The growth and limitations of Dravidian urbanism

Dravidian leaders have perhaps over-emphasised urbanisation as an ideal outcome, while not yet paying sufficient attention to urban processes themselves

October 08, 2022 12:15 am | Updated 12:16 pm IST

Students pray during the inauguration of the Chief Minister’s Breakfast Scheme, in Erode in Tamil Nadu.

Students pray during the inauguration of the Chief Minister’s Breakfast Scheme, in Erode in Tamil Nadu. | Photo Credit: Govarthan M.

Accounts of Dravidian mobilisation in Tamil Nadu have focused largely on their achievement of economic growth and welfare outcomes. Less recognised is the centrality of urbanisation in distributing the benefits of growth and development relatively more inclusively. T.N.’s urban trajectory has been distinct from most other parts of India on two accounts. One, T.N. has continuously attempted the breakdown of traditional caste-based hierarchies to enable the upward mobility of ordinary people, transforming them into agents of urban transformation. Two, urbanisation is more broad-based, being driven by multiple urban centres rather than a few metropolitan cities, as in the case of Maharashtra or Gujarat.

Over the last 70 years, Dravidian parties have capitalised on historical conditions to adopt what appears to be a multi-pronged strategy to transform ordinary people into agents of urban transformation. This includes the provision of physical and social infrastructure to speed up urbanisation; redistributive policies such as affirmative action, particularly in education; and the diffusion of a productivist ethos. These measures are at least partly responsible for the fact that 48.4% of Tamil Nadu’s population lives in urban areas compared to the all-India average of 34% (2011 Census). Seven out of eight households rely on the non-farm sector. T.N.’s urban character does not rely on a couple of big metropolitan cities as is the case in Maharashtra or Gujarat; there are multiple urban centres undergirded by a network of small towns and a strong rural-urban linkage. It is important to understand how this was enabled.

Historical conditions and Dravidian policy

As an important colonial city, Madras possessed some industrial strength and physical infrastructure. Later, during K. Kamaraj’s regime, T.N. benefited significantly from efforts to build infrastructure for industrial clusters and mass education. The DMK, which came to power in 1967, further expanded the industrial base of T.N.

Agricultural modernisation was spurred by access to irrigation and motorised electrical technology, among other things. Different parts of the State have historically specialised in particular strategic forms of irrigation such as canals and wells. This has led to diversified cropping patterns with distinct crop specialisations emerging in different regions. This made possible the emergence of ‘agro-towns’ linked to a crop, for processing, marketing, and selling — or entrepreneurship from below.

The interventions of Dravidian parties through physical and social infrastructure further facilitated this transition, while the absence of a dominant trading community — a Vaishya vacuum — allowed for entrepreneurship from lower castes and a ‘democratisation of capital’. Investments in infrastructure enabled even artisans to enter industry. Anthropologist Yann Philippe Tastevin shows that carpenters and blacksmiths have become ‘self-made engineers’, setting up several makeshift repair shops of transport services which have morphed into a truck body-building industry, and further into mobile drilling rig assembly. This has changed the industrial landscapes of Namakkal and Salem districts, illustrating how urbanisation in T.N. has evolved from small towns with each region having a specific industrial cluster. The State has among the highest proportion of Dalit and Backward Caste entrepreneurs, many of them from small towns.

Dravidian discourse saw the village as the site of oppression and the urban as liberating, as opposed to M.K. Gandhi’s vision of village reconstruction. Inclusion in T.N. has been fostered through intentional, ideologically backed state processes to spatially involve many parts of the State in urban processes, and socially include multiple caste groups. Dravidian mobilisation worked on two planks. The first was the diffusion of a productivist ethos that broke down existing social hierarchies and helped imagine new social relations. The second was public investments in infrastructure which allowed the entry of diverse actors into the domain of capital accumulation.

The development of various amenities — transport connectivity, access to electricity, access to medical and educational facilities — has been relatively impressive and widely spread across the State. Some significant illustrations include the increase in the percentage of minor roads from 47% in 1961 to 80% in 1991. Thanks to policy interventions to build broad-based road transport infrastructure, including a network of minibuses more recently, the State has managed to link rural and urban areas and expand the scope for non-farm livelihood options among rural households. Similarly, connecting villages to towns helped people access employment outside, loosening caste ties to an extent.

While the postcolonial Indian state relied on planning apparatuses to spur development, it couldn’t alter the pathways of outcomes. The Congress in T.N. worked with inherited colonial and elite-controlled bureaucratic structures and procedures. After the DMK came to power, policy agendas began to be driven by what were thought to be the needs and demands of the people. Over the next few decades, there was increased recruitment from backward and Dalit castes, and from small towns and rural areas, in government services. This increased the administration’s responsiveness to the needs and aspirations of the marginalised. The conservative financial management of the State was overhauled to accommodate welfare distribution by the State.

While this urban transformation was in line with the Dravidian vision of moving the subaltern out of caste-bound traditional occupations, those unable to make the transition had to be provided with a degree of social protection. The State was indeed a pioneer in the creation of a vibrant public distribution system and welfare boards which provide informal workers a host of protections.

The road forward

Liberalisation provided a shot in the arm to existing manufacturing industries, such as textile and leather, and also spurred service industries such as IT and financial services. All of this led to further urbanisation. The gains that had been made over decades in the growth of technical education, reservations for middle and lower castes in higher education and public health, to name a few, paved the way for more people to benefit from liberalisation in economic, social and geographical terms.

However, poverty has now been urbanised, with new, precarious jobs created largely in the informal sector. This indicates that the rate of dispossession from traditional and farm-based occupations has been higher than that of creation of decent jobs in urban areas, pointing to the urgency in the need for urban employment guarantees. While caste hierarchies have weakened to an extent, caste segregation continues, including in urban T.N. The DMK regime has come under rightful criticism for allowing eviction of the urban poor from Chennai, while simultaneously touting the successes of the Dravidian model.

Dravidian leaders have perhaps over-emphasised urbanisation as an ideal outcome, while not paying sufficient attention to urban processes themselves. The absence of adequate participatory governance, such as in the form of the implementation of the 74th Amendment, has only increased dependence on the bureaucracy and political actors, rather than empowering people. Dravidian urbanisation now has to contend with these structural problems, as well as rampant rent seeking, especially in natural resources, to repair the chinks in the face of T.N.’s relatively better development outcomes.

Kalaiyarasan A. is an Assistant Professor at the Madras Institute of Development Studies, India, and a Research Affiliate at South Asia Institute, Harvard University, U.S.; Priti Narayan is faculty at the University of British Columbia, Canada

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