Regional cafe – Tamil Nadu: Surviving disasters

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Published: December 28, 2018 2:22:21 AM

A state that has gotten its fundamentals right can hold its own in spite of the stream of problems coming its way.

Himachal Pradesh, Kerala and Tamil Nadu have been ranked the highest in terms of being on track to achieve the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDG).

Tamil Nadu has been disaster-prone for the last four years. Natural calamities, political instability and violent industrial unrest have hit the state one after the other. Naysayers have been predicting gloom and doom constantly. However, the state can always spring surprises, as the recent first-of-its-kind report by the NITI Aayog shows. Himachal Pradesh, Kerala and Tamil Nadu have been ranked the highest in terms of being on track to achieve the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDG).

The score, ranging between 0 and 100, indicates the average performance of states and Union territories. The average Indian score is 57. Tamil Nadu, with 66, is the third top performer on the list. Its ranking is the highest for the goals to do with eradicating poverty and providing affordable and clean energy.

Let us look at the disasters at various fronts over the last few years. The Chennai floods of 2015 have been described as one of the worst natural calamities to have hit this country. The city literally drowned under flood waters and the losses incurred have been estimated at anything between Rs 15,000 crore and Rs 50,000 crore. Everybody suffered some kind of loss. Just as the floods became a memory, the city was hit by the Cyclone Vardah in 2016 making landfall in Chennai, uprooting trees, causing major damage to buildings, smashing cars, and disrupting public transport, telecommunications and power supply. In short, the city was brought to a standstill.

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The city and the economy staged a comeback from the devastation, though many small and tiny industries in the unorganised sector were destroyed. But there was another disaster that was going to bring total mayhem. The third whammy was in November this year, with Cyclone Gaja hitting the delta area and southern districts of Tamil Nadu. According to official estimates, 735 cattle died, 1.17 lakh houses got damaged, and 88,102 hectares of agricultural land was affected in six districts of Tamil Nadu, and Karaikal in the neighbouring Puducherry. The losses are supposed to be worse than estimated.

The state has faced not only nature’s fury, but also unanticipated political crisis. Chief minister J Jayalalithaa’s death was unexpected. Governance was suffering after she came back to power in May 2016, with her not in the best of health—being convicted in the long drawn out disproportionate assets case, her subsequent imprisonment, discharge, appeal against her being set free, her hospitalisation, and her passing away at the end of the year.

Jayalalithaa was called the iron lady not for nothing. She was the undisputed leader of her party. No kind of disagreement was allowed. The party depended purely on her personality and stature. She did not believe in a second line of command.

There was much political high drama after her death, which ended after rivals Edappadi K Palaniswami and O Panneerselvam—the two power centres of the AIADMK—became the chief minister and the deputy chief minister. They were brought together by the BJP, according to grapevine. The government appeared very shaky in 2017, with political sources hinting at an imminent fall every now and then. It did not happen.

In the middle of this year, the Sterlite crisis exploded in a state known for industrial peace. The Sterlite copper smelter in Thoothukudi (Tuticorin) in coastal Tamil Nadu has been considered a major polluter ever since its inception in 1997. The crisis started with the unit announcing plans to double its capacity to 8,00,000 tonnes. In March, people started protesting against expansion plans, which ended in police firing on May 22, claiming 13 lives and leaving many injured. The Tamil Nadu government instantly ordered the closure of the smelter in Tuticorin.

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These have been tumultuous years. In spite of all this, Tamil Nadu clocked a growth rate of 8.09% in 2017-18, staging a recovery from the effects of November 2016 demonetisation and the introduction of GST in July 2017. The state government data, approved by the Centre, revealed that this has been largely due to the double-digit growth rate of agriculture and allied activities, aided by the other two sectors—industry and services.

The opposition says the industry is fleeing from the state. In reality, no such thing has happened. The South Korean auto major, which has been in the state for 20 years, has announced expansion plans for Rs 7,000 crore, promising to create 700 jobs. Ford Motor, too, has been adding on new products and departments, all based out of Chennai. The city has been doing quite well in IT industry, contrary to negative predictions. It has become the SaaS capital of the country. The DIPP ranked the state low in startups. According to government officials, it is due to the government not coming up with a startup policy yet. It will be announced any time now, they say.

Politically, the rather lacklustre chief minister has hung in there. There has been no revolt among his Cabinet members. The Assembly members who left the AIADMK to switch sides have been disqualified by the courts. People feel this government is more accessible than Jayalalithaa’s has ever been. Things move much faster. Digitisation being introduced in all departments is proving to be an asset. The second edition of the Tamil Nadu Global Investors Meet, to be held in January 2019, has apparently gotten tremendous response. Government circles feel the state really does not need an investors’ meet. But it is good for optics.

A state that has gotten its fundamentals right—such as a well-established industrial base, physical and social infrastructure that support industry, skilled and educated human resource, physical infrastructure such as roads and ports—can hold its own in spite of the continuous stream of problems coming its way. Ground-level corruption and many other warts remain. But Tamil Nadu continues to come on top of most parameters whenever surveys are conducted.

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