, are looking at multiple income sources. So, when I spoke about Jute, we are looking at not only providing them certified seeds but we’re also looking at providing them rating services which is not only better for them in terms of doubling their income but also better health services because they were working cleaner environments. We are looking at proof of concept that is already available in the cotton segment where extra-long staple cotton, the production of it, the forming of it can be enhanced. I think that the beauty of the textile industry is such that we impact many layers of the economy – our raw material, be it cotton, jute, silk – it impacts the farm community and our chain upstream. We are very excited about working with the scientific community of India. I think that the turnaround times can mostly be credited not only through the manufacturing skills but also the scientific skills of our country.
We, in the textile industry, have been extremely fortunate that whenever we have felt the need that a certain segment within textile needs policy reform or policy support, the Prime Minister’s office has always led from the front. Our colleagues in Commerce, Science and Technology or Health has stepped up and supported us. I think the fact that this is government under Prime Minister’s leadership had shown collaborative efforts within government becomes not only just a mantra but also a reality to support industry. I think that we’ve been fortunate to be a part of that grand scheme.