Overview of institutional change in Tamil Nadu & Governance


An overview of institutional changes in Tamil Nadu over two centuries that explains the state’s relatively good governance

Myron Weiner argued that India’s failure in providing universal education was due to the hierarchical mindset of the elite politicians and bureaucrats who did not consider it essential for children from the lower castes to be educated. Similarly in the Western world, there is evidence that evidence that relatively equal societies created provisions for universal primary education earlier. In other words, there is a strong relationship between social relations in a society and the role the government plays therein. I argue that in order to understand Tamil Nadu’s extensive commitments to its people we have to look at empowerment of traditionally oppressed people in four interrelated domains: political, social, production relations and individual freedoms. The dissertation will provide a detailed account of these changes and how they made agricultural labourers, ex-untouchable people, lower caste people, women and others socially and politically important. They were in turn able to use the political importance in forcing the state to provide basic amenities extensively. In the following paragraphs, I will provide a brief overview of changes in these domains.

The segregations of caste, gender and class in Indian society meant that people had limited opportunities in their lives. Their occupations, place of living, choice of partners and most other important things are limited by their status at birth. Not surprisingly educational opportunities will not be created for girls in a society which considers it wrong or unnecessary for girls to get educated. Schools, hospitals and most other facilities in India are typically created in the dominant hamlets making them difficult for untouchables and others to access. Tamil Nadu’s extensive provision of basic amenities cannot be understood without understanding the social change therein that opened opportunities widely. There is a long history of social movements in India that have shaped social (in)equality through ages. In 19th and 20th centuries a large number of such movements came together altering the social realities of Tamil Nadu. The best known among them is the Dravidian movement or the Self-respect movement which challenged caste and gender norms in the society. The Communist movement which started in the 1920s organised landless labourers and significantly shaped the rhetoric/agenda of other political movements in the state.

Even before these, many lower castes had organised themselves and had agitated for greater social, political and economic opportunities. These include the Nadars, Vanniars, Thevars, and Pariahs. These were often led by educated youth of these communities. There was also an impressive set of Untouchable leaders, almost all of whom got educational opportunities since their fathers’ were employed by the British. Tamil Nadu also had an impressive cultural movement led by individuals such as Bharathiar. The literary movement provided a powerful cultural challenge to various forms of domination including imperialism, caste, gender, production relations, etc.

These movements challenged existing social norms and argued for an alternate world free of domination, one where opportunities are available to all without any distinction. These artists argued against restrictions placed on communities to access public infrastructure including schools, water sources, roads, etc. They broke the myth that education is not for women. These social and cultural movements changed the context in which public policy is made, and set a tone where the ‘right thing to do’ is to provide education, health, etc. and other basic amenities to all. By redefining what is legitimate, they had an influence on how the government performed, especially when the rulers were politically challenged.

The social changes were closely related to political changes in the region. East India Company and the British government provided a political opportunity for the lower castes to gain political power. The British policy of ‘divide and rule’ and its idea that there should be no ‘governing classes’ in India to challenge their rule crated a political space for lower caste people. It grew further when representative (and later democratic) institutions were gradually introduced starting in mid-1800s. The democratic space that grew gradually made numbers significant and greatly empowered the backwards classes that are numerically superior in southern India. The Dravidian movement ensured that the numbers translated into political power by mobilising all these castes in what Christophe Jaffrelot calls a process of ‘ethnicisation’. A nascent women’s movement ensured that women got voting rights that gradually expanded from nothing in early 1900s to full adult franchise by 1947.

From 1920s onwards the Communist movement became powerful in the erstwhile Madras province creating a political space for the landless labourers and tenants. In the very first election after independence (in 1952) the Communist party got 64 seats and was a very powerful force in Tamil Nadu politics. Various caste organisations and especially the Vanniars Northern Tamil Nadu mobilised themselves politically and sought political offices. These organisations ensured that numerical superiority translated into political power. This is all the more significant since Tamil Nadu had fiercely competitive elections since India’s independence (in 1947). The electoral competition ensured that politicians do not easily ignore the demands of any organised group. The long process of political competition and mobilisation has also left the population highly politicised. Voter participation has been much higher in the state compared to rest of India (over 60% in the beginning itself). The voters are also highly informed of what various parties have to offer. Competitive politics amidst highly politicised and informed electorate with a choice of political parties to represent their cause makes it very difficult for political parties to survive without making considerable promises and delivering them.

Production relations too have changed with very large landlords disappearing fast – as a result loosening the hold of one class on another. These have had considerable impact in changing the rigid social structure of the Tamil society.

Today we see in Tamil Nadu considerably increased income levels, diversity of job opportunities, universal primary education, reduced caste rigidities and in general much increased individual freedoms. These resulted in a significant off-shoot, which is a high degree of decentralised collective action for basic amenities.

A common feature of all four changes is increasing clout of those originally left out to access, use and modify society’s institutions. The changes were led by determined collective action by various social movements initially and today’s good governance is sustained by a decentralised and widespread collective action among people today.

Based on these observations, I hope to argue that power is central to understanding institutions. It is uncontroversial to say that policies that benefit holders of power will tend to work well i.e. government and officials will have the right incentives to deliver to these sections. What is important though, is to conceptualise how power affects incentives. After an extensive review of literature that deals with institutions and development I develop a set of concepts that are relevant to understanding how social relations, freedoms and the structure of power affect institutions and incentives of the officials to perform.


About Vivek Srinivasan

I work with the Program on Liberation Technology at Stanford University. Before this, I worked with the Right to Food Campaign and other rights based campaigns in India. To learn more, click here.

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