Thursday, December 7, 2023

Dil Se: Harish Rao: Telangana’s Health and Wealth

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Telangana Minister Thanneru Harish Rao, regarded as troubleshooter by powers that be in the ruling Bharat Rashtra Samithi party, is a six-time MLA who has not seen an electoral defeat on his home turf. In a freewheeling conversation with The Pioneer, Harish Rao shares details of his childhood, plunge into politics, and longings in his family life. Speaking to Naveena Ghanate, the Minister of Health and Finance, recounts why he had once tried to immolate himself with petrol, the relative ease with which he had handled things while being in the Opposition, his unremitting focus on the Kaleshwaram project, and his goals as well as all-encompassing love for Siddipet.

Wanted to be an engineer and go to the US
I was born in Thotapalli village and studied up to third standard in Siddipet, which is my mother Laxmi Bai’s place. Thereafter, I studied in my father’s hometown – Karimnagar in Vaninikethan School. At school, I was a Telugu medium student throughout. My father Satyanarayana Rao was a government employee. I had moved to Hyderabad for my polytechnic course. KCR (his uncle and present Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao) then asked me to stay at his home, which was then in Irrumanzil Colony, instead of looking for a hostel. So, I grew up along with his children. I did my diploma from the Government Polytechnic in Masab Tank and BA from Kakatiya University. As a child, I wanted to be an engineer and go to America. But I ended up here. I did not go but my son Archishman has made it; he is in the US.

Parents tried to prevent me from joining politics
I did not expect that I would be in politics. Things fell into a place. I used to receive the Chief Minister’s visitors and address their grievances as he used to be in the constituency majorly. I used to work in the constituencies too and in the 1999 elections, despite not being directly involved in politics, I took care of the Chief Minister’s election campaign. In fact, I was authorised to collect the certificate after his win. In 2001, I started direct politics. When I started politics, my parents did try to stop me. Initially they used to say ‘Why are you going into this, what will you do? Study well, go to the US. Where is the need to be in politics?”. Later, gradually they understood my mindset and cooperated. I was elected at the age of 32 from Siddipet. I have so far won six times, starting with a majority of 24,829 votes in 2009 that went up to 1.2 lakh votes in 2018.

Chief Minister scolds but grooms us
The Chief Minister encourages only those who work hard. Sometimes being part of the Chief Minister’s family is helpful but sometimes it is also disadvantageous. Both will be there. Working hard under KCR’s guidance got me to where I am. He trained us and groomed us very well. He scolded me many, many times. He only ultimately speaks in the interests of the party, people, government, or us. If we are doing any mistakes also he corrects us; he tells us, sometimes he scolds us. I had been in Telangana Rashtra Samiti party since its inception and since it was a new party it was easy to grow in the organization. In an old party, going and growing will be hard. Now, we must bear with social media trolling also. If there is anything good we must take it in a positive manner and if there is negative, we must correct ourselves.

Putting petrol was not pre-planned
If I look back on memorable moments with KCR, the ones during his hunger strike come to mind. There was a lot of tension. I was personally with him, in Khammam hospital and in NIMS hospital. We did not know then what would happen when. Anything could have happened, and there was a lot of tension. In 2009, I put petrol on myself during the agitation and it was not an easy thing. People might have mocked at it, but at that time, it was an emotional outburst for me. We all were waiting for KCR and preparing his dais and it was so for all 10 days of his hunger strike. We had been fighting with the police for one week, as they were continually disturbing us. Those were sleepless nights, and there was a lot of tension for a week. We got a message that KCR garu had been arrested and taken to Khammam Jail. There was protest in Telangana. So, in that pressure I did that. It was emotional moment and during movements such things happen. It was not pre-planned; nor was there any hidden agenda.

Being in governance is responsibility
During the agitation, I was in the Opposition, largely attacking. Now I am in the administration. Being in Opposition is easy. It is very difficult being in government as you need to be more responsible. Being in the Opposition, you can talk whatever you want, wherever and whenever. But in the government, you must think twice before speaking and talk very responsibly. Whatever you speak, you must act on it. TRS was in the Opposition initially. In the Opposition, leaders get groomed, leader will be more polished. You will grow. You will have time to understand, you talk many public issues, you get more focus, your understanding levels improve. Opposition also can also do good work. In the government, your role is different. Both are important, how you work and how you look at is the issue.

Siddipet makes me happy
The happiest moments for me were: first, when former Union Minister P Chidambaram announced the formation of Telangana; second, the day of formation of state i.e., June 2, and third, when I got 1 lakh plus majority during my election as MLA for the sixth term. Otherwise, people’s satisfaction in my constituency gives me more pleasure. When I go around my constituency, when they talk to me, express happiness about developments and work; it gives me immense pleasure. Being a Minister, to visit constituencies is difficult. But I utilise my Saturday and Sunday. My officers are angry at me; for, Minister is in constituency on a Sunday and therefore they are missing their Sunday. But I must work and whenever I get time, I will run to my constituency. One advantage is that it is close to Hyderabad — only two hours’ journey. Till evening I work in the Secretariat and by 7’O clock I reach the constituency. I work late in the evenings and early mornings and reach Hyderabad by noon. You must work hard and you have to extend your working hours; that’s the only way.

Sad that sincerity is questioned
The Opposition is always trying to create suspicion and has been questioning my sincerity, as they have no other work to do. I do feel bad about it. Sometimes, political gossips and allegations make me feel sad. I am working so hard, but when such things come, I feel sad a lot. The Opposition should talk about public issues, policies. Why target an individual? When they don’t have issues and don’t have the right platform, then they go for all this personal attack. In fact, people do not like when the Opposition targets individuals. People will be looking at whether their works are getting done or not, if the government is delivering services, and if promises are being fulfilled. People only think about themselves. My understanding is that a normal citizen does not think about all this. I do get disturbed by such things. I had to give an explanation many, many times because of such things. Pranayam gives me a lot of stress relief. In true sense, I will be stress relieved when there is result from public; when we get good response, good cheers, positive comments — they give me more positive energy.

Understanding issue key to troubleshooting
People may call me a troubleshooter or have high expectations, but first things first: we need to have a thorough understanding when you want to address an issue. Once you understand it thoroughly, you can fix your target and once the target is fixed, there will be a program to achieve it. I will try to understand the problem first, then find a solution, that solution can be addressed with teamwork. In the last elections, I oversaw Kodangal, Gadwal, Alampur, Makthal in Mahabubnagar, apart from 10 Assembly segments in Medak. So, I had to give extra time, understand public mood, feelings, demands, and based on that we had to project our candidate and party, and win the seats.

Sweet tooth
My life is such that I wake at 6:00 am, do yoga and exercise till 7:00 am, read the newspapers till 8:00 am. I am out by 8/8:15 am and return only at 12 ‘O clock in the night. I do yoga, pranayam, and little exercise. I have diabetes and BP. There is nothing in my hands about my diet as I am largely in public. Maximum two days I might have food at home in a week and the remaining five days, I eat outside only. There won’t be any timings. I eat whatever food people give me in constituencies and districts where I go. The only thing I follow is eating in limited quantities. Stress will be there in politics a lot. Since I have diabetes, I am not supposed to eat sweets. One bad habit I have is, when I see sweets, I tend to have some. My wife Srinitha does sugar test later and scolds me.

No portfolio is difficult
No portfolio is difficult. How you look at it is important. Our Chief Minister thinks big and wants everything on a large scale. The biggest challenge was to meet the Chief Minister’s expectations on the Kaleshwaram project. He used to review every 15 days or a month and track the progress. Irrigation projects are beyond just construction; they involve a lot of clearances, inter-state problems, securing clearances, land acquisition, power constraints, Godavari flow, among others. This apart, during construction there will be unexpected things to handle. I may have gone to Maharashtra around 25 times to meet then Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis as well as the Water Resources, Environment and Forest Ministers. Getting appointment in the other States was not easy. We completed the Kaleshwaram project in three and a half years.

Handling health and wealth
Health has a lot of work; wealth is largely handled by bureaucrats. In the Finance Department, we manage broadly, minding CM sir’s ideology, priorities and keep working. But resource mobilisation is something we need to do with skill. There is an advantage being Finance and Health Minister at the same time; there was no shortage of money. I tried my best to ensure that finance flow is better for the Health Department and some good work happens, and people work with attention. Every month I do review of a department on a fixed date: PHC on 5thf, Area hospitals on 7th, teaching hospitals 9th, and super speciality hospitals 11th. There is fixed standard review on what happened last month and assessment if there was any improvement over the month. If there was any deficiency, we probe why it happened. In the review meeting there will be secretary, DME, ASHA workers to Minister — everyone will be there. Then and there issues will be resolved. Because of monthly review, they work well and if there is any loophole, they try to improve their performance. When there is someone to ask, work will happen properly. If there is no accountability, there will be laxity.

No personal life
Personal life and family life won’t be there. Kids ask for time, wife gets angry; then I feel why did I come into politics. We cannot spend a week to fortnight only with family or go on holiday. My kids ask: ‘When every family is going out for summer vacation, why don’t you take out time?’ The very sad part is I missed my children and the children missed me as father. Not going along with them to school or college day nor taking a vacation or helping them in studies; I could not do anything for them. As someone on the field is facing some issue and there is also stress in politics. I spent 14 years in the movement. Now we are in the government. I was in the movement when my kids were very young, so actually my wife Srinitha has helped me a lot. She has taken care of their grooming, education, and everything. My daughter Vaishnavi is in eleventh grade. But she wants to do business management from the New York Business School. Her target is that. My son Archishman is a graduate, now he got MBA in NYU.

Quick bytes
Favourite food: I like to eat rice, dal and pachhi pulusu
Favourite colour: knowingly unknowingly, white has become the colour
Holiday destination: there is no opportunity to go
Movies: I don’t watch movies, not even once in a year or two
Favourite actor: I don’t even recognise many. My wife keeps telling me if we see someone at the airport, “This is a cinema actor who is wishing you and you are ignoring”. It happened a couple of times.
Fav politician: KCR
Fav quote: Believe in hard work
Next goal: I don’t have one goal; keep doing good work, in the best interests of the state. Making state number 1, specifically making my constituency number1. I want to give the best service in the country to the people in my constituency.
Hobbies: Earlier I used to read. Now because of social media, whatever time I get, I spend it in replying to WhatsApp messages and replying on Twitter (now X).

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