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'Youth disenchanted with established parties in TN' 'Youth disenchanted with established parties in TN'

Apr-25-2014 | 0 Comments

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M Vijayabaskar, an assistant professor with Madras Institute of Development Studies, has worked extensively on the political economy of western Tamil Nadu. Amrith Lal speaks with him about the changing nature of politics in Coimbatore and its neighbourhood:

Western Tamil Nadu, especially Coimbatore and Tirupur, has seen a shift in the nature of political mobilisations. If workers' issues shaped politics in the past, now it is more about identity issues like caste. How do you interpret this shift?

Things have changed but not completely. The Left base was drawn primarily through labour mobilisations in the textiles sector-- in spinning and composite mill sector in Coimbatore, and spinning and hosiery sector in Tirupur. In line with what happened in Mumbai and Ahmedabad, policies led to not only a backlash against labour but also restructuring of the organization of production.

Composite mills were split up, with weaving activity moving out of the town to the rural hinterlands of the region, undertaken in small powerloom units using family labour and a small share of hired labour/unit. In both spatial and organizational terms, this is not an ideal unit for worker mobilization.

The spinning mills closed down and new ones emerged, on relatively smaller scales as well, using more automated technologies, but importantly again in the rural hinterlands. The labour force in these mills were drawn from entirely new segments, largely women (young girls rather) from distant villages recruited as apprentices and housed in dormitories inside the factory compounds. Entry-level jobs require less physical seffort and skill and so this arrangement works for the owners. Also, the share of a permanent workforce is much smaller. There are other workers as well, but once again its spatial dispersion and sourcing of labour from new segments, who are working outside agriculture for the first time, with little collective awareness of the capital-labour relationship and workplace rights. All these changes have undermined the traditional Left strategies of mobilization that worked better among the urban, male workers, and in large factories.

How did class solidarities built around the workplace give way so easily to caste?

I would not say that caste-based solidarities have replaced class solidarities completely. And, not all caste-based mobilizations are similar. In the case of the gounders, sections have responded positively to KNMK (Kongu Nadu Munnetra Kazhagam) and its offshoots, and also to the Modi brand of Hindutva idea of India. The latter started with the collapse of the large scale sector and the substantial ancillary sector that it supported in the early 1990s. Job losses and small firm closures were high during this period with the liberalization of imports initiated through economic reforms. This phase also happened to coincide with the Hindu-Muslim riots following the serial blasts in Coimbatore.

The rise of KNMK has been partly in response to other changes in the economy- declines in agri incomes due to rising costs with inadequate increases in prices, more recent crises in the widespread small sector (including powerloom) in the region due to again rising costs due to power cuts, perceived lack of access to cheap labour. Here, their inability to ensure the kind of control over Arunthathiar labour they managed in the past has also worked. Their campaigns against the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act are a case in point.

The Arunthathiyars have been able to mobilise and resist caste oppression not only through caste-based mobilization but also through working with a range of political movements like the more radical groups subscribing to the Dravidian ideology, sections of the Left and human rights groups. But large sections continue to support the Dravidian parties. For that matter, large sections of other castes do so as well.

Do you see a strengthening of regional sentiment in the region?

While there was a move by the KNMK to invoke a regional angle to mobilize as a move to co-opt other castes, I see less of that happening now. I would say it is unlikely given the caste hierarchies and conflicts in the region.

What explains the absence of women in public life?

The factors cannot be unique to the region, but having said that it is also true some of the Left trade unions have been trying (partly successfully) to mobilise workers in the knitwear industry by working in the neighbourhoods/slums where workers live. They have been able to mobilize them around issues of drinking water, roads, street lights and other such issues. The extent to which this translates into workplace-based collective action is not clear yet, but it is promising.

Do you see the youth relating to established parties?

No, there is a general disenchantment with mainstream political parties among the youth in the state. Hindu Munnani met with some success among the youth who constitute a segment that corresponds to those who see themselves as failures vis a vis youth of their own caste and others. They have also fed into the intermediate caste-based mobilization.

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