How is Tamil Nadu doing?

Ask a layperson this question and, chances are, they will have good things to say. It does have a reputation for being one of the country’s better governed states. A welfarist state where, in marked contrast to large swathes of India, the government provides good healthcare and education to its people.

Between February and August,’s #EarToTheGround project reported from the state. And it found that this perception is no longer true. In both education and healthcare, Tamil Nadu has fallen behind.

Take the case of education. The number of students passing the state boards has risen – in the case of the Class 10 exam, from 85% in 2010 to 95% now. But the quality of school education is facing a serious challenge with the National Council of Educational Research and Training’s National Achievement Surveys flagging a precipitous drop in learning outcomes in the state, as reported by last month.

In the healthcare sector, while Tamil Nadu continues to score high on metrics such as institutional delivery – childbirth in well-equipped health centres – its infant mortality rate and maternal mortality ratio have plateaued. And it has slipped on immunisation coverage. Trying to understand why it does well on some metrics while faltering on others, we reached an important conclusion.

As we reported, Tamil Nadu’s impressive achievements in terms of infant mortality rate and maternal mortality ratio were the result of a push for institutional deliveries. But with institutional deliveries now accounting for 98.9% of all births in the state, the scope for further improvement is limited. Currently, this lack of improvement can be put down to fundamental factors such as poverty, gender and caste discrimination. In other words, the health department has plucked its low-hanging fruits. And the residual problem is more complex.

At the same time, as the second part of our story on healthcare in Tamil Nadu reported, there has been an erosion in the state government’s capacity to address these problems. A combination of factors – understaffing and a reorientation towards reproductive and child health, among others – has blunted what was a well-oiled machine till 10 years ago.

And instead of coming up with sophisticated solutions to these increasingly complex problems, the government has resorted to desperate administrative measures. We found, for instance, data fudging in the case of education and a practice of cherry-picking indices in health.

Multi-layered problems

The problems facing Tamil Nadu are not just limited to education and healthcare. Fisheries and farms, the two biggest providers of traditional livelihoods in the state, have been hit by sliding incomes. Manufacturing clusters, too, are struggling to stay competitive, making employment in these units increasingly insecure.

These are difficult problems to solve. In the case of fishing, the fall in catch is not only because of overfishing or pollution but also a result of climate change. Rising sea temperatures are making fish move further north or into deeper, cooler waters. In farming, changes in rainfall pattern have made the profession even more precarious.

In industry, the need to stay globally competitive has created pressure to keep wages low, leading to a situation where manpower supply companies are tapping cheaper migrant labour. And industries that were once the mainstay of their state’s economy are slowly losing their edge. An example of this in Tamil Nadu is the garment exporting cluster in Tiruppur city, which is struggling to stay competitive amid a fall in cotton production. This, in turn, is because of the change in the economics of agriculture.

On the other hand, the response of successive state governments to these complex problems has been weak. Partly because some of these problems cannot be fixed by the state alone. In the case of climate change, all Tamil Nadu can do is adapt and mitigate. But, as last year’s flood disaster showed, there isn’t much sign of this as well.

Government inaction

But there are problems that can be solved by the state government, and yet have been left to fester.

The rampant over-extraction of groundwater in Tamil Nadu’s Noyyal basin in a case in point. According to residents, the blocking of the river’s tributaries and the mushrooming of mineral water units in its vicinity have sent groundwater levels crashing. The state’s response to this was to revoke its Groundwater Management Act, which spelled out the rules for extraction and guarded against exploitation, in 2013, saying that its implementation would result in unrest.

There there is sand mining, which continues to damage Tamil Nadu’s rivers. But, as found out, the state’s two top parties, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, gain from the activity. Sand mining is said to contribute to their poll expenditure. As a result, the state’s environmental foundations are being chipped away.

Decorative solutions

In the last six years, instead of resolving, or mitigating, the various crises surrounding the state’s welfare delivery, environment and economy, the government has responded in other ways.

In healthcare, as a senior bureaucrat in the state administration told this reporter, it has chosen to focus on decorative programmes, such as giving away Amma Baby Kits for newborns. In part, because they make for good political communication. And also because the administrative system can deliver on these programmes, as opposed to, say, ensuring health centres are properly staffed.

In the process, the nature of welfarism in the state has changed into something more cosmetic, which meshes into the leadership cult that pervades politics here.

At the same time, as anger over underdevelopment and corruption grows, the state has cracked down on dissent. This is what happened in the case of the folk singer Kovan, who was arrested last year on sedition charges for songs attacking the state’s liquor policy.

According to cultural historian Sadanand Menon, the Tamil Nadu of today is vastly different from how it was in the 1970s. “There was much more dissent, debate and contestation,” he said. “What you see now is a severe crackdown. Tamil Nadu is a permitted democracy.”

In this period, the state has seen democratic checks and balances weaken – for instance, the failure of courts, the media, political parties and communities to rein in sand mining.

In that sense, like Punjab and Odisha, Tamil Nadu has drifted far from the ideals of how a democratic state should function. Among the social fallouts of such governance is reverse migration from the industrial clusters towards the Cauvery delta, a steep rise in caste tensions in the last four years. Another factor the state’s people point to is the lack of economic growth, which has resulted in a spike in household borrowings to meet living expenses.

Now to see how the state’s new chief minister, O Panneerselvam, tackles these problems.