Why the Tamil Nadu model trumps Gujarat

Published: December 23, 2013 - 14:18 Updated: November 29, 2014 - 18:49

The South Indian state has notched up its rankings across key social indicators by following an inclusive approach towards implementing welfare measures

MSS Pandian and A Kalaiyarasu 

Less well-known, but no less significant, is the gradual emergence and consolidation of universalistic social policies in Tamil Nadu... – Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen

Corruption, cut-outs and cine stars rule Tamil Nadu. But such stereotyping undermines the thriving economy of the state, and its redistributive dimension based on strong, state-sponsored welfare spending.

For instance, the recent Raghuram Rajan report on backwardness of states classifies 28 Indian states, based on multi-development index scores, as ‘less developed’, ‘relatively developed’ and ‘the most developed’. Tamil Nadu comes through as one of the most developed states, among the top three in
this category.

Significantly, Tamil Nadu has not merely witnessed growth, but has been able to distribute it among even the most marginalized groups. According to the 2011 census, while 72 per cent of Dalit workers are marginal workers at the national level, only 7 per cent are so in Tamil Nadu. Marginal workers are those who do not get employed for the most part of the year. Similarly, the 2005-06 National Family Health Survey data shows that the Infant Mortality Rate for Dalits in Tamil Nadu was 37 per cent, while the corresponding figure for India stands at 66 per cent.

The robust politicization of caste in the state, almost for a century, is central to this process of different social groups partaking of the benefits of the economy. In specific terms, the state has, by means of reservation and universal education, endowed these marginalized groups with capabilities to participate in the economy.

What is significant here is the continuous experimentation within reservation by the state to benefit the marginalized caste groups. For instance, in 1971, M Karunanidhi, as chief minister, took a pro-Dalit stance when he increased the SC-ST reservation to 18 per cent against the AN Sattanathan Committee’s recommendation of continuing with the pre-existing 16 per cent. On the other hand, he increased the BC reservation only to 31 per cent (from 25 per cent) although the Committee recommended it to be increased to 33 per cent. Similarly, in 1989, following the agitation by the Vanniars, an intermediate caste, he introduced the compartmental reservation by setting apart a substantial 20 per cent for the most backward and denotified communities out of the overall BC reservation of 50 per cent. This has indeed benefited to a considerable degree the disadvantaged groups within the backward castes. In fact, the Vanniars have increased their admission to professional courses five- to six-fold, following the new system of reservation.

According to the 2011 census, while 72 percent of Dalit workers are marginal workers at the national level, only 7 per cent are so in Tamil Nadu

In a similar vein, Karunanidhi also introduced in 1990 the scheme of awarding five free marks to applicants to professional courses who had no graduate in their family. While the scheme was thwarted by a Madras High Court judgment, it benefited the Dalits the most during its only year of implementation. Carrying forward such an agenda, in 2009, out of the total 18 per cent reservation for the Scheduled Castes, three percentage points were allotted to Arunthathiyars, the most oppressed among the Dalits, in admission to educational institutions, both government and private, and recruitment to government services.

Going beyond caste, the Muslims were given a 3.5 per cent reservation in 2007 out of the BC reservation. Such continuous experimentation with the system of reservation has, over time, enabled various marginalized sections to participate in an expanding economy.

In addition, Tamil Nadu has the distinction of being the first state in post-independence India to introduce free mid-day meals for school children. K Kamaraj, the Congress chief minister who expanded the reach of free school education to include millions of rural children, introduced the scheme in 1956.

The scheme, which was meant to increase the enrolment of children in schools and reduce dropouts at the primary level, covered about two lakh children. Kamaraj was a school dropout belonging to one of the lowest Tamil castes, and endorsed many elements of the non-Brahmin Dravidian politics despite being a Congressman.

What was set in motion by Kamaraj found other takers in the course of time. In 1982, MG Ramachandran, the most popular chief minister of Tamil Nadu and a film actor, extended the scheme to cover all primary schools and pre-schools in the state. The programme is run professionally. Over 90 per cent of the schools have proper kitchen infrastructure, which is periodically upgraded and modernized. The noon meal centres are also equipped with weighing scales, mats for children to sleep on, educational charts
and toys.

The programme is not managed by school teachers but by a team consisting of a meal organizer, a cook and a helper. They are paid decent salaries and given pension benefits. Panchayat-level vigilance committees regularly assess the functioning of the programme and monitor leakages. Local communities too contribute their bit by, among other things, developing kitchen gardens for the noon meal centres.

What are the tangible outcomes of this successful programme in the state? Foremost, in 2007-08, Tamil Nadu showed better results than the national average in literacy rate among children in the age group of 6-14 years. The literacy rate of this age group in Tamil Nadu was 99.1 per cent, indicating that almost all children in this particular age group were in school. The corresponding all-India figure was 92 per cent.

Caste-wise data on current attendance is equally telling. The state has performed exceptionally well in retaining no less than 99 per cent of children in schools, between the ages of 6-10, across all caste groups. The corresponding all-India figure for SCs is 87 per cent, for the OBCs 89 per cent and for general category 93 per cent.

If the Centre woke up to the question of hunger-free schoolrooms only after judicial intervention, Tamil Nadu did not require such a trigger. The reason is simple. The competitive populism of Dravidian parties forces them to address the needs of the common people as a key element of their politics and policies.

Both reservation and the continuous effort to endow children from marginalized sections with education has over time given rise to a middle class with the resources, both in terms of skill and capital, to navigate the economy. This is precisely why Tamil Nadu is not only witnessing economic growth, but growth that is inclusive.

If the Indian middle class is seduced by the so-called Gujarat model of development, what it is missing is that growth needs to be accompanied with justice. If Gujarat is growth, Tamil Nadu is growth plus social justice.


MSS Pandian teaches at the Centre for Historical Research, JNU. A Kalaiyarasu pursues research at the Centre for Studies in Regional Development, JNU.

From our archives, an extraordinary article by Prof MSS Pandian, which challenged the dominant narrative and myth making around economic growth. Pandian, an academic par excellence,died prematurely on November 10

Read more stories by Why the Tamil Nadu model trumps Gujarat

This story is from print issue of HardNews