As the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam government in Tamil Nadu is celebrating its icons (Periyar E.V. Ramasamy, C.N. Annadurai and M. Karunanidhi) with renewed zeal, there is a need to revisit the Dravidian policies that have transformed the State. Today, Tamil Nadu is the most modern State that boasts a dynamic productive economy with impressive welfare provisions for its citizens. Its structural transformation has been substantial: less than 30% of its workforce is involved in agriculture, it is highly urbanised, and has a large industrial workforce. While this transformation has certainly created new opportunities and brought in a degree of inclusion, particularly for lower castes, Dalits and women, it has thrown up a set of fresh challenges. These are the problems of the “second generation”, as it were, and are quite unique to the State.
The first generation of Dravidian policies, particularly its innovative approach to affirmative action, addressed quantitative concerns such as access to education and health for all, and the shift from caste labour to wage labour. The second generation needs a qualitative shift in the approach towards education, health, caste and gender issues, and decentralised governance.
Poor education, employment
The broad-based industrial transformation broke the occupational basis of caste by converting caste labour into wage labour, but it did not create enough decent jobs, with casual jobs being the predominant option outside agriculture. According to the latest Periodic Labour Force Surveys (PLFS)-2018-19, 62% of workers are in the informal sector and 82% of the workforce is not covered by any social security. Even among those with regular jobs and stable incomes, 75.2% do not have a written contract. This informality and resultant wage inequality are arguably a product of poor quality of education that the State has built in the last three decades.
Even as Tamil Nadu was a pioneer in universal school education, which challenged the elitism India’s education system was known for, it has not been without its problems. In a recent report released by the Union Ministry of Education, Tamil Nadu scored the lowest among the southern States in learning outcomes for 2019-20 in the Performance Grading Index (PGI). One in four in Class VIII were not able to read Class II level text. More than 50% of students cannot do simple division. Since learning outcomes determine who goes to what college, this in turn reflects in labour market outcomes. Tamil Nadu’s achievement in higher education with a Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) of 51.4% compared to the all-India average of 27.1%, has not helped achieve quality in the job market.
In fact, the increased enrolment itself is an outcome of mushrooming private colleges. Tamil Nadu accounted for more than a fifth of all educational loans availed in the country from public sector banks in 2013–14 as well as in 2015-16. But many of the private engineering colleges do not meet the prescriptions of All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) in terms of infrastructure, qualified teaching staff, and syllabi. This disadvantages students from these colleges when they compete for employment, leading to poor returns on their investments in education.
Tamil Nadu’s challenge is to focus on improving learning outcomes and arresting disparities in quality of education. Students who are the first in their families to access higher education are disappointed, and they happen to be largely Dalits and those from the lower rungs of Other Backward Classes.
Feeble health care
Tamil Nadu is known for its public health interventions and socially inclusive health personnel. But what is not spoken of as much is that the State is a pioneer in private medical services, which provided the template for corporatisation of medical services across India. A significant population in the State relies on expensive private health care. As per the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO)-75th round (2017-18), average medical expenses for hospitalisation in private hospitals was ₹35,581, higher than Gujarat, Maharashtra, and the all-India average of ₹31,845.
Some of these fault lines became evident in the State’s health response to COVID-19. Despite having a well-functioning public health system, the State’s ability to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus, reduce mortality, and to vaccinate the public has been inadequate. Its case-fatality ratio was more than neighbouring Andhra Pradesh and twice that of Kerala. This failure is attributed to the State’s neglect of decentralisation, whereas Kerala and Maharashtra performed better with their more decentralised efforts. Tamil Nadu has not seen its urban local body election since 2016.
While the Tamil Nadu government’s recent policy of recruiting archakas (priests) from all castes is a laudable move, caste inequality in the economy persists. Inequality across caste lines is exported to urban areas while it has diminished in rural areas. Urban Tamil Nadu, which was seen as a space less marked by caste, now reproduces caste inequalities in new ways. Besides unevenness in higher education, the elites have invented a new mechanism — ‘opportunity hoarding’ — through their caste networks that sustain caste inequality. Many States which include Tamil Nadu’s neighbours Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, have introduced quotas for Dalits in public procurement for goods and services, Tamil Nadu is yet to enact one to display its credibility in addressing the Dalit question. Meanwhile, violence against Dalits is on the rise. The relative socio-economic and political rise of Dalits have a correlation with the rise in the violence against them. Often, this violence is physical in nature and targets the property of Dalits, which is a symbol of their material progress.
Further, the State has a peculiar record when it comes to women’s empowerment. It has certainly increased overall women participation — the percentage of women (between ages 15-59) in the workforce is 42% against 34% in Gujarat, 41.3% in Maharashtra and 31% at the national level. Women’s participation even in the non-farm sector in Tamil Nadu is 61% as against 34% in Gujarat and 35% in Maharashtra. However, this quantitative increase in the participation of women in the modern economy has been accompanied by pervasive violence against them in social life. Not only is the violence against women much higher than most States but the violence is also justified by both men and women. As per the National Family Health Survey (NFHS)-2015-16, domestic violence against women is 45%, which is comparable to Bihar’s 45% (it is 33% at the all-India level). About 70% of women accept it and about 63% of men justify it. The State that boasts the Dravidian legacy of women’s empowerment has sent just 12 legislators (or 5%) to its 234-member Legislative Assembly in the recent election.
Beyond ‘crony populism’
The State does not do well even in terms of “fiscal justice”, to use Thomas Piketty’s phrase. Not only is its tax-GDP ratio one of the lowest -8.7% in the country, TASMAC, or Tamil Nadu State Marketing Corporation Limited (a public sector network of liquor shops) continues to be a significant source of income. The State certainly must build new forms of fiscal progressiveness to move from this regressive taxation to something that the propertied class pays for. The State’s political apparatus has a reputation for corruption and rent seeking which Michael Walton and James Crabtree characterise as an exemplary case of ‘crony populism’. Dravidian parties have built a centralised mechanism for extraction of rents akin to pork-barrel politics which feeds into electoral funding. The State has one of the highest election expenditures per candidate in the country.
Leaving aside the frenzied praise for Tamil Nadu’s success vis-à-vis the Bharatiya Janata Party-ruled States in quantitative terms, what the State requires is a renewed approach to address the qualitative aspects of social policy and governance. Just as Dravidian icons identified, understood and addressed the challenges of their times, the new government in Tamil Nadu, while it offers hope, must be mindful of the new challenges of the here and now.
Kalaiyarasan A. is a Fulbright-Nehru postdoctoral fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, Brown University and Research Affiliate at South Asia Institute, Harvard University. The views expressed are personal