The residents of Erravalli village Telangana's Medak district are a happy lot, even though the Jagdevpur mandal in which they live has been declared drought hit. Relief might come only next year, but for now, the residents of Erravalli have got new roads and functional streetlights.

The improvements have been underway for the past two months, as the authorities have been scrambling to spruce up the infrastructure in Erravalli and its surroundings in time for a five-day Ayutha Chandi Maha Yagnam that Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao is organising at his farmhouse here. The ritual, which will start on Wednesday, is aimed at enhancing "universal peace and the prosperity of state".

In the run-up to the religious ceremony, which will be performed by 1,500 priests from seven states, the official machinery has been working round the clock to ensure a glitch-free event. As a consequence, the line between the chief minister's personal prayers and state involvement in the ritual has been blurred.

Large guest list

More than 40,000 people are expected to turn up for the Yagnam, which is expected to cost Rs 6 crores.  The list of confirmed state guests include President Pranab Mukherjee, Governor of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh ESL Narasimhan, Maharashtra Governor C Vidyasagar Rao, Governor of Tamil Nadu K Rosaiah, Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N Chandrababu Naidu and Union Ministers M Venkaiah Naidu and Bandaru Dattatreya.

Even after reiterating that he isn’t using public money, Rao has been facing flak for the extravaganza in a state that has declared 50% of its blocks as drought hit.

Bureaucrats are wary about making statements about how much state money is being spent to supplement this private religious ceremony.  The mere mention of the word Yagnam causes officials to disconnect  calls or to claim to be on leave.

“Look at this as a positive fallout,” said a senior bureaucrat, who called up twice to ensure that he would be quoted off the record. "We know that no state expense should be hidden, but file an RTI and you will spend the next couple of years trying to get data about anything related to the Yagnam."

In addition to spending on infrastructure, other state resources will also be pressed into service. For instance, several senior bureaucrats will be engaged in protocol duties for five days. In addition, five fire fighting teams and water tenders will be stationed at Rao's farm-house for the duration of the Yagnam. This will deprive the district of access to these vital pieces of equipment.

Strangely, many rural people seem remarkably disinterested in the proceedings. “It might be for the benefit of state, but the Yagnam is a family affair performed at his farm house,” said an activist from Jagdevpur. "We would be happier if the chief minister engages with us about the ensuing agrarian crisis and the way out for us."

On social media, public opinion about the event is fractured. Those with internet connectivity are debating whether the Yagnam is being organised to deflect from a Central Bureau of Investigation case against Rao, whether it is a publicity stunt before the Hyderabad municipal elections or whether this fosters the spirit of a Hindu state.

However, the Communist Party of India held a press meet demanding clarifications on public money being spent and members of civil society organisations in Hyderabad have condemned the event.

Personal right

“In one’s personal capacity, everyone has the right to please god and practice faith,” said Rakesh Reddy Dubbudu, Telangana coordinator of Association of Democratic Rights and RTI activist. "The chief minister can’t be denied his rights. Had the chief minister done this at his camp office or his house and limited it to family and kin, it wouldn’t have been such a huge issue. However, being the most influential person of the state, when you hold ritual on such a large scale, the indirect loss to the state exchequer increases."

Hyderabad social activist Lubna Sarwath, co-Convenor of Save Our Urban Lakes, said that Rao was acting like a feudal ruler, an attitude that it is not healthy for democracy.

“In the past ten days, Rao has chartered a special flight once and helicopter twice to invite guests for the ritual,” alleged Sarwath.  "Can the chief minister come out clean and show records that public money hasn’t been spend on these? The guests will be accommodated in government guest houses. Is it not spending public money?"