This is Tamil Nadu
A storm-swept southern Indian state displays uncommon civility, camaraderie, and great food.
By Keith Schneider, Circle of Blue, June 23, 2017
CHENNAI, India – Unlike India’s other immense cities Chennai is a world apart. Tamil Nadu’s capital city does not have crowds of beggars trolling intersections like in Delhi. It is not nearly as traffic jammed as Mumbai. Its homes are well cared for, and many of its office buildings are new and Miami white, unlike the sagging and dilapidated built environment that describes Kolkata.
The most distinguishing feature, though, for an American journalist who has visited Indian cities and states across much of the country: Chennai’s tidiness. It’s unusual in a nation where thick blankets of paper and piles of bottles lie in the streets and alongside highways. Household garbage, shoulder high, blocks alleys. The unkempt big cities and soiled countryside are a metaphor for the bedlam that is contemporary India, an ambitious and crowded nation of 1.3 billion people.
Chennai is different. Quite a bit different. The city’s Bay of Bengal beaches sport garbage bins that people use. Municipal sanitation workers haul away accumulating refuse. The attention to appearances and street level hygiene is part of an unspoken culture of diligence and confidence that Chennai’s residents, well-to-do and poor, have built for themselves and their city.
Chennai’s residents know India’s fourth largest metropolitan region is on a roll. Jobs are plentiful. Incomes are rising. The city’s capable universities produce graduates that technology companies are anxious to hire.
Chennai’s residents also know they exist in an “at any moment” geography of peril, almost all of it due to ecological torment. In the last two years Chennai has been blasted by a typhoon, drowned in a flood, and challenged by the worst drought in 140 years. People are unnerved, for sure. In January a student protest on Chennai’s main beach grew into a statewide strike and mass demonstration of grievances that attracted millions of participants.
But even during the week of active public dissent Chennai’s residents stayed so centered and cheerful that parents brought their children to protests just to witness how a great city displays its collective discomfort. On Marina Beach, Chennai’s primary locus of protests, volunteers guided cars to available parking spaces. Vendors offered cups of tea at no charge. An army of people, young and old, gathered up all of the bottles and paper and food waste that had been dropped in the sand.
Straightening up after the party, an especially impressive display of public civility, is seen as a civic responsibility. TITN: This is Tamil Nadu.
At the end of each of my travels and frontline reporting in nations outside the U.S. I collect the various and intriguing threads — people, events , or cultural traits — that strike me as emblematic and distinguishing. They come together in “This Is” essays that I’ve prepared from India, China, Mongolia, Qatar, Panama, Peru, and South Africa. The idea is borrowed from a scene in Blood Diamond, Leonardo DiCaprio’s great 2006 movie about diamond mining during the civil war in Sierra Leone. Asked, while having a drink in an African watering hole, about a peculiarly confusing trail of events that made no sense, DiCaprio tells his mate: “TIA. This is Africa.”
In that same spirit, here are other points of interest from my latest trip to India.
India is internationally famous for its mass protests. I’ve reported on big demonstrations that closed down construction of a 2,000-megawatt dam in Assam. Three years ago the Wilson Center and Circle of Blue produced a short film, “Broken Landscape,” that included scenes of a march and public protest in Meghalaya following the court-ordered shutdown of the northeast state’s dangerous coal mines.
In Tamil Nadu I witnessed how a small student demonstration on Chennai’s main beach on a Sunday afternoon in January steadily grew into a statewide strike and big street demonstrations in communities across the state. Millions participated. The galvanizing issue was a court order that banned Jallikatu, a popular and ancient harvest festival sport involving young men clinging to the humps of compact bulls. Other grievances – drought, farmer suicides, Coke and Pepsi sales, low wages – seeped into the demonstrations that evolved into a mass performance theater of cultural pride.
By Wednesday that week our path was blocked by boys and young men staging sitdown protests in the middle of two-lane highways. The next day, the demonstrations grew larger and trade associations called for shopkeepers to close their stores. We were in Kodaikanal, a Western Ghats mountain town on Thursday night as business owners talked about taking the day off and participating in street demonstrations on Friday. Schools, government offices, stores and restaurants closed. On Saturday we headed back to Chennai and passed protests that had attracted thousands of participants. The peaceful beach demonstrations in Chennai over the weekend were attended by an estimated one million people a day. By the time the demonstrations subsided early the following week Tamil Nadu state officials rescinded the ban on Jallikatu.
The Jallikatu awakening occurred the same week that millions of American women and men participated in demonstrations protesting the Trump administration. I recognized a big difference between the two events. In the United States big protests are generally planned well in advance. Americans have limited time and full schedules. In the United States, demonstrations last a few hours and then people go back to what they were doing.
The value of spontaneous protest and persistence, and flexible schedules, is alive in Tamil Nadu. The world would be wise to follow suit.
More Choke Point: Tamil Nadu
The conflicting demand for water, food, and energy is one of the defining challenges of the 21st century. Global Choke Point, a collaboration between Circle of Blue and the Wilson Center, explores the peril and promise of this nexus with frontline reporting, data, and policy expertise. “Choke Point: Tamil Nadu” is supported by the U.S. Consulate General in Chennai. Jayshree Vencatesan of Care Earth Trust, Nityanand Jayaraman, and Amirtharaj Stephen provided expertise and invaluable guidance.
Sources: Bloomberg New Energy Finance, Central Electricity Authority (India), Circle of Blue, Community Environmental Monitoring, Enerdata, Frankfurt School of Finance and Management, Ministry of Coal (India), Public Finance Public Accountability Collective, The Times of India, U.S. Energy Information Administration, United Nations Environment Program.
Photo Credits: Used with permission courtesy of Dhruv Malhotra/Circle of Blue. Map and Graphics: Used with permission courtesy of Cody Pope/Circle of Blue.
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