September 27, 2020
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As many as 40,000 infants die every year within a month of their birth in Tamil Nadu. Just because Chennai is a metro city with malls and metrosexual men, it does not mean attitudes towards girl children are any different...

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Chennai Corner

A Rising Dalit Star
He's no Mayawati, but Thol Thirumavalavan is a rising Dalit star who sees Fort St George as not being insurmountable. But first things first: By 2011 he sees his party, Viduthalai Chiruthaikal Katchi (VCK), getting its election symbol. The man commands the devotion of thousands of Dalit youth in the state. Posters and hoardings that sprang up over the city show that to his followers he is Che Guavara born again, even Yasser Arafat reincarnated and definitely the 21st century avatar of B R Ambedkar. To give him a pan-Tamil Nadu edge, some posters even had portraits of Periyar and Kamaraj. One even had the VCK leader sitting in a chair dressed in a dhoti and pen in hand a la Annadurai.

Last Sunday, Thirumavalavan finished 47 years of his presence on Planet Earth and 25 years in politics. He was presented with many cakes, each weighing 47 kg, 47 plates of fruit, bags of coins equivalent to his body weight, bags of cashewnuts and garlands of currency notes. He entered politics in 1983, the year the genocide of Tamils began in Sri Lanka. He is an unabashed supporter of the LTTE, a fact reflected in the gleaming sword presented to him by two pro-Tamil Tiger MPs from the emerald isle-- Selvam Adaikkalanathan and Srikantha. He did flirt with the DMK briefly but by 1999, he entered the election fray after tying up with the now-defunct Tamil Maanila Congress started by G K Moopanar after he broke away from the Congress. Thirumavalavan's party has two MLAs in the current assembly including writer D Ravikumar who says their target is to raise Rs one crore through donations from supporters each Sunday.

Is Tamil Nadu Really Progressive?
Tamil Nadu is seen as a progressive state with many of the parameters on different social indices better than many other states in the country. However, here's a shocker from no less than the health secretary V. K Subburaj. He says 40,000 infants die every year within a month of their birth in Tamil Nadu. India accounts for 10 lakh neonatal deaths every year. Low birth weight and anemia among mothers/ pregnant women are believed to be among the major reasons.

What is of even more concern to public health experts is that while the infant mortality rate (IMR) is 37 (number of deaths per thousand live births), the Sample Registration Survey (SRS) shows that there are pockets in the state where the IMR is as high as 54. Not surprisingly these are the western districts which include Dharmapuri, Salem, Namakkal, Nilgiris, Coimbatore and Erode where female infanticide and foeticide continues to be a scourge. The best performers are eastern districts including Thanjavur, Nagapattinam, Tiruvarur, Ariyalur, Perambalur, Tiruchi, Pudukottai and Karur where the IMR at 28 is the lowest. Even Chennai and its surrounding districts including Tiruvallur, Vellore, Kancheepuram, Villupuram, Cuddalore and Tiruvannamalai were higher at 32.

Just because Chennai is a metro city with malls and metrosexual men, it does not mean attitudes towards girl children are any different. The latest instance is of Kuppusamy of Kasimedu who refused to accept his newborn daughter at the Government Kasturba Women's Hospital, Triplicane, claiming that the midwife had told him that his wife Sonia had delivered a boy. This, despite Sonia and the doctors who delivered her telling him that his newborn was a girl.

Bringing Down Female Infanticide
But Sheela Rani Chunkath can be credited with significantly changing the social attitudes to female infants in the western districts back in 1996 when she was posted as the director of Reproductive and Child Health. Sheela Rani, currently chairperson of Tamil Nadu Industrial Investment Corporation, has been given the Prime Minister's Award for Public Administration for 2006-7 and she met CM Karunanidhi this week to show him the certificate and medal.

She says that back in 1996, she had a female infanticide map of Tamil Nadu drawn up to find out how much and how widely prevalent this practice was. And it was a revelation as well as evidence of the practice. While the rest of Tamil Nadu showed a gender differential of 4.6, Dharmapuri showed 61.8, Madurai showed 31.1 and Salem showed 28.3. Female infanticide cases which were 3,004 in 1994 had gone up to 3,417 in 1998.

The strategy, she says, was to destroy the social legitimacy of the practice. A traveling street theatre was formed and 3,000 performances over 40 days were held. "The dramas not only flayed the practice of female infanticide but also opposed practices like a son lighting the funeral pyre." This awareness campaign combined with improved health care facilities including 24 hour health care delivery facilities resulted in female infanticide coming down to 64. 

A Feisty Collector
The illegal extraction of sand whether from the sea or river poses grave environmental dangers and therefore what Jothi Nirmala, currently collector in Kanyakumari, did was daring as well as beneficial. Her fight against illegal sand quarrying and illicit arrack as a Revenue Divisional Officer in Padmanabhapuram Revenue Division, Kanyakumari district, back in 1995 fetched her the Kalpana Chawla Award – a citation, gold medal and cheque for Rs 5 lakhs – at the hands of CM Karunanidhi on Independence Day.

"It was just like in the movies. My team chased down country-made wooden boats carrying sand," says Nirmala. Despite threats – in fact her response to threats was to carry out raids – Nirmala seized 175 boats and 250 lorries used to transport the sand. Her allies were also women, suffering at the hands of alcoholic husbands, who would tip her off about illicit brewing. "Sometimes they even helped me seize bombs and lethal weapons," she says. Who says honest officials are not given recognition?

Hope Floats For SRK
Speaking of recognition, actor Rajnikanth is getting none from Kuselan. The precedent he set by returning money to the producers of Basha has made theatre owners and distributors hopeful that they'll get their money back because Kuselan has flopped bigtime. Although one can cavil and say they should not have bought into the hype and spent crores to get Kuselan. With not even 30 per cent occupancy in theatres which has translated not even to Rs 4 crore which is the minimum guarantee amount, theatre owners and distributors are demanding that Pyramid Saimira, which holds the distribution rights for the film bought for Rs 67 crore, return their money.

This week theatre owners across the state are expected to huddle together and set up a clamour to recover their losses. Already, the dialogue in which Rajnikanth claims he only spouts lines written for him – a reference to all politically punchy dialogues he delivers in many of his films – has been deleted at the behest of fans. Now word is that Rajni will appear in more scenes and the film will be relaunched. As a Rajni fan said: "Why tinker any more with the script? Leave it alone." Her reference is to the fact that the Superstar's role was already stretched to 60 minutes (as opposed to Mamooty's 15 minutes in the original Malayalam film) so that the film could be repackaged as a Rajnikanth film.

Let's hope Shah Rukh Khan will have more luck at the box office. He's currently shooting the Hindi version, Billoo Barber, at Pollachi, 40 kms from Coimbatore. and is collecting quite a crowd of fans from Chennai, Bangalore, Kochi and Trichur. He reprises Rajnikanth's role

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