How M. Karunanidhi’s landmark reforms shaped Tamil Nadu’s political and economical landscapes

Throughout his 19 years as Chief Minister, the DMK supermo championed a slew of laws in areas ranging from education to healthcare to reservation to industry.

Published : Aug 17, 2018 11:00 IST

  June 1970:  A.N. Sattanathan handing over the report of the First Tamil Nadu Backward Classes Commission to Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi in the presence of Minister of Labour and Backward Classes N.V. Natarajan.

June 1970: A.N. Sattanathan handing over the report of the First Tamil Nadu Backward Classes Commission to Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi in the presence of Minister of Labour and Backward Classes N.V. Natarajan.

It is not an easy task to provide a report card of the legislative progress of a five-time Chief Minister. It must be remembered that he first took oath as Chief Minister on February 10, 1969, and stepped down for the last time on May 13, 2011. He governed Tamil Nadu at various points over a 44-year period during which the economic landscape underwent tectonic changes. To appreciate this, it must be taken into account that in 1970-71, India’s per capita net national income (at factor cost at constant prices) was Rs.10,016 as against Rs.82,269 today. While the length and breadth of the legislative achievements over this era are enormous, like the person himself, it is the tenacious adaptability over the long period during which he strode the political arena that stands out.

The early Karunanidhi years, namely 1969 to 1976, saw the prioritisation of social reforms over all others. The Tamil Nadu Agricultural Labourer Fair Wages Act, 1969, was enacted to enforce payment of fair wages to agricultural labourers in the Cauvery delta region and penalise landowners who exploited labourers. Another Act, in the same year, would ensure that all tenancy rights and interests were maintained in the revenue records for the first time. In the following year, the Tamil Nadu Land Reforms (Reduction of Ceiling on Land) Act, 1970, was passed, a law which sought to reduce disparities in landholdings by reducing the land ceiling limit from 30 standard acres to 15 standard acres (one acre is 0.4 hectare). This set of reforms culminated in the setting up of the specialist university for development of agriculture, learning and research into the agricultural sciences through the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University Act, 1971. Taken together, this set of agrarian and land-related laws formed the first bundle of administrative measures targeted at the development of rural Tamil Nadu. Not surprising, given that Karunanidhi was familiar with the problems faced by farmers and farm labourers, as even in his first term as a Member of the Legislative Assembly for Kulithalai, he spoke about the Nangavaram farm labourers’ agitation of 1957.

Commissioned administrative reforms

During the early years as Chief Minister, Karunanidhi established some very important commissions. The first was a committee “to study Centre-State relations” and make recommendations on what powers to transfer to the States. It had always been the dream of former Chief Minister C.N. Annadurai (Anna) to amend the Constitution in a manner as to transfer power from the Centre to the States; it was Kalaignar who would act on it. During his first chief ministerial visit to New Delhi, in March 1969, Karunanidhi announced in a press conference that his government was considering setting up an expert committee to study Centre-State relations.Later, that August, he announced the formation of a three-member committee headed by Dr P.V. Rajamannar to examine the constitutional provisions to suggest measures to secure “utmost autonomy of the State in the executive, legislative and judicial branches”. The recommendations of the Rajamannar Committee, submitted on May 27, 1971, laid out a comprehensive road map towards a more federal Constitution. It made far-reaching recommendations on a broad range of subjects, from setting up an inter-State council comprising all Chief Ministers, with the Prime Minister as chairman, to the appointment of Governors. It suggested guidelines on matters ranging from the appointment of Chief Ministers to the dismissal of a minority government.

A Backward Classes Commission was constituted under the chairmanship of A.N. Sattanathan to give recommendations on improving the welfare of the backward classes. On the basis of the Sattanathan Commission report, the government increased the reservation quota of the backward classes in educational institutions and government employment from 25 per cent to 31 per cent, and for the Scheduled Castes from 16 per cent to 18 per cent. Similarly, a Police Commission was constituted during this time, under the leadership of R.A. Gopalaswamy, to give recommendations on revision of the pay scales of policemen. Based on the report of the Police Commission, the pay scales of policemen were substantially increased and the meritorious service of police personnel was rewarded with annual awards. Other administrative reforms during those years included the acceptance and implementation of the Second Pay Commission for government employees and the abolition of the confidential report system.

Another standout yet under-reported administrative accomplishment was the slew of incentives given to the education of Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (S.C. and S.T.) students. According to the Tamil Nadu State Administration Report 1969-75, prizes in the form of clothing were given to S.C. students who demonstrated regular attendance in schools. Similarly, headmasters and headmistresses of schools that ensured 100 per cent attendance were given silver medals. The Mid-Day Meal scheme for the students in the Adi Dravidar Welfare Schools was sanctioned at a cost of Rs.30 lakh in the Budget Estimate of 1974-75.

S.C. and S.T. students who failed in Standards IX and X were given special coaching through a government-sanctioned scheme. Incentive-based schemes, loan facilities and scholarships were expanded during the years 1969 to 1975. Through a Government Order, in 1970, S.C. and S.T. students up to Pre-University Courses were exempted from paying tuition fees. Students were provided interest-free loans for pursuing professional courses through a Government Order in 1972. A total of 377 students benefited from this scheme from 1970-71 to 1974-75 and Rs.4,46,200 was disbursed. Other schemes sanctioned financial assistance for the training of five lawyers and five chartered accountants from S.C. and S.T. communities. According to the Department of Harijan Welfare, the number of training centres for S.C. and S.T. students for Tamil Nadu Public Service Commission examinations was increased from four in 1966-67 to 30 in 1973-74.

A report of 2015 showing that S.C. and S.T. children from Tamil Nadu are less likely to be underweight than children belonging to Other Backward Classes and upper castes in States like Gujarat is a testament to the impact of targeted education-related reforms undertaken by the Karunanidhi-led government between 1969 and 1976. The slew of government orders issued during this period enabled tens of thousands of Dalit students to complete education, gain employment and lift their families out of poverty.

Pioneering initiatives

Until 1989, when Karunanidhi was re-elected for the third term as Chief Minister, the property and succession rights of sons and daughters within Hindu families were different. While sons could exercise complete right over their father’s property, daughters enjoyed this right only until they got married. The Self Respect Conference held in Chengalpattu in February 1929 had passed a resolution demanding equal rights for women. In 1989, The Hindu Succession (Tamil Nadu Amendment) Act, 1989, finally provided equal succession rights. This law has had an understated yet significant impact in addressing gender inequality. Bestowed with equal rights to the ancestral property, women, naturally, became economic partners within the households and were accorded due importance in decision-making. At the national level, the law was amended in 2005 to provide equal status for women.

Similarly, the State has also been a role model for the welfare of differently-abled persons. The Tamil Nadu Welfare Board for the Disabled Persons Act, 2007, and the creation of a dedicated department for the Welfare of the Differently Abled in 2009 prove this. Yet, for years, there was no separate department at the Central level and it was part of the Union Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment until the Department of Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities was created on May 12, 2012. Also, in the case of transgender persons, Tamil Nadu set up a Welfare Board on April 15, 2008, under the Ministry of Social Welfare. The board was tasked with the formulation and implementation of welfare programmes for providing social security and status to the transgender community. These pioneering initiatives aimed at recognising the rights of transgender persons took shape years before the landmark judgment by the Supreme Court in National Legal Services Authority vs Union of India in 2014. It is a matter of some concern that the Union government is yet to pass the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill, 2016, through the two Houses of Parliament.

The Dravidian economic model is best described, in Anna’s words, as consumer socialism. The model envisages the State playing the role of an enabler or catalyst of industrial growth with the interest of the consumer or the citizen at the centre of the process. The early economic interventions of the Karunanidhi government focussed on increasing job opportunities by inviting industries—micro, small, medium or large—to the State.

To facilitate the growth of smaller-scale industrial enterprises, the Tamil Nadu Small Industries Development Corporation Limited (SIDCO) was incorporated in 1970. The establishment of the State Industrial Promotion Corporation of Tamil Nadu (SIPCOT) was crucial in the creation of an industrial estate spanning 730 acres at Ranipet (Vellore) in 1973. This initiative gave birth to 107 new industries and opened thousands of job opportunities. Building on these efforts, in 1997, The Tamil Nadu Industrial Township Area Development Authority Act was enacted to “promote and assist the rapid and orderly establishment, growth and development of industries”. The Tamil Nadu Acquisition of Land for Industrial Purposes Act, 1998, was a flagship law passed to facilitate acquisition of lands, which is essential for setting up big industries. These and other such inherent qualities, including a skilled workforce, the rule of law, an efficient bureaucracy and all-round social infrastructure, ensured that Tamil Nadu became an investment-friendly State.

The Karunanidhi government set up a state-of-the-art software park as a joint venture between two government agencies: TIDCO (Tamil Nadu Industrial Development Corporation) and ELCOT (Electronics Corporation of Tamil Nadu). The TIDEL Information Technology Park, which was inaugurated by the then Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee in July 2000, cemented Chennai’s place as a sought-after software industry destination.

Building on the strong industrial base created over three decades, the automobile manufacturing sector took wing in and around Chennai. In 2008, it was estimated that 23 per cent of the cars and 15 per cent of the trucks and two-wheelers manufactured in India came from Chennai and Hosur. Around Rs.15,000 crore worth of new investments came directly into the automobile and ancillary industries within the State in that year. Chennai became a manufacturing leader and was called the “Detroit of South Asia”.

Social justice and education

At times, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and, its predecessor, the Dravidar Kazhagam, have not been politically allied but they have stayed ideologically aligned on many issues. A little more than a year after the acrimonious split and the creation of the DMK led by Anna, both organisations stood shoulder to shoulder to protest against the decision in State of Madras vs Champakam Dorairajan [a landmark case in which the Supreme Court upheld a High Court judgment striking down a Government Order providing caste-based reservation in government jobs and college seats.] Under Karunanidhi, the Department of Backward Classes was started in 1969 and the Department of Most Backward Classes and Denotified Communities in 1989. After the Sattanathan Commission, the J.A. Ambasankar Backward Classes Commission was constituted in 1982, which provided its recommendations in 1985. However, it was not until 1989, when Karunanidhi formed the government, that the subdivision of reservation for Most Backward Classes was carved out.

In 2007, The Tamil Nadu Backward Class Christians and Backward Class Muslims (Reservation of Seats in Educational Institutions Including Private Educational Institutions and of Appointments or Posts in the Services Under the State) Act was legislated to create a subdivision of backward Muslims and Christians. This was followed by The Tamil Nadu Arunthathiyars (Special Reservation of Seats in Educational Institutions including Private Educational Institutions and of Appointments or Posts in the Services under the State within the Reservation for the Scheduled Castes) Act in 2009, creating sub-quotas to ensure that the benefits of affirmative action trickled down.There were other novel innovations such as preferential appointments for students who were educated in Tamil medium schools under the Tamil Nadu Appointment on Preferential Basis in the Services under the State of Persons Studied in Tamil Medium Act, 2010. In the same year, a scholarship scheme was announced to provide financial assistance to “first graduates” towards their tuition fees and other fees for any professional course.

The Karunanidhi years witnessed the opening of many government colleges for engineering and medicine than at any other time. In 1997, Dr Ambedkar Law University was set up in Chennai as a premier law institute and also to honour the memory of Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar. Periyar University was also set up in the same year. In 2006 and 2007, Anna University was expanded to regional headquarters in Tiruchi, Coimbatore and Tirunelveli, quadrupling the presence of the premier engineering university.Similarly, The Tamil Nadu Admission in Professional Educational Institutions Act, 2006, was enacted to streamline the admission process to professional courses in engineering, medicine, dental, agriculture and architecture. This law extended reservation to cover 65 per cent of seats in non-minority unaided (private) professional institutions and 50 per cent in minority unaided institutions.

Two major legislative reforms were seen in the school education sector as well: capping of fees and setting up of uniform curriculum in education (Samacheer Kalvi). Over the years, the education sector—from primary to tertiary—underwent a gradual but definitive change. It is for this reason that the State has a Gross Enrolment Ratio of 42, which is comparable with European nations. More importantly, reforms such as the elimination of common entrance examinations have widened the base of students being admitted to professional courses. Empirical evidence shows that a large number of women, rural and first-generation graduates benefited from these reforms.

Apart from the slew of legislation and administrative orders dealt with already, there was one reform that was close to Karunanidhi’s heart. His ideological mentor, Periyar, had succeeded in breaking temple-entry barriers by involving himself in the famous Vaikom agitation in Kerala when Karunanidhi was a toddler. Less than a year as Chief Minister, Karunanidhi was informed of Periyar’s demand to abolish hereditary priesthood in Hindu temples. In 1970, the Karunanidhi-led government took steps to amend the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Act.

The legislative amendment would say that a temple trustee was not under any legal obligation “to appoint the heir only” as the priest. The law was short-lived as it was challenged and taken up for hearing before the Supreme Court. In what is now known as the Seshammal vs Union of India case, the apex court held that though there was nothing unconstitutional about this amendment, the appointment of priests should not fall foul of Articles 25 and 26 which guaranteed the right to freedom of religion. The judgment of the Supreme Court was interpreted as a stalemate to temple reforms. Periyar announced protests against this judgment but he passed away before the scheduled date.

After a decision of the Supreme Court in 2002 in a matter regarding the appointment of a non-Brahmin priest in a Kerala temple, N Adityan vs Travancore Devaswom Board , permitting the appointment of priests without any conditions, the decks seemed to have been cleared.

Within days of returning to government, in 2006, Karunanidhi announced that his government would issue an ordinance to make way for the appointment of priests from all castes. The government constituted a committee under A.K. Rajan to study the legal issues surrounding this matter and started centres to train priests in agamic rituals. The law was again challenged and the matter went up to the Supreme Court in Adi Sivachiriyargal vs State of Tamil Nadu. The final judgment, delivered in December 2015, upheld the law and opened the gates for appointments. On July 29, 2018, a few days after Karunanidhi was admitted to hospital, the first non-Brahmin, government-trained priest was appointed to a Madurai temple by the Department of Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments.

Throughout his 19 years as Chief Minister, Karunanidhi championed hundreds of pieces of legislation in areas ranging from education to healthcare to reservation to industry. But, the unfinished legislative business of his political life would have to be the appointment of non-Brahmin priests. The Justice Party began almost a hundred years ago to advance the cause of non-Brahmins. Periyar fought for temple entry but was not able to succeed in breaking the barriers to priesthood. At the commemoration of Periyar’s birth centenary in 1977, his wife, Maniammai, rued that the Dravidian icon had died with a “thorn embedded in his heart” because he was unable to see this reform through. Temples have been seen as an insurmountable bastion of caste hierarchy, and even Anna, during his two-year stint as Chief Minister, was not able to make a mark.It fell upon Karunanidhi, in his fifth and final term heading the government, to legislate reforms that essentially strike at the root of caste hierarchy. For atheist Karunanidhi, who swore to remove the thorn embedded in his ideologue’s heart, this legislative accomplishment would have meant more than all others.

Karunanidhi’s administrative achievements may have begun with land reforms and agrarian issues but he made a long-lasting contribution to impacting the education landscape as well as the industrial sector. More than anything else, Karunanidhi-led governments have always scored high on social justice reforms. The principles of the Dravidian movement underline every legislative reform undertaken during the terms of various DMK-led governments. In some way, a study into the legislative achievements of Karunanidhi are intertwined with the study into the unique, and uniquely successful, Dravidian movement itself.

It is equally true that any history—there is a rich and diverse political and legal history waiting to be explored in depth—cannot be written without giving due credit to the legislative prowess of Karunanidhi.

Manuraj Shunmugasundaram is an advocate practising in the Madras High Court and a media spokesperson of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. He is currently part of the Steering Committee for School of Policy and Governance and the Steering Committee for Australia India Youth Dialogue.

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