TN Minister PTR calls fiscal injustice to Southern states a ‘manipulation of constitutional powers’

PTR addressed a gathering at the "Fight to Protect Federalism" protest at Jantar Mantar in Delhi, led by Kerala CM Pinarayi Vijayan.

BySouth First Desk

Published Feb 09, 2024 | 3:10 PMUpdatedFeb 09, 2024 | 3:15 PM

TN IT Minister Palanivel Thiaga Rajan participated in Kerala's protest against the Union government. (Screengrab)

In a powerful expression of dissent, Tamil Nadu minister Palanivel Thiaga Rajan called the deprivation of funds to states “unfair, unjust, immoral, and ultimately self-destructive.”

Tamil Nadu Information Technology and Digital Services Minister Palanivel Thiaga Rajan (PTR) addressed a gathering at the “Fight to Protect Federalism” protest at Jantar Mantar in Delhi, led by Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, on Thursday, 8  February.

Expressing his displeasure, PTR highlighted the alleged manipulation of constitutional provisions by the Union government, particularly invoking Article 293(b) of the Constitution to override state legislative powers and set borrowing limits unilaterally, as stated in Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MK Stalin’s letter to Vijayan.

“In his DO (Demi Official) letter to the Chief Minister of Kerala, our Chief Minister pointed out three or four extreme examples. The first is the use of Article 293(b) of the Constitution — for the Finance Ministry of the Union government of India to override the legislative powers of the states, which have their own equivalents to the FRBM Act, and are empowered under the Constitution to set their own borrowing limits. However, unelected members of the Finance Ministry of the Union government override the legislative powers of the state and set borrowing limits using the back door of 293 (b).”

PTR further criticised the use of unfairly low estimates of Tamil Nadu’s GSDP, leading to skewed financial limits. “They use unfairly low estimates of the GSDP of our state and therefore set a limit of 3-3.5% of a much lower GSDP than those actually realised.”

Also Read: Kerala government protest: CM Pinarayi Vijayan demands equitable treatment of States

Unjust funding to South states 

Addressing concerns about public sector undertakings, PTR cited the instances mentioned by Stalin in his letter, “They forced us to take any debts incurred in the public sector undertakings like the electricity board onto our state financing limit. He pointed out that schemes like the Chennai Metro, where the Government of India should have infused its share of the equity and therefore removed those borrowings from our borrowing limit, have refused to do so for many years and have forced those borrowing onto our balance sheet, therefore, affecting our borrowing capacity.”

He added, “The Chief Minister has pointed out the many ways in which we are deprived of our share of funding, primarily the excessive use of surcharges and cesses, where the government of India does not share those revenues with the states. Instead, at its own discretion, in its own schemes, decides how those should be distributed.

Criticising the biased allocation of funds, PTR said, “At one time, Tamil Nadu used to get about 70 percent of its revenue from the Union as share of taxes and 30 percent under Central schemes. Now, we get half our revenues from share of taxes and the other half from Central schemes and those schemes are grossly biased against states like Tamil Nadu.”

He further criticised the Union government’s lack of support in crucial matters. “Whenever we ask for any support, there is always a response of silence. When we asked for our airports to be declared as international airports, they don’t do it but they open airports in BJP states. When we ask for AIIMS or NIPER to be funded, as announced in the Union budget, they don’t do it and leave them as mere announcements. When we asked for relief from historic floods, they don’t allocate 1 rupee and show no compassion at all.”

Also Read: Kerala’s heavy off-budget borrowings made it a financially unhealthy state: AG

Skewed funding of Union schemes

PTR highlighted the skewed funding model of Union schemes, “When you look at the way they fund the schemes, they start at 80:20 — Union to state — but in two years, it is 20:80 — 20 percent their money, 80 percent our money. Yet we are told that we have to brand them as Union schemes, we have to use the Prime Minister’s name, we have to use the Prime Minister’s image, otherwise we will not even get that 20 percent of the funding.”

Commenting on the impact of Direct Benefit Transfers, PTR said, “With the way we are going towards Direct Benefit Transfers, it will not be too long before most people will not see the image of Mahatma Gandhi on the rupee notes, and instead, will only be required to see the image of the Prime Minister on the identity of the scheme.”

“I’ll tell you the good news. Whenever the Union Finance Minister chairs GST meetings, she is unfailingly courteous and allows everyone to speak, but that’s about as far as federalism goes,” PTR said.

The minister alleged that the Union government gets to decide the agenda, it gets to decide the composition or group of ministers, it gets to nominate the chairman, it gets to have every control over the mechanism.

“And by design, it has the 30 percent voting rights in a place where you need to have 75 percent voting to pass a resolution. It can deny any resolution it likes and for the states to pass a resolution against this Union’s interest, you’ll have to get at least 15 or so states lined up to go against the Union. This is not federalism,” PTR charged.

Hindrances to attracting investments

The former finance minister lamented the hindrances imposed on Tamil Nadu’s efforts to attract investments, “If we say, ‘so you cut our actual allocations, you cut our funds, let us at least borrow them from the market’, they reduce our borrowing capacity in every way possible. They cut our GDP from their own CSO’s estimate to some artificial level, force us to take some percentage on that — 3-3.25-3.5 percent — while they, in a shameless sign of hypocrisy consider it a brilliant outcome if their fiscal deficit is 5-5.5-6 percent, but hold us to limits like 3-3.25-3.5 percent. So they will not give us money, they will not let us borrow. What are the other channels available for us?”

He added, “We want to get foreign direct investment. What d0 they do? They deny us permission to go overseas to seek investment. The Foreign Affairs Ministry routinely rejects applications from state ministers to travel overseas. They retard or delay inbound missions who come to meet us. They divert investments to their preferred states. They restrict the World Bank or ADB (Asian Development Bank) from funding more than one project in one state in a year, and they delay or stall FIPP approval and Cabinet approval. In every way possible, they want to constrain our fiscal flexibility and our ability to service our people’s needs.”

Also Read: Siddaramaiah reminds PM Modi of ‘CM Modi’s words’ to bolster fiscal injustice protest by Karnataka

Fight for states rights and federalism

PTR acknowledged the lessons learnt from Tamil Nadu stalwarts. He said, “We have to continue this fight. In fact, from my party, I say that I learnt the fight for states rights and federalism from Perarignar Anna who founded the party, from Thalaivar Kalaignar who ran it for more than 50 years, and from my Chief Minister MK Stalin. One of the things we learnt from Perarignar Anna is that we must take credit and join with all those whose principles match ours, and we must give them credit as well. In that sense, I pay respects to our local Opposition late Jayalalithaa who also stood strong for federalism and states rights.

In the same breath, PTR stated, “I must mention here that I pay my respects to the one-time champion of federalism, three-time chief minister of Gujarat Narendra Modi, who was once the greatest champion of federalism when he was the chief minister. People change, seats change, nothing is permanent.”

Taking to X, PTR posted the video clip of his speech at the protest and summarised “some truths that can never be changed” as mentioned in his speech. “No amount of money given to a society or state without the right framework (inclusion and universal education, robust and independent organisations that protect democratic norms, social and communal harmony) can ever accelerate growth or broadly improve people’s lives. Only the timing of the eventual recognition of futility is unclear.”

Truth 2: “That a country, state, or society which constantly reinforces the right values (equitable culture, compassion, and competence) can never be quelled or subjugated by authoritarians or oppressors.”

Truth 3: “Other than the truth, nothing lasts forever. Everyone in office now has not always been in their office, and will not be in that office forever. As long as we live, and strengthen our values, our efforts – to protect our people, our language, our culture, and our history from the authoritarian onslaught – will eventually prove victorious.”

Closing on a philosophical note, PTR expressed his beliefs, “No one is all knowing. No regime lasts forever.”

He concluded, “I believe in God but I don’t believe any man is God. I don’t believe any man is all knowing. I believe that sooner or later, all of us will have to vacate our seats. Our job is to hold our values, our culture, our compassion, our competence at the best level and wait for things to change, and that is the way we protect our language, our way of life, our history. Men will come and men will go. Our values and our cultures and our societies will go on strong because we have the right values.”