More than 10 per cent of the population in this drought-prone south-eastern coastal constituency in Tamil Nadu live below the poverty line

Legend has it that Lord Ram prayed to Lord Shiva and built the Sri Ramanathaswamy temple in the island of Rameswaram; history has it that the royal family of Sethupathis sponsored the visit of Swamy Vivekananda to Chicago; contemporary politics has it that son of the soil A.P.J. Abdul Kalam rose to become the President of the country.

 But in the run-up to the Lok Sabha polls, the spotlight is on the paradoxes that define this drought-prone south-eastern coastal constituency in Tamil Nadu. Ramanathapuram has not only continued to remain backward, but has earned the Tamil sobriquet of ‘thanni illatha kaadu’ (waterless jungle), and considered by bureaucrats as a destination for ‘punishment postings’.

 The constituency boasts of having the century-old India’s first cantilever Rail bridge connecting the island with the mainland, the world’s largest corridor in the Rameswaram temple, the richest biosphere reserve in Gulf of Mannar and the second largest fish producing district in the Stat. 

Yet, none seem to have helped the people to improve their living standards.

 The district, having four of the six Assembly segments — Ramanathapuram, Paramakudi, Thiruvadanai and Mudukulathur, constituting Ramanathapuram Lok Sabha constituency, has a total population of 13.37 lakh, with as much as 10 lakh voters. But they could hardly change their fate with the power of their votes all these years.

 More than 10 per cent of the population live below the poverty line, eking out a living by making charcoal after cutting Kattu karuvai (Prosopis juliflora) trees. The seeds of the trees are is believed to have been showered from helicopters during Chief Minister Kamaraj’s time, for providing livelihood for the poor.

 About 35 per cent of the population are engaged in farming and heave a sigh of relief only if the district received the normal rainfall of 827 mm in a year. But the ‘Rain God’ seldom showered mercy on them.

The district produced the much demanded ‘Ramnad mundu’, a chilli variety with a unique pungency, but the standard of living of the growers has remained static.

 The district topped the State in fish production, with 86,841 metric tonnes a year, constituting 23 per cent of total fish production in the State, but the fishermen are bogged down by a host of problems. Scores of Rameswaram fishermen spend much of their time in Sri Lankan jails than on the high seas, as underscored by the fisher folks themselves. The district is dotted with 184 fishing hamlets and about 1.71 lakh fishermen are engaged in fishing.

With no industries in the district, people migrate to Malaysia, Singapore and Gulf countries to take up jobs in hotels and in the construction industry.

It may be hard to believe, but the fact is that the district topped the south in seeking passports: more than 10,000 persons have applied for passports for the third successive year last year, according to official sources.  

The flip side

The flip side, however, has it that the Kilakarai region in the district has some of the richest business people and educationists. Brand new luxury cars zipping on the roads is a common sight.

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