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Ministers at Centre, but from Tamil Nadu & for Tamil Nadu

March 13: T.R. Baalu almost got roughed up today, but this is not the first time a minister from Tamil Nadu has been accused of trying to take “every new project” to his home state.

The Congress’s Jairam Ramesh was only half-joking when he levelled this charge against Dayanidhi Maran, the information technology and telecommunication minister, in Chennai last year and threatened to complain to UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi that other states, too, need development projects. The result: a big semi-conductor fabrication facility eventually went to Andhra Pradesh and not Tamil Nadu, as Maran had been planning.

But before that, Maran had taken Microsoft boss Bill Gates home to Chennai to meet his uncle and chief minister M. Karunanidhi and was given credit for getting Nokia and Flextronics to set up base near Sriperumbudur.

Starting with getting the home ministry’s clearance to declare Tamil a classical language to the Sethusamudram project, the seven DMK ministers in the Manmohan Singh government — three of them of cabinet rank — have left none in doubt about where their priorities lie.

Calcutta has long sought university status for its maritime research institute. Instead, shipping and surface transport minister Baalu proposed to set up the university in Chennai — for which he was targeted today.

The state has as many as 13 Union ministers, who have once too often drawn the charge of unabashedly acting like ministers for Tamil Nadu.

Maran escaped a controversy over a 3,175-km undersea fibre optics cable connecting Chennai with Singapore, expected to transform the bandwidth scenario in the country. The project took off on May 15, 2004 — days before Maran took charge.

As has happened with the maritime university that put Baalu in the dock today, an undersea link had been planned between Singapore and Calcutta before the project went to Tamil Nadu. Industry sources, however, say the reason Chennai scored in this instance was logistics, not politics.

The same cannot be said of the decision to set up a new railway division in Salem, bifurcating the Palakkad division that has for long been a money-spinner for Kerala. Karunanidhi and the junior railway minister, R. Velu — also from Tamil Nadu, though from the PMK, not the DMK — took up the matter with railway minister Lalu Prasad.

So while Kerala chief minister V.S. Achuthanandan opposed the move and the state claimed the Centre had promised a review, the office at Salem has already been opened.

Kerala is upset because the decision could hive off 40 per cent of existing tracks and rolling stock from Palakkad. Achuthanandan argued that the Salem division could take over a large area that is under Palakkad now and eventually lead to the abolition of the latter.

Kerala also suspects that shipping and surface transport minister Baalu is responsible for the delay in getting central clearance for the proposed deep-water international trans-shipment container terminal at Vizhinjam, 20 km from Thiruvananthapuram.

Baalu has been pushing for the development of Colachel in Tamil Nadu’s Kanyakumari district into a major port though the sleepy fishing village of Vizhinjam hosts a natural harbour with a natural draft of up to 23 metres.

Most ports are hard-pressed to accommodate ships of 2,00,000 tonnes even after massive dredging, but Vizhinjam will be able to accommodate even a ship of 5,64,000 tonnes with much less dredging, Kerala holds. The site is also close to the main international shipping lanes, making it cheap for ships to call here for refuelling and repair.

The Rs 2,427-crore Sethusamudram Ship Channel Project, started in July 2005, was touted as the first big “achievement” of the DMK in the Manmohan Singh government. The project is to deepen the Palk Strait so that ships sailing between India’s east and west coasts do not have to circumnavigate through Colombo.

Even as the project’s foundation stone was being laid, Karunanidhi urged Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at the function to sanction the proposed Global Automotive Testing and Research Centre to Tamil Nadu. Singh gave an assurance on the spot.

More than a year later, on November 4, 2006, Singh and Sonia were back in the state to lay the foundation stone for the research centre at Oragadam near Sriperumbudur.

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