Karunanidhi's welfare measrues

Pragmatic Periyarist

Print edition : August 31, 2018

Residents of a Samathuvapuram , which was inaugurated by M. Karunanidhi, carried out a symbolic funeral procession as a mark of respect for the leader who passed away on August 7. Photo: R. Ashok

February 24, 1971: Presiding over a group marriage conducted at Arignar Anna Arangam, Chennai. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

June 3, 1973: A cycle rickshaw being presented to a hand-rickshaw puller by Chief Minister Karunanidhi on his birthday. The abolition of hand-pulled rickshaws was to put an end to the shameful practice of a man being pulled by another, he said. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

October 2, 1971: At the inauguration of the Leprosy Rehabilitation Home under the Beggars Rehabilitation Scheme, at Paranur in Chinglepet district. Sathiyavani Muthu, Minister for Harijan Welfare, presided. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

The “Kannoli Thittam” (Eyesight restoration, spectacles distribution) for poor people, introduced during 1969 -71, Karunanidhi said, was to remove the “complex in the minds of the visually affected”. Photo: The Hindu Archives

April 11, 1990: Distributing 5 kg of free rice per family card to beneficiaries in connection with the Tamil New Year’s Day in Harbour area in Chennai. Pon. Muthuramalingam, Minister for Food and Cooperation, is also seen. Photo: The Hindu Archives

June 11, 1972: The new tenements at Kotturpuram in Saidapet constituency constructed by the Slum Clearance Board under the presidentship of M. Karunanidhi. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

A view of SIPCOT park at Siruseri, Chennai, on December 14, 2016. Photo: M. Karunakaran

September 16, 1970: With Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, Governor Sardar Ujjal Singh and Union Minister for Steel and Heavy Engineering B.R. Bhagat at the inauguration of the Salem Steel Project at Karuchipatti village near Salem. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Karunanidhi modelled his welfare policies on Periyar’s thoughts on achieving an egalitarian society and he pursued this social agenda methodically and cautiously and in a nuanced manner, like his mentor Annadurai.

"A society which was genuinely 'divided' would not be a society any more..."

- Benjamin Disraeli

As a Chief Minister for five times, M. Karunanidhi executed a slew of social welfare and security schemes and projects that have addressed many social problems and helped Tamil Nadu position itself today as a progressive State in the country. He knew that any social initiative should ensure an egalitarian society and that only welfare programmes that guaranteed complete coverage would give effective protection to beneficiaries.

The welfare politics of Dravidian governments has been quite successful in the spheres of healthcare, eradication of caste, women’s development, education, and so on—what the radical social reformer Periyar E.V. Ramasamy hoped to achieve through “his own”, read the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), government. In his opinion, with the DMK in power, the marginalised sections of society could prosper and the perceived brahminical hegemony would come to an end.

Of course, not just C.N. Annadurai or Karunanidhi, but anyone schooled in the Periyarist ideology would have had their agenda cut out to achieve that. Significantly, no discussion on the social welfare curriculum of the DMK government would be complete without understanding the influence of Periyar on it. Rationalism in governance was what Periyar mooted. But governance with rationalism was what Annadurai and Karunanidhi pursued. At a meeting held in Tiruchi, Periyar said: “Since I have lost hope in social reforms through constitutional persuasive methods, I feel that a totalitarian government pledged to rationalism and socialism will alone be able to do something.”

Hence, the DMK government, he insisted, had to break the monopoly of the upper castes on intellectual and economic properties such as education and employment. But he was ambitious and also hasty to see his dream come true. In his book Arivin Ellai (The Wisdom’s Border, translated by A. M. Dharmalingam), Periyar said that people who were afraid of public opinion could never be effective reformers. “At least for some 15 years, high caste pupils should be denied admission in all colleges and technical schools. An honest government, I feel, should do this unhesitatingly if it is intent on social equality and destruction of caste…,” he wrote.

Any modest social reform, he felt, would not benefit in a country such as “ours where obstructionists, who still happen to benefit by the divisions and superstitions of our own society, are still active and flourishing”. One could not dismiss him for such extreme views since he lived at a time when society was set in a casteist mould.

Periyar, in one of his Tiruchi meetings, held on March 7, 1970, said that he did not hesitate to take credit for the formation of such a rational and progressive government. “It is our self-respect movement and Dravidar Kazhagam that was behind it [the DMK government].”

A shrewd Karunanidhi, however, was aware of his limitations as an administrator. He was aware of the fact that he could not set right all the wrongs at one stroke. He respected Periyar more dearly than anyone, but next only to Annadurai, his political mentor. That was why his government prioritised policies of social equality. His takes on reservation, education, and the appointment of archakas were modelled on Periyar’s thoughts. But he was methodical and cautious in pursuing this social agenda. He knew that conflicts and confrontations with any ideological group would derail his cherished objective of achieving an egalitarian society which Periyar had dreamt of.

So, he chose to tread the time-tested path of Annadurai, his political mentor, but in a more nuanced manner. Like Anna, who diligently handled delicate issues such as the two-language formula that saw Hindi lose ground in the State, and on State autonomy and reservation, all within the intricacies of a plural society, Karunanidhi too opened up a maze of avenues to explore the possibilities of enacting legislation of social relevance. Needless to say, these laws received stiff resistance from traditionalists and the extreme Right that treated him with scorn until his death.

Anna did not have time to think and experiment and evaluate the feedback since he died early in office. But what Anna left unfinished, Karunanidhi completed in his tenures as Chief Minister. R. Kannan, in his Anna: The Life and Times of C.N. Annadurai, points out that Anna wished to implement the Land Ceiling Act, bringing down the ceiling from 30 to 15 standard acres (one acre is 0.4 hectare). The process Anna had begun, he further claims, was concluded in 1970 under Karunanidhi’s tenure, when 1,78,880 acres were appropriated and distributed to 1,36,236 landless farmers. The amendment to the Hindu Marriage Act was taken up in July 1967, giving legal sanction to self-respect marriages besides endorsing inter-caste marriages officially.

Periyar’s influence

Karunanidhi never failed to acknowledge Periyar’s contributions to society and his influence on him in politics and governance. In fact, when V.R. Nedunchezhiyan raised the banner of revolt against him after Annadurai’s demise, Periyar chose to be on the side of Karunanidhi, telling his followers that “we should support Karunanidhi with our eyes closed. The DMK should remain in power at least for another two terms. Whether the party likes me or not I would continue to project the DMK as the party of the people”.

The unimpeded support from Periyar, a major political and social force during that period, spurred Karunanidhi to launch a series of social welfare schemes and programmes for the poor and needy, thus making his government the best administered and a socially conscious one. While addressing a meeting at Thanjavur on September 7, 1969, ahead of Periyar’s 91st birthday, Karunanidhi said, “Periyar is Tamil Nadu government. Even the ministry today has 13 members, a number considered to be inauspicious.”

That the key element in the DMK government’s social welfare and security schemes was Periyarism was vouchsafed by Karunanidhi himself on more than one occasion. At a meeting in Arani on October 23, 1973, he said the Self-Respect Movement had influenced his governance. The “Kannoli Thittam” (Eyesight restoration, spectacles distribution) for poor people, introduced during 1969-71, he said, was to remove the “complex in the minds of the visually affected” while the Beggars’ Rehabilitation Scheme was to eradicate the feeling of rejection the afflicted faced in society. The abolition of hand-pulled rickshaws was to put an end to the shameful practice of a man being pulled by another, he pointed out.

A recent media report from Bargur in Krishnagiri district reveals the positive impact of his visionary schemes on society. The death of Karunanidhi evoked overwhelming emotions among the inmates of the government rehabilitation home for leprosy patients there, which he inaugurated in 1972 under the Leprosy Eradication and Rehabilitation Scheme, the first of its kind in the country. According to the report, an inmate of the home for nearly two decades said that but for Karunanidhi, he and his companions would have been left to live on the streets. “Even to beg had been a taboo for us,” he said. (According to the report, Jayalalithaa had stopped funding these homes, some 25 across the State, when she assumed power and Karunanidhi’s son M.K. Stalin had to approach the judiciary to get a reprieve.)

Thus, there has been an unmistakable umbilical link between the social reform schemes he scripted and the rational movement of Periyar. Between 1969 and 1971, he took some revolutionary decisions for the welfare of the common people. He nationalised bus transport, providing last-mile connectivity even to the remotest villages, which private operators had shunned. Easy and affordable transport services spurred mass mobility and enabled people to commute between towns and villages in search of work. He also announced the electrification of villages and almost achieved it in his subsequent tenures as Chief Minister. He allotted free concrete houses for the marginalised and ensured free education for all up to the Pre-University Course (PUC).

Reservation policy

He enhanced the quantum of reservation for backward classes (B.C.) to 31 per cent from 25 per cent and for the Scheduled Castes (S.Cs) to 18 per cent from 16 per cent. He brought Urdu-speaking Muslims and Kongu Vellalars, a community to which the current Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami belongs, under the list of Backward Classes. When he was in power between 1989 and 1991, he carved out 20 per cent exclusive reservation for Vanniyars and Seer Marabinars (Denotified) under the Most Backward Classes group.

His outstanding achievement, however, was in providing 3 per cent reservation for Arunthathiyars, the most vulnerable section among untouchables, within the overall reservation quota. K. Samuel Raj, general secretary of the Tamil Nadu Untouchability Eradication Front, said that the Communist Party of India (Marxist) had staged a series of protests between 2006 and 2009 demanding separate reservation for them. Many other outfits such as the Adhi Thamizhar Peravai too had pressed for the same. Obliging them, Karunanidhi first included it in the Governor’s address in the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly on January 23, 2008. On November 27 that year, the Assembly passed a resolution in this regard. On March 12, 2009, the State gazetted it as an extraordinary Act that provided special reservation. It was a carefully executed piece of legislation since a few other Dalit groups had opposed it.

The Adhi Thamizhar Peravai, on its website, claims that immediately after the enactment of the law, their wards showed phenomenal growth in higher education and employment. It notes that only 17 seats were filled from among the community in medical (MBBS) courses in 2008; in 2009, thanks to the reservation, 86 seats were filled. In engineering courses, more than 4,000 seats were occupied in 2009 against 681 in 2008. Similar was the case of lecturers’ and professors’ posts in government colleges and teachers’ posts in other educational institutions. “It should be more now. Quite an enviable record of sorts,” said a functionary of the organisation. On Dalit Christians’ demand for reservation, Karunanidhi wrote a letter to the Central government asking it to include them in the S.C. List.

Karunanidhi created a few new departments that addressed the structural needs for social justice delivery systems, such as the Slum Clearance Board and the State Civil Supplies Corporation, which ensured uninterrupted supply of essentials to fair price shops that cater to the needs of the poor and the marginalised. Simultaneously, he fixed fair wages for farm labourers.

Various welfare boards for unorganised sectors too were formed between 1996 and 2001. During the same period a massive scheme of desilting of canals, tanks and rivers across the State was launched. He supervised all of them personally. This period also saw the establishment of various mega infrastructure projects such as bus stands, collectorate complexes, dams, and a court building for the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court in Madurai.

He continued this radical streak of reforms in his second tenure too as Chief Minister (1971-76), executing a new set of schemes such as the free housing scheme for fishermen and the abolition of land taxes on dry lands, a majority of which were owned by the marginalised. He gave a special thrust to industrial development this time. The Salem Steel Plant and the second phase expansion of the Neyveli Lignite Corporation were two important projects among the many during this period. Small Industries Development Corporation Limited (SIDCO) and the State Industries Promotion Corporation of Tamil Nadu (SIPCOT) complexes were established then. The period also marked a green revolution.

Women’s welfare

In his third term (1989-1991) he turned his attention to welfare schemes, prioritising and identifying women as major beneficiaries. One cannot discount the observations of political watchers that he shrewdly manipulated this package for women as a plank to counter Jayalalithaa, who was emerging then as a leader of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) after the death of M.G. Ramachandran. It was his attempt to pre-empt the political prominence she had attempted to grab. He reserved for women 30 per cent of the jobs in government and in public sector enterprises, changing the very profile of employment in the State, which in another decade or so would make marked strides in the man-woman employment ratio in government offices.

The amendment to the Hindu Succession Act, which he brought in, fulfilled what Periyar had longed for for decades—ensuring equal property rights for female children. He gave a grant of Rs.5,000 for the marriage of girls from poor families who had completed 8th standard and thus tactically ensured minimum education for girls. The maternity assistance of Rs.200 for women from poor households and free education up to graduate level for girls from poor and middle income groups benefited several women as did the financial assistance for widow remarriages.

Free education to Dalit girls up to the graduate level subject to an income ceiling and free electricity to farmers, another first in the country, were other schemes that benefited the marginalised sections of society.

The period between 1996 and 2001, claimed to be the best in the State under any Chief Minister, saw Karunanidhi sustaining the rare blend of social reforms, social welfare and social security schemes in his governance. A significant hit was the distribution of 5 kg of free rice to poor households, benefiting around 83 lakh families with a monthly income of Rs.300; this was later raised to Rs.1,000 a month. The scheme helped poor families to save a lot of money on rice and use it for their wards’ education.

All through his tenure as Chief Minister, he maintained a delicate balance between State finances and welfare schemes. The rice scheme was a heavily subsidised one and any bungling with numbers would be political and economic suicide for the government. At its launch in Chennai on June 3, 1989, he said these social security and welfare schemes were only “palliatives”. The eradication of diseases, he said, would be a long-term commitment. These schemes were innovative in concept but essential in strengthening the quality of social life of the disadvantaged groups.

Later, he fine-tuned it as “one kg rice for Re.1” scheme and included it in his election manifesto along with offering free colour TVs, which propelled the party to power again during 2006-11. Former Union Finance Minister and senior Congress leader P. Chidambaram called the manifesto “the hero of the elections”. During this period, he waived cooperative loans to the tune of Rs.7,000 crore and provided an enhanced minimum support price for paddy and sugar cane. He opened direct paddy procurement centres to save farmers from the clutches of middlemen. Free house site pattas were issued to 1.58 crore families. The government also reserved 33 per cent of seats for women in local bodies, which saw a couple of Dalit women becoming mayors. The noon meal scheme for schoolchildren was further nourished with three eggs a week.

Importance to education

During his tenures as Chief Minister he accorded utmost importance to higher education. He opened many medical colleges and upgraded taluk and district hospitals in a number of districts. Many people were given permission to start engineering colleges too. He abolished entrance examinations for admission to medical and engineering colleges and introduced “Samacheer Kalvi”, or equitable education system, in schools, and set up libraries at villages on the basis of the population and the literacy ratio.

This period also witnessed sweeping industrial development when he continued from where he left in 2001. He authored an exclusive IT policy. Old Mahabalipuram Road in Chennai emerged as an IT corridor with multinationals jostling for space. Tamil Nadu also became an automobile hub, with automobile majors lining up to pitch their tents in the State. The tax regime was made lenient and investor-friendly. Electronic parks, industrial hubs and entrepreneurship clusters were formed not only in Chennai but also in Tier-II and Tier-III towns, bringing in heavy investments.

As usual, he did jugglery with finances and schemes and projects but with uncanny perfection. Senior bureaucrats who worked with him on those occasions revealed that he was studious while working out the economics of his government. He delicately balanced the State’s financial resources since he could understand the complexities of social welfare policies. He was well aware that a healthy economy could facilitate the sustainability of the welfarism though, sadly, no Dravidian government has contemplated any income-generating programmes so far.

The economic historian and ethical socialist R.H. Tawney has argued that “public spending is the most effective way of redistributing resources”. Karunanidhi knew how to treat capitalist intiatives and populist schemes on the same page carefully. He had the revenues equally split between industrialisation and social welfare schemes. It never hurt the State’s economy.

To eradicate caste discrimination, he introduced Periyar Memorial Samathuvapurams (Habitation of equality) across the State. The government identified beneficiaries from economically and socially weaker sections of different castes and religions and allotted them free houses with essential amenities. Inaugurating the first of it at Melakottai in Madurai district on August 17, 1998, he said that the idea behind the scheme was “to foster amity among all sections of societies as one community and one race”. Tamil Nadu, he said, should be a State of “one samathuvapuram”. He opened around 200 such habitations, which sadly are running to seed today.

The Uzhavar Santhais (Farmers’ shanties) he built removed middlemen and facilitated farmers to sell directly to consumers. The Varummun Kappom (Prevention and protection) scheme, acting as major referral camps, identified the sick and malnourished among the poor and provided them the needed healthcare. The self-help movement Namakku Naame (We for ourselves) involved the public in various development works in their localities while the Anna Marumalarchi Scheme was meant to upgrade the infrastructure of towns and villages.

His last tenure as Chief Minister saw the introduction of the free “108 ambulance” services and the construction of the massive Rs.1.200-crore Assembly Secretariat, which has now been converted into a hospital; the Anna Centenary Memorial Library; the inauguration of the Metro Rail project; and other industrial projects. Every time he came to power, he had to revive and revitalise the schemes that had been dismantled by the previous Jayalalithaa regime.

At the heart of these reforms lies the concept of social welfare, which Karunanidhi sustained with his relentless pursuit to achieve a casteless and classless society. Dravidian leaders have used populist schemes to iconise their images in the environment of competitive politics. But it cannot demean their ideological commitment to the faith they are affiliated to—the rationalistic principle, which today has given a unique identity to Tamil Nadu, a State of progressiveness and progress.

A State with no hunger is no mean achievement. And Muthuvel Karunanidhi was destined to shape it. That is why he will remain relevant for years to come.