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TN's EPS woos investments amid Covid, but is the environment friendly?

By N Sathiya Moorthy
May 29, 2020 17:07 IST
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In the midst of huge job losses as a fallout of the coronavirus pandemic, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami has signed 17 MoUs for an investment of Rs 15,100 crores that aim to provide 47,100 jobs.

But a clearer picture on where the projects stand will emerge only after the Covid-19 induced fear psychosis ends, to see if popular protests will derail them like they have done so many others in the state, says N Sathiya Moorthy.

At a time when the rest of the nation is still finding its feet to revive their sagging economy in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic, Tamil Nadu’s AIADMK government of Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami (EPS) has signed 17 MoUs for Rs 15,100-crore investments, creating 47,100 jobs in the midst of huge job losses since before the pandemic-attack.

 

A clearer picture will have to await detailed discussions on investments and also the end of ‘Covid psyche’, as over the past years local people have protested against existing industries and proposed flagging ‘environmental and livelihood concerns’ in a very big way.

Attracting industrial investments and creating jobs is a high-priority item for the state, as it requires to boost the sagging revenues caused also by the Covid-induced revenue fall. The government’s decision to open liquor shops, against political and public protests, even while keeping educational institutions and places of worship closed owing to Covid-19, is a pointer to the pressure on the revenue front.

Long before it, and at the commencement of the lockdown, EPS became the first chief minister to write to Prime Minister Narendra Modi to clear the GST dues and also permit state governments to hike their borrowing limits. 

Though the Centre has since upped the borrowing limit of states, the attendant conditionalities, like withdrawing free power, are not acceptable to the government -- more so when assembly elections are due by May next.

Even while writing to the prime minister again on this score, EPS also led efforts for attracting more investments on a war footing. They are gaining traction, as was visible from Wednesday’s MoU ceremony at the state secretariat, Chennai.

Even without it, EPS has appointed a high-powerex committee headed by Dr C Rangarajan, ex-RBI governor and chairman of the Economic Advisory Council of former prime minister Manmohan Singh, to chart out the future course for the state government.

Given the Covid era pressures on family incomes, job losses and threats of more, the state government may be able to overcome some of the recent trends in environmentalists and a section of the local population opposing new projects -- but it can go only thus far. Higher the job losses, greater could be the frustration, and other issues could gain traction with the affected people.

It all had begun with the much-forgotten Tata Titanium cancelling the Rs 12,000-crore minerals extraction plant in southern Tirunelveli district, by mutual consent with the government of then DMK chief minister M Karunanidhi in 2007. Perceptions of public protests locally also drew inspiration from the ‘anti-Nano’ protests against the Tata mini-car project in distant West Bengal.

This was followed by the more visible and even more popular anti-Koodamkulam nuclear power project in the neighbourhood. Larger environmental concerns, including the possibility of reactor leaks like in Chernobyl (Russia, 1986) and Fukushima (Japan 2011), became the central theme of environmental protestors, almost from the beginning.

They added an even more immediate angle and enlisted popular support by arguing that waste-water release from the reactors could cause loss of fish-catch for the local community. There were also fears of deformed child births.

Though the Koodamkulam protests fizzled out after holding out for long, they have since been followed by others, where similar concerns have been flagged and popular support enlisted. This includes petroleum-extraction projects at Neduvasal in the Cauvery delta and the Salem-Chennai, eight-lane greenway, connecting the chief minister’s native district to the state capital after the existing six-lane highway.

The two protests came not long after the successful ‘Jallikattu protests’ of January 2017, and gained instant popular support for specific reasons of land and crop-loss in both -- and also the emotional quotient.

Since the ‘Jallikattu protests’, a section of the Tamil social media has begun identifying environmental and livelihood-linked protests too as a part of the ‘Tamil identity’. They propagate the projects as aimed at destroying the ‘Tamil people’.

In this context, investors will also be following the ongoing court cases relating to some of the existing or proposed projects and the speed with which they are settled, either way, for them to get the final picture of trends for the future. Among them, the Salem-Chennai expressway project is a Centre-state joint venture without a private entrepreneur.

Another of the high-profile case relates to the Sterlite copper factory of the Vedanta group in the southern port-town of Thoothukudi. At inception in the nineties, MDMK founder Vaiko, who hails from the neighbourhood, had moved up to the Supreme Court to have the project stalled, citing environmental concerns.

At present, the unit is shut down since mid-2018, following the death of 13 persons when the police opened fire on anti-Sterlite protestors, on May 22 that year. The state government’s lock-down orders cited environmental issues, which the management contested before the Supreme Court, and later in the Madras high court. A division bench reserved the verdict in January, and the orders are still awaited since.

Industry sources expect the management to go on in appeal to the Supreme Court if the high court verdict went against them. They will also be watching for signals from the state government if the high court ruled in the management’s favour. “Either way, we need to wait for the high court order, and then make our own judgment about the general mood of the state government when it comes to addressing larger investor interests,” they say.

Incidentally, the state-appointed Aruna Jagadeesan Commission of Inquiry, headed by a retired high court judge, is also yet to submit its report on the circumstances leading to the police-firing, and fixing ‘official accountability’ in the matter. Families and friends of those held Covid-style memorial events on May 22 this year.

Addressing their immediate demands, even if not directly linked to the high court case, will also form a part of the confidence-building measures, for which the management too has to do its bit, more than already -- if the high court so desired.

In a tweet after Wednesday’s MoU signing-ceremony, Chief Minister EPS said: “We have the most skilled manpower with electricity and water in surplus, and most importantly one of the top states in maintaining good law and order…I welcome all the investors to Invest in TN. We are committed to help you through the investment process.”

Pious and also proven words these, particularly on the power front, where the situation was bad in the previous decade but not anymore. Tamil Nadu’s skilled labour is globally acknowledged by overseas investors through the previous decades, so used to be worker-discipline and overall law and order situation.

In his tweet, the chief minister did not mention the ‘environmental concerns’ of the local people, which while genuine in many cases, has also stalled projects. From an investor-perspective, that is not on.

Deployment of the police force, which may have become necessary in some cases, has also only led to stalling projects like the eight-lane highway and Sterlite, the latter an ongoing enterprise.

The government thus needs to look outside the box, both for non-perceived problems but also for their solutions and implement them at the grassroots-level.

N Sathiya Moorthy, veteran journalist and political analyst, is Head-Chennai Initiative, Observer Research Foundation.

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