Tamil Nadu politics has drifted towards a populist approach even as the state is witnessing a decline on a variety of socio-economic indicators
The 2021 Legislative Assembly elections in Tamil Nadu are distinct from the past elections as the political parties, particularly the Dravidian parties DMK and AIADMK, enter into a competition of making exaggerated populist promises. Looking at the promises made in the manifestoes of the two parties, one would easily conclude that neither the charisma of the leaders nor the ideologies of the parties have any role in drawing the attention of the voters. The manifestoes are full of freebies starting from providing cash in the range of Rs 1000-2000 to each household woman to giving washing machines and free house to every poor family, along with umpteen concessions for purchasing consumer goods. These promises raise a question even among ordinary citizens — whether the government has got money to fulfill these as Tamil Nadu is debt-ridden despite its robust economic growth? To understand Tamil Nadu's economic and social development systematically, one has to refer to the report of the 15th Central Finance Commission. The report says that the state's economy is growing and Tamil Nadu ranks at 4th place in the SDG index. But, at the same time, it has gone down on key social indicators. Certain areas need serious attention on the part of the state government. Tamil Nadu is the state which introduced the noon meal scheme for school-going children during the Congress regime, which has been perfected subsequently and renamed as nutritive noon meal scheme. It presents a model for other states. In reality, at present 50.7 per cent of the children are affected with anaemia in Tamil Nadu. Also, 55 per cent of women are anaemia-affected. It means that half of the population among children and women is unhealthy, the consequences of which are very serious.
There is yet another serious issue — the learning outcome of the children. Tamil Nadu has managed to secure the gross enrolment ratio of 83.7 against the national enrolment ratio of 55.4. This achievement in terms of enrolment ratio is consistently maintained up to higher education. But the failure lies in learning outcomes. When the children of the class third were tested, it was revealed that in reading the text of class II, students scored 10.2, much below the level of the national average of 27.3. In the same way, the children of the class third who can at least do subtraction were evaluated and it was revealed that the students scored only 25.9 against the national average of 28.2. The analysis of the health indicators of children and women, and the educational status of the children, brings to light the fact that the state is moving backwards despite its economic growth. It should be noted that even the Industrial growth has declined from 10.9 per cent to 4.6 per cent between 2005-2011 and 2011-2017. Of the activities, manufacturing and construction have shrunk drastically. This should be seen from the perspective of employment opportunities.
Tamil Nadu is an urbanised state and it faces the attendant challenges of urban poverty and paucity of infrastructure facilities. The labourers who migrated to urban areas from villages are living in subhuman conditions. As a result, urban areas are facing unbearable pollution. Yet another issue is the water crisis. Tamil Nadu has six per cent of India's population but only 3 per cent of the nation's freshwater resources. Its annual rainfall is only 921 mm as against the national average of 1200 mm. The state is almost water-stressed as it has only 750 cubic metres of availability per capita per year. If a state, block or district has availability of water below 1700 cubic metre per capita per annum, it is classified as water-stressed. Water stress in a state affects its agriculture production. In Tamil Nadu, irrigation intensity is low compared to the national average. As a result, the net sown area has declined from 61.7 lakh ha (47.4 per cent of the total area) in 1970-71 to 43.5 lakh ha (38.9 per cent of the total area) in 2016-17. This decline of acreage cultivation of area is due to vagaries of monsoon, urbanisation and drought. The state has to seriously address the issues through a workable framework to ensure the management of freshwater as it is a critical resource. To address all the important issues of development, local bodies have to be strengthened.
It has been stated in the report that local bodies are vested with adequate powers and responsibilities to address all the critical issues of development. It is pertinent here to mention here that powers have been devolved but the leaders have not yet been capacitated to handle powers. It should be noted that Tamil Nadu was once a revenue surplus state, and now it has become a revenue deficit state, particularly after 2012-13. We are not in a comfortable position in all economic indicators and social development indicators. If one looks at money flow for development activities on the ground, one would wonder despite the huge flow of money, why we could not achieve the impact that we wanted to achieve. Our politics has become bereft of real issues and concentrates more on vote-catching, moving away from development politics to populist politics.
The author is a former Professor and Rajiv Gandhi Chair for Panchayati Raj Studies, Gandhigram Rural Institute. Views expressed are personal