April 19 2009
Sivaganga District (TN)
A motley crowd of around 100 people— predominantly women —have gathered in the hot sun at Thanaavayal village near Karaikudi town. It is 3.30 p.m. and they are awaiting someone whom they have elected to Parliament six times in the last twenty years. Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram will kick start his election campaign from this village seeking the people’s nod to represent them for the seventh time. Photographer R. Senthil Kumaran and I decided to see for ourselves how Chidambaram—who during his various stints as finance minister has come to be seen as the champion of economic reforms in the country—communicates reforms to his people and, in fact, implements them.
3.45 p.m. The excitement rises as Chidambaram arrives dressed in his trademark starched white shirt and dhoti. Surprisingly, he does not launch into a fiery election speech. Instead, he enquires in Tamil if there are self help groups (SHGs) in the village and whether they are getting adequate credit from the banks. He asks members of SHGs to even list out the names of the banks lending them money. What is the rate of interest, he enquires? When they say 12 to 16 per cent, he asks them at what rate they were earlier borrowing from the money lenders.
Their response is quick: 40 to 60 per cent. After checking whether they are repaying the loan properly, Chidambaram turns his attention to the Rs 80 per day job (that’s how people in the region refer to the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme). Sivaganga was among the first districts in the country to launch the scheme. At any given day, over 35,000 people are employed in the district for restoring water bodies, irrigation tanks or formation of earthen roads.
K. Kaliammal (60) complains that she is not getting her pension. He explains the recent changes to the pension scheme and promises to look into her problem once the elections are over. A few hands go up when he asks how many of them have benefited from the farm debt waiver. He then enquires whether they have got the free TVs distributed by the state government and advises people to listen to news at least once a day. “You must know what is happening in the world,” he tells them adding, “don’t just watch TV serials.” After mingling with the crowd for a few minutes and hearing out a few more grievances, he is off to his next halt—Shanmughapuram, a few kilometers away. There and at 10 other halts, before he winds up his campaign for the day, his interactions with the people are along similar lines with minor variation. Though people hold him in high regard, they do not hesitate to interrupt him and raise various issues.
5.15 p.m. At Pavanakottai, Chidambaram reveals that farm loans worth Rs 66 crore have been waived in the district and crop insurance claims aggregating Rs 56 crore have been settled last year. 5.55 p.m. Chidambaram reaches Maviduthikotai. There, he pulls out eight-year-old Joy Shereen from the crowd and enquires about her studies.
“Credit delivery, education and industrialisation— this is how growth has to be sold to the people”
“People should borrow, repay on time and then borrow again—if need be. That is how they grow and the financial system survives”
“What is the point of bringing in industries when there is no natural environment for them to survive?”
“You must know what is happening in the world, don’t just watch TV serials”
He emphasises on the need for educating the children, especially the girls. Female literacy rate at 68 per cent is a clear 10 per cent lower than the district’s average of 78 per cent. He points out that 65 lakh student scholarships are being offered by the government and over Rs 26,000 crore has been disbursed as educational loans. In Sivaganga district alone, he says, over 16,000 loans have been disbursed so far.
Chidambaram mentions economic growth only twice during the day and that too, in passing, saying India and China are the two fastest growing economies in the world. Jargon such as GDP, inflation, money supply, global meltdown etc., finds no place in his communication.
It soon becomes clear that credit delivery is the overriding theme of his interaction with the people. We ask him why. “Nobody opposes growth. For growth, credit is required. People accept credit is good. They understand the difference between paying nominal interest and the high interest money lenders charge. This represents reform. Credit delivery, education and industrialisation— this is how growth has to be sold to the people,” he responds. Chidambaram’s firm belief that credit delivery is the panacea of all evils has meant that 33 new bank branches have come up in the Sivaganga district since April 2005.
In all, there are 176 bank branches in the district with a branch-topopulation ratio of 5,000—the lowest in the country. Over 86 per cent of the households have bank accounts. Credit disbursement by banks for agriculture, special credit schemes, self help groups etc., has more than doubled from Rs 439.76 crore in 2004-05 to Rs 954.11 crore in 2008-09. Credit-Deposit ratio has, in this period, shot up from a low 55 per cent to 78 per cent. Educational loans worth Rs 145.28 crore have been sanctioned, benefiting 17,239 students.
To end the high level of absentee landlordism and get more acreage under farming, agriculture credit has been doubled from Rs 2.97 crore (2004-05) to Rs 5.86 crore (2008-09) in the district. He appears to have been guided by his favourite poet Thiruvalluvar (whom he often quotes in his Budget speeches) who said 2,000 years ago: “Uzhavinar Kai Madangin Illai Vizhaivathoom Vittame Enbarkum Nilai (If ploughmen keep their hands folded, even sages claiming renunciation cannot find salvation).”
Also, every time Chidambaram has launched a special credit scheme—be it education loans or funding for SHGs, he drives home the need to repay the loans promptly. “People should borrow, repay on time and then borrow again—if need be. That is how they grow and the financial system survives,” he explains. But after he waived farm loans to the tune of Rs 65,000 crore across the country, it is unclear how people will react to this advice.
Though he refrains from promising any freebies and sought reelection to continue his ‘good work’, the astute politician in him has ensured that he nevertheless benefited from the ‘give aways’ announced by others earlier, such as the Tamil Nadu government which is distributing free colour televisions, free gas stoves and offering rice at Rs 1 per kg to the people of the state.
It is on the industrialisation front that he is on a weak wicket. But for a couple of sugar mills and a few new investments such as Sterlite Industries’ Aluminium Flouride plant, a BHEL unit and four paper mills—very few industries have come up in the district. In fact, industrialisation has given Sivaganga district a miss. Despite being an MP for 20 years and a Union minister for 13 years, that he has not attracted industries in a big way into Sivaganga is a common refrain among the people. He could have, like his other Cabinet colleagues, set up special economic zones (SEZs), which could have created thousands of jobs, they say. Chidambaram counters this charge saying, “SEZs won’t work here. We have brought industries in tandem with what is available on the ground. What is the point of bringing in industries when there is no natural environment for them to survive?”
First contested and won from Sivaganga in 1984
Represented the constituency for the next 15 years winning five times
Lost the seat in 1999 after he fought elections as a part of a breakaway Congress unit
Won the seat again in 2004
In 20 years as MP, he has been a Union minister for 13 years
By opening bank branches all over the district and making funds available easily, Chidambaram has led people, especially women, into a debt trap, charges S. Rajakannapan, his main opponent in the current election. Irregularities are rampant in the NREG scheme and the beneficiaries do not get the full benefits, he adds. But on his part, Chidambaram has chosen not to respond to these charges and is banking on the goodwill of his performance and the benefits the people have come to enjoy in the last five years.
8 p.m. As the former finance minister’s convoy speeds off after his penultimate meeting for the day at Kiliyur village, an elderly woman starts her walk back to her home along a dimly lit street saying in chaste Tamil, “He is a nice person and very knowledgeable. Things would be a lot better for us, if only he comes to visit us more often.”