CHENNAI: It has the top-notch Christian Medical College, major tourist attractions such as Vellore Fort and Amirthi forest among others and the Golden Temple aswell asother shrines. Yet, the top-of-the-mind recall for many at the mention of Vellore perhaps include the worsening groundwater situation, widespread pollution from leather industry and illegal sand mining mainly in Palar river – issues that could prove decisive in the coming Lok Sabha polls on April18.
Sample this: Palar river, originating in Karnataka, brimswithlifein neighbouring Andhra Pradesh where it flows for only 33 km, though it turns bone dry during its longest run in Tamil Nadu . Reason: Indiscriminate sand mining coupled with pollution from tanneries and failure of the state government in constructing check dams across the river over the years.
Palar has been synonymous with Vellore. Its longest run in the district – 104 km out of 222 km in Tamil Nadu – passes through Muslim-dominated Vaniyambadi and Ambur and cuts through Vellore city.
Against this backdrop, with nearly 3 lakh out of the 14 lakh electorate being Muslims (21%) and Christians (9%), the minority communities are expected to play a decisive role in the upcoming parliamentary elections in Vellore constituency.
Political observers and community leaders believe that more than 80% of the minority vote would go to the DMK. It would pose a big challenge for New Justice Party founder A C Shanmugam, contesting in AIADMK’s ‘two leaves’ symbol.
However, the political climate is different this time and could prove to be a tightrope walk for debutant Kathir Anand of DMK and arch-rival Shanmugam, who won the seat in 1984 election. AMMK has fielded former minister K Pandurangan, who hails from Vanniyar-dominated Anaicut assembly segment.
Going into the election, farmers and the workforce have highlighted several woes and long-pending demands, though candidates covered the length and breadth of the constituency during campaign and made several promises.
With regard to Palar, the ruling government neither stopped Andhra Pradesh from constructing check dams across the river in violation of lower riparian rights nor took concrete measures to check illegal sand mining and pollution of the riverbed. These issueshavedestroyedtheecology of the river. Tellingly, the water scarcity issoseverethatseveral parts of the district witness law and order problems as villagers and residents frequently block roads with empty pots to highlight their plight.
The ruling AIADMK government, after the Centre refused to fund the intra-state Thenpennai-Palar river linking project, had assured that it would implement the longpending project. Former chief minister J Jayalalithaa made an announcement in this regard in the assembly under rule 110 in 2011. On MGR’s birth centenary in Vellore last year, chief minister Edappadi K Palaniswami reiterated that the government would implement the project at ₹660crore and extend the Cauvery drinking water scheme to remote villages in the district.
While the farmers’ longpending demand for check dams has remained unfulfilled, coconut growers have blamed both the Dravidian parties for their dismal condition and said withered coconut trees on several acres of land stand testimony to their predicament. “We have petitioned the candidates to take up construction of check dams in Palar to rejuvenate groundwater that has depleted sharply and gone down to 1,000 feet,” said environmental activist and resident of Ambalur Jamuna Thiyagarajan.
Adding to this, the Centre’s Smart City project has been moving at a snail’s pace, according to residents. “The government said works would be taken up at a cost of ₹600 crore to improve infrastructure facilities in the first phase, but nothing has been done,” said R Gopi of Sathuvachari.
Footwear and leather industriesin Ambur,Vaniyambadi and Pernambut account for nearly 60% of the state’s total export of leather products with an annual turnover of ₹9,000crore. The sector employs nearly 2 lakh people with the majority being women. Representatives of the sector have sought export assistance from the government to compete with international players.
The industry got a jolt when the Centre brought in demonetization in 2016. The initial hiccups and complicated procedures dealt a temporary setback to the industry. Before it came to terms with this, goods and services tax (GST) regime delivered another blow. Though the industry has recovered somewhat, it led to the closure of several MSMEs sparking unemployment. “Nearly 30% to 40% of the MSMEs closed because of GST,” said M Swaminathan of Vellore district MSMEs’ association. Semi-automated units that manufacture matches and lungis and coming under 18% GST bracket in Gudiyattam also took a hit as the tax regime put a squeeze on their revenue, said owners and employees of some units.