Freebies: Way to bridge the gap

The issue of freebies being offered at election time in Tamil Nadu cannot be isolated from the wider canvas of changes taking place in the state’s economy and its society. The pace of these shifts has indeed been rapid.
The agricultural sector is under stress whereas the other two sectors are expanding rapidly, notably the service sector. People, in general, prefer to move away from the drudgery of agriculture to the more “modern” or “comfortable” non-agricultural sector. But this shift is painful and time-consuming, especially for the poor and the vulnerable.

The state, therefore, has a responsibility to respond to this situation by softening the pain of transition for the poor from the agrarian-based society to a modern industrial and service sector-based society. Indeed, the government would be failing in its duty if it did not provide the necessary resources to the people to enable them to move easily — and freely — from their total dependence on agriculture. The social sector policy of the state in Tamil Nadu has been precisely in this direction.
Tamil Nadu government policy is informed by the principles of social justice, which became a part of the governing principle during the Justice Party regime in the 1920s in the erstwhile Madras Presidency. Reservations in government employment and education were the first step. This struggle continued and reached its pinnacle when the overall reservation reached 69 per cent. Since then the focus of the government has shifted to other sectors.
This was made possible by a wider theoretical interpretation of the social justice principle. Steps that would result in the inclusion of larger sections of the society — those who have been excluded so far — constitute the wider interpretation of social justice principles. It is akin to the “inclusive growth” principle, which would like to include others, fearing that the growth process itself might be threatened and derailed by social unrest if exclusion persists. On the other hand, a morally just principle would be to provide the well-being to all sections of society. The social justice principle is built on this understanding.
Providing rice at a hugely subsidised rate has liberated the poor and the downtrodden from the anxiety about food. In fact, the fear about food was the bedrock of the earlier system of production relations. It is not only that the rural poor are now food-secure and free from the clutches of the landed gentry. There is an argument that such a heavily subsidised public distribution system makes the people dependent on the state. For those rural poor, however, it is better to depend on the state than on the local landed aristocracy.
Women from such households are enjoying more freedom as their effort to garner enough food for the day has eased enormously. Their drudgery is bound to come down with machines (mixies and grinders) assisting them in their household chores, and television sets are also helpful in this regard. It is absolutely undemocratic and inhuman to argue that providing these machines would render them lazy. In fact, this is another important step towards the emancipation of women and toward wider social justice. Already, they are forming their own self help groups and access credit through microfinance institutions. The burden of household chores will be reduced and women can devote more of their time towards more productive work.
The big divide between the haves and the have nots was first bridged by the provision of colour television sets. The providing of laptops to poor students will help close this divide further. The price of mobile phones was first determined by market forces. But since the prices themselves have come crashing, governments need not worry about providing mobile phones to the disadvantaged since they can afford it on their own now.
It is fallacious to argue that the spending on “freebies” is non-productive investment. It is actually an investment on human capital which will benefit not only the immediate beneficiaries, but also the capitalist class in the long term with quality human resources.
The combined effect of all these efforts to bridge the divide would see a net improvement in the quality of life and the relative poor will also suffer less pain in the transition process. It is fair to say that the state has not failed in its duty and has done what is expected of a just system of governance in a democracy.
“Freebies” is the language of the privileged. They don’t have any qualms when the state extends humongous sums as tax sops to the corporates. The spending on the so-called “freebies” for a population of seven crores is not even one-twentieth of what is being extended to a few corporates as tax concessions. Then, why such a hue and cry?

J. Jayaranjan is a Chennai-based development economist

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