Lok Sabha 2019
TNM speaks to industrial representatives from Coimbatore, Tiruppur and Pollachi ahead of the April 18 election.

With its picturesque locations and favourable living conditions, the Kongu belt in Tamil Nadu contributes significantly to the state’s GDP. While Coimbatore is known for its mechanical engineering-related industries, Pollachi is known for its coconut production and coir industries. Tiruppur is one of India’s garment hubs, contributing to around 45% of the country’s total garment exports.

So what are the issues in the Kongu belt this election? TNM spoke to a few industrial representatives to find out.  

Coimbatore

Nestled between the mighty Western Ghats on the border of Tamil Nadu and Kerala, Coimbatore is a major hub for automotive and machine spare parts, pump sets and textiles in south India. Known for their contribution to industrial growth in Tamil Nadu, the people of Coimbatore have, over the years, elected politicians irrespective of party affiliations.

The upcoming polls is largely a fight between two veteran politicians. While the AIADMK alliance is fielding CP Radhakrishnan of the BJP, a two-time MP from Coimbatore and currently the Chairman of the Coir Board, the DMK-Congress combine has put up CPI(M) veteran PR Natarajan. PR Natarajan was previously elected as MP from Coimbatore in 2009.

Maniraj, a member of the Coimbatore Pump Manufacturers Association (COPMA) says that though it does not have any particular political leaning, this time the situation is different. “Last time we supported Modi since we had high hopes on him. This time around, contrary to our expectations, the Central government has brought in laws that place enormous stress on our industry,” he begins.

Describing how Goods and Services Tax (GST), which was introduced in 2017 damaged their livelihoods, Maniraj says that the tax rates thrust on their line of work was illogical. “The GST for buying pump sets and spare parts is 18% and for selling the tax is 12%. How is this even logical?” he asks pointing out that the 6% difference goes out from their pockets. 

Explaining that Coimbatore has a lot of small-scale workshops, he says that none in their 70,000-unit strong association expected to be burdened with such a high GST rate. “All of us who supported Modi last time are very angry with him now,” Maniraj says.

Maniraj says that their main demand is to reduce GST levy to 5%. He notes that the association tried to raise their problems with the Centre since 2017 but were unsuccessful.  “CP Radhakrishnan is now saying the first signature by Modi as Prime Minister will be to reduce the GST levy to 5%. But our question is why didn’t they do it all this time?” Maniraj asks.

Demonetisation is another poll issue for James, who owns a machine workshop in Coimbatore and is a member of the Tamil Nadu Association for Cottage and Tiny Entrepreneurs.

“Demonetisation actually hit us hard because our business works on cash-and- carry format. We also pay off our workers on a daily basis. So, when the government put a restriction on withdrawing our own money, we suffered a lot. A good number of our members have shut down their business because they were not able to bear the impact of demonetization,” he says.

James notes that while CPI(M)’s PR Natarajan had called representatives of the association for a meeting and promised to bring down GST rates, BJP’s Radhakrishnan had allegedly not taken their representations.  

Prabhu, a member of the Indian Texpreneurs Federation, which is a collective of 540 medium and large scale textile companies in the western region of Tamil Nadu, however, says that the fight in Coimbatore is tough.

“Almost both the parties are giving similar promises in their manifestoes and campaigns. Although, there is no wave like the last time here. I don’t think people even see this as a national issue. People are more focused on what the local issues are and what the MPs can do for them in their constituency,” he says.

Pollachi

Pollachi is a small town situated 40 kilometers away from Coimbatore. Coconut and paddy cultivation and coir industries are the major occupation of people here. The town recently grabbed the headlines for a sexual assault and extortion racket that took place in Pollachi.

AIADMK is fielding sitting MP C Mahendran in the constituency while K Shanmugasundaram is the DMK candidate.

Speaking to TNM, Padmanabhan, a coconut farmer sheds light on how the farmers see this election. “Price per kilogram of copra was increased to Rs 95 per kg in the last five years. We have never got such a high price for copra before,” he says.

Adding that the farmers are now concerned about the impending water crisis in the region, Padmanabhan says that all eyes are now on the Anamalaiyar-Nallaar project. “For areas dependent on water from the Parambikulam-Aliyar project (PAP), the Anamalaiyar-Nallaar project will be of great help. Our CM has announced it, it would be great if he implements it immediately,” he adds.

Heaping praises on AIADMK’s C Mahendran, Padmanabhan says that the MP is an approachable person and understands the plight of the coconut farmers in the region. “As a candidate, Mahendran is doing good work. But we really wish his party also supports him. Only if that happens we can bring a coconut farmers welfare board,” Padmanabhan adds. He, however, notes that the DMK candidate is not a prominent face in the region.

Suresh*, who owns a coir manufacturing unit in Pollachi also echoes the same beliefs. “Mahendran’s main advantage as an MP is that he is very approachable. Whether the problem we are meeting him for is solvable or not is a different thing altogether, but he is open to meeting people and listening to grievances,” he says.

Pointing out that CP Radhakrishnan, the Coimbatore BJP candidate has also been supportive of the industry, Suresh says that allying with BJP is also seen as a positive for AIADMK in this region by coir industry insiders.

“If AIADMK loses in Pollachi, it would only because of the way they have handled the Pollachi sexual assault case. That could be the only reason if at all AIADMK loses in Pollachi. Except for that Mahendran is a very good candidate,” he says.

Tiruppur

Tiruppur, the knitwear hub in India, was one of the worst-hit regions due to demonetisation in 2016 and later because of GST. Employing more than 7 lakh people, Tiruppur’s output value has crossed Rs 45,000 crore annually but has been facing challenges in expanding their exports following the implementation of GST.

Though the city suffered badly due to the economic reforms introduced in the last five years, the industrialists in the city remain divided in their opinion of a victor in the general elections. “I don’t think a clear picture is there this election, it feels confused because there are no tall leaders in both the major political parties (DMK and AIADMK). Both the parties contesting here in Tiruppur have promised to attend to our longstanding demand of setting up a knitwear board at the Centre with headquarters in Tiruppur,” says Ramesh*, a garment export company owner based out of Tiruppur.

Adding that arithmetically it seems as if the AIADMK combine has a clear lead, Ramesh says that the impact of the last five years is still visible in the garment city. “But how far it will have an impact on the ground is not clear,” he says.

Former MLA MSM Anandan is contesting in Tiruppur on an AIADMK ticket while CPI is fielding K Subbarayan in the DMK-Congress alliance. K Subbarayan is a two-time MLA from Tiruppur and a former MP from Coimbatore.

*name changed on request.