Sunday, May 29, 2022

Chennai Corner

Karunanidhi's policy on FDI? In the discussion they will speak against it, but if there is a vote, DMK will support it!

Chennai Corner

Just Coffee, No Water

Justice Jain told counsel for both Tamil Nadu and Karnataka this week: “This can’t go on forever. Why can’t the two CMs sit together and give a try (for an amicable solution), it is not impossible.” He added: “The moment any one of them blinks, it might be a problem. We want you to meet in a congenial manner and discuss the issue in the larger interest of farmers from both states. Try to find out a solution through a give and take approach. The Chief Ministers should not meet just for coffee but they should meet along with their experts to file a solution.”

Easier said than done, it would seem. Over 21 years ago, I had covered the visit of the three-man Cauvery tribunal which gave its final award on February 5, 2007. Not too much water has flowed down the Cauvery in those 17-odd years, but much fire and brimstone, even riots, have flowed between the states. So the question is whether CM Jayalalitha and CM Jagidsh Shettar, who met on Thursday in Bangalore, will be able to solve this intractable problem? With Karnataka going to the polls in a few months and Jayalalitha, who is well aware that it is an emotive issue that could trigger reactions from her opposition, it seems unlikely. Jayalalitha’s demand is that Karnataka make good water shortfall. TN has only received 47 thousand million cubic feet (tmc ft) till October-end when it should have got 100.8 tmc ft according to the distress sharing formula adopted by the Cauvery Monitoring Committee, an advisory body of the Cauvery River Authority whose chairperson is the PM. Since a spirit of give and take implies both sides have to give, it was just coffee and small talk, nothing significant. Back to the drawing board.

A Farmer's Issue, Not a Politician's

“It’s a farmer’s issue, not a politician’s. Karnataka’s attitude is totally to destroy us,” Mannargudi Ranganathan, who filed the first petition in the Supreme Court in 1983 for equitable distribution of Cauvery, told me some weeks ago. He added, “Cauvery is a deficit river. The requirement of all the riparian states—TN, Karnataka, Kerala and Puducherry—is 1250 thousand million cubic feet (tmc ft.), but what is available for distribution is 671 tmc ft.,” says Ranganath, who is also the general secretary of the Cauvery Delta Farmers Welfare Association.

N. Natarajan, author of two books on the Cauvery, told me, politics had always caused the two states to bicker. “One must remember farmers (there are 18.5 lakh hectares under cultivation in these districts) here cannot do anything, they can only ask Karnataka.” He points out that in these districts, people only depend on agriculture and already they are handicapped by shortage of power, lack of remunerative prices for their produce, paucity of labour because freebies have led to them refusing to work in fields, and the lack of any industry. “Once in three or four years there is a shortfall because of a bad monsoon and emotions run high.” Natarajan is a member of the Cauvery Family (set up by the Madras Institute of Development Studies (MIDS) in 2003), which includes 15 farmers from TN and Karnataka each apart from three from Puducherry. “We are very cordial to each other and understand each other’s problems. It’s the politicians who have not understood the real problem of the farmers.”

Political Acrobatics

When all else fails blame “communal forces”—that is the excuse that all political leaders (from Mulayam Singh, Mayawati, Chandrababu Naidu in his heydays and DMK chief M Karunanidhi) have used when they turn 180 degrees on an issue. Supporting the UPA government with his 18 MPs Karunanidhi always knew he would have to give up his opposition to FDI. But he spun a yarn—he first opposed it, then said that like all his movie scripts there would be suspense, and finally he did some hard bargaining with senior Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad who came here and met him for 90 minutes last Sunday and has eventually done an about turn.

But he’s still he is trying to run with the hares and hunt with the hounds on the issue. In the discussion they will speak against it, but if there is a vote, DMK will support it! I hope tying himself in knots and possibly alienating his electorate is worth it for him (I wonder if they will sympathise if his mea culpa is that the DMK had to say ‘aye’in Parliament “in bitterness”), because he does not have to face them in the near future. And let’s face it, at the Lok Sabha polls scheduled in 2014, he’s going to face a distinct disadvantage because Amma is in power. 

He now says that FDI in retail would not affect small traders and farmers in Tamil Nadu, as the centre had made it clear that it would not compel any state to implement its decision. Just days ago, a senior DMK leader said, “Our party’s stance has been made very clear. We will oppose FDI during discussions in Parliament.”

CM Jayalalitha has already said she will not “allow” FDI in retail. So he has given her ammunition to crow.

Not So Quick

Colonel Pennycuick, the British engineer who sold his family jewels to construct the Mullaperiyar dam 116 years ago that has made South Tamil Nadu rich and prosperous, is venerated as a God in many parts of South Tamil Nadu. And since the Mullaperiyar issue snowballed into a huge controversy last November—it even led to Malayalis being targeted in Chennai—politicians too have joined those who worship him. CM Jayalalitha has been in power on and off since 1991and DMK chief M Karunanidhi since 1969, but neither party thought of celebrating the man till the controversy last year. Jayalalitha appropriated credit by announcing and even laying the foundation stone (by videoconference) for a Rs 1.25 crore memorial in April. Anyway, as they say, better late than never and, just as she promised, a life-size statue of Pennycuick is almost ready for transportation to the memorial planned at the TN Electricity Board office in Theni district near the dam. That’s one of the districts which is covered by the 2.33 lakh acres that turned fertile after Pennycuick dammed the Periyar river and irrigated Theni, Dindigul and Madurai districts. Kishore Nagappa, is giving the finishing touches to the bronze sculpture here in Chennai. He says, not surprisingly, that he could not find a good portrait of the Colonel to fashion his sculpture till he took a tour of villages in the Cumbum valley. And there he found that almost every household has a portrait of him in their puja rooms and many have even named their shops after him. 

Small Towns, Big Protests

Those who were complacent that small towns are immune to popular protests when the dreaded word “nuclear” is uttered should take lessons from what happened recently in Kolar Gold Fields (KGF), a town in Karnataka bordering Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. It is the same way a popular agitation in a fishing hamlet, Idinthakarai, has for the last 15 months kept a people’s stir going against the Koodankulam Nuclear Power Plant (KKNPP). KGF’s residents (about 2.33 lakh population) hit the panic button when they heard that the centre was considering dumping nuclear waste from Koodankulam in its abandoned gold mines. 

Last Thursday my 12-year-old niece made her mother call me so she could complain: “Why are you going to dump nuclear waste in our mines and make us sick?” That seems to be the question that propelled the residents to participate in a bandh called on November 23. And since then, although the centre has made it clear that it has no such proposal, where residents, who already have to put up with hillocks of “cynanide dumps” —the residue after the processing of gold from the ore that was taken out from underground — for decades, are concerned, there is still fear.

My father, who retired in 1982 with nearly 40 years of firsthand experience of underground supervising in bringing up the ore, provides a practical perspective: “BGML (the PSU which ran the mines) was offered Rs 60 lakhs/annum to let the mines become a dump for nuclear waste even before I retired. The proposal then was to bury the waste below the 70th level (roughly 7000 feet or 3 kms in the earth’s innards). But it was turned down.” Champion Reefs which goes down 17,000 feet is the deepest mining shaft in Asia where even the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research had conducted cosmic ray experiments for many years. Besides, he pointed out that the abandoned mines—which were closed in 2001 after beginning operation in 1880—would be filled with water. So first of all, KGF should be given adequate power to pump out the water for anything further to happen. Adds Diwakar of the BGML workers' union, the walls of the underground tunnels have become weak after decades of mining activity, so there is a distinct possibility that the walls will collapse. What has gotten mining workers in a tizzy is articulated by Diwakar. “The centre, on the one hand, assured us the gold mines will be reopened, but on the other, is attempting to use the mines as a dumpyard for nuclear waste.”

Ghost Town

The town also called “Little England” with its bungalows and clubs and greenery has become virtually a ghost town since the centre —which took over the gold mines from the state government in 1972— declared it sick and shut it in 2001. Last year, after three parliamentary standing committees constituted in 1994, 1997 and 2000 to explore gold deposits in KGF, submitted a report stating that at least 30 lakh tonnes of gold reserves are still there to be exploited, the centre cleared the proposal to revive it. 

But as the the CP Gupta Committee, constituted in 2005, found, most of the ore was in Andhra Pradesh (13.72 lakh tonnes in Chigargunta mine, 27km from KGF). Even the Bisanatham mine, 8 kms from the KGF but also in AP, has only 0.065 million tonnes. An expert committee even suggested collaboration with an Australian company , which was approved by the centre. But, the Australian company was looking to do surface mining and that would mean the mines would continue to be abandoned. It was a writ petition by former mine employees in the Karnataka high court that put paid to this proposal. So revival is back on the agenda, but not the Congress, JD nor BJP governments have done anything about it in the last 11 years.

Times when you went to the mill, where the gold was removed from the ore, and they gave you a solid piece of gold shaped like a bowl and told you that if you lifted it with one hand, it is all yours are long over. There’s just poverty, desperation and fading hope there now.

BJP vs Congress

But KGF’s politicians have done precious little to revive the mine. Its MLA Y Sampangi, who was recently sentenced to three and a half years RI by the Karnataka’s Special Lokayuka Court after being caught red-handed taking a Rs 5 lakh bribe from a Bangalore-based businessman in 2009, is trying to revive his political career with Karnataka going to the polls next year. So he spearheaded the bandh in KGF that day and rail roko agitation the next day. The Karnataka CM, Jagdish Shettar thundered, “The union government didn’t consult us on its plans to turn KGF gold mines into a nuclear dump. We have apprised the centre about the anxiety among the people. But if the centre pursues it, we shall oppose it.” It’s become a BJP versus Congress issue with the former trying to make out that the latter is responsible. BJP MP Ananth Kumar, after meeting Governor H R Bhardwaj on the issue last week, added: “It is very clear from the affidavit filed in the apex court that the centre is talking about the processing of nuclear waste. It has been conducting laboratory tests in KGF and there is every possibility that the waste will be dumped in KGF as it is almost closed.” The issue was supposed to be raised by BJP MPs in Parliament on November 26, but after all the bruising they suffered this week, fighting for a people’s issue could perhaps hardly be on their minds.  Of course, the Congress has handed this issue on a platter to the BJP although minister of state in the PMO, V. Narayanasamy, has made it clear that the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd will not dump the uranium waste in KGF. “The chances of getting nuclear wastes from the Kudankulam plant are very less and it will be recycled at the plant site itself,” he said.

Border Disputes

When elections come around in Karnataka, they always raise a dispute with Tamil Nadu to raise the pitch. Last election what brought B. S. Yeddyurappa to power was the Hogenekkal issue, some months ago the two states were locked in a bitter battle (as happens every year) over Cauvery waters. And now it is Koodankulam. Not that politicians in Tamil Nadu have not used the KKNPP to get votes. Before the panchayat polls a year ago, everyone from CM Jayalalitha to DMK chief Karunanidhi went shrill about KKNPP and how it would bring death and destruction to the people. The TN assembly even passed a resolution saying that the power plant should not go ahead until people’s fears’ are allayed. That has not happened, but the first unit of KKNPP is expected to be commissioned next month. In fact Narayanswamy, who is the pointsman when it comes to KKNPP, admitted last week, “I sought the blessings of Sri Sundareswarar and goddess Meenakshi (at Madurai) for removing the hurdles in the safe commissioning of the plant.” There is talk that it will happen during the visit of Russian President Vladimir Putin in mid-December. Director-General of Police K. Ramanujam on Sunday visited the KKNPP site and reviewed the security arrangements made for the upcoming plant. It appears that the centre and state are positioning themselves for the commissioning. And with the power situation in a crisis, Jayalalitha, who butts heads with the centre on every issue, far from being opposed to the plant, has asked for all the 1000 mw to be generated by the first unit! Not that the centre has said yes, but that’s another story.