By all accounts, the Amma Baby Care Kit launched by Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa on Monday could make every amma in the state happier. The kit, which has 16 items ranging from a mosquito net and an infant mattress to a dress, toy and a hand sanitiser, will be distributed to mothers of new-borns through government hospitals. The Rs 67-crore initiative is aimed at improving hygiene and sanitation among the poor, which in turn could help reduce ailments among newborns. Women and children have always been seen to occupy a place in Jayalalithaa’s projected development narrative. Prior to the kit, she had announced setting up exclusive enclosures in bus stations for lactating mothers. Her previous tenures as CM saw targeted welfare measures such as the cradle baby scheme to curb female infanticide. Many of these have been successful and have since been adopted by other states.
It is often asked whether governments should spend precious resources on subsidies and so-called freebies. States like Tamil Nadu offer a slew of free or subsidised goods that range from television sets and mixie-grinders to seeds and cement. Over the years, the state has expanded the ambit of public services from running schools, hospitals and transport utilities to managing canteens, sellling subsidised drinking water and medicines. Competitive populism has led to every successive government adding to the list of free or subsidised goods and services. The fiscal cost of such extravagance has weighed on the state finances and crippled public investment in infrastructure. That said, however, a sweeping critique of subsidies and welfare misses the point.
The experience from the southern states is that well-designed welfare initiatives targeted at vulnerable sections, primarily women, girl children and the poor, deliver results. The achievements of Tamil Nadu and Kerala in areas like public health and literacy are the outcome of targeted subsidies. Welfare works in the southern states mainly because the delivery mechanisms are in place. With the deepening of democracy and the electoral space becoming more and more competitive, this should happen in the rest of India too.