The Auto Wars — Tamil Nadu vs Gujarat

Murali Gopalan N. Ramakrishnan | Updated on March 12, 2018

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Kel Kearns, Director of Manufacturing, Ford India's Sanand plant explaining the construction work at the plant.

Hyundai Santros at the Chennai Port, waiting to be loaded on to a ship for export.

Nano cars at Tata Motors manufacuturing plant at Sanand near Ahmedabad.

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Employees assemble engines at Ford India's plant at Maraimalai Nagar, near Chennai.


In June 2011, the Tamil Nadu government issued a press release saying PSA Peugeot Citroen would set up a car-making facility in the state. Within months, the French automaker denied ‘the news’; in early September, it announced setting up its plant elsewhere — in Sanand, Gujarat.

Said a top automobile executive of Tamil Nadu’s gaffe: “To us in the industry, it looked as if the Tamil Nadu government did this out of the tremendous pressure to drive home the point that it is the country’s automobile hub.”

It is a tag Tamil Nadu hasn’t lost yet. But the state would be in denial if it ignored the new challenger in the ring, one that is possessed with the ambition to become the country’s new Detroit.


When Ratan Tata, in October 2008, decided to relocate the Nano car project from Singur in West Bengal, following a prolonged anti-land acquisition agitation, he received a cryptic invitation via SMS from Chief Minister Narendra Modi: “Welcome to Gujarat.”

The invitation was accepted. Realising that the Tata project could be the magnet to woo other auto majors, Modi moved with astonishing speed, transferring land to the company in all of three days.

When Ford India, a Tamil Nadu resident since the mid-1990s, decided to set up its second plant in Sanand, there was palpable concern in the corridors of Fort St. George, the seat of the Tamil Nadu Government. By the time Peugeot made its announcement, Sanand had gone from being an obscure village near Ahmedabad, once ruled by the Vaghelas, to a fashionable word in the auto industry.

Enter, Maruti

It is another matter that Peugeot, which got 584 acres and announced an investment of Rs 4,000 crore, backed out because of economic slowdown in Europe. But the Gujarat story was not over. In 2012, the government allotted 700 acres to Maruti Suzuki, the country’s biggest automobile maker. Maruti plans to set up a plant with an initial capacity of 250,000 units, investing Rs 4,000 crore.


Despite the auto rush, it is unfair to compare the two states in some respects. Tamil Nadu has had a long auto history — Austin cars were assembled here as early as 1948 by Ashok Motors, the predecessor of Ashok Leyland. In the 1990s, an auto renaissance spread in the State with the entry of Ford and Hyundai. Since then, it has welcomed big brands such as BMW, Renault-Nissan and Daimler Commercial Vehicles.

Right now, the gap between Sanand and Chennai is enormous. Chennai accounts for around 40 per cent of the country’s car production and about 60 per cent of automobile exports. As the accompanying chart shows, Chennai is far ahead of Sanand if you go by installed capacity of projects, completed and on the anvil.


“From our point of view, we don’t see it as Tamil Nadu versus Gujarat but Tamil Nadu and Gujarat,” says Joginder Singh, President and Managing Director of Ford India. “We have excellent relationships with both governments. In Gujarat, since it is a new plant, we have the advantage of bringing in new technology.”

Kel Kearns, Ford’s Director of Manufacturing for the Sanand plant, is upbeat about the facility, which should be operational in a year or so and which is among the American automaker’s largest in Asia-Pacific. Why Sanand? “We wanted to buy government land to start with. This was the first sort of call we made about the sites that were available.”

Of course a clutch of other factors was responsible for the choice — including the cost of labour, good industrial relations, adequate power, road connectivity, and overall governmental support. But land and financial concessions are most talked about in discussions on Gujarat’s automobile foray.


Sometimes, this has erupted in a controversy, as in 2009, when the Congress opposition accused the Modi government of doling out concessions of Rs 33,000 crore to Tata Motors over 20 years.

The drive from Ahmedabad to Sanand to the Ford facility, via the Tata Motors plant, provides a glimpse of the change in what was once a sleepy hinterland. Land prices have gone up and are likely to go up further thanks to perceptions that it will develop as an auto hub.

Ford’s Sanand plant is being commissioned at a time when Ford is on the fast track with its BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) strategy. To that extent, the plant will have a far bigger role to play than the Chennai unit. But Singh says both plants will be used for exports. “For our Chennai plant, we would like to have better connectivity with the port. We use the Ennore port for exports. In Gujarat, we will use Mundra, for which too we would like good connectivity so that we can move vehicles multi-modally.”


Once operational, the plant would need about 5,000 people with a range of skills. “We need the state government’s support for skill development and we have been assured that this is a strong area of focus for the government,” Singh says.

Skilled manpower and English knowledge are the traditional advantages Tamil Nadu has over other auto hubs such as Pune. This is coupled with a sound engineering base, thanks in some measure to the TVS group, which entered the components sector in the 1960s.


Also, in the PR blitz about Gujarat, Tamil Nadu’s attempt to woo the auto industry gets short shrift. M Raman, who was Director of Tamil Nadu’s Guidance Bureau and involved with wooing Ford (and Hyundai as well), says the American automaker was given the concessions it wanted as well as the land the state had readily available at Maraimalai Nagar, in Chennai’s southern reaches.

He recalls that Ford considered “some 72 points” and many different places before settling on Chennai because of the advantages it offered and the government’s willingness to go that extra mile to support the project.

Even so, the Tata Motors plant at Sanand is a reminder of the incredible speed at which the Nano project made its journey from Singur. It is here that Gujarat signalled that it could be a viable automotive destination. The government pulled out all stops so operations could kick off in less than 18 months from the time the Tatas dropped Singur. There is no doubt that it is the Nano project that spurred others to take a serious look at the State.

Multiplier Effect

M. Sahu, Gujarat’s Principal Secretary, Industries and Mines Department, dwells on the reasons for the special auto focus. “Backward integration is one of the highest in this business. This means if one mother plant comes in, it will bring hundreds of ancillary units. The automobile industry has the highest multiplier effect,” he says.

Gujarat has not faced any land acquisition problems because, as Sahu explains, the government believes farmers are partners in progress. “They get good money for land which is not fertile. There is no forcible acquisition.” He then reveals a “diversion in strategy” where a shift is happening towards a policy of land aggregation from (land) acquisition. Another 2,000 hectares are, incidentally, being acquired by the government in Sanand.


The Gujarat government is also preparing a rail network that will involve setting up sidings to the mother plant and the logistics park. “For the railway siding, we are forming a special purpose vehicle with DMIC (Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor) and the Gujarat Industrial Corridor Corporation as partners. We will rope in industry too,” Sahu says.

Chief Minister Narendra Modi has declared that by 2020, Gujarat should account for 50 per cent of expansion in the automobile sector. This is the kind of ambition that will pose a challenge to Tamil Nadu and threaten its auto hub position. For the moment, though, the State is sitting pretty with a string of big auto brands and a robust supplier base.

Yet, Tamil Nadu has issues it must deal with. CEOs complain about the infrastructure in power, ports and roads. Ford’s Singh concedes rail connectivity to the port is an issue. “We continue to discuss that with the government and hope things will happen soon,” he says.


Says Harish Lakshman, non-executive Director of the Rane group, a component manufacturer, “right now, the big concern in Tamil Nadu is power. Anyone looking at short-term investments will rethink their strategy in the state.” “But,” he says, “in the long term, the state will get its act together.” The Chennai-based Rane group has a plant in Sanand and has begun preliminary investigations in Gujarat for another plant for other vehicle makers. “Overall, we have had a positive experience in Gujarat. Government approvals happened easily. The credit goes to Tata,” says Lakshman.

Auto industry observers believe it is difficult for Tamil Nadu to maintain the tempo because of such factors; shortage of land, which is parcelled out as a fiscal sop, is not going to help either.

As companies like Ford, Renault-Nissan, Honda Motorcycles, Bajaj Auto and Hero MotoCorp expand, Gujarat will look to make the most of the opportunity.

There is a lot of hard work ahead, especially in skill-building, but Sahu says the government has assessed the requirement at over 2.5 lakh people a year after three years. “We are setting up skill-upgradation centres in a PPP mode with professional agencies and industries as partners,” he says.

As for Tamil Nadu, it faces larger problems in sustaining its position, given the impediments are infrastructural involving erratic power supply and absence of a proper freight corridor from the manufacturing areas to the port.

The story of the auto war is far from over. Perhaps, it has only just begun.

( With inputs from Virendra Pandit in Ahmedabad and Swetha Kannan in Chennai.)

Published on March 18, 2013

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