Visible signs of change can be deceptive. This was what I found in my recent visit to the Dharmapuri district in the western part of Tamil Nadu, a place regarded at the all-India level as chronically backward.
I was visiting Dharmapuri town after nine years. There are some shopping complexes and a flashy hotel in the core part of this tier-III town which were not there earlier.
Connectivity, in terms of physical infrastructure and communication, is no longer an issue. In 2006 when I went to the town for the first time on an assignment to cover the Assembly polls, it was still a sleepy and dusty town with old-fashioned shops and restaurants.
Not many changes had taken place four years later when I was there to assess the situation for a by-election. Even today, there are some lodges which provide only lodging. If you order coffee or tea, it is brought from a nearby eatery.
Once extremely backward in education, Dharmapuri, as a district, is now the topper at the State level with regard to the gross enrolment ratio for secondary education. The district has 1,620 schools with 1.85 lakh students. It has more than 110 pre-primary schools. There are six engineering colleges, including one government-run college, says M. Vadivelan, who runs an engineering college and whose office is located opposite the campus of the Government Medical College that started functioning six years ago.
All these changes look impressive, given the track record of the district. But conversations with a cross-section of people in the district underscore the importance of the caste factor in elections. They made me wonder about the chasm between visible changes and identity consciousness among the people.
Less than 10 km away from the town is Cholakottai village where P. Sukumar, a middle-aged owner of a petty shop, is not unaffected by the changes. All his children go to school. At the same time, he talks vividly of how a bridge was broken and a public transport vehicle burnt down years ago “in support of the cause” of his community, the Vanniyars. He says the community will steadfastly support Anbumani Ramadoss, the nominee of the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) and former Union Minister, also a Vanniyar.
A. Govindan, who is from Periyapallipatti village nearby, spent 27 days in jail for his participation in an agitation by the PMK. “Regardless of what the party has done for me, I will vote for Mr. Ramadoss,” he says. Sukumar and Govindan do not fail to point out that it is because of their stance that Scheduled Caste voters will support the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam’s nominee.
“Who else will I support?” asks Lenin, an auto-rickshaw driver who belongs to the SC community and is living in government-provided accommodation near Morappur, about 35 km from Dharampuri.
He is a man of few words, but when he speaks, it is not without reference to the 2012-13 tragic episode around an inter-caste marriage, which is still fresh in the memory of the public in this part of the State.
I wonder how long people, despite being similarly placed economically and educationally, continue to be divided by identity. When will changes in physical infrastructure break the hold of caste?