I had the good fortune of travelling with J. Jayalalithaa to London on an Air India flight. Her co-passenger was Simi Garewal, with whom she crooned the number “Aa Ja Sanam Madhur Chandni Mein Hum” in her program “Rendezvous”. It was possibly the only show when the smartest lady of the Indian celluloid could bring out the lovelorn Jaya out of her Greta Garbaque visage.
Jayalalithaa was very actively involved in this scheme and famously told a US journalist “when the USA back on its commitment to feed its poor, TN has shown the way”
Jaya was more than her filmic life; with MGR, her protégé, she made a heady cocktail of politics of populism and economics of realism. It may be recalled; MGR started the mid-day meal scheme (1980) by earmarking Rs.150Cr. to feed nearly 68 lakh undernourished children in 52,000 centres and 31,000 schools. Billed as the mother of all populism, and a waste of public money, even the master of all populism Mrs. Gandhi (Garibi Hatao) enquired about the detailed of the scheme. This is now a flagship programme for the nation and all states. For a country where nearly one third children are below the poverty line and 42% as per the Human Development Report (2016) are underfed, MDM is the most significant social sector investment.
Jayalalithaa was very actively involved in this scheme and famously told a US journalist “when the USA back on its commitment to feed its poor, TN has shown the way”. She is the master of giving novel freebies like pedestal fans, wet grinders, colour TVs, tablets and laptops. She can be inspiration of politicians for upcoming elections; as in demonetized the parties have to deal in kind. Such corrupt practices apart, her novel concept of Amma Unavagam (Kitchen) have really helped the poor to have wholesome food at extremely reasonable price. On a visit, last year to Coonoor & Madurai, I had a taste of these idlis at Rs.1/-, curd rice at Rs.3/- in the chain of 207 such canteen that dot the length and breadth of the state; they were delicious and hygienic.
The other scheme that really attracts attention is the Amma Health check up scheme, which is available at highly subsidized rates. The most important scheme, however, is the Amma water scheme which is aimed at providing free mineral water to the poor at a cost of Rs.7304Cr.
Amma realized early that “you can’t helicopter people out of poverty”.
There is a genuine concern in India that twenty five years after liberalization the growth story of India is totally out of sync with the development story. With infant mortality at 44/1000, maternal mortality at 200/01 lakh, 42% children malnourished, 40% women not having access to qualified paramedics during delivery, 30% school drops; no wonder India ranks very poorly on the Human Development Index on a consistent basis. The reduction in allocation in Integrated Child Development Scheme in last year’s budget is symptomatic of the free market spirit of this government. As Jeffrey Sachs rightly pointed out, while setting the Millennium Development Goals “The greatest illusion of a country is that a healthy society can be built around mindless pursuit of wealth”. Affordable quality health, hygienic food at reasonable price and clean drinking water on tap are the minimum hallmarks of a healthy & welfare oriented society. And Jayalalithaa’s contribution to her state of TN is really significant in this regard.
With Aadhaar scheme a success, all welfare schemes can be easily targeted and potential distortions to subsidy management be significantly curtailed. It would be worthwhile to mention that schemes like ICDS, MDM and drinking water cost less that 0.5% of the GDP; yet there is so much intellectual bellicosity in existing policy discourse, to reach out to the vulnerable for their legitimate and minimum needs.
Amma realized early that “you can’t helicopter people out of poverty”. But scheme like Amma Kitchen, Health Checkup and water would survive beyond her image as a venal and ruthless politician. It was Periyar Ramaswamy who started the anti Brahmin movement to bolster economic condition of OBCs in Tamil Nadu. C.N. Annadurai gave it a shape; MGR took it to colossal proportions. He would be delighted that his protégé is not far behind in pushing her political agenda through the economics of development.
The author was a former Joint Secretary to Govt. of India
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