Womb to tomb: From Annadurai’s time, TN has been a ‘free economy’

It may not be wrong to say that Tamil Nadu has a ‘free economy.

From womb-to-tomb, there is something free.

Competitive populism has been touching new heights in the state that started the freebie culture in late 1967 with the introduction of ‘three measures’ (around 4.5 kg) of rice for Re 1 scheme introduced by DMK founder C.N. Annadurai.

Later rice was offered free through a public distribution system in the state.

After free rice, free consumer durables like cycles, laptops, mixer-grinders, fans, livestock, loan waiver, free power and gold for brides, among others, it is now cash doles and free food in Tamil Nadu.

The ruling DMK and the Kamal Haasan floated MNM had promised a monthly cash dole of Rs 1,000 to unemployed women family heads in the state.

The earlier cash doles were: Rs 1,000 and a gift hamper for almost all ration card holders as Pongul festival gift and financial assistance of Rs 2,000 for 60 lakh below poverty line (BPL) families in the state affected by cyclone Gaja and drought.

The Tamil Nadu government under the AIADMK had also started to provide free food to registered construction workers at the subsidised Amma Canteens.

After winning the elections, Annadurai became the Chief Minister and implemented the ‘three measures of rice’ scheme for some time in a few pockets but later scrapped it, owing to the financial burden.

In the run up to the 2006 Assembly elections, the DMK announced free colour televisions, rice at Rs 2 per kg (once in power this was reduced to Re 1 a kg), two acres of land for the landless, free gas stoves and Rs 300 cash doles for the unemployed, maternity assistance of Rs 1,000 for all poor women for six months as well as free power to the weavers.

After this, the freebie culture in the state gained momentum.

The AIADMK, during the next elections, went several steps ahead and announced free rice, consumer durables like fans, mixer-grinders, laptops and livestock.

The state government had also been implementing other free schemes for the poor like free cycles for students, chappals, saris and dhotis.

The AIADMK government also implemented subsidised food (Amma Canteen), cement, mineral water bottle schemes and even subsidised two wheelers for women.

Seeing how such schemes fetched votes in Tamil Nadu, national and regional parties in states such as Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Punjab and Chhattisgarh emulated the promises of cheap rice and free laptops and power.

Curiously, it was also from Tamil Nadu that late lawyer S. Subramaniam Balaji crusaded against freebies such as colour TVs and cash doles by political parties. He said these were nothing short of bribes and that governments cannot create private assets out of public funds.

In 2006, Balaji filed a case against the DMK’s promise of giving free colour TVs. In 2011, he also filed a case against the AIADMK for its promise to provide free mixer-grinder, laptop, fan, cattle and more.

After his complaints were dismissed by the Election Commission (EC) and the Madurai bench of the Madras High Court, Balaji’s case was finally decided by the Supreme Court in 2013.

The apex court directed the EC to frame a guideline on the issue in election manifestos after consulting the recognised political parties and make it a part of the model code of conduct.

However, not all such schemes in Tamil Nadu can be faulted, the prime among them being the mid-day meal scheme for school students.

Way back in 1923, in the days of the Madras Presidency, students in the schools run by the Madras Corporation were provided free meals in the afternoon.

The major thrust to the mid-day meal scheme came under the Congress government in 1960 when K. Kamaraj was the Chief Minister.

The scheme was later expanded in 1982 by Chief Minister M.G. Ramachandran of AIADMK, generating a great amount of goodwill among the poor who sent their children to school to have at least one good meal a day.

The rub off effects were increased student enrolment in schools and the enhancement of literacy levels in the state. Welfare schemes such as distribution of school bags, footwear, notebooks, textbooks and geometry boxes free of cost to students were also implemented in the state.

In a recent television debate Tamil Nadu Finance Minister Palanivel Thiaga Rajan had hit out at the AIADMK government’s subsidised two wheeler scheme for women as wasteful expenditure.

It was Rajan’s party that brought in the culture of offering free consumer durables – colour televisions – in the state.

The opponents of the DMK had then said the colour television scheme benefited the ruling family member’s cable television business with increased subscriber revenue – a case of public distribution for private profit.

(Venkatachari Jagannathan can be reached at v.jagannathan@ians.in)




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