TM Krishna: Tamil Nadu is no longer a land of rationality, but of lawlessness

People of Tamil Nadu built governance centered on social justice, but over the past few years it has changed. TN has transformed into a lawless land, where citizens are trampled by a corrupt system

PTI Photo
PTI Photo

T M Krishna

Without doubt, the people of Tamil Nadu have led the way in building governance centered on social justice. Periyar and the Dravida movement created a vocal and ethically assertive society. We were a land where reason and rationality had challenged superstition, hidebound orthodoxy and became a land of debate and listening. Tamil Nadu was a place where the marginalised could raise their voice, fight the battle for equity with courage and be heard. Despite all the failures and imperfections of successive governments, the people of Tamil Nadu for long believed that they belonged to a robust and socially responsible society.

Unfortunately, over the past few years this has changed. We have transformed into a lawless land where the police can, with impunity cull down fellow citizens. I have been proud to call myself a resident of Tamil Nadu. Today, I search for that pride in me and search and search again and am yet to find it. I am even more disturbed by the justifications that some of us Tamils are sharing on the World Wide Web for the brutal massacre of thirteen people.

This is indeed one of the gloomiest times in our state’s history. The residents of Thoothukudi who included fisherfolk, farmers, people running small businesses, old men and women and young boys and girls were angry and upset simply because they had been repeatedly let down by their governments. They were trampled upon, duped and tricked at every stage while an utterly corrupt system enjoyed the benefits of big money and unlimited power.

In Kodaikanal, the International Corporate Giant Unilever took more than a decade to compensate its workers who were all affected by mercury poisoning. Even now the company refuses to clean up the soil as per international standards displaying what can only be termed as ’environmental racism’. And unfortunately the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board is in cahoots with them

Now, the Government of Tamil Nadu has closed the factory and cancelled the land allotment for Sterlite’s proposed expansion. But we cannot be sure if these orders will stand judicial scrutiny. Are they just face-savers, that give Sterlite wiggle room in a few months? Nevertheless, people had to die for the government’s arm to be twisted into action. Otherwise things would have just gone on as always. Weak local orders would have been violated by the company on a daily basis, activists would have continued to battle it out through RTI’s and judicial appeals, while the locals screamed and cried for attention.

None of this should surprise us. Repeatedly state governments have treated environmental issues with scant respect. To the politicians and the bureaucracy, environmental activists are a nuisance factor, who they claim are stalling development. In reality, they are just annoyed that their pockets cannot be filled without trouble. All this talk of creating an equitable society seems fake when we have consistently allowed big businesses and governmental agencies to do as they please in the name of job creation and development. The corporate-government nexus is one status quo that every political party in Tamil Nadu has maintained with joy.

Whether it is Koodankulam, Neduvasal, Kodaikanal, Ennore or the emerging flash points in Cheyyur and Uppur, the government and we the socially powerful have rarely cared. In all these cases, those who are affected are fisherfolk or farmers. Their voices have little reach and hence their struggles do not matter. In Ennore (suburb of Chennai), the Kosasthalayar River has been decimated, a way of life destroyed and connected health issues rampant, yet activists have had to constantly and creatively fight to bridle government agencies and keep larger society interested. Even residents of Chennai who were directly impacted by the floods in 2015 and at that time flaunted their neighbourly nature have not bothered for the poor who live in and around Ennore, surrounded by thermal power plants and the stench ridden Kodungaiyur dump yard.

In Kodaikanal, the International Corporate Giant Unilever took more than a decade to compensate its workers who were all affected by mercury poisoning. Even now the company refuses to clean up the soil as per international standards displaying what can only be termed as ’environmental racism’. And unfortunately the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board is in cahoots with them.

The Kudankulam battle is well documented, where early decisions were made without any public hearing. And when the protests gained public support, everyone was branded as anti-national. The people of Kudankulam have been placed in harms way for the benefit of the socio-economically mighty.

In the Neduvasal hydrocarbon extraction project, the interests of the farmers was kept in abeyance. Every Government has claimed to represent its farmers when requesting for drought compensation from the Central government or fighting the endless Cauvery Battle with Karnataka. But when it comes to environmentally degrading industrialisation, they have almost always turned the other way.

In Cheyyur too the governments intends to do as it pleases and environmental activists have to remain vigilant and make sure that the land and people are not exploited. In other words, Tamil Nadu has become a state where industrial practices detrimental to its own vulnerable people and environment are unabashedly encouraged by successive governments.

Whenever environmental battles are fought, people take sides based on falsely constructed convenient dichotomies such as nature vs technology, growth vs regression, demand vs supply or present vs future. In reality, all these fights are for social justice. In every case those who are affected by such mega-projects which are approved through fraudulent means, where public participation is erased and corporate bullying is unrelenting, live on the margins of society. They are treated as irrelevant, insignificant. Beyond the money that drives such ventures there is without doubt a sense of “what do these people know ?” that makes all stakeholders ignore the objections of the locals. Governments have always used job creation as a bait to get a buy in. When people demand due process, fairly obtained environmental clearances and justice they are considered obstructionists. Tamil Nadu governments seem to think it is their right to walk into the homes and work places of the poor and snatch away everything they have. And Government agencies have never compensated the marginalised justly unless there is public pressure. Periyar is indeed dead in Tamil Nadu.

But increasingly, those living in these sensitive areas have become aware. They have realised that their entire well-being is being compromised in the name of job security. They know that the real benefits from these dangerous projects go to people who may have never even visited their homes.

We Tamils always speak of social equity and rights, yet when it comes to environmental injustices that directly affect the poorest and the lower castes, we care a damn. The powerful OBCs who make up the bulk of Tamil Nadu’s politicians exert their caste power through these means.

The educated middle class remains disconnected, insulated from all of this. To us these demonstrations are politically motivated, just drama. Even the death of these individuals has not awakened us. Given a chance we would vote for a Singapore like Tamil Nadu, if not India. In today’s religiously-charged atmosphere, every environmental protest is also branded as foreign funded and falsely linked to the Church. The CEO of Sterlite Copper has also insinuated that there are external catalysts that were trying to destabilise local industry.

We have to shed this numb state of living by reminding ourselves of what makes us Tamils. Social and economic inclusivity is the foundation of the modern dravidian discourse and we need to urgently rekindle that fire. The politicians are not going to change, it is we who have to get our act together. If Tamils do not awake to environmental-social injustices even after the gruesomeness of May 22nd 2018 there is indeed no hope left.

This story was updated at 7.23 am to change a sentence

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Published: 01 Jun 2018, 12:29 PM