Soon after winning the assembly elections, DMK chief M K Stalin wrote to his party cadres that this victory has given him a crown with thorns. The pandemic and the unprecedented fiscal burden must be his most immediate concerns. There are, however, other longer-term challenges, some of which are internal to the state and an outcome of its relatively inclusive development trajectory. The growing concentration of power in the Union government and the erosion of policy autonomy aggravate this challenge.
Tamil Nadu’s ability to combine comparatively high levels of human development with economic dynamism can be attributed to the distinct political mobilisation against caste-based inequalities in the state. In our recent book, The Dravidian Model: Interpreting the Political Economy of Tamil Nadu, we suggest that apart from the extent of lower caste mobilisation, it is the nature of mobilisation that makes a difference. It sought and ensured opportunity-equalising policies in the expanding modern sectors through affirmative action policies and investments in education and health. It also succeeded in building a bloc of lower caste groups under a Dravidian-Tamil identity that subsumed and sought to transcend individual caste identities. Mobilisation built an ethos that questioned the privileges of caste elites and the naturalness of merit in caste society. When the bloc gained political power, it ensured a relatively inclusive development pathway through several policy interventions.
Tamil Nadu has been a pioneer in broad-basing entry into school education through a slew of incentives, the noon meal scheme being the most well-known. Over time, mobilisation and policy response fed into the creation of school and college infrastructure, apart from expanding the horizon of aspirations among lower caste households, and enabled one of the highest enrolment rates for women and lower caste groups. Among other factors, lowering the cost of education played a key role. As per the National Sample Survey (NSS) 71st round (2014), the average expenditure of a higher secondary student in a government school in Tamil Nadu was Rs 2,862, which is less than half the all-India average of Rs 6,916. The corresponding expenditure in Maharashtra and Gujarat was as high as Rs 8,788 and Rs 9,179 respectively. Over time, this support has expanded to the domain of tertiary education as well. As per the All-India Survey on Higher Education (AISHE) 2017–18, the gross enrolment ratio (GER) for Tamil Nadu is the highest among the major states. Nearly 50 per cent of the youth between 18–23 years are in some form of higher education compared to the all-India average of 26 per cent. Importantly, it is more evenly distributed across gender, caste, class and space. The enrolment ratios for women are 48 per cent in Tamil Nadu as against 25 per cent at the all-India level. Though lower than that of the overall population, the GER is also relatively higher for SC youth. To add, as per the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO 2014–15), 32 per cent graduates who are enrolled in higher education are in technical or professional courses in Tamil Nadu compared to 15 per cent at the all-India level, 21 per cent for comparable states like Maharashtra and 20 per cent for Gujarat. The average expenditure incurred by a student pursuing a technical or professional course in government institutions in Tamil Nadu was Rs 35,084 as against Rs 46,316 in Gujarat, and was a little over half that in Maharashtra (Rs 60,047). The all-India average was Rs 42,069.
Attainments in education generated positive linkages with the productive economy. If we compare the levels and extent of education among its workforce, Tamil Nadu does better than most states. This also feeds into a process of “democratisation” of capital in the lower rungs, with new entrants from among the backward castes and a section of Dalits, especially through access to professional education. Though larger enterprises continue to be predominantly under the control of upper castes, the ownership of small and medium enterprises that the state is known for has been open to lower castes. Though the share of Dalits among entrepreneurs continues to be low, the Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry records that the state is home to one of the highest concentrations of Dalit enterprises in India. As per the Economic Census 2013–14, one out of every four Dalit enterprises in the “20–99 workers” category is located in Tamil Nadu.
Nevertheless, this broad-basing of access has led to new challenges by way of inequities in quality, access and economic gains across caste and space in higher education. The disparities lead to labour market inequities across caste and class lines, which is feeding into assertions of caste pride among some sections of lower castes, particularly visible in the resentment among sections of backward castes against the mobility among the Dalits. Such assertions open up possibilities of a Sanskritised mobilisation of lower castes that the Hindu right-wing has been involved in. The BJP was able to partially exploit this sentiment and won four seats in this election.
The other challenge is external. The New Education Policy, for example, seeks to centralise policies pertaining to education, restricting the role of state governments. Affirmative action in employment has already become less effective due to the reduction in the public sector and has been further eroded now. Apart from inserting a quota for economically weaker sections from the upper castes, the Supreme Court recently ruled against the possibility of increasing the total reservation of seats to more than 50 per cent. Importantly, it has suggested that state governments can no longer retain the right to frame their own reservation policies, such as deciding on the backwardness of castes. As a pioneer in demanding greater autonomy for states, the onus is on the DMK to mobilise parties across the country to resist this onslaught on federalism and social justice.
This article first appeared in the print edition on June 14, 2021 under the title ‘Centre and the Dravidian state’. The writers are with the Madras Institute of Development Studies