Dravidian populism and social protection


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TAMIL NADU has witnessed recurrent anti-caste movements and an assertive political mobilization of lower castes for over a century. The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), a political party which came to power in 1967 with a broad social base of lower castes and classes, has had a tremendous impact on Tamil Nadu’s policy regime and institutions. One crucial legacy of this history is a slew of populist measures – undertaken in the past three decades – designed to address popular concerns.1 Setting aside criticisms, these populist policies have made a marked material difference to the living conditions of the traditionally dispossessed lower castes and classes. Amartya Sen and Jean Dreze argue that the state has seen a gradual consolidation of universalistic social policies and built an extensive network of ‘lively and effective healthcare centres’ offering access to people from across social groups.2

This essay maps this making of universalistic social policies in the state. In order to do so, it focuses on certain basic social outcomes particularly in health and education and traces the processes which led to relative success including the policy intervention in provision of basic services in the state. The essay also advances a set of explanations which made such interventions possible and successful in both design and implementation.

As for outcomes, Tamil Nadu has performed better on most of the social indicators compared to other states in the country. For instance the state’s fertility rate has long been below replacement rates, comparable to developed countries. The Total Fertility Rate has shown a sharp decline from 3.9 in 1971 to 1.7 in 2013. The corresponding figures for all-India are 5.2 and 2.3 (Sample Registration System 2013). Similarly, the state has done extremely well in controlling mortality rates. Infant Mortality Ratio (IMR) has shown a drastic decline from 121 in 1972 to 19 in 2015 while the decline for all-India is 139 to 41. The Maternal Mortality Ratio too stands much better than the all-India average.

As in the overall trend, health indicators when broken up by caste groups too show that Tamil Nadu has done better than all-India. As per the Nation Family Health Surveys, in 1992-93, the IMR (Infant Mortality Rate) for the SCs in Tamil Nadu was 90 points and it had come down to 37 points in 2005-06. The corresponding figures for all-India stand at 107 and 66 points respectively. In the case of indicators relating to child immunization and mother’s antenatal care too, deprived caste groups in Tamil Nadu have performed better than that of all India. The child immunization rate in Tamil Nadu was about 80% while merely 43% for all-India in 2005-06. On many health indicators, deprived caste groups in Tamil Nadu performed better than dominant caste groups in all-India. Child nutrition rates show that the state has been doing well as compared to all-India thanks to ICDS and the mid-day meal programme. The state has one of the best reproductive health and child care in the country. The percentage of pregnant women who deliver their baby at a health facility is 99% in Tamil Nadu, the highest in the country.


Similarly, education too has been far more socially inclusive as compared to all-India. As per the 55 round of the National Sample Survey, about 90% of children in the age group of 6-14 years were in school in Tamil Nadu in 1999-2000 in comparison to 76% children for all-India. The corresponding figures for 2007-2008 are 97.4 and 87% respec-tively. The state has managed to retain 98.8% of SCs in the age group of 6-10 and 94% of them in the age group of 10-14 in schools which is much higher than the all-India average. An outcome indicator that captures the spread of literacy is the reduction in gender gap. Tamil Nadu had a gender gap greater than that at the all-India level until 1981. However, since 1981, the gender gap in literacy in Tamil Nadu has recorded a significant decline. We also see a huge decline in the TFR (Total Ferti-lity Rate) during this period. Female literacy has a direct bearing on the TFR.

As in education and health, the state has seen a much faster rate of reduction in poverty. The rate of poverty reduction during 1993-94 to 2011-12 was 35 percentage points for rural Tamil Nadu and 27 percentage points for urban Tamil Nadu. The corresponding figures for all India are 24 and 18 percentage points respectively. The state has, thus, done better in both the level and rate of change in poverty. The well functioning PDS (Public Distribution System) has contributed to poverty reduction. These social outcomes are determined by a range of factors including the state’s policy inter-ventions, the relatively well established health infrastructure, the mid-day meal scheme, among others.


The better performance of Tamil Nadu in health indicators has to be located in the enhanced access to public health services and rate of utilization. The state has achieved these outcomes without any marked diffe-rence between health expenditure patterns between many other states and Tamil Nadu. The state has been a leader in provisioning free primary health care (which includes immuni-zation, ante-natal care, and post-natal care). The health infrastructure has been biased towards primary health. For instance, the number of PHCs (Public Health Centres) has gone up from 400 in 1980s to 1747 in 2017. The state has a higher PHC density than that of all-India viz., population covered by the PHC in Tamil Nadu is 32100 whereas the corresponding figure for all-India is 49200. The wider coverage of the PHC in the state becomes clearer when we look at the coverage of villages. Primary health accounts for about 45% of the total budget which is much higher than any other state in India.

An important aspect of Tamil Nadu’s success in public health is the supply of free medicines in government run health centres. The state has set up an elaborate network consisting of the state pharmaceutical corporation (TNMSC) and a well developed supply chain with compu-terized records to ensure affordable medicines to all. The result of such measures is reflected in the secondary data. For instance, the National Sample Survey (71st round, 2014-15) indicates that the average expenditure a household incurs for hospitalization in a government health facility is far lower in Tamil Nadu. The expenditure per household incurred in availing hospitalization in public health institutions in Tamil Nadu was Rs 459 in rural areas and Rs 780 in urban areas. The corresponding figures for all-India are Rs 5512 and Rs 7592.


The history of PDS in the state is closely linked with the DMK (Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) assuming power in 1967. The DMK came to power with the promise to supply three measures of rice per rupee. Since then, the state has been maintaining universal PDS while most of the states in India have gone in for targetted PDS since 1997. The coverage of different caste groups by the PDS too shows that groups placed at the bottom in the caste hierarchy, such as the STs and the SCs, have better access to the PDS in the state than their counterparts at all- India level. Along with the increased coverage, the basket of commodities provided at the PDS has also widened. Initially, the TNCSC provided rice, wheat, sugar and kerosene. Under the special public distribution scheme, it further included tur dal, urad dal, palmolein oil, fortified wheat flour, rava and maida at subsidized prices. In addition, the corporation also started supplying cement at a concessional rate and free LPG stoves under the scheme of free LPG connections to poor families.

Most importantly, the price of essential commodities under the PDS in Tamil Nadu is much lower than in the open market and even the prices fixed by the Government of India. The effec-tive and transparent functioning of the PDS has also ensured the least leakages in the country. For instance, Tamil Nadu has a diversion rate (the proportion of grain that does not reach bene-fi-ciary households) of 4.4% as against 44% of all-India, one of the lowest among the states compared. By all accounts the PDS has been functioning exceptionally well in Tamil Nadu. The political commitments nurtured through paternalist populism coupled with collective action by people have contributed to this success of the PDS in the state.


Tamil Nadu has the distinction of being the first state in post-independence India to introduce free mid-day meals for schoolchildren. The programme actually started with slogan of ‘combating classroom hunger’. The scheme is universal and the main concern about access is that children from different caste backgrounds should eat together (which generally happens). The programme has helped retain children in schools and effectively reduced dropout rates of children coming from poorer caste and class background. Over 90% of the schools have proper kitchen infrastructure which is periodically upgraded and modernized. The mid-day meal centres are also equipped with weighing scales, mats for children to sleep on, educational charts and toys.

The success of the programme is being attributed to pressure from above and below.3 Strong political will and efficient bureaucrats ensures that the scheme receives the required budgetary support while pressure from below makes the officials accountable for efficient delivery. In addition to mid-day meals, the ICDS (Integrated Child Development Scheme) also has contributed to the state’s success in ensuring nutrients to children. The aim of the ICDS is to provide integrated health, nutrition and pre-school edu-cation services to children under six through local anganwadis. The state has already achieved the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) in terms of a reduction in IMR and MMR. Strong political will and popular pressure from below were the key reasons for the success of the programmes in the state.


Besides the various innovative schemes, a key intervention which has shaped both the design and implementation of public policy in the state is the age-old policy of affirmative action. Since the 1920s, the state has put into place some form of affirmative action for lower castes in education and jobs. If the reservation policy ensured the effective representation of all caste groups in all rungs of bureaucracy, the political mobilization by Dravidian parties has ensured the representation of lower castes in the legislature. The recent data available for caste-wise profile of the legislators shows that 62% of them are OBCs, 18% are SCs and 11% are upper castes while about 9% of them are from religious minorities mirroring the population distri-bution of the state.4 This increased representation in the legislative assembly is reflected in the bureaucracy and professional bodies owned and managed by the state. The total reservation in government administrative bodies and educational institutions is 69% in the state.

After independence, the state was the first to push through a constitutional amendment to reintroduce reservation in public services on a new pattern of 25% for OBCs and 15% for SCs. After assuming power in 1967, the DMK set up a Backward Class Commission which recommended increasing the existing reservation of 25% for backward classes, and identifying the most backward groups to make special provisions for them. If the DMK led by Karunanidhi in 1971 increased the reservation of SCs from 15% to 18% and for OBCs from 25% to 31%, given the competitive elec-toral compulsion, the AIDMK led by M.G. Ramachandran further increased the OBC reservation to 50% in 1984, thereby pushing the quantum of reservation in the state to 69%. As a result, the state has been able to build a cadre of bureaucrats and professionals across caste groups.


For instance, exams for the state medical services show that out of 2173 total seats in 2014, the OBCs got 77% seats, which is much higher than their constitutional share of 50% reservation while the SC account for 20% of the total seats, i.e. 2% more than what they are entitled to. The SCs and OBCs could very well now compete in the open quotas. The sociological literature suggests the social diversification of doctors in a stratified society offers a ‘feeling of affinity’, ‘weakens caste ties’ and increases access to medical services across social groups.

Competitive populism has thus ensured a path-dependency in the provisioning of certain welfare measures in the state. Irrespective of party affiliations and ideological differences, the concept of social justice has remained the guiding principle of key policy interventions in the state. A combination of populist welfare measures and the idea of social justice has produced a political commitment to the provision of certain basic public services in the state. Under the DMK, the combination of affirmative action and Tamil identity worked to empower lower castes and generated aspirations among intermediate caste groups. An expanded education enhanced the mobility of these groups who had certain ‘social capability’, i.e. minimum resources to avail newly found opportunities created by this political mobilization.5


While an assertive populism of the DMK offered fresh opportunities to new aspirations of intermediate caste groups, the paternalist populism of AIADMK gave more attention to the needs of Dalits, women and the rural poor among others. Even though the policies associated with paternalist populism encouraged little individual autonomy, the assertive populism of the DMK combined these welfare measures with the rhetoric of social justice. This made a material difference to the lives of lower castes. For instance, the welfare measure initiated through the Tamil Nadu Integrated Nutrition Programme such as ICDS and noon meal schemes made a substantial contribution to improving nutritional outcomes for infants, pregnant women and lactating mothers.

Many studies indicate that Tamil Nadu has been transformed from a ‘socially fragmented society’ to a ‘poli-tically integrated region’,6 enhancing the likelihood of coming together in good faith to collectively uplift the people. Further, sustained political mobilization has also generated awareness among people of their entitlement and welfare schemes. The narrowing caste inequality has expanded freedom and made certain welfare measures irreversible. Simultaneously the institutions have been made more responsible to the people. As a result, the welfare measures initiated by the state more often reach the last mile, more so since people often resort to collective action to protest against the violation of their entitlements. Not only does the state have the lowest leakages (4%) in the PDS system in the country, even central welfare schemes such as the NREGA (National Rural Employ-ment Guarantee Act) are better implemented here because of heightened awareness among people, a pressure from the demand side.


The state has ensured better social outcomes, particularly in health and education. Such outcomes are more broad based and socially inclusive as compared to other states, a direct reflection of focused state policy. Political parties that inherited a legacy of a century long social mobilization have introduced certain populist welfare measures specially prioritiz-ing health and education. Such mobi-lization, which often took place in the name of Tamil identity and social justice, has produced horizontal solidarities and generated awareness among people about their entitlements. In turn, this has made institutions more accountable and ensured effective delivery of certain public ser- vices. This notwithstanding the state’s dismal record on governance and combating corruption. Dravidian populism shows that when populist political regimes are supported by collective action from below, we can ensure better social outcomes.



1. A. Wyatt, ‘Populism and Politics in Contemporary Tamil Nadu’, Contemporary South Asia 21(4), 2013, pp. 365-381.

2. The authors note that the relative success of Tamil Nadu in comparison to other states lies in a set of universal social policies including universal PDS, ICDS, mid-day meals that the state has been providing to its people. They also attribute the better performance of NREGA to robust administrative regulation and accountability due to pressure from below. For further details, see Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen, ‘Putting Growth in Its Place’, Outlook, 14 November 2011.

3. Brinda Viswanathan, ‘Access to Nutritious Meal Programmes: Evidence from 1999-2000 NSS Data’, Economic and Political Weekly, 11 February 2006, pp. 497-505.

4. Jean-Luc Racine, Caste and Beyond in Tamil Politics’, in Christophe Jaffrelot and Sanjay Kumar (eds.), Rise of the Plebeians? The Changing Face of Indian Legislative Assemblies. Routledge, Delhi, 2009.

5. Narendra Subramanian, Ethnicity and Populist Mobilization: Political Parties, Citizens and Democracy in South India. Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1999, p. 74.

6. Citing Paul Brass’ (1979) work among others, Prerna Singh argues that the solidarity that emerges from a sense of shared identity-sub-nationalism is the key for relative success of Tamil Nadu in social outcomes. See How Solidarity Works for Welfare: Subnationalism and Social Development in India. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2015, p. 122.