That season of freebies is here again

N Ramakrishnan Chennai | Updated on January 20, 2018

Beneficiaries carry table fans, mixers and grinders provided by the incumbent AIADMK government.

A 2009 photograph shows then Deputy Chief Minister MK Stalin of the DMK distributing colour televison sets.

The cliché ‘there are no free lunches’ may not exactly be true, more so if you are a voter in Tamil Nadu. This holds especially true if you belong to that segment of the population in the State that all political parties woo assiduously.

It started off with the DMK promising poor voters free colour television sets just before of the 2006 Assembly elections. Once in power, the Karunanidhi-led Government went ahead and implemented the scheme, launching it on former Chief Minister CN Annadurai’s birth anniversary. Karunanidhi even assured the people that funds would not be a constraint and that the Government would provide television sets to all poor households irrespective of how much it would cost the State exchequer.

Along with the promise of television sets, the DMK also announced that it would give two acres of wasteland free for each poor family, which poll promise too it implemented.

The culture of giving freebies to the poor and needy started much before the DMK institutionalised it by offering colour TV sets, when electricity was supplied free to agricultural pumpsets and to those living in huts.

The AIADMK which swept to power in 2011 outdid its rival. Not only did the party promise freebies to a cross-section of the population, once in power it implemented a raft of low-cost schemes, the most popular of which is the Amma Canteen, where subsidised breakfast, lunch and dinner are served. That the AIADMK party cadre revere their leader and Chief Minister Jayalalithaa as “amma” – Tamil for mother – is another matter altogether.

For breakfast, the Amma canteens – there is even a website where one can locate the nearest canteen – serve idli with sambhar, and pongal. A plate of idli costs Re 1 and pongal Rs 5. Lunch is served between noon and 3 pm – four varieties of rice, each costing Rs 5 a plate; and dinner, served between 6 pm and 9 pm, has chapathis with dal or kurma, at Rs 3 a plate. The canteens have caught the imagination of a few other States and even foreign diplomats have visited them to see how they function.

The Jayalalithaa Government gave free household appliances – mixers, wet grinders and table fans – to housewives; bicycles to school students; laptops for higher secondary school students; and, four sets of uniform and footwear to school students. The “Amma” brand name was to embellish pharmacies, where medicines were sold at fair price; salt; mineral water; and, cement.

Now, the DMK, which has released its election manifesto, has promised a number of free or subsidised things if it is voted to power in the May 16 election. It has said it will distribute free dhoti and sari and Rs 500 to small and micro farmers and agricultural labourers every year on Pongal, the harvest festival in the State. The party has said it will take steps to waive educational loans of students; provide laptops or tablets with 3G/4G internet facility with 10 GB per month download usage for 16 lakh students in higher secondary schools and colleges; and supply three LED bulbs at subsidised price to all ration cardholders.

The DMK has said in the manifesto that it would provide food at least once a day for the poor people who do not have any income and are not able to afford even one meal a day. This would be done through a canteen named after the party’s founder and torchbearer of the Dravidian movement, the late Chief Minister Annadurai. Significantly, the DMK has said it will implement the scheme with the assistance of the corporate social responsibility fund from institutions, the Hindu Religious & Charitable Endowments Department (which administers temples in the State) and NGOs.

In election after election, the two Dravidian parties have announced one freebie after another, covering even larger sections of the population. These have taken a toll on the State’s finances, but then criticism of these schemes is countered with the argument that tax incentives and sops are given to industries to invest in Tamil Nadu. The toll on the State’s finances can be seen from the fact that the revenue deficit is estimated to nearly double in 2016-17. The interim budget for this financial year has projected the revenue deficit at Rs 9,155 crore against Rs 4,616 crore in 2015-16. The interim budget also projected the electricity tariff subsidy at Rs 7,370 crore.

Published on April 12, 2016

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