How I became interested in TN’s public services

This article is a part of a short series introducing my book, “Delivering Public Services Effectively: Tamil Nadu & Beyond
The train to Hirapur.  Image credit: Itinerant Observer.

The train to Hirapur. Image credit: Itinerant Observer.

The narrow-gauge train line built by the Prince of Gwalior from Gwalior to Sheopur was so much smaller than the standard trains in India that it looked almost like a toy train to me.  I took this train in June 2003 during my first trip to the Chambal valley, and with some encouragement I joined a group a group of colourfully clad men and women on the roof of the train to begin a journey that profoundly changed my worldview.  My toy train passed through beautiful sandy ravines interspersed with deep gorges and a sprinkle of monsoon rain had revived the greenery, making the place serenely beautiful.  My view belied the fact that the region was suffering the third consecutive year of drought that had led to widespread hunger and misery across Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and other states.  Every now and then I saw stray cattle roaming far away from villages; people who once owned them had let them wander away, unable to feed them and unable to watch them starve to death. There were a few in flesh and blood, but mostly I saw dry skeletons littered everywhere as a marker of the desperation lurking behind the beautiful landscape.

I was there as a part of a team to examine reports of starvation and deaths in Hirapur village. Our hosts led from house to house and gave us a long wooden stick to check if there was any grain in their storage bins, only to feel the empty floor again and again. At least six children had died in the drought of diseases that that they would have survived had they been better nourished. Most children looked visibly malnourished and seemed incapable of surviving even a mild bout of illness. We talked to people about what kind of government programs were being implemented in their village and found that a few relief works were started to provide employment, but they were closed even while the inhabitants hardly had any store of grain. The State government had decided not to spend any money on school feeding, leaving it to the Panchayats[1]. Since most Panchayats spent less than half-a-rupee on a child a day, children often got just boiled wheat with some salt, and as one of my former teachers put it, the impoverished children enjoyed even that[2].

The cruellest impact of drought was on the elderly people. Destitution was widespread and many old people had to live on the charity of hungry people. At least three elderly people had died the previous year accompanied by severe hunger in that hamlet. We met Gyan Bai, wife of the late Hira, as she was preparing her breakfast. The food consisted of a paste of leaves she collected from the forest; a clear sign that she had no food to eat. She ground the leaves and mixed them with water for food. She used to receive state pensions, which had stopped abruptly the year before, without any reason.

Our hosts insisted that we go to the bank of the canal to meet the old man who was sick. We were led to a row of ramshackle huts that could at most provide some shade from the sun for a part of the day. A frail skeleton of an old man named Duria was sitting inside on a cot. He was too sick even to move from his bed. Like many of the elderly destitute, he too lived on occasional charity. We did not ask Duria what he does for food. A terribly dusty plate that had not been used for a long time spoke its own eloquent tale.

Like Gyan Bai, Duria used to get a pension that had stopped a while ago. He was too weak to recount how far back this had happened. His son Pappu explained there was no way for him to help his father since he and his children themselves were going hungry. Amidst all this, Duria was not an angry man. He calmly told us that the people of the village were starving and they should be provided employment in the next few months. For himself, he just asked for an injection to cure his illness. He did not ever murmur a complaint about his starvation and complete destitution. He calmly awaited his fate.

Hirapur was just one case among thousands of villages that were homes to such hunger, disease and avoidable deaths, and I was convinced that a lot could be done to alleviate such widespread misery. Improving school feeding, providing reliable pensions and ensuring employment were well within the state government’s financial capacity; unfortunately they were not political priorities. Most families in Hirapur had received just 20 days of work in wage employment programmes that year, which was hardly adequate to sustain a family in those months. Low budgets to prevent hunger were further eroded by endemic corruption. We verified official accounts of three employment projects, and all three were fudged extensively. The dealer of the ration shop that was supposed to distribute subsidised grains and a few other necessities was mercilessly swindling even the poorest of the poor. We met many pensioners who were regularly cheated of up to two-thirds of their measly pensions, and even those who knew that they were being cheated could not complain for the fear of losing what little they got.

On my way back from Hirapur I started thinking about Tamil Nadu, and my perception about my home state underwent a sea change.  Until then, I had thought of Tamil politicians as populists who pander people with ‘freebies’ in order to get votes.  I considered TN’s extensive nutrition programmes a waste. I guess I acted like a middle-class boy who took basic necessities of life for granted, and so could not appreciate the importance of school feeding, childcare or subsidised food grains, and my thoughts were confirmed by others in similar positions whose ideas made their way to the English language media that I read.  The same class background made me devalue these services, since they did not meet my standards. As a result, I was an enthusiastic supporter for winding up these services that were a useless fiscal strain. But watching a landscape littered with dead cattle from the top of the toy train forced me to re-evaluate my world view.

Other articles in the series


[1] Panchayats are village level governments comprising of elected members. It can also refer to the informal judicial body of the village or of a caste, but in this work the word is used to refer to elected governments, unless mentioned otherwise.

[2] In a conversation with Jean Drèze during summer 2003. I should add here that Jean has also written about this experience in news articles that were published during the drought.


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Hyderi Mansion: Gandhi’s greatest moment in shambles

The place where Gandhi was at the stroke of India’s independence lies hidden, forgotten and ignored today

Gandhi’s incredible work in South Africa and his leadership of various agitations against the British Raj are well known, remembered and commemorated.  His ashram in Wardha continues to be active, the ashram in Ahmedabad is well preserved and so are the places of his death and cremation in Delhi.  All of these are important considering how much he means for India and the world.

But, in my view, Gandhi’s greatest – and his most forgotten – moment was at India’s independence.  He had walked hundreds of miles since 1946 when riots broke out between Hindus and Muslims in Noakhali, in Bangladesh today.  Well into his seventies, Gandhi walked in the harsh terrain for hundreds of miles, day after day with the quest of peace.  How his body bore all this is beyond my understanding – but what is even more baffling is how he retained his sanity, meeting victims of riots day after day after day and reasoning with the perpetrators to live in peace and harmony.  Each day they moved into a new village and met with new stories of atrocities and this went on for over 150 days before he returned to Calcutta at the dawn of independence.

East India was torn by riots for a long time before the partition was achieved, and Gandhi decided to fast for peace in Calcutta.  In a bold move, he invited the Chief Minister of the state, who was widely considered by Hindus to be the architect of violence, to fast with him to appeal for calm from both communities and they fasted at Hyderi Mansion, located in an area that was devastated by riot.   They lived without protection and he was almost killed by a mob during his stay.  He persisted with his fast and that created the impetus for peace.  While the Western part of India was protected by over one lakh soldiers, the East was left to Gandhi’s peacekeeping, prompting Mountbatten to call him the “one man boundary force”. 

While violence continued in the West despite the army’s presence, sanity prevailed in the East within days of the partition, with Gandhi playing the paramount role.  This incredible history is rarely taught to us and I had to discover it in the 13th volume of a massive biography.  This neglect is also reflected in the fact that the place is forgotten by Calcutta.  Most of my friends from the city had not heard of the place, and even taxi drivers had no clue how to locate it.  I finally made it to the monument of neglect earlier this year in what turned out to be a bittersweet trip.

I am not sure what I was most sad about.  Is it that the place was dusty? Is it that some unthoughtful people reconstructed the place with no eye for history, covering it with tiles like any house would be today? Or that a place that could teach us so much was bare of any lessons of history barring a few pictures from those days? There were so many things to feel sad about, I know not where to begin.

My greatest hero in life is mainly an object of ridicule in India today.  Dalits take objection to his commitment to the varna system and Ambedkar’s scathing critique of Gandhi is increasingly read today.  There is much substance to this critique.  Ambedkar opened my eyes to that side of Gandhi, and in a painful moment it came home to me when I visited his Ashram in Ahmedabad, where a plaque announces the preservation of the varna system as one of the founding principles of that association.  There is also a lot that is said of Gandhi’s conservative approach to women’s freedoms.  I believe that there is foundation to that too. Not to mention the Hindu right’s constant undermining of Gandhi, which has been a decades long project.

I do not have a problem with all these critiques – especially those with reason behind them.  I accept my heros with many a flaw.   What I find unfortunate is that amidst this critique we are forgetting many a great thing about him.  He subscribed to the preservation of the varna system, but he played a role in the transformation of untouchability.  He has a conservative side with women, but he also trusted his young women associates to travel alone to riot torn villages with hostile populations to bring peace.  In an age when we are helplessly confronted by divisive politics, he was able to bring peace with astounding tenacity, courage and imagination.  The neglected, forgotten Hyderi Mansion symbolises our approach to him in so many ways.

I read an account of his work in Noakhali and Calcutta in 2000 and dreamt of visiting the place where Gandhi was at the stroke of independence.  It took me 14 years and a lot of searching to finally get there but only to realize that little was left of his memory and nothing was left of his spirit in that sad lonely building.

If you are interested in reading an account of these events, I strongly recommend the last volume of “Gandhi, A biography” by Pyarelal and Sushila Nair.  It is by far the best book I have ever read owing solely to the power of the story behind it.  Like many a book series, it may make sense if you read a few of the volumes before.  


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Combatting corruption with mobile phones

During the 1980s, Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS), an NGO working in rural Rajasthan in India began to campaign for access to government records related to wage employment programs for the rural poor. In the course of their work, MKSS discovered that accessing official records and information was critical to exposing corrupt practices by officials at a local level. This soon became the central strategy in their fight against acts of corruption. MKSS rallied the support of other NGOs in Rajasthan, and started protests to make access to official records a legal right. The success of this movement in Rajasthan encouraged organizations in other parts of India to join hands with MKSS in lobbying for a powerful right to information law for the whole of India, which was passed in 2005.

MKSS and other NGOs involved in India’s right to information movement realized that merely having access to government records was not enough given the sheer complexity of the records and peoples’ ability to understand them. Over the last 20 years, they have developed a system for collecting, processing, and verifying government records and information on the ground. This process, known as a social audit, has now become one of the most popular tools to combat corruption in India.

Social auditing evolved in a rural setting in response to corruption that happens on a regular basis at the village level. This form of corruption is often referred to as corruption in the “last mile,” and it manifests in forms such as siphoning of pensions from the elderly, appropriating the wages of daily labourers, or diverting subsidized food grains from beneficiaries. The social audit approach allows India’s poor to play an active role in reducing corruption in their communities.

Social audits are typically organized by NGOs that work closely with the community, though some state governments in India have institutionalized this method with official patronage. The process of an audit involves gathering official records about a particular government project or development work (for example, cash books, muster rolls, measurement books, supply lists) and verifying if the activities and projects on paper, actually exist in reality. For example, let’s say that a ration shop that distributes subsidized food grains has recorded that Ram came to the shop every month and received 10 KG of wheat each month for the last six months. A social audit cross verifies this information through a door-to-door survey, where Ram is asked if he actually received his entitlement. If the audit finds that Ram did not receive his fair share, the community has proof that the ration shop siphoned rations and thus the act of act of corruption is exposed. The power of this process is evident by the fact that even though very few convictions happen on the basis of the findings of a social audit, data shows that the levels of corruption have reduced appreciably in places where audits have been organized regularly. After the data has been compiled, a large public gathering is organised where the data and findings from the audit are presented to the public. Typically, government officials, administrators, and citizens are invited to participate in these gatherings. .

The fundamental method of a social audit seems rather simple at first glance: access the official record and cross verify it with the person receiving the services or goods, such as the case with Ram. But, when you dig more deeply into the actual details of how the process takes place, there are many complexities and challenges. For example, one needs a lot of experience and expertise in order to understand which records to access, and whether they are complete and accurate. Once official records are obtained, it takes considerable skill and time to process the records before the door-to-door survey for verification of records can take place. These and other complexities make a social audit a costly affair requiring considerable human resources, skills, time, and organizational effort. As a result, social auditing has not been adopted on a wide scale throughout India, despite its promise. My hope is that with the right technology, the process can become more streamlined and efficient, and thus adopted more broadly.

I am working on an initiative at Stanford University’s Program on Liberation Technology to explore ways that technology, and particularly mobile phones, can be used to combat corruption at the grassroots level, and enhance the existing social audit approach. Through basic mobile phone SMS technology, official records on basic individual entitlements such as pensions, subsidized food grain, and maternity entitlements could be delivered to individuals via monthly text messages. Individuals, such as Ram in the scenario mentioned above, would be able to compare the count provided in the text message with the amount of rice he actually received. This would help him identify if he received what is legally due to him, or if a part of his entitlement was swindled without his knowledge.

We hope that this knowledge in itself would empower people who have been victims of corruption and would enable them to use this information to approach various grievance redressal mechanisms that they have access to. This might involve approaching senior officials, confronting the corrupt, or even taking up protests against the corrupt. At a later stage of the project, it may be possible to add other features that will enable the victims of corruption to take action using mobile phones. For example, the SMS could include the phone number of responsible officials, or an NGO could collect the complaints and initiate action on their behalf. While possibilities abound, we believe that the best initiative will come from the people themselves.

The main benefit of using SMS technology is that it requires very limited skill, knowledge, or effort from the user. And, it eliminates costly, time-consuming in-person surveys and audits. By using this technology, official information can be disseminated on a regular basis, unlike in the current model where social audits are done sporadically.

Like any technology tool, this of course has its limitations. One of the critical functions of social auditing in India has been its role in mobilizing the general public. The process of gathering people together face-to-face in a public meeting creates a collective energy, which can motivate people to fight corruption. By digitizing this system, these public gatherings will no longer be needed. That said, we believe that mobile technology brings the ability to more widely and regularly expose corruption that directly affects individuals, and as a result, has the power to ultimately lead to even greater collective anger that is often a precursor to mobilization. Further, it arms individuals with precise information – something they never had before — that officials cannot argue or ignore.

The project has now received the commitment of officials in the states of Bihar and Andhra Pradesh in India and a team that we helped organize is just starting to build the basic technology to store and disseminate public records. We will start with select programs such as the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act in India and expand the coverage over the next few years. Once the technology is ready, it will be implemented for two years in randomly selected villages, so that we can test if it has an impact on corruption compared to other villages where the system has not been introduced

In the last 15 years, the number of countries with right to information laws has increased dramatically. Along with this, there is increasing digitization of public records, which will make this kind of exercise relatively cheap. This means that we now have the legal and technical infrastructure to enable millions, rather than a small number of well organized groups, to combat corruption.

I would like to thank Alma Freema’s support in editing the article.

Two tips for expressing love to your wife

I realised early in my marriage, which is not yet a year old by any calculation, that 90% of all verbal communication between me and my wife are either sweet nothings or to-do lists. This unanticipated fact of life threw me into a conundrum given my scant history of jabbering away love and affection. I tried it once towards the end of my undergraduate life, when I started telling my friends that I would miss them. The second or third time I mentioned it, my best friend tersely told me that he does not want me to bore him with that sentiment anymore.

Contrary to my friend, my wife left no room for doubt that she liked sweet nothings. I tried to get away without indulging in it, but could not escape the do you really love me look on her face. I learnt the common adjectives and phrases, but ran out of these in no time leaving me to come up with my own devices. That’s when I my refuge in my academic training.

Discussing love in the class

I remember only one serious occasion of discussing love in my classes, and this was with a professor who goes by the name MDC at the Delhi School of Economics. He argued that economists had a major argument several decades ago on measuring well-being. One group suggested that there should be a unit of measurement. In our case, this would translate into statements like X units of love, Y units of sweetness, etc. This approach (called the cardinal approach) lost to the alternative (ordinal approach) where assessment is done not only basis of some unit, but by comparison. In other words, economists don’t say there is X amount of goodness, utility or well-being; they say X is better than Y. When a serious economist was asked by a journalist if he loves his wife, the economist retorted, compared to what?

I am not sure if those economists who were debating on measuring well-being had any inkling on how it can affect love lives, but thank god, the ordinal approach won. Consider the implications. If one were to take the cardinal approach, all you can tell your wife is that you love her X units. You will have to repeat that again and again, making it boring and banal, which in my opinion, is the opposite of love. The ordinal approach lends itself to infinite use, and I have used it rather productively. I now routinely tell my wife stuff like: “Sweetness, I love you more than I love squirrels“, “I love you much more than I love the girl in that apartment“, “You are way smarter and way nicer to me than my android phone”, etc. The advantage of this method is that every new invention and every hot product in the market presents you with a renewed opportunity to express affection, and you can always stay up-to-date and hip.

Loving her more than a squrriel

Loving her more than a squrriel

The super-advantage of subsets

The second element of my academic training that came to my rescue was set theory. I use a basic tenet that if an element is the greatest in a set, it is also the greatest in all the sets that are subsets of the set. This is particularly useful in a competitive world where appreciation is expected to be in its superlatives (i.e. best or the greatest in a set). You may not believe that this is capable of rescuing you in your amorous predicament; just wait till you recognise the use cases.

It is not uncommon to say sweet nothings such as you are the best girl I could’ve married in the whole world. Considering that continents are subsets of the world, that statement should also hold true if it is expressed in terms of any continent. This expansion alone allows me seven different ways of expressing love compared to the singular alternative. For example, I could now say that she is the best girl I could’ve married in Australia. The use cases can be multiplied easily, and I have employed them with tremendous success: “you are my best wife ever in Brazil“, “you are the prettiest girl I have ever known in Minnesota”… I guess you get the point.

I am sure that if I dig into my academic training a little bit more, I will find other alternatives. As of now, these two have presented me with a world of alternatives. Most importantly, they keep me entertained. Luckily, she seems entertained as well, and considering that you have come to the very end of this article, I guess it has served the rather unanticipated consequence of entertaining you.

Thinking of NREGA from the beautiful Adirondacks

The highlight of my summer has been to camping trips to the incredibly beautiful Adirondacks Mountains. It is a long chain of thickly forested mountains occupying 6 million acres, which is one third of the state of New York. Hundreds of thousands of acres of this forest was destroyed by fires in early 1900s and were rebuilt using and “NREGA-like” program called the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). This breathtaking view I had from a fire tower in the Adirondacks reminded me of how much we could do with such employment programs.

CCC has made an incredible contribution in the US by planting millions of acres of trees, planting nearly 3,000,000,000 trees and taking up other issues of forest management including building fire towers, pest control and other issues. The impact of Rosevelt’s Tree Army can be seen even today.

In India, the Minister for Environment and Forestry, Mr. Jairam Ramesh, has made welcome remarks that his government will take up afforestation in a big way. Jairam Ramesh is one of the pioneers who helped NREGA become reality; I hope his vision for afforestation will prominently include a role for NREGA and through this demonstrate the potential that wage employment programs can have for India.

NREGA for the disabled

NREGA represents an unprecedented opportunity to create employment for people with disabilities in rural India

 

NREGA for people with disabilities

The promise of 100 days of guaranteed work should be meaningfully extended to people with disabilities

Something in me changed as I saw the young man hold the microphone with his artificial arms and talked of the work he did in NREGA. He took care of the paperwork that every field assistant dreads. A visually challenged person in the same meeting told me about how he joined others in desilting his village lake. There are millions of disabled persons in India who do not find opportunities to work and contribute to the society; NREGA can change that and provide them with opportunity to work, contribute to the society, earn an income and live with dignity.

Unprecedented opportunity

NREGA is an unprecedented opportunity since it is implemented in all villages across India and thus has an unprecedented reach. It provides only 100 days of work at Rs. 100 a day, but this can go a long way in improving economic situation, self-respect, and recognition in the community as a productive member. More than anything else, it can be designed to showcase the abilities of “disabled people” and change the image of disability forever in our society. But as things stand, NREGA is not designed to do any of these today, but with some creative thinking on our part we can change this situation substantially.

Making it accessible

NREGA today mainly provides unskilled manual work. Traditionally works have been designed such that they are most suitable for young, able bodied couples working together in a project. Ashagram tried some interesting experiments in Madhya Pradesh to make these works accessible, mainly by identifying parts of the work that disabled people can do. They pointed out that distributing water, mixing cement, and an assortment of other tasks can be performed easily by people with disabilities. Ashagram’s list will go a long way in making NREGA accessible, but I feel that it is inadequate for many reasons.

Exclusive & inclusive work

NREGA is designed to provide employment when people do not have alternate work. Availability of alternate work is radically different for disabled people, and relying merely on inclusive works cannot help create stable and predictable employment for them. We have to create a class of works that could be done mainly by disabled people when they wish to find work. In creating some projects exclusively for the disabled we can also allow for some skilled work, some of which can be done from their homes.

Many disabled people in Tamil Nadu are trained in weaving chairs. Their talents could be used to provide basic furniture to schools, child care centres and government offices. St. Joseph’s hospital in Trichy trains blind people to cultivate vegetables; it should be possible to create a kitchen garden for all schools and anganwadis using such talent. Educated people could be used to maintain paperwork in NREGA and other Panchayat work that often takes a huge amount of time. Other possibilities abound.

Tweaking the design

Apart from designing accessible works, NREGA needs some tweaking to make it work for disabled persons. Today’s schedule of rates assesses how much work an average able person can do in a day. A new SoR should be developed that reflects diversity in human abilities. Secondly, it is not practical to expect our overworked engineers and block officials to create appropriate designs, do separate measurements of work, and to transition into an accessible system. It would be useful to appoint 2-3 trained social workers in each block who will be mainly in charge of this task. Andhra Pradesh has expanded the guarantee of work to 150 days for families with disabled persons. Instead, it would be meaningful to provide unlimited individual guarantee of work at least to disabled persons. Finally, it would be meaningful to include some skilled work.

These changes are well within our reach, and all it requires is some thought and a lot of care on our part. The fundamental idea of NREGA is to use unused human resources to create assets that we cannot live without; some tweaking of NREGA can help us as a country to tap into the talents and energy of at least 5% of the population towards this end. I guess this is one thing no one can complain about!

Making peace with the peace prize

The selection of Malala Yousafzai and Kailash Satyarthi for the Nobel Peace Prize has created a debate on how deserving they are for the prize.  Here is my two cents.

Nobel prizes in general are awarded to people whose work has had a transformative impact on their field, often based on life-long work.  In general, they also identify people who have been more impactful in their field than most of their peers.  One value of Nobel prizes lies in their identification of people who have been exceptional and impactful.

Unlike the other Nobel prizes that meet this standard, the Peace prize has consistently violated it.  Clearly exceptional people have not been awarded the prize, Mahatma Gandhi to name one.  In contrast, people with little record of work on promoting peace and even though who have waged unjust wars have received it.  While most Nobel prizes are based on a life time of work, Peace prizes have been given to people even in anticipation that they might just do something, most notably to Obama.  Overall, the Peace prize does not identify for us exceptional people whose work for promoting peace has been exceptional.

Given the high expectations that we have on Nobel prizes, the inconsistent standard of the peace prize has led to a lot of criticism.  As far as this year’s award is concerned, I believe that it has bypassed many people who have a lifetime of work on peace and justice behind them.  Like many who have voiced their critique, I do not think that the current choice of awardees meets the standards I outlined earlier.  That said, I also regret the fact that many of the critics have been unjust in criticising the awardees.  There is little doubt that they have been courageous and have raised issues that matter.  Our expectations on a Nobel should not sully the good work and courage the two embody.  Let us celebrate them and what they stand for and focus our criticism on the award itself – and not their work.

 


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Why public services & not land reforms?

This article is a part of a short series introducing my book, “Delivering Public Services Effectively: Tamil Nadu & Beyond
Memorial for Karajar

Memorial for Karajar

So far in this series, I have argued that people became more assertive and demanding in Tamil Nadu.  While this helps us understand why governments are forced to be more responsive to demands of common people, it does not explain why public services became the priority, rather than other policy alternatives.

This question is particularly interesting because of the long-standing criticism of public services by intellectuals. On the Right, intellectuals have argued that public services are harmful since it increases fiscal deficit and reduces economic growth. The Left has traditionally favoured a different type of structural reforms involving the redistribution of property. Some Left intellectuals have even considered the expansion of public services to be harmful since it reduces the urgency among the poor to demand a revolution.

In this intellectual milieu, politicians such as MGR, whose regime saw an impressive expansion of public services, were roundly criticised.  In contrast to ideologically driven movements, common people understood the difference that a functional road, bus service or water delivered at home made to their lives.  The resultant demand for public services was felt in the corridors of power when they started asserting themselves without the need for an intermediate organisation.  The expansion of decentralised public action did precisely this in Tamil Nadu, and thus made services a major social priority.

While economic ideologies of the Left and the Right did not have a place for public services, there were important sources of support for it from prominent social movements of Tamil Nadu. Among them, social reform movements saw importance of services such as health and education for improving people’s well-being. Many of them created some of the best schools and hospitals in the state through their own efforts, but also sought greater state involvement in providing them. In addition, the Dravidian movement saw the fight against religion and superstitions as the cornerstone of its existence. It sought to do so through the expansion of education and modernisation of rural life, which they believed will lead to a movement against superstitions.

At the dawn of independence, reform movements competed with the communist movement.  The emergence of the Soviet Union as a superpower created a perception that the communist movement would expand, in ways that far exceeded the actual strength of the movement.  Communists demanded changes to property rights including land reforms and nationalisation of industries. Governments were reluctant to do these, but they had to counter the popularity of the communist movement among the poor by offering concrete alternatives to the poor.

This happened through the policy of expanding public services in rural India, initiated by Kamarajar in 1954. His policy crystallised an alternative based on the demand of social reform movements, and he clearly established the popularity of services among common people. The policy priority continues to hold sway in Tamil Nadu.

Articles in the series


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Why decentralized action increased from 70s in Tamil Nadu

This article is a part of a short series introducing my book, “Delivering Public Services Effectively: Tamil Nadu & Beyond”

In the previous article, I argued that decentralized public action increased dramatically from the 1970s in Tamil Nadu.  I discuss why this expansion happened at length in the book.  A brief summary changes that shaped action is presented below.

Internal changes

Scholars have long argued that resources are critical for the success of collective action.  Common people in Tamil Nadu lived under crushing poverty, which made it challenging to invest time and effort in mobilizing people.  In addition, there were restrictions on their education and other avenues to gain skills that are critical for effective mobilisation.  These factors started changing demonstrably in the post-independence era.

Among them, reservation had a major impact in expanding education and public employment among historically marginalized communities.  People with stable jobs were able to engage in protest or at least support such efforts in their communities.  Similarly, with the spread of education, a cadre of young people came up in a large number of villages who had the requisite skills to understand the complex administrative mechanism, that allowed them to represent the demands of their communities.

Along with improvements in resources, there was also a major cultural transformation in the state.  The great social movements of the past laid the foundation for it by asking marginalized communities not to accept their fate and to rebel against the unjust nature of contemporary society.  Many of these movements had great orators, song writers, actors and other artists who had immense cultural impact.

These movements nudged people who were subjected to a long history of oppression to rebel against injustice.  Officials and Panchayat presidents who started facing increasingly assertive people often argued that people who were once ‘soft’ had started becoming ‘hard’.  This was at times attributed to the influence of Periyar, himself a great rebel.  In places where the communists were powerful, officials argued that people were ‘communist minded’, meaning that they cannot be taken for granted anymore.

These changes at the level of the individual and community created greater impetus for action, and they were complemented by external changes that made collective action more feasible.

External changes

Public action is greatly influenced by the context in which it happens.  In general, one can expect action to increase if people feel that a protest is likely to succeed.  Similarly, protests will decrease if those who engage in them feel that they will be retaliated against, and suffer adverse consequences. There were many changes in Tamil Nadu that proved to be conducive to greater levels of public action over the last few decades.

To begin with, children of large landlords started moving to urban areas, making it impossible for them to exercise direct control that their ancestors did.  In addition, Tamil Nadu is one of the most industrialised and urbanised states in India, thanks to which there are many urban job opportunities for the common person. Even if these were poorly paid, they offered an alternative to people who were engaged in protests, thus making it more difficult to suppress a protest by denying jobs that their lives were dependent upon.

There were also changes in the context of organisation, especially through the great social movements, which had created a framework of support for activists across the state. For example, protests often lead to legal cases and without the support of lawyers, those engaged in protest might face stiff penalties. The great movements had created a network of lawyers who supported activists, which made it a lot easier for village level organisers to emerge.

Politically, the change from colonial administration to adult franchise also presented unprecedented opportunities. As people became organised, they were able to use the power of their numbers to make demands for their support. In the early years of independence, this was difficult for historically oppressed communities. As they started organising, they were able to assert themselves and political parties had to accept this reality even more as political competition increased in the state.

These and other factors made it more likely that public action will yield positive results, and that people engaged in them will not suffer adverse reaction that they would have met with decades ago.

This is a rather brief summary of the major phenomenon, and thus there are quite a few gaps in my presentation of the changes here.  The phenomenon is discussed in greater detail in chapters 3 & 6 of the book.

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Decentralized action & Great social movements of Tamil Nadu

This article is a part of a short series introducing my book, “Delivering Public Services Effectively: Tamil Nadu & Beyond”

During my fieldwork in Tamil Nadu, my discussants mentioned that a culture of protest evolved in in the state starting in the 1970s.  This was puzzling since TN had a rich history of powerful social movements including the Dravidian movement, Communist movement, Women’s movements, Dalit movements and various movements of caste groups.

It turned out that there were important differences between decentralized public action that started in the 1970s and the great social movements.  The former is decentralized and is mostly initiated within villages.  In contrast, the nerve centre of the great social movements was their leadership, which had a state-level presence.  The impetus for decentralized action came from within villages, in response to local concerns.  While leaders of such action consulted and took the support of external sources, the insiders played a critical role in shaping the protest.

Another difference was that even though the great movements were powerful, relatively few people were active in them.  In contrast, a lot more people participate actively in decentralized public action today[1].

The instances of decentralized action increased substantially from the 1970s.  Before that time, most common people were scared or unwilling to enter government offices or to assert themselves with the local elite including Panchayat presidents. This led me to the next puzzle in my research: why did decentralized public action explode starting in the 1970s, and what made people assert themselves with holders of public offices.

[1] By this, I do not mean that less people were present in any given protest of the great social movements.  What I mean is that if we took a survey within a village and asked people what kind of protest they had participated in, very few would have participated in one organized by a great movement – and much more would have done so in decentralized action.

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The root of TN’s commitment to services

This article is a part of a short series introducing my book, “Delivering Public Services Effectively: Tamil Nadu & Beyond
Schooled early in the culture of protests

Schooled early in the culture of protests…a baby at a protest site

I travelled across rural India during my days with the Right to Food Campaign.  In the process, I was amazed at the differences in the availability and quality of public services across India’s states, and it made me wonder why a few states like Tamil Nadu deliver public services so effectively.  This question motivated my doctoral research, which ultimately led me to write this book.

During fieldwork in Tamil Nadu, I spent a lot of time at government offices from Panchayats to the State secretariat and it became clear that public pressure was the critical factor that drove the performance of the government.  There were incessant arguments, protests, strategic voting and other forms of democratic engagement by people.  Pressure from these protests had an impact on the work of Panchayat presidents, officials and policy makers.

In many villages, people had fought for decades to demand one amenity after another.  As an activist put it, they would struggle one year and get 100 metres of road, street lights required another protest, and many basic amenities had to be gained through sustained collective action.  The impact of such protests over time was to gain an impressive array of services.  Without taking them into account, we cannot understand the Tamil Nadu’s performance.

Remarkably, people from all social groups irrespective of caste, gender, class and other social differences were able to engage in action.  As a result, the government was under pressure to deliver to the population at large, and not just a few assertive communities.

Another striking fact was that my discussants argued that such protests were relatively new and they dated back to the 1970s at the most.  This was initially puzzling since Tamil Nadu has a rich history of social movements that were powerful through the twentieth century.  As I questioned further, the difference between the great social movements of the past and decentralized collective action in the recent decades became clear.  I turn to that discussion in the next article of this series.

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About Delivering public services effectively: TN & Beyond

This article is a part of a short series introducing my book, “Delivering Public Services Effectively: Tamil Nadu & Beyond”

There is a wide diversity in the provision of public services in India.  In some states one can go miles without seeing a functional school, public health centre, or a well-maintained road. In contrast, a few states provide public services to all in an efficient manner.  In this book I discuss how Tamil Nadu, one of the remarkable states, developed its social commitment to delivering services effectively.

When it comes to delivering public services, Tamil Nadu is distinguished from most other states both in terms of the quality of services and in the number of people that these services reach.  For example, Tamil Nadu is among the top states when it comes to full immunization of children, availability of primary schools, primary health centres, ante-natal care for pregnant women and many other aspects of public service delivery.  Such services are physically and socially accessible to an overwhelming majority of the population as it has been documented in numerous surveys and studies[1].

Along with widespread availability, a lot of thought and effort have gone into ensuring that these services function well.  The table below summarizes the key differences in the functioning of the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) in Tamil Nadu and North Indian states.  Similarly, the Public Distribution System (PDS), public health, schools, mid-day meals, public transport and other public services also function better in Tamil Nadu than in most other parts of India.  This book examines how such a difference came about by examining the roots of social commitment to public services in Tamil Nadu.  A summary of that argument is available in the next piece of this series.

Facilities in ICDS centres of Tamil Nadu and other states

 FACILITIES  TN  NORTH(a)
Own building  88  18
Kitchen  85  30
Storage facilities  88  58
Medicine kit  81  22
Toilet  44  17
Average opening hours per day  6.5  3.5
% children who attend regularly (b)
Age 0-3  59  20
Age 3-6  87  56
% mothers who report that:
Pre-school education takes place  89  47
Motivation of the worker is “high”  67  39
Worker ever visited them at home  58  22
% women who had PNC (d)  100  55
% children who are “fully immunized” (c)  71  41
Avg. months since training  6  30
% workers who have not been paid (e)  0  22

 

(a) Chhattisgarh, Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh

(b) Among those enrolled at the local Anganwadi; responses from mothers.

(c) Based on assessment of investigators.

(d) Among those who delivered a baby during the preceding 12 months.

(e) Workers who have not been paid in the last three months before the survey.

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[1] Detailed references are available in the introduction.


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