Interview: Sujana Chowdary

‘BJP not interested in resolving the issues’

Print edition : April 13, 2018

Sujana Chowdhury, TDP MP.

Interview with Sujana Chowdary, TDP MP.

Yalamanchili Satyanarayana Chowdary, better known as Sujana Chowdary, who resigned as Union Minister of State for Science and Technology and Earth Sciences on March 8, explained how the distrust between the two alliance partners, the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), grew, leading to their parting of ways on March 16 after nearly four years. He defended the TDP government in Andhra Pradesh and squarely blamed the Centre for reneging on assurances made on several fronts, including those made under the Andhra Pradesh Reorganisation Act, 2014, and the promise to give the State Special Category Status. The other TDP Minister in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Cabinet, Ashok Gajapathi Raju, resigned as Civil Aviation Minister. Excerpts from an interview he gave Frontline:

Several opposition parties and independent social groups in Andhra Pradesh feel that the TDP would have continued its alliance with the BJP despite its inability to extract much from the partnership had the Yuvajana Sramika Rythu Congress Party (YSRCP) not moved a no-confidence motion against the Narendra Modi government.

That is not the reason [why we quit the NDA]. The actual reason is, we resigned from the respective Ministries mainly to sensitise the Central government to do something about the pending issues of Andhra Pradesh. The government did not act upon our demands even a week after our resignation. The TDP definitely developed a feeling that the BJP was not interested in resolving the issues. If you go through my speech in the Rajya Sabha, I give the reasons for my resignation. The main reason for exiting the NDA was that they did not bother. Our resignations failed to put pressure on the Central government to act on any of the assurances given by it. And we thought it was unethical to bring a no-confidence motion while being in the NDA.

While it is true that on several fronts Andhra Pradesh is facing a resource crunch, work on the new State capital, Amaravati, has not moved beyond the construction of temporary buildings to house the Legislature and the Secretariat. There is criticism that structural plans for buildings for the permanent Legislature and Secretariat, the High Court, and other government offices do not require more than three years and that groundbreaking work for at least these buildings should have begun by now.

If you have visited the transit Secretariat and Legislature you will know that if we want to build an office in the midst of a forest or agricultural lands, we cannot do that without trunk infrastructure such as roads, drainage systems, electricity connection, and rainwater collection systems. So this money [Rs.1,500 crore given by the Centre for the purpose of establishing the Core Capital Area] was mainly spent on transit operations for the new capital. This money was spent between 2014-15 and now. You might have noticed that all the works are under way. I am not in the State government, but I have been coordinating their activities there with the Centre. I could put a counter question to you. Money was given in 2014-15, 2015-16, 2016-17, 2017-18 [by the Centre]. For all of them, utilisation certificates were given according to the government’s Financial Regulations and Rules [FRR].

The Centre says Rs.1,000 crore has been allocated and disbursed for the underground drainage works for the Guntur-Vijayawada-Amaravati region but there is little progress on the ground.

This money has nothing to do with Amaravati. It was sanctioned for the drainage system to be developed for Guntur and Vijayawada. So, technically, we received only Rs.1,500 crore for the capital city. So, why has the Centre not raised any of these questions officially?

State BJP president Hari Babu told Frontline that several projects, such as the proposed metro at Amaravati/Vijayawada/Guntur or Visakhapatnam, are at the Detailed Project Report stage and that it was premature to seek fund allocation for the same. He was responding to your colleague and Lok Sabha member Jayadev Galla’s contention that Rs.57,000 crore was allocated to Maharashtra and Karnataka for their public transport systems in the 2018-19 Budget but nothing was allocated for Andhra Pradesh. He said that Central assistance would not be a problem for any of the proposed projects.

Jayadev Galla brought all those issues only for the purpose of comparison. As for Andhra Pradesh, whatever projects were sanctioned in the AP Reorganisation Act, foundation stones have been laid for them, if you take the Centrally sponsored institutions for example. At the end of the day, if no commensurate infrastructure comes up on the ground, is it not the duty of the [Central] government to explain why it has not happened? There is a need to introduce a projections versus actuals system. This should be done even by the Prime Minister. Technology is so advanced now that you do not have to travel to project sites to take stock of any ongoing projects. By geo-tagging, you can get a virtual tour of the projects.

You mean to say the Prime Minister, who is seen as being tech-savvy, does not do this?

I respect him and his capabilities, but what I am coming to is the will required to execute projects. Andhra Pradesh is in a peculiar situation. For example, a project may have been sanctioned by one Ministry, but the Home Ministry might not have given the final clearance. Take, for example, the proposed steel plant in Kadapa [now called YSR district after the late Chief Minister Y.S. Rajasekhar Reddy. Steel Authority of India Limited was approached for a feasibility report to set up an “integrated steel plant in the district within six months from the appointed day” in the AP Reorganisation Act]. The Centre promised to establish a steel plant to generate employment in Kadapa. But if a viability gap has emerged in the process, is it not the Central government’s responsibility to explain why that has happened? This is done by the Home Ministry or the Ministry responsible for executing the proposal. The Centre has to explain why a project cannot take off or has not taken off.

Another example I could cite is in civil aviation. The Centre can set up an airport as long as a State government gives clearance and allocates land for it. Any State government can seek to set up an airport subject to land availability and commercial viability. Civil aviation commercial viability rule suggests a 12 per cent internal rate of return [IRR]. That is, if the investment is Rs.100 crore, the profit should be Rs.12 crore. The Petroleum Ministry suggests a 14 per cent IRR. Once approvals are sought by the State, they come under the Union Expenditure Secretary’s chairmanship for clearance. So if Adilabad [in Telangana] requires an airport and comes forward with land and a detailed project report [DPR], the DPR must project at least a 12 per cent IRR and explain the sources of revenue. In my opinion, in an extraordinary situation as in the case of Andhra Pradesh, these conditions should not be applied. [The Reorganisation Act seeks “feasibility study to expand the existing Visakhapatnam, Vijayawada and Tirupati airports to international standards to be conducted by the Government of India within six months and expeditiously execute the decision arrived at”.] Every State government has a right to set up any project subject to satisfying the GFR—government financial regulations. But all these should not be applied to Andhra Pradesh given its special circumstances.

According to the Centre, work on institutions proposed in the AP Reorganisation Act, such as the setting up of an All India Institute of Medical Sciences [AIIMS], is moving at a brisk pace and that the 2014 Act stipulates a time frame of 10 years for the completion of several of those projects. The State Health Minister and BJP leader, Kamineni Srinivas, even took reporters to the site near Vijayawada to show the pace of building construction for the proposed AIIMS. According to Hari Babu, 85 per cent of the work has been completed and 17 levels have been constructed.

All these institutions are not income-based, but the Centre has committed to them in the Act. Then it has to make budgetary allocations. Why has it not made it in the current Budget? The State government is only expected to allocate land, which has been done. In fact, the Centre ought to have bought the land from us. The Andhra Pradesh government paid a lot of money for those lands and then gave it to the Centre. For the AIIMS, the proposed project cost is Rs.1,660 crore. The funds released are Rs.50 crore. Funds utilised are Rs.30 crore. So only 3 per cent of the funds have been spent; then how can 85 per cent of the works be completed? I think Kamineni Srinivas must go back to learning math if he is unable to count the floors in a building. Hari Babu is an engineer and a professor, he is generally reasonable. I don’t expect such statements from him.

As for the port at Duggarajapatnam in Nellore district, its proximity to Pulicat lake and the Indian Space Research Organisation’s Sriharikota satellite launch centre has been flagged by both the Ministry of Environment and Forests and your own erstwhile Ministry. According to them, the State government has been asked to identify a new location for the port.

The port was mentioned in the AP Reorganisation Act. Subsequently, ISRO objected to its location. But ISRO comes under the Prime Minister’s purview. First of all, the Central government should have taken care before announcing the port. The previous United Progressive Alliance government should have looked into this aspect. The AP Reorganisation Act was prepared with much deliberation by intellectuals, I believe, led by Jairam Ramesh [the Congress’ Rajya Sabha member in charge of Andhra at the time of bifurcation of unified Andhra Pradesh, who played a key role in drafting the 2014 Act]. Why did the Centre not look into this aspect? Why did it not seek clearance from the various Ministries concerned even before its proposal? Now, when a problem has emerged in establishing the port—this comes under the purview of the Union Shipping Ministry, which is currently held by Nitin Gadkari—is it not the Centre’s duty to identify a different location for the port? When the proposal came from the Centre, and the objection raised against it is also from it, how does it become the State government’s responsibility to identify an alternative site? You see, the Central government is permanent. Prime Ministers, Cabinet Ministers come and go. It is ultimately the Centre that must take responsibility for this issue.

Andhra Pradesh’s opposition seems to be united against the Centre’s decision not to grant Special Category Status, and yet in the winter session of the Assembly in 2016, Chandrababu Naidu backed the Union Finance Ministry’s proposed Special Assistance Measures. On the floor of the Assembly, he had sought to bury the idea of seeking Special Category Status and instead was content with the Special Package as an alternative. What changed in the past year for the Chief Minister to go back to demanding Special Category Status?

This happened when the Centre expressed its inability to undertake all the assurances made under the AP Reorganisation Act or grant of Special Category Status. Finance Minister Arun Jaitley proposed an alternative route to fulfil the promises. He proposed the Special Package in 2016. We expected these assurances to be implemented immediately. But what happened between 2016 and now? Forget about what the Chief Minister agreed to and why he changed his position now. That is not the question. Suppose when you are five years old your parents decide that it is better to wait for another five years and then put you in school, what happens then?

You lose those five years.

Exactly. The world does not wait for you. Relationships between the Centre and a State are similarly based on trust, on assurances given to each other. Suppose your grandfather lived in a house, but you have moved on as life has changed, you will still like to keep the house for sentimental value, won’t you? At least you will try to. Similarly, when the Centre comes and says the situation has changed and expresses its inability to deliver on an assurance and instead suggests an alternative, must it not stick to at least the alternatives suggested and execute them?

Will the TDP share a platform or participate in any of the proposed joint opposition struggles demanding Special Category Status? On March 19, Vijayawada witnessed meetings at the Andhra Intellectuals Forum led by Chalasani Srinivas, where for the first time the Congress, the YSRCP, Left parties and the Jana Sena called upon the TDP to join a united struggle for Special Category Status.

First of all, who declared Chalasani Srinivas an intellectual? Ok, let us presume him to be one or even a self-proclaimed one. Then he or they should act as neutral forces and come out with an opinion from a qualified person on the issue. Why join up with political parties? Suppose there is a legal problem, will you not take the opinion of an expert, or will you attempt some alternative route?

In other words, you feel these actions are not genuine attempts at addressing the problems faced by the State.

This does not appear to be a genuine attempt at addressing the issues. The Centre says the 14th Finance Commission restricted the Central government from granting Special Category Status. We have questioned that in the Rajya Sabha. Appointing committees and seeking recommendations are a continuous process. These committees recommend various things as per the current situation. The Centre cannot tell us that we are going back on implementing Special Category Status on the basis of the 14th Finance Commission, which placed its report in Parliament in 2015, after the enactment of the AP Reorganisation Act and after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh gave the assurance in the Rajya Sabha. You cannot retrospectively attempt to implement the recommendations of a commission. Then what is the sanctity of assurances made in Parliament and laws passed by it? If we are to really go back and look at how even this law was passed, and if you listen to Manmohan Singh’s speech in the Rajya Sabha, you will know that he said the appointed date [for State formation] would be arrived at on the basis of consultations with the State. But that did not happen. The date June 2, 2014 [as per AP State Reorganisation Act for bifurcation of Andhra Pradesh] was decided by the Centre unilaterally. Similarly, several provisions of the Act were arrived at unilaterally. Opposition parties were not consulted. Why are these intellectuals and opposition parties not posing these questions to the Centre, the Congress or the BJP?

The YSRCP, the entire opposition in fact, claims it has made tremendous headway among large sections of the people in seeking their support, especially against the NDA government for reneging on its promises. Do you think the TDP has been a bit too late to sense the discontent among the people? Would this cost the party dearly in the 2019 general election?

I do not think Jagan Mohan Reddy’s party is serious about taking up these issues. From the TDP’s point of view, we still have more than 12 months to administer the State. That is more important to us right now. Elections are far away. Let us see what happens then.

The Congress has supported the demand for Special Category Status and has assured its implementation if voted to power. Will the TDP consider joining hands with the Congress ahead of 2019?

No, this question also does not arise. This also, I feel, is too early to comment on.