Tamil Nadu’s freebie culture is here to stay, say parties, experts
From promises of free laptops to colour TVs and grinders, Tamil Nadu’s political parties have tried to outdo each other in offering freebies ahead of the polls for decades. This time, the parties appear to be competing to rally women with pledges specific to them. Actor-politician Kamal Haasan, who launched his Makkal Needhi Maiam (MNM) in 2018, has promised to monetise the household work that women do. Last week, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) chief MK Stalin announced they would pay women households heads ₹1,000 monthly if voted to power. The following day, chief minister Edappadi Palaniswami announced ₹1,500 monthly for women if the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) retains power.
More freebies are expected as the political parties release their election manifestos.
DMK founder CN Annadurai introduced the scheme to provide 4.5kg of rice for ₹1 in 1967 before abandoning it due to the financial burden. The “freebie culture” gained momentum when DMK’s M Karunanidhi promised free colour TVs and swept the 2006 polls. Every household has got commodities from both the DMK and AIADMK
Fulfilling the freebie promises may be difficult with the Covid-19 hitting the economy hard. Tamil Nadu’s finance minister, O Paneerselvam, in February presented a revenue deficit interim budget. The state’s debt was ₹4.87 lakh crore as of March 31, 2020.
Political leaders have justified freebies citing social justice, but experts say a balance is required between welfare politics and populism.
“It may be the key question in political economy, and we can agree with both sides,” said DMK lawmaker Palanivel Thiaga Rajan when asked whether his party’s colour TVs, ₹1 per kg rice, free gas stoves, maternity assistance of ₹1,000 for all poor women for six months helped human development indices at the cost of economic growth.
Rajan, a former international investment banker who was a part of the state assembly’s Public Accounts Committee, added one extreme view is that it is the job of the government to generate revenue by taxing those doing well and taking its cut of national resources and providing infrastructure, support and public goods and services. “The other view is if you allow the government to do everything for free, you are going to derive a layabout society. The reality is somewhere in between as no society is all freebies unlike Brunei or Saudi Arabia neither is there a society that only taxes the rich.”
Rajan said the DMK’s position and to an extent of other Dravidian parties is the basis of the government-sponsored schemes and public benefits is social justice. “It is not to prevent you from making a living.”
Rajan compared the free rice scheme to address hunger among the poor to the American food stamps, or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
Free gas stoves replaced firewood, which the party says is known to produce carcinogens and cause respiratory disorders.
“At that point after the DMK was in power in 2006, there was an internal debate between Karunanidhi’s government and the bureaucracy on whether to offer one or a two-burner stove,” said Rajan. He added Karunanidhi decided it would be a two-burner stove so they can cut cooking time and increase productivity in other aspects.
The DMK has argued TVs ensured exposure to the outside world and self-respect so that the poor did not have to watch TV through the windows of others’ homes. “It was driven by values….Where I draw the line is if it has a perverse intent,” said Rajan, criticising the AIADMK’s offer of mixers and ₹25,000 subsidy on two-wheelers for working women. “There you are transferring into the realm of wants rather than needs... the programmes must be targeted at those at the bottom of the pyramid to give dignity to those socially oppressed.”
Rajan added he is a proponent of support to new-borns and health insurance introduced by Jayalalithaa.
B Valarmathi, AIADMK leader and former social welfare minister, said they never gave what was unnecessary. “We only provide whatever will be useful particularly for women. We provide assistance so that it helps in women’s growth and they can be independent because in our society, from the time they are born and until their death, women are dependent on their parents, spouses and children.”
Valarmathi called schemes such as the gold for mangalsutra as a hit. “Amma canteens launched in 2013 have employed thousands of women from self-help groups, who run the budget canteens which have been replicated across the country. In 2014, Amma Baby Care Kit was launched with a dozen items including a feeding bottle, clothing, toy, sanitary napkins for new mothers...”
Yet the concern for women has not translated into their addressing the issue of political representation. There are only 14 women, including Valarmathi, among the 177 candidates AIADMK has announced so far. The polls to the 243-member Tamil Nadu assembly will be held on April 6.
Haasan’s party has given tickets to eight women out of 71 candidates announced so far. Pattali Makkal Katchi has named one woman candidate among its 10. The DMK on Friday released its first list of 173 candidates, including 13 women.