Event ReportsPublished on Oct 25, 2018
Experts list out factors that made Tamil Nadu’s ‘welfare experiment’, a success

“We have been inspired to look at the ‘Tamil Nadu Experience’, which provides interesting insights into governance,” said L Ramkumar, President Madras Management Association (MMA), initiating the second seminar in a series on “Functional Governance for a New India”, organised jointly with Observer Research Foundation, Chennai Chapter (ORF-C), on 12 September 2018.  During this period, there were clear objectives and ideologies which transformed into policies, which in turn were then implemented successfully at the ground-level he said. In this context, Ramkumar asked the crucial question: “What made this happen?”

Throwing light on Tamil Nadu being chosen as the topic for the event, N Sathiya Moorthy, Director, ORF-C, said, “Tamil Nadu is ahead of the rest of the country in many ways, this includes the socio-economic sectors but most importantly in terms of administration.” This made it an important case study for understanding the challenges as well as the opportunities of functional governance.” However, it is has never been one singular factor that allowed Tamil Nadu to be ahead of the rest, but a combination of factors. Regretfully, these were not understood well enough, both within the State and outside, said Sathiya Moorthy.

Changing social-balance

Delivering the keynote address, Dr S Narayan, IAS (retd), former Economic Advisor to Prime Minister Vajpayee and ex-Finance Secretary, Government of India, had this by way of response. “What I have witnessed along with some of my colleagues is a kind of social change and revolution in Tamil Nadu which is quite unparalleled, if you take all the States of India into account,” said Dr Narayan, who had started his civil service career as a Tamil Nadu cadre officer, serving the State Government for long, before migrating to the Centre.

Drawing upon the title of his recent book, the ‘Dravidian Years’, he said their rule in particular was characterised by a strong and charismatic leadership in the form of Chief Ministers M Karunanidhi, M G Ramachadnran and J Jayalalitha, and the prevalence of ideas of social reform and social justice, which shaped sector-wise welfare programmes targeting particular sections of the society.  All of it helped to change the balance of society and to create a diverse one reflective of the Tamil population and “to move away from the dominance of the forward communities”, explained Dr Narayan.

What was distinctive about Tamil Nadu is that the administration was as much part of the process and transition. In many cases, the administration spearheaded the changes. There was an inter-play of many factors, political ideology, the motivation of the political leadership and the aspirations and expectations of the people at large, and and effective and efficient administration. “This made Tamil Nadu unique, because in other States there was never a distinct social ideology driving development the way it was in Tamil Nadu,” he said.

Referring to the two case-studies from his book, Dr Narayan said that the Mid-day Meal Programme and the Integrated Nutrition Programme demonstrated how good administration can deliver complex programmes. These programmes ensured that nutritious noon-meals, as defined by international norms, was delivered to target children in 17,000 schools across the State every day. The entire scheme was planned to the last detail, to make it work. He hoped that these case studies would be looked at by students and scholars of public administration.

Dr Narayan felt that several programmes in Tamil Nadu, even if the origins were purely political, resulted in public welfare enhancement, that in turn served political ends, as well. As a result, these initiatives continued. These programmes survived changes of political leadership and government because they enhanced public good.

‘Freebies culture’

Dr Narayan used the example of the nutritious noon-meal scheme, initiated by the MGR Government, and analysed the factors, and also identified two of them in particular, which had led to its success. One was simply the charisma of MGR’s leadership. Nobody in his party questioned him and this contributed to the success of the programmes that he initiated. Secondly, Narayan explained, these programmes provided employment at the village-level, which also served the political goals of the lower-level political leaderships of panchayat presidents and ruling party legislators. This also meant that those political functionaries invested in the continuation of the programme.

Such programmes, the speaker said, therefore, worked at many levels –the conceptual level, at the level of the political leadership and also at bureaucratic level. As Dr Narayan noted, during MGR’s rule, welfare parameters improved tremendously, as was evidenced by international studies by the World Bank and the rest. This included higher nutrition levels, fall in infant-mortality rates, and reduced levels of anaemia among women and children. Public awareness and public pressure also sustained several of these programmes, he said.

However, Dr Narayan regretted that in the years following 1991, things started to change. There was a new, noticeable trend of giving something in order to get vote: “freebies” as they are now known.  This has led to a shift away from the ‘Dravidian ideology’, the idea of welfare programmes for the poor, social justice and social reform.

“As a result, the overall development aspect, which we see in terms of better infrastructure, encouragement of industry, strengthening of the financial services is losing ground,” Dr Narayan said. This in turn has impacted on the involvement and innovation of the bureaucracy, which has taken a step back. “The bureaucracy sees these schemes as mere give-aways for votes, rather than for public benefit,” he added.

In conclusion, Dr Narayan said that Tamil Nadu had got used to charismatic leadership. “Entire generations were used to looking up to one leader, who held the State together,” he said. “Who or what will replace this in the in the future remains an important, unanswered and looming question, in the immediate context of the deaths of AIADMK Chief Minister Jayalalithaa and DMK’s Karunanidhi  in near-quick succession,” he added.

Need for ‘goal-setting’

Mr S Kannan, IRS, Commissioner GST & Central Excise, Government of India, provided a civil service perspective on functional governance. For the civil service to deliver on its goals, strong political leadership was extremely important, he pointed out. Goal-setting had to happen at the top levels of Government and it had to be clear and consistent. “When this happens the civil service is able to play its role.”

The civil service should also have autonomy, said Kannan. He mentioned the Delhi Metro and GST as positive examples for ‘civil service and functional governance’. The GST in particular demonstrated the reality of cooperative federalism in the country, where both State and Central Ministers came together and decision-making took place through consensus.

It was under such circumstances that the civil service was able to play its best role, pointed out Mr Kannan. Looking to the future, he said, it was important to constantly study technologies that could help delivery, implementation and transparency of programmes such as block-chain technology.

Dr Prateep V Philip, IPS, Inspector-General of Police, Civil Supplies CID, Tamil Nadu, spoke of several schemes rolled out by the State Government through the ‘Dravidian years’. Some like the ‘Antyodaya Anna Yojana’ were Centrally-sponsored schemes, this one, to provide highly subsidised food to millions of the poorest families. However, Tamil Nadu implemented this scheme by providing free rice to the States poor.

The distribution of government wastelands to the landless poor, free distribution of milch-animals and goats, Rain Water Harvesting (RWH), the health insurance and free bicycles and laptops to students were among some of the best implemented schemes in the State. He also spoke of the innovations and pioneering initiatives started by the Tamil Nadu Police, namely, the ‘Friends of Police’ movement, as an extension of such measures.

Engines of growth

Mr Shailesh Pathak, MBA, IAS (retd), Chief Executive, L & T Infrastructure Development Projects Ltd, said that cities would be the engines of growth and in Tamil Nadu, the focus ought to be on five cities, Chennai, Tiruchi, Madurai, Coimbatore and Salem. According to him, the main problem was that these cities were not governing themselves.

“Anywhere else in the world, cities run themselves. Mayors in cities make decisions on how they want to run that city,” he pointed out. Therefore, as part of the larger goal of ensuring functional governance, it was crucial to empower city and local governments. “State governments treat city governments like colonies. This attitude needed to chain for there to be more efficient functional governance,” he said.

Disproportionate attention

S Viswanathan, Editor, Industrial Economist, took a more critical view of governance in the State, particularly through the Dravidian years. He said while Tamil Nadu was definitely ahead of the game in health and other sectors, it was important to point out the areas in which it had not done things right.

Mr Viswanathan felt that disproportionate attention was given to welfare programmes without a correspondingly focus on increasing State GDP. Freebies affected the economy and this was not sustainable. As a media-person, he said that the bureaucracy needed to have better relations with the public through the media.

Report by Dr Vinitha Revi, Research Associate, Observer Research Foundation, Chennai Centre

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.