Sriperumbudur, Tamil Nadu: A short distance before the Rajiv Gandhi Memorial, on the gleaming Chennai-Bangalore highway, a right turn transitions without warning into a rutted, small town road. On the corner of that road stands V. Suresh’s vegetable shop, a dark, narrow, thatched space that is the polar opposite of his workplace five months ago: Sriperumbudur’s sleek, modern Hyundai Motor India Ltd (HMIL) factory.
As a level III technician on the cusp of confirmation, Suresh was earning Rs6,000 per month, the vision of a doubled paycheque within reach. “Then, a day before Christmas, around 250 of us were told that we were being laid off because of the bad economy,” Suresh, still wearing a grime-spotted dark-blue Hyundai T-shirt, said. HMIL laid off a total of 2,000 temporary workers in December. “In February, with nothing else to do, I started this shop.”
In Suresh’s game effort to spot the silver lining—“I was lucky even to get that job in the first place, because the factories here don’t hire too many locals”—is a small sign of the changes that Sriperumbudur has witnessed in the last decade, and the consequent shift in priorities.
Touching a chord: PMK candidate A.K. Moorthy campaigning in Sriperumbudur’s Mugalivakkam township. Samanth Subramanian / Mint
Before 1999, Sriperumbudur’s claim to national renown rested, in a sense, with the memorial, a tidy park with pillars and bas-reliefs built on the spot where, campaigning in 1991 for the Congress party candidate Margatham Chandrasekhar, Gandhi was assassinated by a Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) suicide bomber.
Over the last three months, the Sri Lankan army has moved within a hair’s breadth of crushing the LTTE, and the plight of Tamil civilians stranded in the war zone has clawed its way on to the front pages of Tamil Nadu’s vernacular press, creating prime grist for the state parties’ pro-Tamil electoral mills. One might have expected to hear the political echoes here, in a town that first shot to national fame on the back of the LTTE’s most political act on Indian soil.
But this election season, economic concerns are trumping abstract political issues. A decade ago, Sriperumbudur was an agricultural town, where the only employer without a farm, as one resident put it half-seriously, was the Coromandel Country Club. Today, it is an industrial hub of technology parks and special economic zones, home to multinational manufacturers such as Nokia, Hyundai, Saint-Gobain, Motorola and Ford.
Politically, the keenest shift in Sriperumbudur has lain in how the Congress has completely yielded this constituency, rich in symbolic significance, to its regional partners. The last Congress candidate to run in Sriperumbudur was K. Jayakumar, in 1998; he lost heavily, polling only 9.33% of the votes. In the four elections beginning 1996, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) candidate has won thrice, but that was prior to delimitation.
Now the Sriperumbudur constituency—no longer a reserved one—has been augmented by parts of south Chennai and parts of Kanchipuram. It portends a heated contest, then, that the leading candidates are the member of Parliament (MP) from south Chennai and a former MP from Kanchipuram. Respectively, these are the DMK’s T.R. Baalu, the Union minister for shipping, road transport and highways, and the Pattali Makkal Katchi’s (PMK) A.K. Moorthy, a former Union minister of state for railways.
Campaigning recently in a township named Mugalivakkam, Moorthy rode a tempo accessorized with bunting and loudspeakers through narrow streets. His back still ached from the previous day’s canvassing, and he was liberally coated with pain balm. Next to him, the speakers hollered out messages such as: “A.K. Moorthy is the railways, the railways are A.K. Moorthy.”
The PMK has staunchly pushed the Sri Lankan Tamil issue—and the DMK’s alleged let-down of the Tamils—into the centre of electoral rhetoric. But the recorded speech on Moorthy’s campaign got to it only after going through a raft of economic and development bullet points: jobs, roads, even a public wedding hall.
In his conversations with journalists, Moorthy did not even mention Sri Lanka. He stayed resolutely on an economic plank, going into detailed plans for the new international airport scheduled to come up within the constituency’s borders, for a system of check dams to capture drinking water, and for a new railway line.
Sriperumbudur’s industrialization, Moorthy said, has not benefited the locals at all. “First, land has been bought from the poor, to be given to these companies, for prices that are too low. Some of the poor don’t even have title deeds to their land,” he said. “Then, the companies say that they will provide work, but they don’t. A maximum of 5% of the jobs in these factories go to locals, and maybe 20% to people from Tamil Nadu. The rest go to people from outside the state.”
Moorthy wants to push companies to give a higher proportion of jobs—even as high as 50%—to locals, and he wants to suspend land transactions for 10 years, time enough to issue accurate title deeds to everybody. And he promises he will attend to these tasks: “Elect T.R. Baalu,” the loudspeakers say on his behalf, “and he will get on a plane and go back to Delhi. A. K. Moorthy will stay with you”.
The industrialization of Sriperumbudur has, thus far, seemed a relatively smooth process, devoid of the attendant complications of, say, Singur in West Bengal. And indeed, its residents admit to certain benefits: roads have improved, rents for houses have gone up and scrap metal businesses have enriched their owners. “But there is so much progress on one side of the road,” said Suhasini Frederick, editor of a local fortnightly publication called Sriperumbudur News. “On the other side, things are just as bad as 30 years ago.”
The township of Sriperumbudur, with its factories and technology parks, has a voter base of 165,000, according to the office of the chief electoral officer of the state. The constituency as a whole, with villages that have no contact with any technology park, has 1.19 million voters. Some villages, such as Panchalapattu, still struggle for drinking water.
“In a village called Villaipakkam, a few people have jobs at the Sipcot (State Industries Promotion Corp. of Tamil Nadu Ltd) park, but they find it difficult to get there because there are no buses,” Frederick said. “How do you get to the main road from the village? From the main road to the Sipcot entrance? There isn’t a health centre. These won’t cost even half as much as the new airport, but they haven’t been done.”
The two big issues that Moorthy stressed—land and jobs—have a more substantial backstory than he lets on in his explanations. T. Mohanraj, the tehsildar of Sriperumbudur, admitted that the compensation offered for land was too low. “It followed the guideline value rather than the market value, but that is the case everywhere in the country,” he said. “But there also are poor people occupying poromboke land—land belonging by default to the government—and even in these cases, some have been issued title deeds.”
Anecdotal evidence points to both a meteoric rise in land prices since 2000, as well as a significant decline in the last six months. “In 2000, an acre would have gone for Rs1 lakh. Now it may even go for Rs1 crore,” Mohanraj said. But since November, the willingness to purchase land has dipped. Nanjil Suresh, a youth counsellor at the local chapter of the Nehru Yuva Kendra, narrated the story of a friend who bought land for Rs5 lakh six months ago; forced to sell it urgently to finance a wedding last month, he only got Rs4.5 lakh.
Suresh is in a position to testify on youth employment as well. “Few of them are qualified to work in the extremely technical jobs, it’s true,” he said. “But the companies can undertake to train them, and to keep them on the rolls rather than as temporary workers.” The Nehru Yuva Kendra conducts six-month or one-year vocational training courses, and while these help get “the smaller jobs”, Suresh said, “they are not permanent solutions.”
Like his namesake in the vegetable shop, Suresh also offered a low guesstimate for the proportion of factory workers who are locals: less than 20%. But Rajiv Mitra, HMIL’s deputy general manager for corporate communications, disputed this figure. “I can’t give an exact number, but the proportion of contractual labour from the immediate area is very high—definitely over 50%,” he said. “Why would you not hire a local guy?”
Frederick had an answer to Mitra’s rhetorical question. “The factories prefer to hire people from outside the area because they won’t unionize. The locals can easily strike work and go home, but boys from outside, living in their lodges, can’t give it up so easily,” she said. “And local attempts to unionize will find support from local thugs. Frankly, I support the companies on this one, because they’ve otherwise done so much for the area, changed so many lifestyles, created so many facilities.”
In the electoral fight, Frederick spotted the upper hand for Baalu, despite her contentions that previous DMK MPs had not done enough for Sriperumbudur. “If anybody can do anything, it is Baalu,” she said. “Hopefully he can see the other side of the road and do something for it. If he wants to, he has the means and the money. The others, even if they want to, won’t have the means or the money. I think the residents of Sriperumbudur recognize that, in one way or another.”