O Panneerselvam has a tough task ahead of him.
Contrary to popular perception, which credits Tamil Nadu with high scores on development indices and a smoothly functioning administration, the state has lost ground over the last ten or so years.
Take education. Between 2010 and now, the number of students passing the state board exams has increased from 85% to 95%. In the same period, the number of students scoring centums (100%) has spiked as well.
However, these numbers, as Scroll reported last month, are challenged by none other than the National Council of Educational Research and Training’s National Achievement Surveys, which point to a precipitous drop in the quality of school education in the state.
Or take healthcare delivery. As a forthcoming story in Scroll will show, while Tamil Nadu continues to score high on metrics like institutional delivery, its numbers on Infant Mortality Rate and Maternal Mortality Ratio have plateaued. The state has also slipped on other metrics like immunisation coverage.
A closer study of why the state does well on some metrics while faltering on others leads to an important conclusion.
Take public health. Tamil Nadu has amongst the best Infant Mortality Rate/Maternal Mortality Ratio numbers in India. It won these improvements through a large push on institutional deliveries – childbirth in well-equipped health centres. But now, with institutional deliveries already accounting for 98.9% of all births, the state is running into more fundamental drivers of high Infant Mortality Rate/Maternal Mortality Ratio – anaemia, poverty, gender and caste.
In other words, the state health department has plucked its low-hanging fruits. The residual problem is more complex. At the same time, the instrument with the state government – its healthcare administration – is not working as well as earlier. Understaffing, for instance, is high. This is partly due to the rising clout of caste-based government employee unions who resist postings in more poorer, remote parts of the state.
What Tamil Nadu’s healthcare problem tells us about the state
This gap between the scale of the problem and the government’s flagging ability to respond is one of the larger conclusions from Scroll’s Ear to the Ground reportage from Tamil Nadu. The reporting assignment, which seeks to create an updated snapshot on how six different states in India are doing, reached Tamil Nadu in February – and reported on the state till October.
In our nine months in the state, we found that, in the last four or so years, caste tensions have risen steeply in the state. This is partly because traditional livelihoods like fishing and farming are under pressure. At the same time, people are unable to find long-term employment in the state’s manufacturing clusters. Units in these clusters are struggling to stay competitive.
These are hard problems to solve. Take fishing. Catches are not falling only because of overfishing or pollution. There is also climate change. Rising sea temperatures are resulting in fish moving further north or heading into deeper, cooler waters. In employment, the pressure to stay globally competitive has created a huge pressure to keep wages low, resulting in an outcome where manpower supply companies are turning to cheaper, migrant labour from other states. Or take industry. Old staples of the Tamil Nadu economy – like its garment exporting cluster – are struggling to stay competitive because local cotton production has fallen. This, in turn, is due to changes in the economics of agriculture.
So far, responses by successive state governments in Tamil Nadu to these problems have been weak. This is partly because some of these problems cannot be fixed by the state on its own. To face up to climate change, for instance, all Tamil Nadu can consider is adaptation and mitigation. But, as the devastating 2015 floods showed last year, there was little sign of either.
Other problems can indeed be resolved by the state government. But they haven’t been.
Among these is the rampant overextraction of groundwater in Tamil Nadu’s Noyyal basin. Groundwater levels are crashing, say locals, due to the local elite blocking tributaries to the river and a mushrooming of mineral water units, which are pumping out groundwater. Most of these units, local Public Works Department officials said, are run by local elite. But, as Scroll found while reporting on the issue, the state’s response has been to revoke its groundwater management act that lays down norms on how much groundwater can be extracted. It said the implementation of the act would result in unrest.
Or take sand mining. It is badly damaging Tamil Nadu’s rivers. But, as a series in Scroll found, both the Dravidian parties ruling Tamil Nadu gain from sand mining. In the process, the state’s environmental foundations are being being chipped away.
What the government’s response tells us about Tamil Nadu
In the last six years, under Jayalalithaa, instead of resolving – or mitigating – these crises around welfare delivery, environment and state economy, Tamil Nadu’s government responded in other ways.
In healthcare, as a senior bureaucrat in the state administration told this reporter, the government increasingly focused on “decorative” programmes. These include handing out Amma Baby Kits to all newborns in the state. These make for good political communication. But also, the administrative system is able to deliver these – as opposed to, say, ensuring medical staff stay at their designated posts. In the process, however, the nature of welfarism in the state has become more cosmetic. At the same time, as in the case of education, the state has amped up window-dressing of its statistics.
Simultaneously, as anger about underdevelopment and corruption grow, the state has cracked down harder on dissent. This shows in what happened with Kovan, the singer. Between the two Dravidian parties, agreed cultural historian Sadanand Menon, today’s Tamil Nadu is very different from what it was in the 1970s. “There was much more dissent and debate and contestation,” he said. “What you see now is a severe crackdown.” He added, “Tamil Nadu is a permitted democracy.”
In this period, the state has also seen a weakening of democratic checks and balances. This was evident from the failure of the courts, local media, rival political parties and local communities to rein in sand mining.
This is what Panneerselvam will have to deal with.