Election in Pincodes: In Tamil Nadu's Sriperumbudur, dreams of a better future | Latest News India - Hindustan Times

Election in Pincodes: In Tamil Nadu's Sriperumbudur, dreams of a better future

By, Sriperumbudur
Apr 20, 2024 12:56 AM IST

The Sriperumbudur town of roughly 200,000 people first jumped into the news in 1991, when former PM Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated near the town.

For someone who grew up running through verdant fields of paddy, squeezing your life into a 10x12 sq feet cubby hole is never easy. It gets worse when there are eight other people under the same cracked concrete roof. And that’s on a good day.

Foxconn temporarily closed its facility in Sriperumbudur on December 18, 2021 after protests over a major food poisoning episode. Eventually, the factory reopened in January 2022.
Foxconn temporarily closed its facility in Sriperumbudur on December 18, 2021 after protests over a major food poisoning episode. Eventually, the factory reopened in January 2022.

Yet, there is no doubt in V Keerthika’s mind that she is better off. In life, and at work. Work is the drab assembly lines of Sriperumbudur. In the last three years, the 28-year-old has held three separate jobs in the industrial powerhouse of a town on the outskirts of Chennai. Every evening, she returns to her crowded room that she rents for 1,500 a month, in the hope that her station will rise with the next job she holds.

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Her tryst with the town began in the shadow of Covid. In 2021, as the pandemic ravaged the country, Keerthika sat along with 68 other women in a line for six days a week, eight hours a day, hunched over an assembly line in a Foxconn facility. Her job was to check the colour quality of the iPhone . “I was very proud to hold an iPhone every day,” she said. “I felt important that I was part of a global company and the entire factory was run with just us women. Even our supervisors were women.”

In the factory that manufactured the world’s most coveted mobile phones, trajectories such as that of Keerthika were common – young, educated women from the agrarian hinterland dazzled by the lure of working for the world’s second most valuable company. For many – Keerthika estimated around 70% of the employees were women – it was the first taste of freedom from their orthodox homes, and also their first real money.

“In our village, women weren’t going out for work but I convinced my parents. Because of that my family situation has improved,” she said. “I loved the job. I got paid 14,000, the highest income in my family ever.”

But behind the shimmer of her new salary, a storm was brewing. Work hours often spilled beyond the prescribed limit, bathroom breaks were frowned upon, and the food was inedible. On occasion, workers fell ill. In hostels where Keerthika lived, surveillance was common and blunt, they were forced to sleep on the floor, and the authorities clamped a limit on water usage in toilets.

Eventually, her family found her a match, she got married and returned to her village, roughly 300 km away, where her parents worked as farm hands.

It was just as well. Days later, Foxconn temporarily closed its facility on December 18, 2021 after protests over a major food poisoning episode which left 159 employees hospitalised. Eventually, the factory reopened in January 2022. “Throughout the episode, I was in touch with my friends because I was worried about their safety,” said Keerthika.

The relief was short-lived. Back in Tiruvarur, the college graduate found little prospects. She briefly worked in a private company as an administrator for 6,000, less that half of what she was making in Sriperumbudur.

By the summer of 2022, she was back. She took a job at electronics company Korea Fuel Tech India. The hours were brutal, and sometimes her health gave way , but getting paid a commensurate salary was like a drug. “There are so many companies here and we can easily find a job. We don’t need much experience. The skills are easy to pick up. It gives me confidence.”

She now works in the security team of a private company. With her new salary of 18,000, she feels financially stable. She also takes up extra shifts which earn another 5,000 a month, allowing her to send money back home.

“I have taken care of my ageing parents. And I helped my two younger sisters and a younger brother study,” Keerthika said, adding proudly that her salary helped all her siblings go to private colleges. “And it was all due to Sriperumbudur.”

HT graphic
HT graphic

Industrial corridor

An hour’s drive out of Chennai, the town of roughly 200,000 people first jumped into the news in 1991, when former PM Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated near the town. Today, the hub boasts of at least 500 companies that manufacture automobiles and electronics such as Hyundai, Salcomp, TVS, and Pegatron. Between neat, tree-lined avenues are rows upon rows of mechanised facilities, assembly lines and factories, bright green boards outside them announcing government-mandated details. In many ways, it represents the strides made by the state with the second-largest economy and is often touted as proof of the success of the Dravidian model of development.

The fuel running this powerhouse is its female workforce. “In Foxconn alone, there are 25,000 women working. There is no data on the total number but we estimate it to be around 65,000 in Sriperumbudur,” said a labour department official who did not wish to be named. Experts say that this vast pool of educated women is a key reason behind Tamil Nadu galloping ahead in industrialisation. In 2022-23, Tamil Nadu rose to the top spot as the exporter of electronic goods, nearly tripling in a year at $5.37 billion from $1.86 billion in the previous year, according to data by the National Import-Export for Yearly Analysis of Trade (NIRYAT). 40% of smartphones from India were exported from Kancheepuram district (of which Sriperumbudur is a part), according to NIRYAT. 43% of all women factory workers in India came from Tamil Nadu. Sriperumbudur, and especially its women, are now at the heart of India’s manufacturing push in critical sectors such as mobile phones, trying to cash in on a world economy trying to diversify away from China due to geopolitical worries.

Challenges at work

K Kanagavalli doesn’t know about China. When the 37-year-old came to work in Sriperumbudur in 2008, there were no iPhones either. A generation before Keerthika, Kanagavalli was among the first group of women workers who came to work in this hub, in the first wave. Back in the mid 2000s, Nokia, then the world’s largest mobile phone company, set up a factory, its largest, in Sriperumbudur. A clutch of its suppliers followed. But the company would go on to be laid low by the touchscreen revolution that it ignored, and the factory by regulatory trouble.

For the last nine years, Kanagavalli has worked at an aluminium filtration company. “I’m exposed to dust. This has given me a skin allergy. Initially, my face was filled with pimples and rashes; now that I’ve been doing it for nine years, my body has become used to it,” Kanagavalli said. “Some of my colleagues wheeze often. We all go to the dermatologist at least once a month.”

Yet, she cannot get out of the industrial hub, because outside, the only jobs available are that of a coolie or as a beneficiary of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGs). “I work in an air-conditioned office. Compared to what’s outside, I’m living a good life so the skin allergies seem like a small price to pay,” she said.

She now earns 25,000 monthly, only 10,000 less than her husband. The double income has ensured that her older daughter can study microbiology at a private college while her younger daughter is enrolled in a private school. It has given her more heft at home, and the ability to run the show. Across Sriperumbudur, this is the new normal. D Vanmathi moved here in 2021 with her family after her husband – the only male member in the family – was killed in a road accident.

Now, her mother is a caretaker at the creche where staff leave their children, her older sister a supervisor and she is a security guard. When she first came to Sriperumbudur, she worked as a labourer at a company which manufactures products for medium and heavy commercial vehicles. “I had to stand for eight hours and deal with heavy machinery. And we had a target to complete every hour,” said Vanmathi. “I often cried thinking why I was born as a woman.”

The work gave her stomach and back pain. And yet, she woke up at 3.30am to cook for her eight and six-year-olds before reporting to duty by 6am. The 29-year-old is more content now, having joined as a security guard in another private company for 16,500 a month. “I am happy now. The financial independence lets me steer my life,” Vanmathi said.

The women here now often come together – pooling money in medical emergencies, helping each other during family weddings or bereavements, or just finding an outlet for fun. “The men working one-floor below us always joke that our floor always has money,” she said.

Dravidian politics

In any such industrial corridor in the heartland – think of Ghaziabad, Gurugram or Kanpur – the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) would hold the edge. But in Sriperumbudur, listed among the biggest Lok Sabha constituencies in the state, it is the two Dravidian giants that have held a stranglehold on the seat.

The constituency comprises six assembly segments across three districts – Maduravoyal, Ambattur and Alandur in Chennai, Pallavaram and Tambaram in Chengalpattu district and Sriperumbudur in Kancheepuram district. Five of these are held by the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and a sixth by its ally Congress. In 2019, DMK leader TR Baalu won by a massive 500,000, flipping the seat from the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) which had won it in 2014, courtesy a massive wave of women’s support in favour of late chief minister J Jayalalithaa, for whom it would be her last general election. A smattering of other political parties – such as the AMMK, PMK or NTK – have never found much favour especially among the women, who form the majority of the local electorate.

“We have only chosen between the DMK and AIADMK except once when the Congress won,” says Kanagavalli. “This time too it will be one of the Dravidian parties who will win.”

This time, in the rest of the state, there is (at least on paper) a triangular contest between the DMK-led alliance, AIADMK, and the BJP-led coalition, which includes TTV Dhinakaran’s Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam (a breakaway faction of the AIADMK), the Pattali Makkal Katchi, the Tamil Maanila Congress, Indiya Jananayaka Katchi and Puthiya Needhi Katchi.

In Sriperumbudur though, the DMK’s rising sun symbol blankets the campaign, clearly ahead of the two-leaves symbol of the AIADMK. BJP ally TMC(M) is the third force fighting here.

Many issues in this election are national – DMK’s Baalu has campaigned on Tamil pride, the importance of showcasing the Dravidian model of development, upholding federalism and scrapping the National Education Policy, 2020 and the Citizenship Amendment Act.

“Sriperumbudur is all about inclusive growth which is our Dravidian model of governance,” said deputy secretary of DMK’s I-T wing, Salem Dharanidharan. “65% of women work in factories in Tamil Nadu of which the majority are in Sriperumbudur. Our government is building a women’s hostel for companies such as Foxconn to source employees and for these women employees to have a good standard of living. The DMK is comfortable in all constituencies and the fight is between the AIADMK and the BJP for the second and third position.”

AIADMK has similarly focussed on civic issues in Sriperumbudur, promising infrastructure projects to ease traffic congestion.

The AIADMK has traditionally enjoyed the vote bank of women who outnumber male electorates in Tamil Nadu. While campaigning for the AIADMK candidate in Sriperumbudur, party general secretary Edappadi Palaniswami (EPS) said that MSMEs were affected here as the government hiked the electricity tariff. “Under the present government, educated youngsters don’t have jobs and those who have businesses are also unable to sustain them. If this needs to change, the AIADMK needs to come back to power,” EPS said recently. “The DMK has not fulfilled even 10% of its election promises.”

But the women factory workers have ensured that a smattering of local issues close to them get space too. “During the monsoon, we have to face the floods and during the summer, we don’t have access to enough drinking water,” said Kanagavalli. “The lake near my home is contaminated by a painting company.”

Keerthika wants safety for women in public spaces and transport. “And, there are so many women who cannot afford a room’s rent. So, the government has to build hostels for us,” she added.

“I will vote for a party that will give us better public toilets and transport facilities,” said first time voter S Saranya.

With campaigning winding down and elections over on Friday, some women are looking forward to a rare day out this weekend. “Our group has 50 women and we recently bought matching blue sarees to visit Queensland Amusement Park a day after the polls,” said Kannagavalli.

Keerthika, though, is certain she cannot take her mind off work. “I only have a Vivo phone,” she said. “Someday, I want to buy an iPhone of my own.”

This is the tenth in a series of election reports from the field that look at national and local issues through an electoral lens.

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