Chocolate and Gold Coins

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Buying the People’s Votes With the People’s Money

Every few years, the residents of Tamil Nadu have a curious custom. They vote for the, “most contemptible Tamilian.” (MCT) Each of the recent contests has pitted J. Jayalalitha and M. Karunanidhi (who named his son “Stalin”). The “winner” gets to be Chief Minister. They have fun arresting each other.

Currently the MCT is Jayalalitha, a heroine of Tamilian movies who now plays the heavy (she weighs about 300 pounds) in Tamilian politics. She certainly has skills as a politician.

Recently, Charukesi (who writes an excellent blog) wrote about a program in which Tamil Nadu would donate bicycles to girls of poor families (lower caste) in Tamil Nadu. I could not find the exact news article Charu referred to, but there is a little background here and here. Both Charu and the commenters on her blog viewed this news favorably, but I think nothing good can come of this. To me, this looks like a classic example of a politician trying to buy the people’s votes with the people’s money, and that is simply wrong.

The justification for the bicycle giveaway is that it helps these girls gain an education. Who could be against an education? It is a good investment. But there are several questions here:
1. Are these bicycles going to all disadvantaged girls or is Jayalalitha playing favorites?
2. What about disadvantaged boys? Does India really want to play gender politics on top of caste and religion politics?
3. If the bicycles were really a good investment, wouldn’t the vast majority of these families already have a bicycle (of perhaps superior quality)?
4. Do these bicycles only go to homes where the girls have to travel at least 3 miles or more to get to the nearest school or do they go to all disadvantage girls?
5. If it is a good idea for government to buy bicycles in the name of promoting education, would it then be justifiable for the government to buy pencils, pens, paper, electric lights or gas lights, tables, chairs, beds…(you get the idea) in the name of promoting education? After all, everything necessary for the home could indirectly promote learning in a direct or indirect way.

I believe that the government should stick to providing public goods: roads, utilities, police protection, etc. Goods that can be provided in the private sector should be paid for by private money. There may be economic justification for a subsidy here or a tax there (and this can get out of hand if not checked) but Indians should insist that they have the final say about what goods they get to buy for their homes.

Charu suggested that without government help, the poor families could not afford the bicycles since a bicycle could cost as much as 3 months salary. This is probably true for a mundane reason: they are not necessary for education or for any other purpose. A distance too far to walk for you or me might not be too far for a poor girl. If the bicycles were necessary, these villagers would definitely find a way to buy them. In Sunil Laxman’s blog, he recalled talking to a waiter (not the lowest income worker, but not rich) and he said it was not uncommon in Orissa for people to spend the equivalent of 5 years of income for one wedding, (the mind boggles). I've been told that that Tamil Nadu wedding are not so extravagant but still very expensive. Obviously, if people could afford to spend like that for a wedding, it would not be too much to spend 3 months of wages to buy a tool that presumably is critical to the daughter’s educational success. I strongly suspect that these bicycles will largely wind up being sold for annas on the rupee.

The main reason why you don’t want politicians spending your money to buy you gifts is that you could have spent that money yourself. If the choice is between spending the money on these girl’s bicycles and spending the money on masala dosas for Jayalalitha and company, then who could argue against the bicycles. But if the money would have been spent on roads or other legitimate services, or rebated back to the taxpayer, the people are poorer. I remember riding on the roads in Tamil Nadu in 1995. Perhaps they are better now (I would hope so), but if not, that is where the money should go.


  • Michael.....I'll agree that it is not the government's job to buy and distribute bicycles to people.

    However, the effect the bicycle has had on the girl children is tremendous. You point out (correctly) that a bicycle, though expensive, would contribute tremendously to the girls education. However, the family would invest in that only if they thought the girl's education was important. Usually, they are indifferent, and so will not spend that money. However, if the bicycle is given to them, then they do not object to the girls going to school. So, the problem is a deeper socio-economic problem, and not as simple as you have put it.

    Gender cannot yet be politics....but any empowerment of women is welcome, and (surprisingly) Tamil Nadu has managed to empower its women (probably unintentionally) by some of these sops.

    That said, I am definitely against freebies to anyone, and rather am for creating systems that lead to empowerment (i.e. better roads, access of schools to girls by having schools in all locations etc).

    So, the question can be modified as: There is some good that comes out of this (specific) sop, which is mostly shortterm. However, a far greater good (which might take a longer time to achieve) will come out of long term steps like building well equipped schools and better roads and healthcare, which will have a much higher impact than the short term benifit seen here.

    However, I'd rather see this money being handed out than "feeding" the AIADMK or DMK (the two political parties) cronies.

    ps: The road in Tamil Nadu (though pathetic by most western standards) are amongst the best maintained in India. It's not saying much....but visit neighboring Karnataka or Andhra or Kerala to see the difference! :-)

    Also...if prizes are being handedout, and Vikram gets one, I shoudl get one too :-))

    By Blogger Sunil, at 7:09 PM  

  • Michael, lots of welfare schemes are in place all over India, and I guess lots of them are ineffective, or worse, are there only for the politicians to feed on them.

    That said, in Tamil Nadu, a unique set of welfare schemes (led by the mid-day meal scheme, along with other related ones -- free uniforms, tooth powder(!), etc.) has been cited as an important reason for better social development indicators the state enjoys now (female literacy, low infant and child mortality numbers, and so on, low birth rates, stable population numbers). Some hypotheses about the causal chain exist, but what is clear is that people have benefited.

    Bicycles for girls belong to the same category (but only partly). More importantly, as Sunil mentioned, money spent on such things is better than money just taken away by the politicians.

    From the point of view of better governance, I would much rather have our state governments out of running businesses (transport, milk distribution, tractor manufacturing, sugar mills, etc.). The quantum of money that is wasted through govt. owned businesses is just far too enormous; bicycles for girls amount to chicken feed in comparison.

    Before I finish, a quick clarification about the mid-day meal scheme: it was started by an earlier Chief Minister and a Congressman, Kamaraj, in a limited way; it was expanded (in late 1970's?) to a 'universal' program by M.G. Ramachandran, Jayalalitha's mentor, who became CM in 1977.

    By Blogger Abi, at 10:54 PM  

  • Hi Vikram, Sunil, Abi, Eswaran, and Deba
    Vikram and Sunil: Try to be first to be number 10,000. The special prize will be a prominent mention in my blog.

    Sunil: I don't doubt that there are bigger issues which I am woefully unaware. Sometimes, though, it helps to be not so close to the issue and just stand back and say, "Why is the government buying goodies for the people with their money?" If these bicycles really made a difference, I would assume these families would save up and buy them. I would suspect that many if not most of these bicycle will be sold off (if India has something like eBay, it would easy to verify this).

    I'm glad the roads habe improved in Tamil Nadu, I'll be there in December.

    Abi: you make a good point, there probably bigger issues in TN than the bicycle one. The gov't should get out of many businesses where they are now in.

    You say that families don't value their daughter's education because she will leave the family, but (assuming these families care nothing for the welfare of their daughters) wouldn't it help her get a good spouse and wouldn't it help her children? I guess I just don't see that logic. I read that Indians will spend a fortune on a wedding which is a one time thing but they won't invest in their children's education that will last a lifetime?
    If true, no wonder they are poor.

    Eswaran: If eBay comes to India, you'll see what happens to those bicycles.

    Deba: I look forward to seeing all of the improvements in TN when I visit in December. I'll take some photos and maybe post them on my blog, (I have to learn how to do this).

    By Blogger Michael Higgins, at 3:45 PM  

  • Hi Eswaran
    That is interesting about the dowry and education. I always find dowry curious because supply cannot really exceed demand, except the boy's family seem less desparate and that leads to bargaining power.

    As for the bikes going to supporters, I figured, but outright corruption. That's the spoils system run amuck

    By Blogger Michael Higgins, at 6:24 PM  

  • >> If these bicycles really made a difference,
    >>I would assume these families would save up and buy them.

    Probably they are unable to distinguish between an investment and an expense.

    I think this is also probably the reason a lot of rural children (both male as well as female) drop out of school or are taken out by their parents. The parents are unable to see any tangible benefits out of schooling (unless their children get a job... but then most jobs are in cities and they have to compete with urban youth).

    They view school education as an expense rather than an investment. Which is why different sops (like free midday meals and now cycles) are required. Maybe, the education system needs reform...

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7:01 PM  

  • Hi Srikanth
    It sounds to me that if what you are saying is true, the bicycles will not make much difference. I think it is easy for us who live in cities and don't know much about the life of rural Indians to speculate about their motives. I suspect, however, that if we understood their story a little better, it would make more sense to us. They might rationally figured out that education of the quality available in these villages is not that worthwhile. Or maybe as Eswaran pointed out, they know that it doesn't pay to have a daughter who is better educated that the average male "suitable boy".

    By Blogger Michael Higgins, at 10:16 PM  

  • Michael, sorry about this really late response - been cut off from the world for a few days now... the background to this bicycle scheme goes much deeper than the Jayalalitha - politics angle - this is just a political stunt by her keeping the elections in mind- no doubt. But this scheme was started more than a decade ago by the education movement in Tamilnadu.

    to me, the gains from such a program is more to do with the self-confidence and rediness to take on the world attitude that the young girls and women develop, than anything else - better access to education and social development follow this naturally.

    If you ever go to one such village you will see women walking tens of kilometeres, with bare feet (because they cannot afford slippers) to fetch water, or carryingtheir smalll child to the doctor in the next village...

    politics is just one thing - my point is if some good comes out of it, then why not just look away and ignore the political angle to it? because this movement was surely not started with a political motive....

    (need to run now. thanks for the favorable mention on your blog - and I am not even the 10000th visitor:))

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11:29 PM  

  • Hi Charu
    Thank you for the background on this story. I would feel much better about it if this were being done by an NGO (although I don't know where the money would come from). But my issue is that if the girl's parents aren't willing to invest in their daughter, I can't imagine the bicycle will help all that much. If the bicycles just get sold off, what was the point? Of course, if they sell the bicycles to buy footware, maybe that's not so bad.

    But another thing that bothers me about this story is this dysfunctional relationship implicit between the government and the common people. The common people are assumed to be children and the government must be surrogate mothers and fathers to them and lead them by the hand to a better life. If they are like children, it is because they have never been trusted with full responsiblity for their lives. You give a human being the opportunity to make his own choices and he is no longer a child.

    I think it is quite ironic that Jayalalitha's nickname is "Amma" (mother).

    By Blogger Michael Higgins, at 12:06 AM  

  • Well, maybe giving a bicycle is not such a great idea, but my way of looking at it is, atleast a bicycle reached somebody. By Indian bureaucracys trickle down theory, a merc would trickle down as a bicycle. So, atleast they got it, unlike the earthquake relief tents that ended in politicians houses (Maharashtra) or unlike flood relief that ended in Baba Satya Sai Industries Corpn(Meant to be Bihar Small scale indus. corp or whatever) or money that went to VW (not Volkswagen, but Vashista Wahan - lol)

    By Blogger ecophilo, at 4:56 AM  

  • what we lack in Tamilnadu is an active independant media..I found such an attempt in, an online tamil radio and, an online tamil TV..both are currently playing only entertainment..but a day will come when we can have true infotainment in these online media

    By Blogger amutha, at 9:27 AM  

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