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.