The ‘Thoothukudi protests’ and police-firing, followed by multiple localised agitations against land-acquisition for the Rs 10,000-crore Chennai-Salem, eight-lane ‘Green Corridor’, again accompanied by pre-emptive police action preventive arrests, have raised questions about Tamil Nadu’s developmental agenda and the best ways to achieve them. This is because project-wise decisions taken in the absence of credible, independent, empirical data, supported either way by anecdotal references, could cut both ways in the medium and long terms, raising more questions than answers.
For a State that made a huge headway on the ‘Three-E’ front, namely, education, employment and earnings (both for the Government and families), Tamil Nadu is said to be going through a slack these past years and decades. Though late Chief Minister Jayalalithaa organised a ‘Global Investments Forum’ to attract investments, the State Government’s claims and actual commitments did not reportedly match. Now, incumbent Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami has promised another of his own, and the outcome could at best be mixed, according to industry sources.
In the meantime, an impression is being created that much of the slow-down in FDI and big-time domestic investments owe to the ‘anti-development protests’ over the past years. Beginning the anti-nuclear protests in southern Kudankulam, the State surely has faced many of them, in Neduvasal, Kathiramangalam, Thoothukudi, and now against the proposed ‘Green Corridor’, to be funded by the Centre.
Each of these protests are centred on local industry, existing or proposed, or other developmental projects, but what is underlying most of them was a common cause, namely, ‘environmental concerns’, flowing from land and water-pollution, both present and possible. The ‘Green Corridor’ also involves land-acquisition issues along the 277-km route. Hence the protests too are spread across the same.
Post-Thoothukudi protests that ended in the death of 13 people in police-firing, the State Government has openly accused ‘Naxalite groups’ with instigating peaceful locals. The police have filed a series of cases against some of the front-line leaders of some organisations and arrested their office-bearers. Sections of the local media and counterparts in the social media have post facto
countered the pre-firing, pro-protest news coverage with ‘ground-level’ reports, quoting locals that they were influenced and instigated by ‘these outsiders’.
The truth, however, seems to be lying in between, in each and every one of these cases. If nothing else, the Governments in the State and the Centre seem not to have been able to take the local population into confidence through appropriate interactions with community-leaders, local opinion-makers and others, before taking forward these projects.
The credibility of the Establishment in the State is as good or as bad as elsewhere in the country with the result statutory consultations of the kind are seen either as an ‘eye-wash’ or ‘packed’ or both. If not done from the top, the bottom-up approach seems not to have worked either, owing to a variety of causes and reasons.
There is also a perception, as much inside the State as outside, that ‘public awareness campaigns/agitations’ of the kind across Tamil Nadu had their beginnings in the ‘pro-Jallikattu’ protests of mid-January 2017. There is also a current perception that the Jallikattu protests were unlike any other, and was confined only to the ‘Tamil angst’ flowing from ‘hurt Tamil feelings’ over the denial of the right to conduct the annual bull-taming fare linked to the Tamil harvest festival of Pongal
. Some at best could connect it to the ‘Cauvery water dispute’, the denial of irrigation rights for the State’s farmers, who were also the key organisers of ‘Jallikattu’.
Before the Jallikattu protests, the State had witnessed the long drawn out anti-Kudankulam agitation, though concentrated around the southern township, against flagging environmental concerns. Long before Kudankulam, in the immediate neighbourhood the locals protested the then DMK State Government clearing a Rs 12,000-cr titanium dioxide project of the Tatas. With the Singur protests against the Tatas’ ‘Nano’ small-car project mounting in distant West Bengal, the Tamil Nadu Government quietly cancelled the sanction, and the Tatas too walked out gracefully.
It had all begun even in the mid-Nineties, when localised protests became the order of the day, all across the State, demanding drinking water, street-lights, roads and bus services. In the first decade, these agitations centred more on long power-cuts, with reports indicating localised protests against the State Government, including some minor incidents, outside the offices and installations of the Tamil Nadu Electricity Board (TNEB).
Protests & probes
The relatively recent, pro-prohibition protests before the Government-run TASMAC shop became a long and continual agitation, with reports from across the State suggesting a high level of participation by local women with their children in hand. Some of the outfits that were later seen spearheading the agitations in Thoothukudi and elsewhere were also active on the ‘prohibition front’, but in those cases the undivided popular sentiment was in favour.
A clearer picture about the involvement of ‘anti-national’ and ‘anti-social’ groups, if any, is likely to be known when two commissions of inquiry submit their findings and recommendations to the State Government. Of them, the Justice S Rajeswaran Commission, inquiring into the end-day violence in the Jallikattu protests of January 2017, has already said that it would submit its report only in mid-2019. The State Government has also appointed the Justice Aruna Jagadeesan Commission, headed also by a retired Judge of the Madras High Court, to go into the ‘Thoothukudi incidents’.
The question remains if an early/interim report from the Jallikattu probe panel would have helped the State administration and police in managing the later-day agitations better and with greater circumspection and advance preparations of whatever kind. The question also remains if the State Government and the police hierarchy both conducted any internal assessments to learn early lessons from the Jallikattu protests.
Tamil Nadu was among the few States that was ready for inviting big-time FDI when the Economic Reforms process opened up the doors for the same. The State was ready to extent concessions to attract FDI, capital Chennai was on the global map, especially on the shipping front, and had skilled manpower in a stable and peaceful socio-political environment with no signs of any labour problem.
Down the years and decades, however, the State has been less than enthusiastic in offering FDI concessions as for pioneers. This has been among the contributing factors for overseas investors and the rest looking to other States. The other reasons include ‘avoidable red-tape’, which has become the hallmark of political decision-making, first under the late Chief Minister Jayalalithaa’s more recent regimes, and also possibly under the successor-incumbent.
Ironically, the reasons reportedly cited for delayed decision-making and clearances are also the ones that protestors have been flagging to argue that wherever such clearances were given, it owed more to such practices and not to genuine public interest, per se
. So, as much as the agitators may be wrong in taking it too far, the Government has also not addressed the underlying causes that may have given strength to the arguments of the so-called instigators at the local and localised levels.
This apart, economic reforms was accompanied by an explosion of private professional colleges, licensed to collect big money for engineering and medical admissions. High on awareness-quotient already, the Tamil Nadu ended up becoming the home to the highest number of private engineering colleges, which have turned out the largest number of engineering graduates anywhere in the world.
This has since led to a situation of under-employment, and at times unemployment for the ‘aspirational generation’ in the State, which saw their parents pledging or working on their small farm-holdings to give them higher education. In turn, they have come to value the real worth of the family holding, what with the multiplying price in the market-place, with each passing year.
In turn, they are not unwilling to work in the farms, if it came to that, though not many of them may be as exposed to the same as their parental generation. Some have also begun wondering about their own future generation in context, and do not believe as much as their parents did that professional education was the way to prosperity.
It is this dichotomy that was/is at the bottom of the angst of the present-day youth in Tamil Nadu, which maybe, yes, political groups and leaders may have been exploiting, without the rulers addressing the former, and tackling the later, so far! Even now, it is the latter the Governments are focussed on without actually seeking to the bottom in the case of the former.
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