A bag full of wishes: Ahead of the Lok Sabha polls T.N. voters look for fulfillment of multiple demands

From farmers’ woes to the concerns of fisherfolk, from price fluctuations to NEET exemption, the upcoming election is witnessing a slew of demands that T.N. voters are hoping will be met

Updated - April 11, 2024 12:24 pm IST

Published - April 06, 2024 04:53 pm IST - CHENNAI

Chief Minister M.K. Stalin speaking at a public meeting in Tiruvannamalai, while campaigning for DMK’s Tiruvannamalai parliamentary constituency candidate C.N. Annadurai.

Chief Minister M.K. Stalin speaking at a public meeting in Tiruvannamalai, while campaigning for DMK’s Tiruvannamalai parliamentary constituency candidate C.N. Annadurai. | Photo Credit: C. Venkatachalapathy

With Tamil Nadu gearing up for the upcoming Lok Sabha election in the first phase on April 19, voters across the State are smouldering, with several major unresolved issues. For them, elections are yet another opportunity to voice their concerns to candidates. Multiple stakeholders have been pushing contestants to resolve issues in their respective regions. Here are some of the key issues that are driving the election this year, in Tamil Nadu.

Agricultural distress

For farmers of the delta region, the uncertainty over getting Cauvery River water from Karnataka for the kuruvai and samba crops remains the most important livelihood concern. Karnataka’s recent moves to intensify efforts to build a balancing reservoir across the river at Mekedatu have only heightened the anxiety. “A reservoir at Mekedatu would render the delta a desert,” is a common refrain of farmers leaders of the Cauvery delta.

“Rain flows from Kerala [running via the Kabini dam in Karnataka] account for nearly 60% of the water received at Mettur Dam. By building the reservoir at Mekedatu, Karnataka wants to impound this water under the pretext of using it for drinking water purposes. It is towards this end that the State is projecting the drinking water shortage in Bengaluru in a big way. If the reservoir is allowed to be built, the food security of Tamil Nadu will come under threat,” contends Cauvery Dhanapalan, president, Tamil Nadu Vivasaya Sangankalin Kootamaippu.  

Karnataka’s recent moves to intensify efforts to build a balancing reservoir across the river at Mekedatu have heightened the anxiety of farmers in TN’s delta region

Karnataka’s recent moves to intensify efforts to build a balancing reservoir across the river at Mekedatu have heightened the anxiety of farmers in TN’s delta region | Photo Credit: MURALI KUMAR K

Poor profit margins for farm produce are another major cause of disquiet among farmers. Farmers organisations contend that both the Central and State governments have failed them when it comes to ensuring a profitable Minimum Support Price for their produce. “Despite repeated assurances, the recommendation of the M.S. Swaminathan Committee for providing 50% profit over the average cost of production has not been implemented yet by the Centre,” P. Ayyakannu, president, Desiya Thennidiya Nadhigal Inaippu Vivasayigal Sangam pointed out. The DMK too, has failed to fulfil its election promise of hiking the procurement price of sugarcane to ₹4,000 a tonne and that of paddy to ₹2,500 a quintal, he observes.

Strengthening the crop insurance scheme, increasing the quantum of dole given under the PM Kisan Scheme and ensuring proper maintenance of irrigation and drainage channels are among the other major expectations of the farming community in the delta region. 

Price fluctuation of perishable goods

Wholesale merchants at the Koyambedu market complex in Chennai noted that the price of staple vegetables, fruits and foodgrains has increased steadily over the past few years. P. Sukumar, treasurer, Koyambedu Vegetables, Fruits and Flowers Merchants Association, said this year, the cost of many perishable goods is already on the rise by 10% to 20%, at least a fortnight ahead. 

The price fluctuation is heavily influenced by gaps in demand and supply in the wholesale markets across the State. This year, a shortage in supply is expected as production may be lower due to lack of water resources and rain deficits in neighbouring States as well. “We need cold storage facilities both in producing States and Tamil Nadu, to store surplus vegetables and fruits and supply during shortages. This will also help fetch better prices for farmers,” he said. 

V.K. Ravichandran, climate-smart agriculture specialist at the Food and Agriculture Organisation, said food price inflation has also steadily increased in the past few years. Prices of oil seeds, pulses and rice have witnessed a tremendous escalation. For instance, the cost of rice increased by 10-20% last year alone owing to high production costs, decline in water availability and lack of agricultural labourers. Farmers must be encouraged with input subsidy, said Mr. Ravichandran who stressed on mechanisation to reduce the cost of intercultural operations.

Anxious fishermen in troubled waters

The Rameswaram fishermen associations have just one demand to the Government of India. Will the Katchatheevu island be retrieved and included within the territorial domain of Indian waters? Though the contestants in the fray from the Ramanathapuram Lok Sabha constituency have tabled a bucket list and given tall assurances, the question asked by the fishermen is, will the arrests by the Sri Lankan Navy stop? Will fishers be allowed to fish in Katchatheevu? 

Will arrests of T.N. fishermen by the Sri Lankan Navy stop? This is a major concern among the fishing community in T.N.

Will arrests of T.N. fishermen by the Sri Lankan Navy stop? This is a major concern among the fishing community in T.N. | Photo Credit: BALACHANDAR L

In the past 10 years of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) rule at the Centre, dozens of fishermen have been arrested and their trawlers impounded by the Sri Lankan Navy personnel for poaching. Except for the killing of a fisherman K. Britjo, 22, in March 2017, there have been no deaths on the Palk Strait. Very recently however, the Sri Lankan government has started imposing jail terms for fishermen who repeat the offence of poaching.

While the DMK and its allies have been blaming the BJP for its step-motherly treatment of T.N. over this important issue, the BJP has countered this by stating that there has not been a single fisherman death, which was not the case during the 10-year United Progressive Alliance rule in the country, where hundreds had died.

Even as the war of words is underway, there came the recent release of ‘information’ obtained under the Right to Information Act by BJP State president K. Annamalai that gifting Katchatheevu was a historic blunder committed by the then Congress at the Centre. Former Chief Minister Karunanidhi was also informed about the ‘gifting’ of the islet, the information stated.

A fishermen leader P. Jesu Raja says, for the time being, fishers are praying that the blame game stops. The newly-elected government should hold talks with Sri Lankan leaders and bring about a consensus so that fishers can begin safe and secure fishing activity soon. The fishermen of Nagapattinam also want a long-lasting solution to the issue. According to B. Sakthivel, a fisherman from Akkaraipettai, “Arrests and seizure of boats ruin fishermen’s families. Both Tamil Nadu and Sri Lankan fishers depend on the same region for their livelihood and sometimes, they cross the International Maritime Boundary Line. There needs to be a forum involving fishermen from either side to resolve the issue.” 

Industries battling with escalating electricity charges

Rising electricity charges, particularly fixed charges, have emerged as a major poll issue for Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs), particularly fabrication and ancillary units of BHEL in the Tiruchi region. For MSMEs, which are already facing multiple issues, the steep hike in power tariff by Tangedco that was made effective from November 2022 came as a rude shock. Within eight months, Tangedco made yet another upward revision in the power tariff from July 1, 2023.  

MSMEs in the Coimbatore belt are grappling with a number of challenges, particularly rising electricity charges

MSMEs in the Coimbatore belt are grappling with a number of challenges, particularly rising electricity charges | Photo Credit: Siva Saravanan S

While industrial bodies and forums have no option but to accept the hike in consumption charges being collected for industries, factories and IT services, it is the big rise in fixed charges that has shaken the MSMEs. They are required to pay ₹562 per month per kW for an electricity load beyond 50 KW. Before the upward revision in 2022, the fixed charges were just ₹35 per kW. Now, for an industrial unit, which has a 112 kW demand, the fixed charges come to ₹62,944 per month. The same unit paid just ₹3,920 as fixed charges before November 2022. 

The disturbing issue is that the industrial units are required to pay fixed charges even if they are forced to stop production due to an unfavourable industrial environment, industry bodies say.  

The issue is not just confined to the MSMEs in the Tiruchi region. MSMEs in Chennai, Coimbatore, Tiruppur and other regions have also been hit hard. Coimbatore, Tiruppur, and Pollachi, which have a large number of manufacturing and agro-based industries and export-driven economies, are seeing one of the worst phases of demand slowdown that has led to the closure of factories and job losses in the past two to three years. Further, with high power costs, the industries claim they are losing competitiveness. This has been pointed out by almost all the industrial associations that have submitted their demands to the election candidates. They have also called for a reduction in GST rates, especially for job-working engineering units. 

Since November 2022, the industrial fora and organisations have been on a warpath to rollback fixed charges. Several thousands of MSMEs shut their operations in the State for a day recently. But, their main demand on reducing fixed charges goes unchecked. “Collection of unreasonable fixed charges is a killer. If the Tangedco fails to withdraw the hike, many MSMEs will turn sick,” said N. Kanagasabapathy, Chairman, Tiruchi Trade Centre.  

Uncertainty over AIIMS Madurai

No other project has become as discussed topic in Tamil Nadu politics in recent years like AIIMS, Madurai. Announced in the 2015-16 Union Budget, it was touted to be a big-ticket project bestowed by the Modi Government for Tamil Nadu. However, the inordinate delay on various fronts rendered it a non-starter. A combination of issues, from identifying the location to land acquisition, and environmental clearances to fund allocation by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) were cited as reasons for the delay by both the then All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam government in the State and by the Central government. 

After Thoppur in Madurai was finalised, Prime Minister, Narendra Modi laid the foundation stone for AIIMS in Madurai in January 2019 ahead of the Lok Sabha elections that year. However, not much happened to begin construction work for two years, and it became a major poll issue in the 2021 Tamil Nadu Assembly election, as well. Even now, the DMK and AIADMK leaders trade a war of words accusing each other of delays in construction of the institute. Classes for the students admitted to AIIMS in 2022 continue at the distant Government Medical College in Ramanathapuram. The first batch of AIIMS Madurai students are likely to pass out without entering the building of their alma mater.

Investments to South TN

The 23-year-old Nanguneri Multiproduct Special Economic Zone, which is yet to take off in a big way after former Chief Minister Karunanidhi laid the foundation stone in 2001, remains neglected. Since the promoter could not attract companies investing in the SEZ, the sprawling premises with 2,600 acres now have just 13 small manufacturing units employing around 500 skilled and unskilled workers. “It was started with the dream of employing over 50,000 people directly. However, the lack of interest in attracting investments has left this project crumbling. This is agonising. The government should take sincere steps for reviving this project,” says renowned industrialist Gunasingh Chelladurai of Bell Group of Companies.

Even though the promoter identified by TIDCO (Tamil Nadu Industries Development Corporation) mortgaged the SEZ’s 2,600 acres of land to raise a loan to the tune of ₹865 crore, the Tamil Nadu government is yet to act tough against the promoter to retrieve the land. Sources in the government claim that steps are being taken to retrieve at least 900-odd acres of land for the first phase of development.

“If it happens, the government, instead of allowing investments in and around Chennai, should concentrate on developing southern districts as it attracted VinFast Auto, Vietnam’s electric car maker, to Thoothukudi. Only then will Tamil Nadu will enjoy inclusive development. We have sufficient land, water, quality power, excellent connectivity etc. in the SEZ,” Mr. Chelladurai said.

North Chennai’s struggles with Pollution

In northern Chennai’s heavily industrialised Ennore-Manali region, recent incidents of an oil spill from Chennai Petroleum Corporation Limited and a gas leak from the ammonia pipelines of Coromandel International Limited, a fertiliser manufacturing unit, in December 2023 threw a spanner in the works of local residents. While the oil spill disrupted the livelihoods of the fishing community in Ennore, it also brought to the fore their repeated protests against the pollution of Ennore Creek due to effluents from thermal plants and the unapproved construction of transmission towers by Tangedco.

A view of the Ennore creek in North Chennai, a constituency that is grappling with pollution issues

A view of the Ennore creek in North Chennai, a constituency that is grappling with pollution issues | Photo Credit: JOTHI RAMALINGAM B

Residents of Periyakuppam, where the ammonia leak occurred, continue to protest against Coromandel International and demand its closure. Subhashini, a resident of Kattukuppam, said although Kalainidhi Veerasamy, the incumbent MP representing the North Chennai constituency, reassured them that he has written to the Centre about the closure of the fertiliser unit and made representations to the State government, they are still unsure if the issue has reached the Chief Minister. “We are disappointed,” she said. 

Concerns regarding NEET

Since its inception, Tamil Nadu has been strident in opposing the NEET (National Eligibility-cum-Entrance Test). Both the Dravidian majors lock horns and shift the blame on the introduction of NEET for undergraduate medical courses. The then AIADMK government passed a bill to provide 7.5% horizontal reservation in medical colleges for NEET-qualified government school students.

However, a section of academics continue to oppose it strongly. According to P.B. Prince Gajendra Babu, General Secretary, State Platform for Common School System - Tamil Nadu (SPCSS-TN), “School education must lead to undergraduate studies without any eligibility or entrance test. This means both NEET and CUET (Common University Entrance Test) should be scrapped along with NEP 2020.” 

Mr. Babu says, “Five years of experience has proved that NEET is a market conspiracy and commercial gamble.” It should be withdrawn and scores of the board exams should be the criteria for admission into UG in any discipline, he added.

(With inputs from R. Sujatha, K. Lakshmi, Geetha Srimathi in Chennai; S. Ganesan, C. Jaisankar, M. Nacchinarkkiniyan in Tiruchi; M. Soundariya Preetha in Coimbatore; L. Srikrishna, S. Sundar in Madurai; P. Sudhakar in Tirunelveli)

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