“In a village called Villaipakkam, a few people have jobs at the Sipcot (State Industries Promotion Corp. of Tamil Nadu Ltd) park, but they find it difficult to get there because there are no buses,” Frederick said. “How do you get to the main road from the village? From the main road to the Sipcot entrance? There isn’t a health centre. These won’t cost even half as much as the new airport, but they haven’t been done.”
The two big issues that Moorthy stressed—land and jobs—have a more substantial backstory than he lets on in his explanations. T. Mohanraj, the tehsildar of Sriperumbudur, admitted that the compensation offered for land was too low. “It followed the guideline value rather than the market value, but that is the case everywhere in the country,” he said. “But there also are poor people occupying poromboke land—land belonging by default to the government—and even in these cases, some have been issued title deeds.”
Anecdotal evidence points to both a meteoric rise in land prices since 2000, as well as a significant decline in the last six months. “In 2000, an acre would have gone for Rs1 lakh. Now it may even go for Rs1 crore,” Mohanraj said. But since November, the willingness to purchase land has dipped. Nanjil Suresh, a youth counsellor at the local chapter of the Nehru Yuva Kendra, narrated the story of a friend who bought land for Rs5 lakh six months ago; forced to sell it urgently to finance a wedding last month, he only got Rs4.5 lakh.
Suresh is in a position to testify on youth employment as well. “Few of them are qualified to work in the extremely technical jobs, it’s true,” he said. “But the companies can undertake to train them, and to keep them on the rolls rather than as temporary workers.” The Nehru Yuva Kendra conducts six-month or one-year vocational training courses, and while these help get “the smaller jobs”, Suresh said, “they are not permanent solutions.”
Like his namesake in the vegetable shop, Suresh also offered a low guesstimate for the proportion of factory workers who are locals: less than 20%. But Rajiv Mitra, HMIL’s deputy general manager for corporate communications, disputed this figure. “I can’t give an exact number, but the proportion of contractual labour from the immediate area is very high—definitely over 50%,” he said. “Why would you not hire a local guy?”
Frederick had an answer to Mitra’s rhetorical question. “The factories prefer to hire people from outside the area because they won’t unionize. The locals can easily strike work and go home, but boys from outside, living in their lodges, can’t give it up so easily,” she said. “And local attempts to unionize will find support from local thugs. Frankly, I support the companies on this one, because they’ve otherwise done so much for the area, changed so many lifestyles, created so many facilities.”
In the electoral fight, Frederick spotted the upper hand for Baalu, despite her contentions that previous DMK MPs had not done enough for Sriperumbudur. “If anybody can do anything, it is Baalu,” she said. “Hopefully he can see the other side of the road and do something for it. If he wants to, he has the means and the money. The others, even if they want to, won’t have the means or the money. I think the residents of Sriperumbudur recognize that, in one way or another.”