Kanyakumari: The practice of promising freebies to voters in Tamil Nadu elections is so endemic that all leaders — from M. G. Ramachandran (MGR), J. Jayalalithaa to Karunanidhi and M.K. Stalin — have actively emboldened this culture.
While the products on offer have got an upgrade from grinder to washing machine, critics have called it political bribes and even Madras High Court judges weighed in on it Wednesday, saying it was making voters lazy.
Calling freebies a corrupt practice, a bench of Justices N. Kirubakaran and B. Pugalendhi had Wednesday said, “Unfortunately, freebies are not connected with job creation, development, or agriculture.
“Voters are lured to cast votes in their favour by these magical promises. Once in 5 years, this tamasha is being continued for decades together. Promises have always remained as promises. Most of them except freebies are not implemented,” it said.
The court’s observations came over a writ petition seeking direction to convert the reserved Vasudevanallur assembly constituency into a general one.
The judges’ remark is, however, making the voters angry.
“How can the Madras High Court say something like this? Neither me nor my workers are lazy. We work very hard for our wages. These freebies are basic things to improve quality of life. If they were getting Rs 1,000 a day, it would make people lazy, not (if they’re getting Rs 1,000 a month). How can that make someone lazy?” asked M. Rajendran, a supervisor in-charge of laying train tracks in Sattur in Virudhunagar.
Rajendran, who has a degree in engineering, received a gold loan last year under a scheme of the current AIADMK government, and a fan, a mixer-grinder along with a scholarship of Rs 20,000 per year from 2013-2017 under the Jayalalithaa government since he was the first graduate from his family. Under Karunanidhi’s government, he had received a TV and LPG connection.
On the freebie culture, the ruling AIADMK said “Tamil Nadu only has need-based freebies”, which should be viewed as “investments”, while DMK leaders said “it is important to realise that what was once a luxury is now an essential”.
Experts, meanwhile, said one must differentiate between welfare schemes and freebies.
“Welfare measures aided social development, which in turn attracted investment. Since the 1970s, Tamil Nadu has spent half of its revenue expenditure on welfare schemes,” said professor K. Jothi Sivagnanam, head of department of economics at Madras University.
Freebies or welfare schemes are so popular in Tamil Nadu among the electorate that it is on this basis that people pledge their allegiance to a party.
ThePrint travelled to Dindigul, Madurai, Virudhunagar and Tirunelveli districts and found that most people owe their allegiance to parties based on freebies they had received from them in the past.
“I will vote for Stalin because if he comes to power he will do something good for the people. I support the DMK because of Kalaignar’s (Karunanidhi) good governance. I have many family problems and my daughters need employment, Stalin has promised to sort out all our troubles,” said Raja Hassan, a 50-year-old tea stall owner at Andipatti in Madurai district.
Hassan, a resident of Sholavandan, explained that during Karunanidhi’s tenure, he received Rs 10,000 as marriage allowance for his daughter.
His two daughters also got Rs 2,000 each as scholarship for their education and the family also availed of the Kalaignar Kappeetu Thittam scheme, aimed at providing health insurance to lower income groups.
Like Hassan, 55-year-old Chandra’s loyalties are firm, but for the AIADMK.
“I’m a beneficiary of the housing scheme of Amma (Jayalalithaa). It is because of her that I have a home. I did not get anything from the Kalaignar government. It doesn’t matter if (CM) Edappadi helped us or not, I will always vote for the two leaves symbol,” said Chandra, a resident of Virudhunagar.
Younger voters, however, opt for parties on the basis of what they promised.
“My vote will go for the pressure cooker to T.T.V. Dhinakaran’s AMMK because he said young graduates will be provided with employment opportunities. I want a government job,” said Moorthi, a 20-year-old farmer, at Thambupuram in Tirunelveli.
K.R. Shanmugam, director of the Madras School of Economics, told ThePrint that “freebies are not new for Tamil Nadu, it is all part of the political game”.
“However, this time a huge amount is being allotted for them, which will affect the developmental aspect, as this money could be invested elsewhere,” he added.
“And for promises such as giving Rs 1,000 or Rs 1,500 to each female head of households and free washing machines is concerned, the Tamil Nadu government will have to meet this by either borrowing from the Centre or by increasing tax revenue,” he added.
According to a report of India Ratings and Research released on 26 March, Tamil Nadu will possibly see the highest ever fiscal deficit of the millennium in the financial year 2021.
During Jayalalithaa’s tenure as the CM, some of the schemes she introduced were the Thalikku Thangam Thittam or ‘Gold for Marriage’ scheme to women from economically backward sections, who had completed a degree or diploma.
She also introduced Amma Unavangams (canteens), which provided food at a subsidised cost across the state. During the Covid-19 lockdown last year, these canteens gave food free of cost to people across Tamil Nadu.
Like Amma Unavangams, Jayalalithaa also introduced ‘Amma Pharmacy’ and ‘Amma Water’ to provide medicines and water at highly subsidised rates. One of her schemes, which was hugely popular among people was the Amma laptops provided free of cost to students studying in state-run higher secondary schools or colleges.
Her predecessor Karunanidhi too introduced a fair amount of welfare schemes.
These included, 75 per cent concession for long-distance travel on the state bus network for differently-abled people, health insurance schemes for low-income groups, Aravani identity card for the transgender community to help them avail ration cards, voter IDs and driving licences in 2008, and setting up of farmers’ markets to ensure they get fair prices.
Both DMK and AIADMK have made a slew of promises in their election manifestos for the upcoming elections. These range from providing free washing machines to monthly allowances to female heads of families, and Rs 10,000 subsidy to farmers to help them buy electric motors.
Responding to the Madras High Courts remarks, C. Ponnaiyan, a senior AIADMK leader, said freebies were necessitated by successive governments in Delhi since independence, which constantly neglected poor people and did not implement any progressive policies.
“Tamil Nadu only has need-based freebies. These improve people’s health condition and livelihood, they should be viewed as an investment and not as freebies,” he added.
Ponnaiyan further said the Madras High Court made the statements based on inadequate information, which stands in contrast to the ground realities.
DMK spokesperson and lawyer Manuraj S. pointed to a judgement by the 2013 Supreme Court, which stated that parties need to provide clear economic rationale for each election promise.
“The Madras High Court has a point in questioning the fiscal condition, however it is important to realise that what was once a luxury is now an essential,” he said, referring to meals to school children and internet access.
He also hit out at AIADMK ally BJP, saying outlandish promises made by the Modi government like providing Rs 15 lakh to each person’s account are bizarre and needs to be checked.
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