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.

Articles in the series

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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