Tamil Nadu polls: Welfare, freebies, prohibition

Promised by parties in this election, prohibition may create new opportunities in Tamil Nadu — of a new economy of resource mobilisation, a new politics of distribution.

Written by M. Vijayabaskar | Updated: May 11, 2016 7:52 am
tamil nadu, tamil nadu elections, aiadmk, aiadmk manifesto, free mobiles, jaya, tamil nadu polls, Liquor ban, jayalalithaa manifesto, Jayalalithaa, jaya poll promise, tamil nadu news, india news, elections news, latest news Despite the push for a neoliberal economic order, governments of several countries engage in some form of direct transfers to citizens independent of whether they are employed or not. (Illustration: C R Sasikumar)

Even as it pursues a growth path premised on the agency of private capital, Tamil Nadu has been at the forefront of devising a range of social welfare measures targeted at poorer households. Driven by electoral promises, such interventions have been pronounced particularly since the 2006 assembly elections. The two major political parties that have been in power, the DMK and the AIADMK, have come in for criticism for their “freebie” politics. Apart from a well-functioning universal Public Distribution System, the two parties, between them, have offered a slew of household assets like free LPG stoves, television sets, laptops to students enrolled in secondary education and above, mixers and grinders, cows and goats to the rural poor, and run heavily subsidised food canteens in major urban centres. Despite a growing vulnerability of agrarian livelihoods in the state, these measures have led to considerable reductions in poverty. Thanks largely to such measures, Tamil Nadu has emerged as a “model” state with its ability to combine economic growth with high levels of human development. In the upcoming elections, the DMK’s emphasis has shifted towards better governance with the offer of implementation of a Right to Public Services Act, revival of agriculture and job creation. The only “freebie” promise in the DMK manifesto this time is tablets for students and free WiFi connectivity. The AIADMK, however, has offered a huge subsidy for scooters and mobile phones.

This competitive welfarist plank has however been criticised by both the Left and the Right. The Right’s criticisms are obvious. Fiscal profligacy and handouts don’t make economic sense and, importantly, they tend to make people lazy. The Left has two main disagreements with the welfarist model. One, “handouts” tend to depoliticise the electorate. When the two dominant parties woo voters by offers of “handouts”, the electorate tend to be bought off by such schemes. The voters tend to therefore ignore the corrupt practices or the unjust economic policies that the two parties pursue. The other major criticism of the Left is the revenue model that the state has followed in order to meet its expenditure. Since 2003, the Tamil Nadu government has taken over alcohol distribution and sale, allowing it to garner substantial revenues through sale of liquor. In other words, the state wilfully undermines the health of its citizens by pushing liquor sales to pursue its populist agenda.

Neither the depoliticisation claims of the Left nor the wrong incentivisation argument of the Right are actually tenable. Importantly, they tend to ignore global trends in welfare interventions in post-colonial societies in the last two decades. Despite the push for a neoliberal economic order, governments of several countries engage in some form of direct transfers to citizens independent of whether they are employed or not. The logic is as follows. Unlike the classical capitalist transition that took place in Europe that saw workers move from agriculture to the manufacturing and service sectors, this shift has not happened in most parts of the third world. While people in the rural areas are dispossessed of their means of production and thrown into the urban areas, this movement has not been matched by increases in employment in the “modern” sector as anticipated. In India too, jobless growth is a recognised phenomenon since the 1990s.

As a result, the classical model of demanding social welfare primarily as workers is limiting, argues James Ferguson, the renowned anthropologist. In his 2015-book Give a Man a Fish: Reflections on the New Politics of Distribution, he points out that there has been an increase in non-contributory transfers to citizens in many third world countries because the modern capitalist sector simply cannot absorb the dispossessed population. Production of wealth requires less labour than before, rendering large segments of the population “surplus”. He, therefore, insists that it is important to move out of a productivist logic of welfare demand and, instead, privilege issues of distribution outside the domain of production. Questioning the current validity of the “teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime” argument, he claims that this knowledge may not be useful in a world that requires fewer and fewer fishers to net more and more fish. Instead, it would be better to make a claim on the share of fish caught irrespective of whether one has worked to catch them or not. Social wealth owes itself to collective labour and ownership, and that ought to be the basis of claim-making.

Rather than demobilise citizens, non-contributory income transfers to the poor may in fact enable new kinds of politics, he suggests, based on evidence from Brazil. Even in the case of Tamil Nadu, though the DMK fought the 2011 elections on the basis of fulfilling its previous electoral promises of welfare and promise of more “handouts”, it lost as people saw the party to be involved in large scale corruption. This is, however, not to deny the significance of struggles over the dignity of work, the quality of economic growth or over the destruction of livelihoods. In fact, the criticism by some of the other political parties in the state that free rice is being distributed even as agricultural livelihoods are being destroyed is extremely valid. Rather, Ferguson provides new grounds for expanding the domain of struggles over distribution. Such transfers may also actually translate into better investments in education and contribute to the domain of production.

The allegation about using funds from liquor sales to fund welfare programmes has made it into popular discourse in the state, forcing both the DMK and the AIADMK to promise prohibition in some form or the other. Existing domain of welfare provisioning is, however, irreversible given the unpopularity that withdrawal entails. Clearly the revenue foregone from prohibition poses challenges for the continuation of welfarist politics by the two parties. But the opportunities for forging a new economy of resource mobilisation and a new politics of distribution that this may open up makes for interesting times in the future developmental trajectory of the state.

The writer is associate professor, Madras Institute of Development Studies.

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  1. K
    May 11, 2016 at 11:33 am
    Both the Tamil parties, DMK and AIADMK are well- versed in drawing people towards them by ' welfare' measures. They also have knack of generating revenue.
  2. A
    Anupam Kumar
    May 11, 2016 at 7:46 am
    Very crisply written.lt;br/gt;I am unaware of the statistics but one would presume that the Alcohol Revenue to Welfare Handout model is essentially one pocket to another as it would take from and give to the same socio-economic cl. Presumably, a new economy of Resource Mobilisation may veer in the direction of 'Tackling Inequality' through the power of differential and harsher Taxation on the legal incomes of those declaring the same (read on-rolls middle cl). Prohibition per se is understood and in some ways, proven to be both fiscally and behaviorally untenable. While Bureaucrats grapple with alternating means of balancing revenues and expenditures, the driver is never actually better or more optimised revenue models but only models which serve the existing method of political mobilisation on that day. The danger then is governments promising something which cannot be taken back (in a democratic state). This then is a long term burden on the exchequer while the politics gallops away to newer 'models' so to say.
  3. J
    May 11, 2016 at 10:16 am
    The People of Tamilnadu are awe struck noting the volley of freebies announced and that they presume to receive…but the General Public now shivers with FEAR on just the mention of those freebies which may prove a projectile to increase the prices of all essential commodities and services like Power, Milk, Busfare, Electricity- immediately on uming office as the condition that was witnessed in 2011 and also the Commercial taxes, Property taxes, water taxes etc.will be increasedlt;br/gt;Last time as soon as the CM took charge she increased the Commercial Taxes which was prevailing at 4% ,8% 12% to the increased 5% and 14.5% which means the issuing of freebies to about Rs.5000-00 to BPL card holders- All the people of the State have to take the burden for all these years . Even essential things like Dhall. Sugar, Food grains, Toothpaste, Toilet Soaps, Detergents, Petrol, Diesel, and other many many things were taxed more. Busfare. Electricity charges, Milk were increased.lt;br/gt;One have a doubt that the free Electricity is eligible to only people who have consumed less than 100 units (in Two Months) while the others are not eligible. If that is so, only a very very small segment of people will get the benefit whereas all other will have to pay the existing charges. On past experiences the Electricity charges will be increased or doubled ie from Rs.6.00 or 7.00 per unit to Rs.12-00 or 14-00 to compensate for the so called 100 Units free electricity.lt;br/gt;lt;br/gt;The announcement of decreasing the cost of Milk is a violent shock on the minds of people. They feel highly betra and Cheated by the government because if she can do this now she need not have increased it when she umed office in 2011. She had vehemently Punished the electorate who had faith in her and had elected her..lt;br/gt;lt;br/gt;It is noteworthy that the so called very low quality freeby items had benefited only the suppliers and politicians and not the beneficiary because most were defective even when they were distributed and did not have any service backup or warranty.
  4. M
    manoj mayogi
    May 12, 2016 at 6:58 pm
    In India a voter would have changed for little usual thing like that " for a Bottle of whiskey voter would change his vote direction " . in india the government is not made by the educated Pearson's vote, here political leaders lure the public for a pyjama , kurta , sari , mobile and other chaep things.
  5. M
    manoj mayogi
    May 12, 2016 at 6:47 pm
    Once a foreigner said to me that Indian are like a chameleon, so I asked him , how you examined this then he said "In India a voter would have changed his opinion for a little usua
  6. G
    May 11, 2016 at 10:43 am
    This is a completely wrong interpretation of the "freebies" culture. The dramas enacted at election times by the Tweedledee and Tweedledum of TN politics are nothing but a travesty of democratic principles and naked corruption. And nothing at all to do with welfare and poverty relief. It is time the "academics" tell the truth, rather than search for some strange discovery in TN.
  7. V
    May 11, 2016 at 2:09 pm
    It is a paid article
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