The Indian space agency, ISRO, is all set to begin work on building the ₹950-crore greenfield rocket launch facility near the township of Kulasekarapattinam, 50 km south of Tuticorin, with the land acquisition process being almost complete.

But, in palpable contrast with the upbeat mood among businessmen in Tuticorin about the prospects of development that the project would fetch, in Kulasekarapattinam there is only nervousness and a feeling that “our lands are being taken away,” -- a feeling reinforced by the township’s experience with the nearby Udangudi thermal power project of the Tamil Nadu government.

“They (Udangudi) acquired 900 acres of land, but now they are seeking 1,000 acres more for expansion. What is the assurance that ISRO would not demand to buy more lands?” asks C G Chandrasekharan, Kulasekarapattinam resident, who heads a farmers’ association.

The government of Tamil Nadu has acquired all but about 200 acres of the 2,350 acres of land for ISRO project that is earmarked for small rockets.

Kulasekarapattinam is famous for its Mutharamman temple — a huge draw during the Dussehra festival. On October 19, 2018, a record was created when 8.05 lakh people, dressed as gods and goddesses, visited the temple. Further, many pilgrims who come to the famous Murugan temple at Tiruchendur, 14 km away, add Kulasekarapattinam to their tour itinerary.

This throng provides enough sustenance to the 5,000-odd residents of the township, supplementing agricultural income. Shops outside the temple selling all kinds of wares from photos and figurines of goddess Mutharamman, inexpensive skull-bead necklaces and metal rings, and ‘services’ such as tea shops, eateries, palmistry and parrot-astrology (where a parrot picks a fortune-card from a stack) seem to be doing good business — as this writer witnessed. This is underscored by the fact that construction is underway for more shops.

Therefore, rather than rejoicing about a major project that would put their town on the global space map, the residents only worry about what exactly the rocket launch station in their backyard will mean to their lives.

The residents have clearly formed their views in a vacuum of information and a surfeit of misinformation. Chandrasekaran, who is the voice of hundreds of farmers, believes that when ISRO built a rocket launch station “in Andhra” (Sriharikota), “all villagers within 27 km were asked to leave.” Won’t the same happen here, he asks.

Further, the one in Andhra Pradesh was of the government, “for the good of the country.” However, “the one here (Kulasekarapattinam, seems to be for the private and foreign players,” Chandrasekaran told buisnessline. “Why should we give up our lands for the benefit of private and foreign businesses? Are we to become refugees in our own country?”

He wanted to know if the rocket launch station would be radioactive (kadir-veechu in Tamil), but the local authorities told him to ask ISRO scientists. “Nobody is telling us anything. When they want our lands, should they not at least tell us exactly what is happening,” he said.

He tried to organise a hunger strike on September 6, but the police dispersed the gathering “despite our having got prior permission.”

Interestingly, Chandrasekaran wonders why the Udangudi plant is being built “at a time when Prime Minister Modi has signed an agreement that there would be no more coal-fired power plants after 2035.” Are they building the plant only to demolish it after a few years, he asked.

Ramasubramanian, Executive Officer of the Mutharamman temple, is apprehensive that the project may increase prices —again an echo of the Udangudi plant. Ramasubramanian, who lives in Tiruchendur in a rented house, saw his rent shoot up in the last few years and blamed the demand from “Udangudi engineers”. A lady-palmist outside the temple had no clue about the ISRO project, but her husband, the parrot-fortune-teller, has heard that a “place where rockets are sent from” is coming up, but “they are taking our lands away.”

In contrast, Tuticorin is looking forward to the space station. J Celestine Villavarayar, Director, Vilsons Shipping, and is the Vice Chairman of the local chapter of the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), is confident that the space station will bring more business and tourist visitors to Tuticorin. The city boasts of a major port and its airport is being done-up to be able to accommodate large aircraft — today, it can be serviced only by ATRs. However, the city lacks adequate social infrastructure, rues Villavarayar.

Recently, N Sudheer Kumar, Director, CBPO, ISRO, held a meeting with MSMEs, in Tuticorin, in which he said there would be lots of opportunities for small businesses. Speaking to businessline, he said that products like “structure, propellants, sub-systems and electronics” could be locally made.