The previous five-year term of Jayalalithaa’s government beginning 2011 will be known for its generous subsidies and freebies. Though many could be described as populist or sops, there were some long-term measures that enhanced social security.

Particularly, initiatives in the social sectors, such as free rice supplied over the Public Distribution System, wider coverage under healthcare insurance, free education, subsidised fees for professional courses and subsidised canteens, stand out.

Tamil Nadu was among the earliest to notify the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Rules, 2011.

Over 25 lakh students received a cash benefit of ₹381 crore, including cash incentives. Enrolment in higher education was up at 6.50 lakh students in 2013-14 from 6 lakh in 2012-13.

Distribution of free laptops and bicycles to school students helped enhance access and reach to modern education, particularly for the rural poor.

Social security net

Social sector spends alone accounted for one-third of Tamil Nadu’s Budget in 2015, at about ₹48,000 crore.

But these long-term measures were upstaged by the more hyped freebies, including free distribution of home appliances such as grinders, blenders, fans and colour televisions. Though these were a huge drain on the State’s resources, adding to its indebtedness, she managed to keep them going.

Even her detractors and political rivals were hard put to pick holes in the social welfare schemes.

But the sops had their impact on the fiscal front. As of 2016 Tamil Nadu’s overall outstanding debt stood at ₹2,52,431 crore, more than twice that in 2012, when the outstanding was ₹1,18,610, according to official figures.

While the AIADMK manifesto for the 2011 Assembly elections set the tone for five years to come, her first day as Chief Minister put the stamp on her focus in the coming years.

Immediately after assuming office she cleared seven major welfare measures and set up a Department of Special Programme Implementation to oversee execution of the election promises.

The welfare measures included a hike in financial support for the wedding expenses of educated poor women, a hike in monthly pension for physically disabled women and the destitute, supply of 20 kg rice free for every family through the Public Distribution System, doubling the cash support for families of fishermen during the yearly, 45-day fishing ban, to ₹2,000 a month, and granting six months’ maternity leave to government employees. Later she would announce a maternity package, and an accessory kit for the newborn.

While the Tamil Nadu government, whether under the AIADMK or the DMK, has been partial to universal PDS rather than limiting the beneficiaries as envisaged under the Centre’s Targeted Public Distribution System, Jayalalithaa went a step ahead by announcing free distribution of rice.

Her government had taken the stand that it is better to ensure everybody is covered under food security rather than limit coverage and risk the possibility of leaving out any needy people.

Food subsidy bill

In the first year of her government, the food subsidy bill increased to ₹4,500 crore from ₹3,950 crore the previous year and five years later the food subsidy had grown to over ₹5,500 crore.

When she retained power in 2016, the first day was a repeat of 2011. She started out by implementing five welfare schemes announced in her election manifesto: writing off small farmers’ loan dues to cooperatives, totalling ₹5,780 crore; free supply of 100 units of electricity to all households, representing about ₹1,607 crore subsidy compensation to the TNEB; giving 8 gm gold free to brides with degree and diploma qualification and 8 gm to brides from poor families (up from 4 gm announced by her previous government); 200 units electricity free to handloom weavers and 750 units to powerlooms; and a promise of bringing down the number of liquor sales outlets as a prelude to total prohibition being implemented in the State.

The manifesto promised free cell phones, mopeds at a 50 per cent subsidy for working women, and unemployment assistance for those registered on employment exchanges. Students who had studied up to the 10th standard would be paid ₹300; those who had studied up to the 12th would get ₹400; and graduates, ₹600.