Tirupur: This is a year of firsts for Tirupur.
The Tamil Nadu town that is synonymous with textile exports—especially T-shirts and other such that are called knitwear in industry lingo—became a district in February, a milestone that gives the town and its neighbouring areas a higher priority in the state in terms of access to funds and development.
The town that lies 380km west of Chennai also became a Lok Sabha constituency this year.
A better deal? The knitwear mills of Tirupur are booming despite the global economic gloom but there are complaints of administrative neglect among workers as well as entrepreneurs. Mint
And most significantly, some members of the community primarily responsible for transforming Tirupur from a nondescript town into a pulsating knitwear export hub have formed a political party to further their interests at a time when a highly fragmented polity allows small parties to wield disproportionate power.
The Gounders are a farming community with substantial land holdings, whose population is concentrated in western Tamil Nadu. Their entry into knitwear was as providential as it was opportunistic.
Tirupur, located in the middle of a cotton belt, was a natural choice for a textile unit and it got one in 1893, the second location in India to do so after Kolkata.
Inadequate rainfall around Tirupur spurred the Gounders to look for alternatives to farming, and knitwear was a lucrative option. Starting out on factory shop floors as employees, the Gounders soon parlayed their land holdings into capital and became entrepreneurs. They are the main moving force behind the export boom that started in Tirupur in the mid-1980s that has transformed the once-unremarkable town into one that exports $2 billion (about Rs10,000 crore) worth of knitwear a year.
Also Read Elections 2009 (Full Coverage)
“The Gounders are probably the most forward (socially) among the non-Brahmin castes today,” says W.R. Varadarajan, a member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPM, central committee, who is a part of the party’s election strategy team for the Coimbatore Lok Sabha constituency, about 56km west of Tirupur.
Their recent entry into politics is part of a trend seen in Tamil Nadu, and across the country, of influential and prosperous local communities entering politics with a party of their own to protect and further their interests.
Economic clout, power
In February, the Gounders started a political party, the Kongunadu Munnetra Peravai (KMP; loosely, the front for the progress of the Kongu region). The party that will contest 12 Lok Sabha seats in western Tamil Nadu, and its president (“Best” S. Ramasamy) and general secretary (E.R. Easwaran) are entrepreneurs with factories in Tirupur. The “Best” in Ramasamy’s name is derived from the name of his business group.
In the heart of Tirupur—a mix of crowded main roads lined with hotels and shops selling expensive merchandise and quiet inner lanes which have pretty houses with whitewashed walls and red tiled roofs—a Gounder entrepreneur, who doesn’t want to be identified given the sensitivity of the issue, explains why the Gounders felt it necessary to launch a party of their own.
“The PCR Act is being misused,” he says, referring to what he claims is the immediate trigger to start a party. The PCR or Protection of Civil Rights Act, 1955, is a legislation meant to protect Dalits from abuse; violation of the PCR Act is a non-bailable offence. And the entrepreneur’s argument is that the Dalits in the region were misusing the act—at the cost of the Gounders.
That may not really be the case, says M. Chandran, the Tirupur district secretary of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (Citu). Chandran admits that while there may be stray cases of misuse of the PCR, the real issue could be that of dented pride.
The move by the Gounders to form a party would also appear to be driven by some long-term objectives. The entrepreneur simply refers to this as the “PMK (Pattali Makkal Katchi) model”. PMK, present largely in northern Tamil Nadu, is perceived as a party representing a single caste, the Vanniyars. In the two decades of its existence, the PMK has leveraged a limited support base to wield disproportionate influence, even at the national level, on account of fractured electoral mandates. India’s former health minister A. Ramadoss is from the PMK.
A political platform could help the Gounders marry their economic clout with legislative power—a move that can only help the community’s interests.
And despite the havoc wrought by the current global economic slowdown, the economic clout of the Gounders is very real.
The Tirupur boom
Even in the wake of a contraction in the volume of global trade, Tirupur continues to show all the signs of a boom town. Labour remains in demand, and business is expected to grow this year.
“We expect things will be better this year (2009-10) than last year, and expect a 10% growth in dollar terms,” says A. Sakthivel, who heads the Tirupur Exporters’ Association. The final figures for 2008-09 are not yet ready, but he expects exports to have contracted by 7-8% in dollar terms to around $2.06 billion.
Sakthivel, son of a Gounder policeman, turned entrepreneur in the 1970s. A careful man—he switches off the lights in his office as we leave after our meeting—he exudes quiet confidence about the export prospects. Tirupur exports low-value items ($10-25 a unit), which insulates it partially from business cycles, he says.
Factory workers here corroborate this. At the northern margin of the town, workers pour out of one of the bigger factories at around 5.30pm. Quite a few of the men congregate around a tea shop. Most of them say they are headed back into the factory after tea for overtime. The boom town’s cost of living makes it necessary for workers to put in longer hours, they say. And the jobs are there, they add.
The cost of living seems to be the main issue in the election campaign of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam-communists alliance, whose candidate C. Sivasami is widely tipped to win the Tirupur seat. Chandran of Citu says the alliance’s campaign will keep focusing on costs till the campaign ends on 11 May, ahead of polling on 13 May.
Costs are an issue not just for Tirupur’s working class. The entrepreneurs, too, complain about the higher working costs on account of Tamil Nadu’s crippling power outages. The smaller the entrepreneur, the tougher it becomes to manage the extra cost imposed by the power shortage, they add.
In a street off one of Tirupur’s arterial roads, the quiet of the late afternoon is disturbed the simultaneous roar of many diesel generators a moment after a power cut. Some of the houses function as small factories. All of them depend on generators to keep operations going, a source of frustration among owners and anxiety among workers.
But will this issue trump the caste card the Gounders hope to play?
The community card
Until the formation of KMP, the Gounder vote was split among the major parties, all of which have Gounder leaders. But opinion is divided on whether the party will get enough votes to replicate the PMK model.
CPM’s Varadarajan says it is highly unlikely the KMP can successfully replicate the PMK model. Varadarajan, who won the state assembly election from Villivakkam in 1989 during the height of the Vanniyar struggle to create a quota-within-a-quota for the community in educational institutions, says the social context is different.
“There was a compelling need for Vanniyars to come together,” he says. Compared to the dominant backward castes, they were deprived and could not capitalize on reservations. Moreover, they found Dalits too had their own quota, leading to a feeling that they were cut out of things, Varadarajan adds. The Gounders have no such compelling need, he says.
“Where is the threat to the(ir) dominance?” asks Varadarajan. The Gounders account for a little less than 15% of the population in most of the constituencies where they are contesting, he adds.
In a rally in Coimbatore on 1 May, KMP leaders did not speak about the threat to their community’s continued dominance and importance. Instead, they took the preferred route of splinter groups. They claimed western Tamil Nadu wasn’t receiving a fair share of the development pie and didn’t rule out a demand for statehood.
The perception that Tirupur and western Tamil Nadu are being neglected is prevalent among the Gounders. In Tirupur, some entrepreneurs say they are happy that the town and its environs are now a separate district. “Infrastructure will improve; there will be a district court and plan allocation (in the state budget) for the district,” says Sakthivel.
To be sure, Tirupur has a history of some neglect in terms of infrastructure even as its revenue generation has grown. Partly on account of lack of state budgetary resources, it witnessed India’s first private-public partnership in water supply and sanitation. Now, exporters have begun the groundwork on another private-public partnership to pipe effluents about 350km east to the sea. There is pride among Tirupur’s entrepreneurs that they are self-made and proactive. The World Bank, too, has cited Tirupur and its Gounders as a successful example of social capital triggering a boom.
Still, the Tirupur story isn’t a fairy tale where everyone lives happily ever after. Activist groups have protested the conditions in which workers live and work.
The relatively high wages and creation of jobs has drawn a huge migrant population (asking Tirupur’s pedestrians for directions is a frustrating experience as most shrug and say they are new to town themselves).
Viyakula Mary is in charge of the labour resources cell of a non-governmental organization called Social Awareness and Voluntary Education. According to her, there are 13 unions in Tirupur but a mere 20,000 of Tirupur’s 400,000 workers are unionized.
Among the reasons for such a low level of unionization is perception about caste, Mary says. The trade unions’ leadership is dominated by the Gounders, and workers are reluctant to approach them because they fear such leaders would put the interests of their caste and kinship ahead of anything else, she adds.
According to Mary, public places such as the bus stand has brokers who befriend runaway children and eventually push them into factories with horrible working conditions.
These, though, aren’t significant issues in the election that will be held here on 13 May. That election will determine whether Tirupur will go on to become instrumental in the transformation of social capital into narrow political capital.