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.
Articles in the series
- About Delivering public services effectively: TN & Beyond
- How I became interested in TN’s public services
- The root of TN’s commitment to services
- Decentralized action & Great social movements of Tamil Nadu
- Why decentralized action increased from 70s in Tamil Nadu
- Why public services & not land reforms?