Tamil Nadu is an extremely politically conscious state and each successive government has been keenly aware of the needs of its working class. A sharp focus on the drive to push up its literacy rates, for example, led the state to launch the midday meal scheme ahead of any other state in the country.
The state has also set precedents in utilising its funds for social welfare and making the buck work. This was, however, before politics in Tamil Nadu became synonymous with freebies, giveaways and populist schemes. It started with giving away new clothes, graduated to items such as pedestal fans, wet grinders, colour televisions, student laptops, and even land to farmers. The latest trend to woo the vote bank is that of launching populist schemes. So much so, that the media has started referring to the state as the “fountain-head of populist schemes”.
In all fairness, the trend was not set by the current Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, but undoubtedly Amma has pushed the bar up several notches. While we are all for turning India into a government-funded welfare state, the question of finances is a rather large and looming one. If the state government is indeed shouldering the burden of all these subsidies (of the fantastic populist schemes) where are the funds coming from? While the source of TN’s richness still remains a mystery, let us take a look at some such “Amma” schemes launched in recent times.
Amma Unavagam (Canteens)
Amma Unavagam or Amma Canteens are a chain of highly subsidized government run restaurants or canteens that allow the common man of Chennai to procure quality food at very cheap prices (about INR 13 for two meals). With pricing as low as INR 1 per idli, INR 5 for a plate of sambar rice and INR 3 for a plate of curd rice, the amma unavagams come as a blessing to the city’s teeming population of laborers and lower income group families. Jayalalithaa launched four canteens in 2014 and added 203 more in 2015. She is planning to add 45 more canteens to the city by end 2016. Amma unavagams have now opened up in other cities of the state such as Coimbatore.
Amma Marundagam (Pharmacies)
Cost of medicines often punches a hole in the poor man’s pocket. In June 2016, Puratchi Thalaivi (Revolutionary Leader) Jayalalithaa launched an initiative called the Amma Marundagam. The AIADMK government rolled out over a hundred pharmacies in Chennai and other districts such as Cuddalore, Erode, Kancheepuram, Madurai, Salem, Sivagangai, and Virudhunagar where medicines are sold at a discount of about 15 percent over market price. These pharmacies are a great hit around Tamil Nadu. Despite draining the state of about INR 20 crores, this seems to have been one of Jayalalithaa’s most beneficial schemes yet. The pharmacies are estimated to have skyrocketing revenues and are open all through the week from 7 am to 11 pm.
Amma Kaipesi Thittam (Mobile Phone Scheme)
In 1991, Jayalalithaa set up the system of self-help groups (SHG) for women aimed at their social empowerment and economic emancipation. Today there are about 6.08 lakh Women SHG in the state with some 92 lakh members. Many of these groups supply manpower resources to the government and have even become a self-sustaining economic force. In 2015, Jayalalithaa launched the Amma Kaipesi Thittam – a scheme under which about 20,000 SHG trainers would be provided “computerised mobile phones” with special Tamil software to help them supervise the SHG workers. The scheme was estimated to cost the government about INR 15 crore at the time of launch.
Amma Kudineer Thittam (Mineral Water Scheme)
In September 2013, on the occasion of the 105th birth anniversary of CN Annadurai, Jayalalithaa launched the Amma Kudineer Thittam – a scheme that allows the people of Tamil Nadu to procure purified mineral water at a low price. The lowest priced 1 litre bottle at the time was on sale by the Indian Railways and cost about INR 15. Other brands cost about INR 20 a litre. Amma Mineral Water is sold at about INR 10 a litre.
Back in 2014, Jayalalithaa had proposed a scheme under which certified, high-quality Amma seeds would be available at subsidised prices for farmers across the state. The launch of the scheme came through in January 2016 but since then, there has been an allocation of INR 5.37 crore for the scheme.
Amma Cement Scheme
Pongal is a time for exchanging gifts and goodies in Tamil Nadu, nut nothing comes close to the Amma Cement Scheme that Jayalalithaa launched in January 2015. Under the scheme people from the lower and middle income group become eligible to procure cement at a highly subsidized rate from government godowns for building houses. While the market price of a 50 kg bag is between INR 370 and INR 390, this scheme provides the same bag for about INR 170. Under the scheme such Amma Cement could be bought by submitting a copy of the government approved building plan. Those eligible will be able to procure a maximum of 750 bags for new house constructions and 100 bags for renovations.
Amma Master Health Check-up
The latest launches of Jayalalitha are a set of three health checkup schemes – Amma Master Health Check- up, Amma Special Master Health Check-up Scheme for Women and Amma Arokia Thittam – for those who cannot afford regular health screening tests. The first is a master health check scheme for all, the second a women health diagnostic scheme and the last is a set of basic health tests that can be undertaken at state government health centres. All these come at heavily subsidised rates. The subsidies are likely to cost the government about INR 207.33 crore.
For the Greater Good?
Populist schemes are great when it comes to active government involvement in the day-to-day needs and necessities of the common man. When it comes to benefits, however, they may become counterproductive for the state in the long run due to diversion of essential funds (that could be utilised for long-term infrastructure development and growth) into short-term vote mongering.
As Chennai resident Anand (@sliceme on Twitter) says “Freebies are OK as long as they reach the intended beneficiaries. Many people will benefit from the schemes but the government must focus on the state’s future. There has been just about no development in the state’s energy sector, no development of the state or city roads, and an almost invisible PWD. It will help to focus on all these rather than dole out populist schemes and freebies.”
It remains to be seen how the Tamil Nadu government, and Jayalalithaa, sustain the economic burden caused by these fantastic schemes. Also, how these schemes and the outflow of public funds helps the state in about a decade or so.
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