Pollplay: it rains money for the poor in Tamil Nadu

CHENNAI: With Lok Sabha elections just months away, money is raining on the poor in Tamil Nadu as the central and state governments have got down to institutionalised distribution of money directly to the voters.

Competitive handouts started with the state disbursing Rs 1,000 per family as Pongal assistance last month. In the budget, the Centre announced a dole of Rs 6,000 per family for small and marginal farmers; the first instalment of Rs 2,000 will get credited in the accounts of some 72 lakh beneficiaries in the state by March-end. Now, the state has come forward to pay another Rs 2,000 to every below-the-poverty-line family. In all, about 60 lakh families will receive the state’s dole. About 35 lakh families have been identified in rural areas and another 25 lakh in urban centres. With Rs 5,000 credited in most of the beneficiary accounts before the polls, the governments are virtually saying only money brings votes.

Free distribution of money can never be justified by any yardstick, said political analyst and director of the Observer Research Foundation N Sathiya Moorthy. “There was widespread criticism when competitive freebies distribution started in Tamil Nadu. But the argument in favour of freebies was that the poor were getting compensated for the tax breaks and bigtime loan write-offs being extended to the rich and the powerful. It soon gained national acceptance. Distribution of free laptops, TVs and mixies had a larger social purpose like the yesteryear free nutritious noon meal scheme. But cash distribution serves no purpose other than attracting votes,” said Moorthy.

One should expect more such doles in future as TRS has reaped rich dividends electorally by launching ‘Rythu Bandhu’ (farmer’s friend) scheme – disbursement of Rs 4,000 per acre for every crop season to every farmer in Telangana, said Moorthy. “Now the Centre is also distributing money. It is an indication that the Centre is not inclined to stick to fiscal discipline. It has emboldened states too,” he said.

Tamil Nadu did not want to restrict the scheme to small and marginal farmers because a sizeable population of those who do farming, especially in the Cauvery delta districts, are not land owners. They are either farm labourers or lessees. The criticism of the Centre’s scheme is that it does not benefit lessee farmers, who cultivate about 4 lakh acres of temple land in central and coastal Tamil Nadu. Moreover, covering unorganised workers was also top priority for the state government, said a senior AIADMK leader.

Jayalalithaa was the one who worked out the politics of dole with finesse, said sociologist Shiv Visvanathan. “Other states are imitating her politics of dole. When it is given in kind, it may serve some purpose, but doling out money will only empty coffers. Even the poverty line is questionable. Cash distribution poses a big threat to democracy,” said Visvanathan.