The article analyses the existing structural lacunae in the Tamil Nadu economy for decades. It also attempts to show how independent academic debates and discussions become impossible without comprehensive socio-economic data, not putting it in the public domain and its suppression, thus impeding the public policy making process in the State.
As the assembly elections are gearing up in Tamil Nadu, the developmental efforts of the past are getting more traction than the future initiatives, although in a completely diluted approach of taking credits by political parties for what has been achieved hitherto on growth and development of the State, except for the scams and corruption at every level of the government.
This is not something new and is part of fierce debates. It has been often argued that Tamil Nadu is one of the best governed States for its social development indicators which are driven by multiple subsidies like subsidies for industrial development in the name of employment generation and investment attractions. The quest for people’s self-interest for diverse education, technical training and entrepreneurial skills had played a more profound role to promote social and industrial development of the State economy, but ignored by most political parties.
The subsidies aspects were always exaggerated using the media for getting more votes rather than rational and independent analysis of facts and figures. Of course, there were positive and negative impacts of subsidies provided to promote social development and industrial development which were often overlooked in the past by the lack of technology-driven approach for good governance, transparency and accountability of the government machinery.
In Tamil Nadu, the percentage of persons below the poverty line in 2011-12 was estimated at 15.83 per cent in rural areas, 6.54 per cent in urban areas and 11.28 per cent for the entire State. As per the 2011 census, the State population was 7.21 crore, of which roughly 11.28 per cent is about 8 million people, but the public distribution system (PDS) provides food subsidies to nearly about 2 crore families. The average family size in Tamil Nadu is 3.9 which means the PDS provides food subsidies to 8 crore people!
Nevertheless, the debates about the scale of development on social, economic, environment, culture, etc. vis-à-vis the equity and quality benchmark were always extremely skewed. For example, the comparisons of social and economic development indicators of Tamil Nadu should be with developed countries instead of developing States like Bihar or West Bengal to improve further, as more than 50 per cent of the population lives in urban areas.
Thus, the mainstream debates deliberately miss out on some of the structural lacunae existing in the Tamil Nadu economy for several decades. One such aspect is the State’s socio-economic data which is not published timely in a comprehensive manner in the public domain for debates and discussions. It is also surprising that many of the top economists and social scientists in the State were silent about it for quite long.
In Tamil Nadu, fiddling with socio-economic data has been a convenient political game by the two Dravidian parties for several decades to escape from stringent scrutiny and the absence of independent academic debates aggravated the situation further. The so-called rationalists and active developmental experts in the State were behind the doors of some or other political parties to suppress the data which was always inconvenient truths and needed masks. The media, which needs to be an independent agent of democracy, is one such dangerous mask which does not favour the public.
Undoubtedly, one of the major structural challenges faced by the Tamil Nadu government is lack of transparency and accountability of making administrative data, policy documents and reports, analytical research reports, committee reports, etc. Indeed, it is not only strange but ironic that Tamil Nadu, the second-largest economy after Maharashtra in the country, still does not publish the Economic Survey Report.
Even States like Bihar, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Kerala, etc. publish Economic Survey Reports annually with comprehensive statistical data on all major parameters of social, economic, environmental and developmental status along with comparative analysis. Even States like Jammu and Kashmir had Economic Survey Reports for several years. Bihar has been publishing its Economic Survey Reports for the last 15 years.
Being one of the State’s survey authors, Govind Bhattacharjee recently observed that “the Economic Survey of Bihar continues to be a goldmine of information. Prepared for the Government of Bihar by the Patna-based think-tank Asian Development Research Institute and now in its 14th edition (2019-20) since inception, the document has retained its objectivity despite the political pulls and pressures.”
Further, he also notes that “it must be said to the credit of successive dispensations in Bihar that they have not much interfered with the contents of this document – in fact, the only document available for understanding the economy of Bihar or to undertake any research – for their narrow political interests…Perhaps they too realise that fiddling with data is fraught with consequences that might prove disastrous even for themselves.” Tamil Nadu has to learn from Bihar.
To align with Niti Aayog at the national level, Tamil Nadu’s State Planning Commission has been reformed as State Development Policy Council (SDPC). The person who is heading the SDPC as vice-chairman is a political appointment and has no experience or expertise in public policy making except being an elected representative of the people. The reformation of the State Planning Commission was announced in 2017, but the SDPC became functional only recently.
Unlike other states in India where the finance department releases the Economic Survey Reports along with Annual Budget documents, in Tamil Nadu it has a separate agency called the Department of Evaluation and Applied Research (DEAR) for undertaking the analytical and statistical updating of the state of the economy. The DEAR website shows the report for 2013-14 as the latest and no reports for the last five years are available. DEAR also mentions on its website that it has completed 767 evaluation studies as of February 1, 2020 but not a single report is available in the public domain. This shows that public policy making through evidence-based, sound research and evaluation reports is not the priority of the government.
Further, there seem to be huge gaps between different arms of the State government in terms of policy coordination and making periodic reports and statistical data available in the public domain. Though the SDPC, DEAR and the Department of Economics and Statistics are all under the Ministry of Finance, they lack coherence in action on policies.
DEAR is one of the oldest agencies in the State created in 1964. It has collaborated with Abdul Latif Jameel – Poverty Action Lab – South Asia (J-PAL-SA) since 2014 for evaluations of policies and programmes in the State. In recent years, the functioning of DEAR seems not much transparent.
While the State is proactive in bringing new sectoral policies for the promotion of the manufacturing and services sector, the key statistical data is often ignored. Evidence-based public policy making is at peril due to vested interests of both the elected representatives and bureaucracy who are hand in glove with few academic and research institutions in the State involved in evaluations of schemes and programmes for several years without transparency.
How public policies in the State end up in doldrums, which need particular solutions, are mysteries even to subject domain experts who often forget that it is the common man to whom the policies are aimed at.
Views expressed by the author are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of Centre for Public Policy Research
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