We are concerned only about the welfare of the State: Thangam Thennarasu   

Published : Feb 29, 2024 22:12 IST - 17 MINS READ

Minister Thennarasu stated that there has been no compromise on Tamil Nadu’s capital expenditures in the State’s latest Budget.

Minister Thennarasu stated that there has been no compromise on Tamil Nadu’s capital expenditures in the State’s latest Budget. | Photo Credit: The Hindu/ Thamodharan B

Tamil Nadu Finance Minister says unlike the BJP or any other party, the DMK is not interested in hatred politics.

Tamil Nadu’s Finance Minister Thangam Thennarasu sat down with Frontline for his first interview to a media outlet on the Tamil Nadu Budget for 2024-25, and how the ideology of the party in government shapes the direction of the State as reflected by the numbers in the Budget. In his Budget speech in the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly, he asserted that the Budget was guided by the “ideals of Arignar Anna [DMK’s first Chief Minister C.N. Annadurai] and that the document was a “compendium of aspirations of millions of Tamil people.” 

Frontline Conversations | TN Finance Minister Thangam Thennarasu explains the difference between Ram Rajya and Dravida Rajya | Video Credit: Interview by R.K. Radhakrishnan, Camera by Thamodharan B and Shiva, Edited by Sambavi Parthasarathy

Let us get into your Budget that you presented recently. Budget is a collection of numbers and generally reflects broad brushstrokes of the ideology of the party which is presenting the it. It appears, this time the Budget appeared a little different. We kind of saw a Tamil scholar standing there and delivering a Budget speech, who is also a historian. So, you brought in all those elements. In your speech, you drew on former chief minister Annadurai’s Maperum Tamil Kanavu or the ‘Grand Tamil Dream’. You have said that the Budget rests on seven pillars, much like the colours of the rainbow, can you elaborate on this and also comment if this constitutes the Dravidian model—these seven colours. 

Yes, I would like to say that the Budget is not a mere bundle of statistics or numbers, it should always have the reflections of the lives of the people. That is more important and is derived from our great grand leaders like Perarignar Anna [C.N. Annadurai] or Kalaignar [former Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi]. So, they have always taught us that when you devise a plan, or when you come up with a programme or with a scheme, you should always bear in mind that it is for the welfare of the people of the State. That should be given the utmost importance and priority. Based on this we have devised the seven goals as you have rightly said. Those goals as explained in the Budget. It basically revolves around the betterment of the lives of the people, and to give them the space, to give them the quality of life, and to give them the rights they actually deserve. And of course, we also talk a lot about social justice. So social justice is the basic fulcrum and this Budget touches upon the lives of those from different walks of life, especially the marginalised groups. So with this, we have woven this Budget, giving due importance to your history, your language, your Tamil space, as well as the lives of the people of Tamil Nadu. This is how we have devised it. 

So how difficult is it to devise a Budget when you have lofty ideals of social justice, empowerment of women, making sure that the youth get a rightful place in society, environmentalism to the extent possible, etc.? 

The constraint is mainly the resources—we have our own dream, the Maperum Tamil Kanavu which we have always said. So we have a dream, a very solid dream for the lives of the people of Tamil Nadu, especially for women, the marginalised group, for the youth. When we planned our Budget, we thought that and were very keen that the benefit of this Budget should reach every section of society, especially these sections. So, while we wished to be very generous to them, we are not in a position to allocate more funds to them, but still, we were very keen that at least their grievances be addressed. They have been taken into cognizance. The government is concerned about their lives. We wanted to send this message and we have made adequate funds, available I would say, if not a profound allocation.  

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If I can take two of those dreams involving women, one is the free bus pass, the other is the Rs.1000 a month that you allocate for women: these two items come to a huge outlay in the Budget. Now, are you able to fulfil this dream without compromising on capital works, which is one of the allegations from the opposition itself, that you’re cutting down on capital expenditure and doing more on the revenue side? 

No. We have not cut down our capital expenditure because, in any economy, which is a developing economy, capital expenditures are more important. So we are not compromising on the capital expenditure. The capital expenditure has slightly come down because of the two consecutive disasters we had [floods in Chennai and south Tamil Nadu in 2023]. So that was the main culprit. That is why the allocation for capital expenditure, the funds were not spent on time, that is why the capital expenditure slightly dipped down, it is not that we have compromised on the capital expenses. We have spent a lot in fact, we have allocated much more funds for the Metro Rail project, for example. A huge amount has already been given to them, Rs. 12,000 crore is being planned for it. Which means what? The government is always very interested, if you take the construction projects across the State, if you have the projects, which are funded by the Tamil Nadu government to TANGEDCO for their projects. So, if you put it all together you will be in a position to understand that the government is not compromising on spending, on capital expenditures. 

So that takes me to the next question, wherein you have everybody from the Prime Minister talking about revadi, or freebies, and whereas we think in Tamil Nadu as these being welfare schemes such as the government of Tamil Nadu thinks. So, is this a drain on the next Exchequer, which would you classify as a revadi? Is it possible to classify anything that the government of Tamil Nadu is doing today as revadi?

No. The government of Tamil Nadu is not doing any such thing. We are concerned about the welfare of the people. If you take this Kalaignar Magalir Urimai Thittam, Kalaignar Magalir Scheme by which we give Rs.1000 to women every month, you cannot consider this to be a freebie. This is for the welfare of the particular families. Only if women are empowered, when they are economically independent, will society thrive and improve. You take this free bus ride for the women folk, it’s called Vidiyal Payanam [journey to a new dawn]. See, every woman who takes this bus ride, they are in the position to save at least Rs.900 per month. That is a great amount for them. So it is really helpful to them when the gas cylinder prices are going up, then they would be in a position to meet all those expenses… The government is reaching them, to help them out, to improve their economy. 

And you probably saw the NITI Aayog’s report on poverty. There doesn’t seem to be a poverty line in the report that was published yesterday in the newspapers. But suddenly the NITI Aayog chairman says that 5 per cent of India is under the poverty line and the rest of the people are all above the poverty line. Does the poverty line exist in Tamil Nadu, and if so, how many people or what percentage is below the poverty line? And what are you doing for that section of people? 

The NITI Aayog says that it [poverty in India] is five per cent across the country. As far as Tamil Nadu is concerned, NITI Aayog says that it is only 2.2 per cent which is well below the national average. But still, I would like to say that the poverty line itself needs to be defined properly, it has not been given who’s below the poverty line and what is the poverty line and who are all below it. That needs to be defined properly. But as such NITI Aayog says by the mechanism that they have got at present, they say that Tamil Nadu is well below the national level, it’s 2.2. So this means we are doing a good job for poverty elimination. 

And on the allocation of funds from the Centre there have been lots of exchanges. [Tamil Nadu] Chief Minister has written [to the Central government], you have written, and the Chief Minister even recently said that not a single paise has come for the floods. So is there a mechanism to sort out this kind of discrepancy? You see Ministers from the Central government like Nirmala Sitharaman, L. Murugan, and State BJP President Annamalai, all saying that all the funds have been given and we keep giving funds to Tamil Nadu, and it’s the government of Tamil Nadu which is not utilising it properly

No, I would like to make it very clear once again that to date, we have not received even a penny from the Union Government towards disaster relief or flood relief. To date, I have not received even a single paisa from them. I would like to go on record again to reiterate that; the claims which are being made by the BJP or Central government Ministers, are incorrect. We are quite disappointed because the Chief Minister has already written to the Prime Minister and we have been repeatedly making requests to them. The Central Committee came [to examine the flood situation in December], subsequently, the Union Ministers also, visited, the all-party delegation led by DMK leader and former Union Minister T.R. Baalu, who met the Prime Minister. Even after taking all these steps, nothing has come of it, because it is not for the government, it is for the people of Tamil Nadu, they have suffered a lot, everyone knows that it was two disasters, very massive disasters. And we have not been properly supported by the Union government. Whatever we have received, is only the routine allotment of the second instalment of the disaster. No specific fund has been released towards this particular disaster. Whereas for other States like Gujarat and Karnataka, during previous occasions [of disasters], the government of India has supported them by releasing funds. For reasons best known to them, I don’t know, they have not supported Tamil Nadu. Why are the people of Tamil Nadu being penalised? That is our question. It is not fair. We are in a federal setup where one particular State gets everything it wants, and another State is being denied what it actually deserves. So this is a problem.

Prime Minister Modi, when he was the Chief Minister of Gujarat, had a great solution for this. He said we will stop paying taxes to the Centre if it is unwilling to devolve money to the extent that the State requires. Any thoughts on that 

They should now recall their own words, and they should understand the grievances of the State, which is starving for funds. Whatever relief we have given the people of Chennai or the people of the southern region, it is all being funded through the State exchequer, our own State money. So they should now recall their own words and try to understand the feelings and grievances of the people of Tamil Nadu. They should support us in terms of allocating funds for us. 

In the reply to the Budget debate, you mentioned you were unsure if there was a Ram Rajya at any point in time. But the Dravidian model Rajya–good governance—was a way of life in Tamil Nadu. Doesn’t the reference to Ram Rajya or Kamaraj rule or any of those icons, refer to another path to good governance? 

See, what I said, I am not aware of Ram Rajya because I was not part of the Ram Rajya at that time you know? Anyway, as per the Puranas, and the legends, Ram was believed to have been born during the Treta Yuga. So, we are now in Kali Yuga. I was born in Kali Yuga, and I am not in a position to say what could have happened in Treta Yuga which was thousands of years ago. So that is what I said. My intention was not to belittle any belief system, I would like to make it very clear, that I was not born when Rama ruled this country, so I was not aware [of Rama Rajya]. But now, this Dravidian model government, I am part and parcel of this government. So I am very much aware of actually what is going on, and I can confidently say these are all the welfare measures being undertaken. And as far as Kamarajar’s rule is concerned, Kamarajar’s rule is a good rule, because, as everyone has seen, there are records. Everyone has seen those who have been part of it or have seen the rule and still most of them are alive. And yes, of course, this again, is followed by us. So this Raj continues.  

We had the British Raj too at one time. Kamarajar’s period, which followed immediately after the British Raj, was Kamarajar’s Rajyam. So they were concentrating more on the five-year plan or more on the establishment of the major projects. But in this particular Dravidian model government, we are now concerned about social justice, we must be very sympathetic towards the social conditions of the people, it must really address the marginalised groups. So this is our priority. 

Moving on, looking at another subject that you are, very fond of: archaeological excavations. What is the idea behind providing significant funding for archaeological excavations and celebrating the centenary of the discovery of the Indus Valley Civilization? Is this kind of history competitive politics or is it really genuine love for history and excavation? 

No, there is no competitive politics. We don’t have any narrative to pitch it before any other civilisation or any other narrative. But we would like to go on the facts. And we have been repeatedly saying and we are very sure that the history of India should have been written from the banks of river Cauvery instead of being written from the reverse, from the banks of river Ganges. So, this is scientifically supported by the findings [from excavations] we have carried out, be it in Keeladi or Adichanallur or anywhere else across the State. Tamil Nadu is the only State in India that has provided five crores for the excavations of the sites. Every year, we have been allotting it. This year, we have allotted funds for excavations in eight places across the State. New sites have also been identified for excavations. Essentially, this is not a competitive narrative to other narratives or any other beliefs. We want to go by the facts and we say this has been in existence much before. If you take the Iron Age, and now it has been scientifically proven that the Iron Age existed in Tamil Nadu, some 3000 years back; even before it came into existence in the Gangetic plains. Because it [the south] has always been sidelined, those facts are always been masked so far, and it is now our bounden duty to unmask them and bring the facts to society and we now leave it to the scientific society to do the due diligence and come up with the facts. So we are now presenting our facts before the society to the enlightened masses.

One more Budget question. The Hindu BusinessLine newspaper soon after you presented the Budget, said that the Centre has started to use the levers at its disposal to bring about greater accountability in States and make State budgets more transparent. This is evident from the Tamil Nadu Budget for 2024-2025. The State was forced to provide Rs.17,117 crore for funding the loss of TANGEDCO from its Budget for 2023-24 and provide Rs.14,442 crore for a subject for the expenditure in the next financial year. I have three questions from this: One, the general approach of the Union government towards States on devolution, two, the moves to tighten a State’s borrowing capacity and three, the state of the power sector across India. Your comments.  

As far as the power sector is concerned, Tamil Nadu has been doing well. When it comes to green energy, we are number one in the country. We have also brought in so many reforms, we are now in the process of unbundling the entire TANGEDCO system and we are now in the process of bringing in a new company for green energy productions. So, we are also doing some sort of restructuring for the transmission and for the power generations. This is one part. 

  On the question of the Union government bringing in so many conditions, yes, they are now trying to clip our borrowing limits. They impose so many conditions on it. They say that we will have to now fund TANGEDCO. The government of India should fund TANGEDCO. So last year we funded about Rs.17,000 crore for TANGEDCO. This year also we now have to infuse a huge fund of Rs.14,000 crore. It’s a great drain on the State. So, if you are not doing it, then they will say that it will be deducted from our borrowing limits. So that is the biggest constraint on us which they should not have done. This is completely unfair. It is, I would say, not correct. I have also explained this in the Assembly as to how we are suffering just because of the conditions. We would have saved a great amount, about Rs.20,000 crore [if TANGEDCO didn’t have to be funded], and that could have been spent for the welfare of the State. Now we are helpless. 

You have also been the Electricity Minister for a brief while. So what is your sense of how to deal with electricity boards across the country? There have been various reforms such as separating the distribution from generation and all of that. Has that helped or is there any other way forward for electricity boards? 

With this unbundling exercise, this will also help to a great extent. We believe that will help us, to have green energy as a part of it, then we will also increase the efficiency of the working of the other two major organisations like the generation units or the TANTRANSCO the distribution agency. Essentially that will improve the efficiency of these two organisations. So whatever reforms that we are bringing in that should tell upon the efficiency of the system, we are hopeful that this will help us. 

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The other problem is transport. The State transport corporations are unable to provide the kind of services they used to provide at one point in time. I remember Cheran Transport Corporation, for instance, was the best and supposed to be the best in India at one point in time, it did very well. And then, you know, everything becomes SETC and all of that. And now it appears that Tamil Nadu is also in the same boat as every other State when it comes to transport corporations What is the way forward in this? Is it only privatisation, is that the only answer? 

It is not so. You will only have to make the optimum use of the buses because we are now connecting all the unserved villages. With State-owned buses, we connect to the remote villages, whereas the private owners, they don’t do it. They will serve the routes which are only profitable to them. But we are serving every nook and corner of the State, even small villages. And so many services are also provided. Overheads are more when it comes to State-owned services. We are now in the process of bringing in some restructuring for the State-owned corporations. So eventually I am very hopeful that will all be in good shape shortly.  

Lastly, you’re also one of the main spokespersons for the DMK party. Now when you’re going into an election, what will be your main pitch? Is it the Dravidian model? Is it the negative campaign surrounding Narendra Modi and the BJP government, what will be the main focus of the party going forward ? 

We will be only focusing on the good things that we have provided to the State. We are completing three years. There are many welfare schemes which we have brought, and we have fulfilled most of our election promises and this is the good governance we have given you. So this will be our pitch against them. Unlike the BJP or any other party, we are not interested in hatred politics. We are concerned only about the welfare of the State, and we will project it.

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