On Wednesday, as State Cooperatives Minister Sellur Raju takes centre-stage in the Tamil Nadu Assembly, owners of over 20,000 fair price shops run by Cooperatives across Tamil Nadu will be keenly watching his speech. These men and women have not received a second instalment of funding from the government for the subsidised supplies they are selling to the public, and multiple petitions to the State have yielded no result.
"We are supposed to get Rs.840 crore for subsidies from the state. And if the Minister doesn't announce that we will get our pending dues, we will all go on strike," says A Krishnamoorthy, State coordinator of Save Cooperative, an organisation working for betterment of Cooperatives. "Last year's dues from the government are still pending and if we shut shop, two crore people in the state will be affected," he adds.
This warning comes merely days after the government managed to control a strike by the Metropolitan Transport Corporation (MTC) employees who alleged that they had not received their salaries for June.
According to the Cooperatives Union, over Rs 1,600 crore has been allocated in the budget for the Tamil Nadu Civil Supplies Corporation and Cooperative societies that run fair price shops. While the Tamil Nadu Civil Supplies Corporation runs 1,455 shops, Registrar of Cooperative Societies have 32,827 shops under their control. Meanwhile, other Cooperatives and Women or self-help groups run 411 shops.
"In August 2018, we had talks with the government and they promised to look into the matter. They formed a committee and we were told a decision will be made in January," says Krishnamoorthy. "But the government then said that elections are approaching and that they will take a call after elections. We met the Minister again on June 29. And we have only got assurances," he adds.
With the subsidy money unreleased, shop owners are unable to pay salaries to employees and rents for the shop.
"We have bought the goods for full prices and submitted subsidy claim petitions but we have not received the final amount," says Krishnamoorthi. "The government is telling us to take loans but how will we afford to pay interest," he asks.
Employees in these shops meanwhile are struggling to meet their basic needs as their salaries become irregular.
"We get our salaries only once in two months now," says 49-year-old Sivakumar, who works at a fair price shop on Mount Road. "Everything has become a struggle - educating my children, paying the house rent and supporting my family. We have no choice but to protest if the situation is not rectified," he adds.
But Minister Sellur Raju remains unperturbed by the threats of protest.
"We usually give it as two instalments. We have given one but the other is pending," he says. "We never give it immediately. The government has to finish auditing all these shops and we can only give after this. We will give them an advance till the amount is released," he adds.
When pushed for a date of release, the minister says that he cannot give one as of now. And what if they protest?
"They won't protest," he says, confidently.