Most people are familiar with the platitude ‘there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch’. However, the Indian state of Tamil Nadu is a fine exception to this statement. Ever since 2012, the Tamil Nadu government has been offering one square meal a day to 68 Lakhs underfed children. This is being done through 52000 centers, including 31000 schools across the state. This scheme is laudable in a country where a third of the total children live below the poverty line, where about 50 to 60 million children suffer from malnutrition and at least 70 per cent of children from poor families suffer from growth retardation. The initiative to feed underfed school children was undertaken by Tamil Nadu’s most charismatic and influential Chief Minister, M.G. Ramachandran in the year 1982, as a part of his ambitious Midday Nutritious Meal Scheme costing over a 150 crores to implement. The scheme is probably the shrewdest political move of the matinee idol’s political career, combining as it does social benefit with political profit giving rise to populism- support for the concerns of the masses. Although this was a welfare measure, it marked the beginning of the ‘freebie’ culture. Another instance of populism is when at one point during M.G.R’s tenure the state suffered from an acute water shortage. To counter the shortage, he announced a scheme to distribute plastic water containers to families below the poverty line. This was done instead of signing the Telugu-Ganga agreement with the state of Andra Pradesh which was supposed to address the problem.[i] This kind of populist proclivity has characterized much of Tamil Nadu’s politics for the past four decades. Extensive use of this ideology has been increasingly employed by the two leading parties in Tamil Nadu- the DMK headed by M. Karunanidhi and the AIADMK headed by V.K.Sasikala. However, unlike politicians across the world, the Dravidian politicians stand true to their word and keep their end of the bargain once elected.
It was DMK who first opened the floodgates of cash for votes in 2006 by promising ‘freebies’ once their cabinet was formed. The DMK spent Rs 3,340 crores on 15,280,000 colour TV sets with each costing an average of Rs 2500. A ration card holder in the state could purchase a kilogram of rice for Re 1, several other food items such as cooking oil and pulses at subsidized rates, a free gas stove with an LPG connection, free school education for children, subsidized health insurance and a Rs. 75000 subsidy to convert a thatched hut into a pucca dwelling.
During Karunanidhi’s tenure, the DMK government spent Rs 14,626 crores on food subsidies, Rs 3,922 crores on free TV sets and Rs 660 crores on free LPG stoves. It has embarked Rs. 12,000 crores for the housing scheme involving 1.2 million hutments. The insurance scheme has provided 2.7 lakhs people treatment costing Rs 700 crores. The DMK government also allocated Rs 1080 crores for free solar powered houses, Rs 514 crores for gold mangalsutras for brides and Rs 1250 crores for free distribution of electrical appliances such as mixers grinders, fans etc.[ii]
To compound the strain on the state’s treasury the government observed a ‘tax free budget’ policy wherein a budget which has any new taxes was seen as anti-poor and despicable, hence severely depriving the much needed state revenue.
However, the incumbent chief minister was no different than her predecessor. No sooner than Jayalalithaa assumed office in 2016 did she immediately start doling out the freebies she had promised over the course of her election campaign. The first five signatures of hers were on files that dealt with free breakfast for government schools, free gold for women getting married, free power for handloom weavers, free power for domestic consumers and prohibition. The cost of signing the files mentioned above was as follows: Waiver of farm loans- Rs5780 crores; Gold for educated brides-Rs 308 crores; 100 units of free power to households- Rs 1607 crores; Power for handloom weavers- Rs 19.08 crores. She also donated stationery and uniforms to students studying in state-aided schools for the academic year 2016-17. The freebies which have been distributed among the public range from free rice, household appliances, gold, and cattle even basic commodities such as salt, tea and water etc.[iii]
After the election of E.K.Palaniswami, the new measures include subsidized two-wheeler scheme for working women, housing scheme for fishermen, doubling of unemployment allowance and closure of 500 liquor shops. As per the 'two-wheeler scheme', the government would subsidize 50 per cent of the cost of a two-wheeler, subject to a maximum of Rs 20,000, ordering increase in financial assistance to pregnant women from Rs 12,000 to Rs 18,000 to benefit around 600,000 pregnant women at an outlay of Rs 360 crores per annum, increased the monthly allowance to unemployed persons — per month Rs 200 (10th standard fail), Rs 300 (10th standard pass), Rs 400 (12th standard fail), Rs 600 (graduates and post-graduates) have been issued to close 500 liquor shops towards implementing prohibition in the state in a gradual manner.[iv]
In the process of rolling out freebies the political leadership of the state has also built a debt bomb. The freebie culture has existed in the state for decades now. Thus as the freebies keep on increasing over the years it had a snowball effect on the state’s debts. In 2011, Tamil Nadu’s debt was Rs. 1, 01,349 crores. At the end of 2014-15, it was Rs 1, 81,036 crores. In the year 2015- 16, the debt amounted to Rs 2, 35,260 crores. "As per the interim budget presented by the AIADMK government before the assembly polls, the state's revenue expenditure was estimated at Rs 1.61 lakh crores while its revenue was put at Rs 1.06 lakh crores. The central grants were put at Rs 48,000 crores. The revenue deficit was estimated at Rs 9,155 crores,” said K.R. Shanmugam, a former director of the Madras School of Economics and currently with the Institute of Financial Management and Research. As for the current financial year, Tamil Nadu’s debt is a whooping Rs 2, 52,431 crores. The state’s debt has witnessed a 92 percent increase over the course of five years (2010-15). According to the Reserve Bank of India, Tamil Nadu registered the highest gross fiscal deficit among all states in 2015-16 at Rs 31,830 crores. For current fiscal the Tamil Nadu pegged its fiscal deficit at Rs 40,534 crores or 2.96 percent of the GDP. From 2010- 15 the debt level of Tamil Nadu has risen 105 percent from Rs 1.14 lakh crores to Rs 2.35 lakh crores. [v]
It is also important to note that the state’s tax revenue does not show any significant increase which could help counter the exponentially rising debt trends. The numbers speak for themselves.
Distribution of freebies has predominantly overtaken the center stage in all election campaigns. There has always been an upsurge trend to outdo the rival party in doling out freebies during pre and post election period resulting in garnering votes and in the process creating a vote bank for the most generous of the contenders. Due to distribution of freebies, voters do not make rational or truly informed choices and solely direct their attention to short term aspects of growth. This decades old tradition needs to be closely scrutinized. Competitive populism has the result of hindering important social welfare measures, and investment in infrastructure development over the long term.[vi] Many of the freebies given are nothing more than post-election gifts for votes at the expense of the state diverting resources from matters that truly require the capital.
In the year 2013, advocate Subramanian Balaji filed a PIL against the state of Tamil Nadu challenging the legitimacy of the promises made during these election campaigns the lawyer claimed it to be ‘unauthorized, impermissible and ultra-vires to the constitutional mandates’. Any ’gift’ or ‘promise’ made by the candidate or his agent to induce an elector to vote in his favour would amount to ‘bribery’ under section 123 of the Representation of People’s Act was Advocate Balaji’s argument. Even though the Supreme Court ruled in favour of the state it acknowledged that in reality the freebie culture does influence the electorate and compromises the legitimacy of the elections to a large degree. Owing to the above judgment the Supreme Court ordered the Election Commission of India (ECI) to frame guidelines with consultation of political parties on its general conduct and election manifesto including the model code of conduct (MCC). One such guideline added to the MCC is- political parties should avoid making promises which are likely to vitiate the purity and the sanctity of the election processor or exert undue influence of any kind on the voter base in exercising their franchise.[vii]
After emerging victorious in Tamil Nadu E.K.Palaniswami has inherited a huge pile of debt, a draught hit economy and millions of people who accustomed to enjoying decades of populist policies await the new incumbent. So far, the new chief minister and the people of Tamil Nadu have trod on the same path as their predecessors.
[i] ‘Tamil Nadu: Midday manna’, India Today, August 1,2013. http://indiatoday.intoday.in/story/mgr-midday-nutritious-meal-scheme-a-shrewd-political-move/1/392281.html
[ii] Madhavan, N., ‘DMK's free lunches turn costly’, Business Today, April 3, 2011. http://www.businesstoday.in/magazine/features/assembly-polls-dmk-government-unrestrained-populism/story/13896.html
[iii] ‘Jayalalithaa distributes freebies as Tamil Nadu debt soars: Report’, DNA India, June 2, 2016.
[iv] ‘CM Palaniswami’s day one: Freebies to win over public’, DNA India, February 21, 2017.
[v] ‘Jayalalithaa dead: How Amma’s populist policies left a debt bomb ticking in TN’, FirstPost, February 13, 2017. http://www.firstpost.com/politics/jayalalithaa-dead-ammas-populist-policies-leave-a-debt-bomb-ticking-in-tn-3142324.html
[vi] ‘In a freebie state’, The Hindu, May 07, 2016. http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/editorial/In-a-freebie-state/article14310295.ece
[vii] ‘EC to parties: Don’t just promise, explain how they’ll be fulfilled’, The Indian Express, February 21, 2014. http://indianexpress.com/article/india/politics/ec-to-parties-dont-just-promise-explain-how-theyll-be-fulfilled/
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