fractured earth

‘No ideology, no political idea’: Hosur shows what happens when a society has been sedated

In the last 40 years, Hosur has been on a rollercoaster.

In 1973, this Tamil Nadu town on the border with Karnataka was chosen as the site for the state’s second industrial cluster. Through the ’70s, a diverse clutch of companies, producing everything from trucks to garments to medicines, set up factories here. Hosur began to emerge as one of India’s new manufacturing centres. In the decades that followed, however, the town did not live up to its initial promise. Its boom in manufacturing ended and was replaced by another – one that pivoted around real estate.

It was a complex trajectory. Not only did the boom and bust engender different winners and losers, they also impacted the town’s caste, religious, political and social structures in different ways.

Hosur’s experience is relevant today. As the previous story in this series reported, struggling companies in the state’s industrial clusters are trying to cut down on their labour costs. It’s a script that played out in Hosur about 20 years ago.

As the town’s fortunes rose, fell and then rose again, one of its residents, observed the changes closely. In Tamil Nadu’s literary circles, poet and novelist Aadhavan Deetchanya is well-known for a set of satirical stories he has sited in two imaginary lands – Liberalpalayam and Kakkanadu.

The first is a land that has embraced liberalisation. “At one point, I thought we do not need to call this country India or Bharat any more,” Said Deetchanya. “We should call it Liberalpalayam – palayam means place or town.”

The ten stories he set here look at what people, government and society are like in a liberalised economy. “There is this idea that if you want a good road, you will need to pay a toll so that we can build the road,” said Deetchanya. “And so, in Liberalpayalam, the government follows the same system while building houses. It builds houses and puts up a toll-booth between the bedroom and the bathroom.”

Kakkanadu means potty land. In four stories located here, Deetchanya inverts our society that condemns scavengers as outcasts, and reimagines a society where scavenging is the most sought-after profession. In Kakkanadu, manual scavengers – who clean up human excreta – live in houses larger than the president’s. They get paid more than him. Here, it is the person unskilled at scavenging who is scorned. Unlike our society, where someone who doesn’t study well will hear: “You are only fit to clear garbage.” In Kakkanadu, people will be told, “You are only fit to be a judge or collector!” It is a society where everyone wants to be a manual scavenger. Even the president quits his job to become a scavenger.

Excerpts from a six-hour chat on Hosur.

when we started the #eartotheground project, i had planned to chronicle change in these states through interviews with writers. the plan floundered in mizoram and odisha. but worked partially in punjab — where one of our biggest insights into Punjab came out of a rum-fueled chat with writer desraj kali.

In the last 15 years, novelist and writer Desraj Kali has seen Punjab undergo some striking changes. But none is as striking as its gradual religious revolution.

A growing number of people in the predominantly Sikh state, he says, are now visiting Hindu temples. Not those of principal deities like Vishnu, Shiva and Rama, but of Shani, the elder brother of the god of death Yama, who is notorious for his malefic influence on life.

More than ever before, Kali says, people are visiting the gurudwara of Baba Deep Singh in Amritsar. According to legend, Deep Singh, a Sikh warrior, was decapitated while battling the forces of Ahmad Shah Abdali, the king of Afghanistan. In a niche in the perimeter of the Golden Temple in Amritsar, there is a painting depicting the storied aftermath: Deep Singh, holding his severed head with his left hand and swinging a massive sword with his right, continued to fight, and died only after reaching the Golden Temple.

There are more, says Kali. People in increasing numbers are placing chadars at Pirs’ mazaars. There is a “thousand-fold” increase in the number of tantrik ads in the local media. Eeven orthodox Sikhs – Amritdhaaris, who carry the sacred dagger called kirpan – have begun visiting “non-traditional deras”, religious centres with living gurus, though Sikhism expressly forbids worship of individuals.

What explains these sweeping changes in Punjab’s religious milieu? It is the rising uncertainty in people’s lives.

These companies are changing the way labour is hired (and fired) in India

Heard of a company called UDS?

Like India’s IT companies, it hires workers and sends them to client locations. There’s just one difference: while the IT companies supply white-collar workers to firms across the world, UDS provides blue-collar workers to offices, factories, airports in India. They run assembly lines, do housekeeping, handle packing and loading, among other things. The workers are drawn mostly from rural India. UDS trains them and places them in companies in return for 7-10% of their pay.

Such outfits are called manpower supply companies, even though they employ both men and women. In the last decade, as companies scale back their permanent staff and increase their reliance on contract workers, these firms have come to account for ever-greater chunks of industrial and service sector employment in the country. UDS alone has 40,000 workers on its rolls. Its client roster includes manufacturers like Hyundai and glass-maker St Gobain. The work done by its workers occupies a long continuum from housekeeping to assembly-line production, and some of it quite technical.

Despite their rapid growth, the manpower companies are a poorly understood commodity. Before they arrived on the scene, employers sourced contract workers from the informal economy’s labour contractors. Most of the workers led bleak lives – low salaries, no job security, no safety nets for accidents or retirement. The only guarantee they had was of their pay and prospects of landing work shrinking as they neared 40 and their capacity to work dimmed.

In the grim and unregulated world of labour, manpower supply companies represent something new: the entry of the formal sector.

What has been their impact?

Why Tamil Nadu is erecting cages around statues (hint: it’s linked to caste)

Two statues stood on a road between Pondicherry and Villupuram.

On the right was CN Annadurai, the first Dravidian chief minister of Tamil Nadu. On the left, Bhimrao Ambedkar. Together, they made an arresting tableau. Annadurai’s statue stood on an open cement plinth, with a red and black flag of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam jammed into its left hand. Ambedkar’s statue, no more than ten metres away, also stood on a cement platform, but inside an iron cage.

Statues in cages aren’t an uncommon sight in Tamil Nadu. Sometimes, it is Ambedkar, sometimes, Annadurai, and occasionally, others like the reformist leader Pasumpom Muthuramalinga Thevar. A relatively recent phenomenon, they started coming up about ten years ago, when the followers of the leaders felt the need to protect their statues from vandalism by other caste groups. In other places, the police, wanting to minimise riotous assembly, got the ironwork done.

The cages are instructive – they suggests caste tensions in Tamil Nadu are running high. A slew of other changes in the state point in the same direction as well.

Do read. A fundamental undercurrent here — using caste to bolster a sense of self — is what we saw in Punjab as well. There, as writer Desraj Kali had said, “Log jaat ka ghamand liye ghoom rahein hain.” Something similar here. Unity amidst diversity, huh.

Sand mining in Tamil Nadu is incredibly destructive – but it’s also unstoppable

For the longest time, V Chandrasekhar fought a lonely battle.

When sand miners first came to his village near Pondicherry in the 1980s, most of his fellow villagers stayed quiet. They stayed quiet when the local riverbed went down by 30 feet, local groundwater levels collapsed, wells dried out and then filled up with saline water as sea-water moved into the space vacated by freshwater aquifers. They stayed quiet even when the miners began disturbing the dead. “We bury our dead on the river bank,” said Chandrasekhar, “and body parts were getting disinterred.”

The villager-turned-activist knocked on other doors. But to no avail. Local bureaucrats and police officials did not help. He had a short-lived glimpse of victory in 2010 when he turned to the courts, petitioning the civil court and then the Madras High Court. The High Court issued an order staying sand mining. But, Chandrasekhar said, the state did not implement it. He filed a case in the National Green Tribunal at Chennai which gave another favourable order. That was not followed either.

Welcome to one of the more intriguing dimensions of sand mining in Tamil Nadu. As the previous story in this series reported, rampant sand mining has hurt the state in several ways. It has damaged rivers, contributed to a collapse of groundwater levels and imperilled farming livelihoods. With the industry functioning through subcontractors who illegally stockpile and sell sand, the state is believed to have lost thousands of crores as revenue each year.

It raises a large question: how could something so harmful continue so long? As the first story in this series reported, successive state governments have supported the trade. But why did the other checks and balances – local communities, rival political parties, media and courts – fail to oppose sand mining?

This story, which is the third and final in the series, attempts to answer that.

What does Tamil Nadu’s experience with sand mining tell us about our society’s ability to challenge/stop environmental damage? As Scroll’s #eartotheground project did its reporting into sand mining, this question loomed larger and larger. This story, the third in our series, is what we concluded.

Think sand mining damages the ecology? It ruins politics as well

…Villages talk about collapsed groundwater levels, wells that do not fill even when the river is brimming, wells in coastal areas which have turned saline. Little here is surprising. These ecological changes are well-known side-effects of sand mining. But the damage done by sand mining isn’t just ecological. As Scroll found while reporting from Tamil Nadu, rampant sand mining has damaged the state in several other ways too.

Politicians aren’t only messing with Tamil Nadu’s water – they’re making Rs 20,000 crore from sand

Out today, the first instalment of our three-part series on sand mining in tamil nadu.

Stepping onto the bank, the first thing that’s visible is a ten-wheeled tipper. It grinds to a halt at the end of a queue of similar trucks. Beyond it stretches a vast riverbed. That is the Thenpennaiyar, one of the larger rivers in central Tamil Nadu. It is summer and there isn’t a drop of water in the river. The riverbed, with its carpet of sand, is warming under the sun. It looks like it has been ploughed by a giant tractor. Long trenches are separated by ridges that are wide enough to serve as roads for the tippers. All along the monochrome riverbed are queues of trucks. At the head of each queue is an excavator. The arm of the machine dips into a trench, pulls out a shovelful of sand and pours it into the tipper waiting alongside. As the tipper fills up, it moves away, and another tipper takes its place.

It’s hard to tell how far this sand quarry stretches. The trenches are as deep as seven metres. The ridges are all that is left of the original riverbed. A scab of dark earth is visible at the bottom of one trench. So much sand has been scraped away that the Thenpennaiyar’s clay base stands exposed. According to locals, anywhere between 2,500-3,000 tipper-loads of sand leave from here each day. With each tipper designed to carry 20 tons, that’s 50,000 tons of sand a day. This quarry in Villupuram district, about an hour from Pondicherry, is a good introduction to the daunting scale of sand mining in Tamil Nadu. The Thenpennaiyar enters this part of northern Tamil Nadu from Karnataka and flows through the district for about 100 kilometres before entering the neighbouring district of Cuddalore. In this stretch, said locals, there are two more quarries of similar size. And that’s just one river in one district.

How Karnataka and Tamil Nadu mismanaged their water and then blamed each other

Why is the Cauvery such a recurring flashpoint between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu?

In recent days, an array of hypotheses have been advanced to help answer that question. Some of these are broad in their scope – tracing the long history of the conflict. Others focus on the here and now – rainfall patterns and reservoir levels this year. Yet others have taken a more sociological look – which is how we ended up with diagnoses that include political grandstanding, Kannadiga nationalism, the role of the media, and more.

In the process, however, some ecological questions have not received the attention they deserve.


Twitter Updates

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.