The Cheat Sheet

The intangibles of Jayalalithaa’s welfare-nomics

VENKY VEMBU | Updated on January 16, 2018 Published on December 07, 2016


You mean ‘freebies’.

Yes, I’m talking of the ‘freebie’ handouts of everything from TV sets to mixies to grinders to laptops to bicycles. Many of these have been derided by conservative economists and commentators as non-productive squandering of public resources. But they weren’t always wasteful.

But I’m also talking of a broader policy-driven approach to social welfare based on what economists Amartya Sen and Jean Dreze call “the principles of universalism”: that is, they were available to everyone on a non-discriminatory basis.

In other words, it wasequal-opportunity populism.

The cynicism is easy to understand. But the intangible benefits from Tamil Nadu’s crafting of asocial security net are hard to miss. To be honest, this wasn’t just the result of Jayalalithaa’s compassionate statecraft: it evolved under both her mentor MGR and her political rival M Karunanidhi. It was MGR who introduced the midday meal scheme in government schools. Once criticised as extragavant populism, it is today internationally acclaimed: it improved the health of underprivileged children, and, as a trickle-down effect, even improved school enrolment. Jayalalithaa expanded the welfarism to cover everything from cradle to grave. And her policies were driven by outcome-focussed pragmatism, not a doctrinaire approach.

Tell me more.

This isn’t discussed much these days, but to Jayalalithaa goes the credit for introducing the radical ‘cradle baby scheme’ as an antidote to the regressive social practice of female foeticide and infanticide. Under it, “unwanted” girl babies could be abandoned outside primary health centres and orphanages; the state would then raise the girl children. Now, it would have been easy to merely ‘criminalise’ foeticide and infanticide – and they are criminal acts. But the ‘cradle baby scheme’ effectively gave life to countless girl children who would otherwise have been killed; and over time, this has improved Tamil Nadu’s sex ratio relative to all of India.

But how does giving away mixies and grinders count as progressive policy?

There is merit in the feminist argument that giving away such labour-saving devices frees up women from the chores of domesticity and enables them to become productive economic forces outside their homes. More broadly, these “freebies” are a form of compensation from the state for women’s unpaid labour at home. The same is true of the ‘Amma Unavagam’ outlets that Jayalalithaa opened up…

How so?

These outlets, which serve hygienically prepared food at rock-bottom prices, have effectively “outsourced” women’s unpaid labour at home. It just goes to show that to truly “liberate” women, you need context-specific pragmatic policies, and not fiery feminism. Even giving bicycles to school-going girls has a social impact: it gives them mobility, which patriarchal forces tend to curb.

But doesn’t welfarism take away resources from economic development?

On the contrary, data indicates that on traditional indices of economic development, Tamil Nadu outperformed many other peer-set States over the past 25 years. Again, not all the credit for this accrues to Jayalalithaa, but she was in power for 15 of those years. What this means is that Jayalalithaa wasn’t conflicted by the growth-or-equity discourse. She ensured growth with equity.

But surely you’re not saying Jayalalithaa was flawless?

Not at all. She had big failings, including corruption and a megalomaniacal hold on absolute power. But to give credit where it’s due: her much-criticised welfare-nomics yielded many intangible benefits for the State.

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Published on December 07, 2016
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