The sun above dulls her head, the baked earth burns her soles. Malar, in her forties, is one of 113 women watering babul trees in Tiruvannamalai constituency in Tamil Nadu. Asked what she gets for her sweat, she replies: “Rs 148 a day in my bank.” These women are toiling in the sun as part of NREGA, the Rs 33,000 crore-a-year national employment guarantee scheme. Farm workers all, they could do with the extra income. A group of 15 women now gather around Malar. Their constituency goes to vote on Thursday.
Whom do they credit for this scheme; whom will they vote to thank? One voice whispers “Sonia”, but the rest are confused. “The scheme is monitored by our panchayat” — the village-level body that regional parties DMK and AIADMK dominate. “It is thanks to them.”
Tiruvannamalai is the district where NREGA has been best implemented in recent years, according to government statistics analysed by The Indian Express. NREGA gives a rural family 100 days of paid work a year. One way to calculate the scheme’s implementation is from the total “persondays” a district provides every year. Compared to 2009, an additional 165 lakh persondays were provided in Tiruvannamalai in 2013, the highest increase from among 636 districts analysed. The UPA’s flagship welfare programme, NREGA is chanted by Rahul Gandhi ceaselessly. The irony is that the best recent implementation is in a non-Congress state, by a district with a non-Congress MP.
Other Tamil Nadu districts too score well, and for a simple reason. Its powerful Dravidian parties, DMK and AIADMK, have long mixed identity politics with welfare schemes. The midday meal scheme was the brainchild of Congress chief minister K Kamaraj back in 1956. His non-Congress successors have since turned freebies into an art form. Parties now compete to gift colour TVs, gunny bags of rice, and milch cows to voters.
These schemes are implemented by a local bureaucracy that is motivated and responsive. An IAS officer posted in Chennai says: “Sometimes when I go to a village [government] building on Sunday, I see [local] officials working. In no other state does this happen.” When this reporter visited the district’s rural development office, he found computer-laden desks humming with quiet activity. Sticklers for protocol, state government officials refused requests for an interview, fearing that political talk by bureaucrats in election season might invite the wrath of the Election Commission.
Tamil Nadu has tweaked NREGA to improve it further. “We have a rule that 100 per cent of the money should go into wages, not construction [costs],” says a district official in charge of the programme. Korandairaj, a wizened farm worker, points to dry swaths of land near his village. He and his wife have built ponds and cleaned canals here as part of NREGA. This needs no cement or tar, only their sweat.
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Korandairaj is one of many farm workers in this largely agricultural district, another reason why the scheme attracts so many. “The 100-day scheme is working [here] because we don’t have manufacturing [units],” the DMK candidate for the constituency says. Others complain that NREGA has raised the costs of manual labour. “Tamilians are not willing to work anymore. Labourers are now coming from Bihar,” one local quips. But no one doubts that a scheme that has had such an impact in recent years is a vote winner. The only question is: who will reap those votes?
Battle for credit
Tiruvannamalai is a Hindu pilgrimage site in northern Tamil Nadu, in a region where the PMK is cultivating a Vanniyar caste votebank. But this particular constituency is a DMK stronghold, with the party having won the last five elections. A visit to the local party office shows why. In the sprawling sitting area, workers are absorbing an M K Karunanidhi lecture on video. To the right are glass cabins packed with files and computer screens. When asked for the candidate’s schedule, party workers rummage through sheets, locating his precise movements for the next day. Long before high-profile analysts left investment firms to crunch numbers for Narendra Modi and Rahul, the Dravidian parties had created an organisation, part grassroots and part corporate, that percolates to the smallest village even today.
The DMK’s long-time MP has given way to a new candidate. C N Annadurai is a Google nightmare. His name is a carbon copy of the DMK’s first chief minister in Tamil Nadu. The Indian Express met him wading through a box of sambar rice before leading a cavalcade of black and red flags through town. Annadurai knows that the “100-day scheme” is a success here. His party deserves credit, he claims, since “we were part of [the] central coalition” when the law was enacted in 2005. He complains that payments are delayed and promises to increase the daily wage. His focus though is on youth employment. Asked whether Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa’s myriad schemes will block his cavalcade, he responds: “All her schemes are with central government money. She has not put in any state money.”
He is referring to the party that is his closest competitor. The AIADMK candidate, R Vanaroja, is unusually shy for a politician. But then, Jayalalithaa’s picks are known for their reserve. Asked whether her party will support a Modi government, Vanaroja whispers: “Leader will decide.” Vanaroja agrees the “100-day scheme” has helped many here. But she is not campaigning on that. The AIADMK, which runs the state government, has its own schemes to peddle, from free laptops to one-rupee idlis. At rally after rally, she requests votes for “two leaves” (the party symbol) and for Amma. This reporter asks her party workers whether their candidate will become a minister if Jayalalithaa supports the central government. Her partymen dance with joy at the mere thought, but the candidate herself, aware that even reflected ambition could end her career, shushes their cheers.
Vanaroja does not speak of NREGA, but her voters thank her for it. At a local church, a gaggle of farm workers are asked whether they have worked on the “100-day scheme”. All 10 raise one of their hands. When asked which party was responsible, they answer “Jayalalithaa”.
This is perhaps why the Congress candidate, A Subramaniam, cuts such a tragic figure. As a party worker puts it, the Congress here lacks “cadre, money, leaders”, a result of its nine-year alliance with the DMK. Its state leadership is running for cover; Shipping Minister G K Vasan, K V Thangkabalu, and Finance Minister P Chidambaram have all declined to contest the elections. Add to that the national walloping Congress is expecting, and Subramaniam, a lawyer, looks painfully aware of the quality of the brief he has been assigned to argue.
Subramaniam is advertising the Congress’s central schemes. His manifesto proclaims, in Tamil, the “hand symbol which gave 100 days of employment to each and every village”; another flyer has a photograph of Rahul carrying mud along with an NREGA worker. On his cracker-bursting campaign trail, Subramaniam’s loudspeakers demand votes “for Sonia who gave you the 100-day scheme”, followed by the psychedelic chant: “kai kai kai kai kai [hand, hand, hand, hand, hand]”. In an interview to The Indian Express, Subramaniam said NREGA was his main plank to “get rural votes”, and blamed his competitors for “saying false things” to claim credit. His party workers complain that the 100-day scheme is not seen as Delhi’s gift but an offering by local gram panchayats, and “…only a few Congress people are panchayat presidents.” Asked if the scheme would win him the election, Subramaniam replies, “I’m hoping for the best.”
In private, his partymen are more willing to state the obvious. They seem to have read the writing on the wall. Chalk white walls here are painted with two green leaves (AIADMK), a red sun emerging from a black mountain valley (DMK), or a juicy mango (PMK). The Congress hand is truly invisible.
When the Congress begins to question itself come May 16, Tiruvannamalai may provide some answers. Distant leaders, decimated cadres and dull marketing have led to a spectacular self-goal. For in the district that has made the most of Sonia’s grandest scheme, her party seems outmanned, outspent and, worst of all, out-schemed.