It seems Puducherry, which was under the French rule for nearly 300 years, is preparing for a revolution. Not one with a guillotine and bloodshed but it has to do with a long-standing demand by the people of the Union Territory to give them statehood status.
Having witnessed the bitter feuding between former Lieutenant Governor Kiran Bedi and Chief Minister V Narayanasamy for the past five years, the residents of this UT have realised the significance of becoming a separate state now than ever before.
The statehood demand has also turned into one of the major poll promises in the upcoming Puducherry Assembly Elections on April 6. All the parties except BJP, have included this demand as one of their poll promises.
Siva Elango, a writer and an independent candidate contesting from Kamaraj Nagar constituency said, “It must be remembered Puducherry was once a state and the Government of India has a responsibility to give us special status. In one sense, we are already a state and now our demand should be for a special status, which was the case when the French left.”
From state to union territory
A popular misconception about Puducherry is that it has been a UT from the start. “In reality that is not the case,” pointed out Dhanaraman, a CPI member.
According to him, many consider that Puducherry’s history starts with the enactment of the Union Territories Act, 1963. “Actually, it goes back to May 1946, when a French decree was issued to create a representative Assembly. In October, however, an alliance that included the Communist party came to power in France. They decided that the 27 colonies under French should not be treated as colonies but as provinces or states,” he explained.
The representative Assembly elections were conducted in 1949. In order to conduct elections, adult suffrage was given to Puducherry, Karaikkal, Mahe and Yanam. Keezhur, a nondescript village, was the venue for the referendum in October 18, 1954, and the people overwhelmingly favoured freedom from French rule and the merger with the Indian union.
On November 1, 1954 Puducherry got freedom from the French. It was called ‘de jure (de facto) independence’ meaning, that Puducherry can be ruled by Indians, but the French retained the land ownership or had ‘administrative independence’.
In 1956, under the Treaty of Cession, Puducherry was given to India as a grant by the French. However, the French Parliament failed to ratify this treaty and rejected it twice stating that the Puducherry people had not been asked.
Finally, it was ratified only on August 16,1962 and the region got ‘judicial independence.
In memory of these developments, Puducherry celebrates its Independence Day on November 1, and ‘De jure Transfer Day’ on August 16. “Before, the region celebrated August 16 as Independence Day. It took 16 years of struggle to change that,” observed Elango.
From 1954 to 1963, Puducherry was considered as a state. The French took care of the region till they left in 1963.
“The state’s revenue was ₹2.25 lakh, while the budget was ₹4.25 lakh. The remaining ₹2 lakh was provided by the French. So, the French treated Puducherry as a separate state,” said Dhanaraman.
“While British colonies received the status of a state by default, the non-British colonies acquired by the Indian government came to be known as Union Territories,” said M Ramadass, former professor of Economics, Pondicherry University.
“India has seven Union Territories and they are of two types. One, which has an Assembly representation and one without an Assembly. Delhi and Puducherry are the only two Union Territories that have assembly representation today. The Centre is not providing statehood to Delhi because of political reasons and fear of coming under the Aam Aadmi Party. Since it has not given statehood to Delhi, the Centre is not granted the same to Puducherry,” said Ramadass.
According to Ramadass, the demand for statehood for Puducherry has gained momentum from 1987. Till date, about 14 resolutions have been passed in Puducherry Assembly to make the UT a state. “But both Congress and BJP have not considered it,” claimed Ramadass, adding that in 2004 itself, the UT had become eligible to be a full-fledged state because it had opened Public Accounts and the MLAs here have the right to elect the President,” he added.
The economics of statehood
In order to understand why the demand has more voice and relevance today, it is pertinent to examine the economic history of the region.
Even before French, the Portuguese, Dutch, Holland and British tried to dominate over the region. “However, it was only the French who were successful largely because of their cultivation and manufacture of indigo,” said Dhanaraman, a CPI member.
“The soil here is good for cultivating indigo. At first, the French took the indigo from here to France for processing. Then they set up a mill in Puducherry and from here, they started to export clothes for their military,” he added.
As the demand for indigo in textiles grew, the French set up three spinning mills in this UT. At one point of time, these mills, which are now shut, have ostensibly employed about 20,000 to 25,000 workers.
“Those were the days, when a young man working in the mills could easily get a bride. If BJP really wants to grab power here, it can just take steps to reopen the mills and modernise them,” said Seenu Tamil Mani, a resident.
Though the region was thriving because of these mills, it was innately a self-contained economy dominated by fishing and agricultural activities, said Muthukannu, a trade unionist.
Pre-Independence, agriculture was practised as subsistence farming but post-Independence, it became business oriented. In the 60s, after the Green Revolution, the soil has been impacted due to heavy use of fertilizers and pesticides. In the 80s, industrial estates emerged and today, the region has nearly 500 chemical industries, because of which pollution levels have increased.
Muthukannu said that in the 90s, borewells were built to pump out groundwater for industry and distillery purposes. “Because of these developments, the water shortage has affected farming and many started moving out of agriculture. The industries started to attract people from neighbouring states like Tamil Nadu (TN), which led to migration,” he said.
This population from outside the UT has taken a lion’s share of the employment opportunities in Puducherry.
“When Puducherry was gradually coming out of French rule and engineering itself to become a part of India, there were a lot of employment opportunities. However, the locals were not eligible for these jobs and the government decided to fill up the vacancies from other states including Tamil Nadu,” said Dhanaraman. This has led to crime among the unemployed youth.
“Though in some quarters, this statehood demand is seen as an ‘elitist thought’, the need for this has arisen once again due to the Centre’s long neglect of this region that has actually affected the working class,” said Muthukannu, a trade unionist.
How statehood benefits people
Apart from political advantages such as not depending on Central government appointed Lieutenant Governor for everything, there are tangible advantages that the people can enjoy if the UT becomes a state.
“When the Centre gave 90% grant to Puducherry, we never spoke about statehood status. When the grant has been reduced to 30%, this demand has popped up again,” quipped Dhanaraman.
Between 1954 and 1963, the French government reportedly provided 90% grant to Puducherry, while the state revenue amounted to 10%.
“From 1963 to 2007, the Centre’s grant was 70% and from 2007, it was further slashed to 30%. In the last five years, the grant ranges from above 18% and below 30%,” he said.
“Morally, the Centre should give ₹3,000 crores per year as a grant to Puducherry. But for the last five years, it has given only ₹1,750 crores. So, during the last regime, the Centre gave only ₹8,750 for five years. Out of ₹1,750 crores, the Centre takes ₹500 crores as debt repayment and releases the remaining fund. From 2007, the Centre has also stopped giving loans and asked the UT to get loans from market borrowings,” said Dhanaraman.
According to Dhanaraman, Puducherry has ₹9,000 crores as debt. Out of which ₹1,700 crores are ‘legacy debt’, which means debt given by the Centre. From 2015, the tax collection right was withdrawn from Puducherry and given to the GST council. The UT is also not a member in the Finance Commission.
“The Centre is also reluctant to waive the loans. While the Centre has full rights to appoint the officers, their salaries are paid by us. When this is the case, how can Puducherry increase its revenue on its own? How can it repay the debts?” he asked.
Amidst all these problems, out of ₹1,700 crores, about ₹700 crores have been repaid from 2007 until now, towards the Centre’s debt.
“If statehood is given, Puducherry will become a member in the Finance Commission and get 41% share from central revenue pool. This means the region can get additionally ₹3,000 to ₹4,000 crores. The municipalities can get funds from the Union Ministry of Finance and Ministry of Panchayat Raj,” pointed out Dhanaraman.
Besides funds, Puducherry can also have its own High Court, public service commission, education boards (now Karaikkal and Puducherry follows TN state board, Mahe follows Kerala state board and Yanam follows Andhra state board), reservation, increase the investments, etc., Ramadass said.
“The people from here can go to other states like Tamil Nadu and claim reservation in education and employment, legally. Today, many get into reservation illegally using fake domicile certificates,” he added.
It should be noted that for just 483 sqkm region, Puducherry has 27 IAS officers and 88 Central government staff. “This leads to a lot of bureaucratic red-tape and even small matters like name transfer in an electricity service connection takes weeks and months. The statehood will reduce the number of bureaucrats,” said Muthukannu.
“Above all, with statehood we will not have nominated MLAs, who were behind the recent toppling of the government here,” Dhanaraman added. And that seems good enough reason to the people of Puducherry, who are fed up with political ups and downs.