What struck me the most on my recent visit to Tamil Nadu during the assembly election campaign were the Amma canteens. The canteens are not new and have been part of the Tamil Nadu landscape for years. Nor are they universal. They exist only in Chennai and some other towns. But they symbolise the welfare politics of Tamil Nadu as little else does.
I went into one of them — more than 300 of them dot Chennai — to sample for myself the food they dish out. It was 8:20 in the evening. The hall was absolutely clean. So were the counters and the huge vessels that contained dal and chapatis. One of the three women there — they were wearing clean aprons and a head gear and had cooked the meal, served it, and took the money — dished out dal and two chapatis in a shining stainless steel thali, taking Rs 3. It could have been dal cooked at home.
The next day I went there at lunchtime, this time opting to have dahi bhat, also for Rs 3, the sambhar-rice costing Rs 5. And the food was piping hot. (An idli costs Rs 1 and the state apparently subsidises it by 68 paise.)
What struck me was not the availability of cheap food but its quality. Even the ration shops provide reasonably good quality rice, 20 kg free every month to cardholders. Many maintain that its quality was “75 per cent” of what was available in the open market, with items like tuar dal available for Rs 30 a kg (outside it’s sold for Rs 180) and sugar for Rs 13 a kg (Rs 40 outside).
Ensuring a certain quality of food reflected a respect for the poor. There was dignity in the way it was distributed, not like crumbs thrown at those who ate, or rotting food infested with bugs adding insult to deprivation as we have seen in public distribution system (PDS) outlets in several parts of the country.
Voting in Freebies But then, social egalitarianism was the basis of the two Dravidian parties that came out of the womb of Periyar’s anti-Brahmanical movement. The seeds of that thinking remain, despite the rampant corruption and autocratic rule that have taken over Tamil Nadu politics with welfarism degenerating into buying votes with cash — the flip side of the story.
The second striking aspect of Tamil Nadu’s welfare politics that has been followed by both the AIADMK and the DMK over the years is the efficiency with which the state’s ‘steel frame’ delivers the benefits. On the face of it, it seems to be more efficient than the bureaucracies in other parts of the country, particularly in the northern states.
There may be many reasons for this, but one thing is clear. When there is a strong political leadership at the top, the officials play ball. Whatever her other faults, like not brooking dissent or the propagation of her cult through every social programme — Amma salt, Amma idlis, Amma medicine, Amma water, and it has started to create a reaction among the educated young — CM J Jayalalithaa is known to be a good administrator who does her homework before every meeting and insists on accountability from her officials.
Amma has enjoyed a certain credibility about delivering on promises she makes at poll time. An expert in one of Chennai’s top development agencies remarked with touching faith the other day that if only the increased levels of anaemia among women in Tamil Nadu could be brought to Jayalalithaa’s notice, correctives would be put in place.
He was referring to an increase in female anaemia in the state shown in the National Family Health Survey 4, considering Tamil Nadu is way ahead of other states in most human development indices. The moment Jayalalithaa was sworn in this time, she made her way to Fort St George to redeem some of her poll pledges, including a loan waiver to farmers, providing 100 units of free electricity and shutting 500 liquor shops to silence her opponents who had made total prohibition an issue.
Today, Tamil Nadu’s welfare politics is being copied in other states because it yields rich electoral dividends. Uttar Pradesh has gone in for the doubly fortified salt (iron and iodine) in several districts as a pilot, the model being Amma salt. Jharkhand is reviving its ‘Dal-Bhat’ scheme of Rs 5-a-meal for the poor. But these states will do well to remember the other prerequisites for the success of Tamil Nadu’s social schemes: a strong political leadership, political stability provided by a virtual two-party system, and a bureaucracy that delivers.
Dry State of Revenues The ‘good politics versus bad economics’ argument is not new. This time, Amma, committed to phasing out the liquor business that was a cash cow, faces the challenge of generating resources from other sources for her ‘freebies’ in a Budget-deficit, although prosperous, state.
At the end of the day, it boils down to priorities. Thanks to ‘welfarism’, few in Tamil Nadu need go hungry today. Surely, this should have happened after seven decades of independence across the country.
And it goes without saying that for good economics to flourish in a democracy, one must first have good politics firmly in place.