Discovery of India – Chapter 2: Election Freebies, Women and the Mid Day Meal Scheme

InPEC brings to you the “Discovery of India” log of Karthik Radhakrishnan, an engineering graduate student from the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, as he travels through India. This chapter describes the tale of a village in Tamil Nadu which is hit by floods every year and the residents do not have adequate means to get by.

Chapter 1 is available here.

Chapter 3 is available here

Place : Thalainayar (Nagappatinam District, Tamil Nadu)

Date : 22nd July, 2013

By Karthik Radhakrishnan, 29th July, 2013

Thalainayar is a Town Panchayat in the district of Nagappatinam (For people who remember the Tsunami of 2004, Nagappatinam district had the maximum number of casualties in Tamil Nadu.) This is a story of a tiny village in this Panchayat, Santhantheru, whose residents have no food, no drinking water and absolutely no money. This village gets flooded for three months every year and the residents are put up in a nearby school, where close to a hundred families live together with inadequate food and space. The floods take away both the lives and livelihood of these poor people who rely totally on agriculture for their food.

“Once a year, our village gets flooded. The houses get washed away, there will be snakes moving around and dead bodies floating around us. We will not have time for anything, we just pick up our children and swim to the nearby school where they would put us up for three months.” says Lakshmi, a resident. The normalcy with which these words were uttered is quite haunting and their situation, almost unimaginable.


Most of the agricultural activities in this part of Tamil Nadu are rain-fed, but it seldom rains. When it does rain, the rain water and sea water together displace the entire village. The village does not have any irrigation facilities and laying bores is meaningless because the groundwater is mostly salty. There has been very little farming in the past ten years and as a direct consequence, there has been very little money as well for the past ten years. To add salt to their wounds, the village has been converted from Village Panchayat to Town Panchayat (because of the growing size and population) which implies that they don’t get the benefits of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act and hence, no alternate source of income. Just to put things into perspective, the average annual income of a family here is Rs. 10,000 (that’s around $166.66, less than a dollar a day!).

Although households do not have food or water, each house has a color television, owing to election freebies offered by politicians in the state. Lakshmi makes a very valid point when she asks “What’s the point of a TV? Can we eat it?” Typically, a family runs on the very little money the woman makes. In spite of the lack of funds, the men drink alcohol with whatever money they earn. “Once they see the money, they forget that they have families and that they have to bring home some money. Their priority is to drink, with even the little they make” say Shanthi, who has quite visibly been affected by an alcoholic husband. It is not much of a surprise that the political parties buy votes with a few bottles of liquor in rural Tamil Nadu. Democracy is neatly mixed, bottled and sold.
There is a Women’s support group present in Thalainayar, whose main job is to provide loans for women and help in improving their living condition. “We provide awareness to women about hygiene and provide loans up to Rs.6,000 for women to help them build toilets in their houses.” says K. Dhanabagyam, a field agent in this organization for almost ten years. Just when you think there is some hope left in this village, she says “We charge an interest of 26 per cent on these loans.” TWENTY SIX PERCENT! These villagers have no means of livelihood, meanwhile this organization is sucking the blood out of them. When asked why they charge so much (banks offer loans at 6%-10% interest), she says, “With us, there is not much hassle and no waiting time.” Lets call a spade a spade, this is merely a business, not a support group. They do not provide awareness on health or usage of sanitary pads or equality. Just out of curiosity, I asked the women of Santhanatheru if they think they are equal to men. There was a long pause, some giggling and then, a subdued response, “Men and women here live in peace.”

In spite of all the difficulties, the people have made sure that their kids go to school. The village school has classes only upto eighth grade, but they are determined to send the kids to the nearby town for further studies. A few people have managed to send their kids to college as well and try to make a living out of the little money their kids send from the cities.  The “Midday Meal Scheme” is quite successful here and is keeping the kids at school. In the wake of recent controversies surrounding the meal program, this particular village and its people (especially the teachers) have made sure that the safety of the students is their top priority.

The privileged masses of India are not aware of the difficulties faced by the bottom 22%. We read about “them” in the newspapers and see “them” on television. For us, “they” are merely a statistic. But to see these guys in flesh and blood and hear their problems is an extremely moving (even haunting) experience. The villagers are quite convinced that we will never understand their problems. Maybe we never will. But let us at least start trying?


Karthik Radhakrishnan is a Structural Engineering Graduate from the University of Southern California, Los Angeles. He is originally from Chennai, India. He is in particular interested in the rural affairs of India with a focus on farmer suicides, children’s education and women empowerment. Email :


One thought on “Discovery of India – Chapter 2: Election Freebies, Women and the Mid Day Meal Scheme

  1. Karthick good post and i congratulate you for doing field work to assess about the villagers plight. Even i have traveled extensively in TN especially deep south and your portrayal of no money, no food looks slightly exaggerated…i don’t say that they are prosperous, but even in a water starved Ramnad districts, poverty has been kept at a distance, thanks to the social reform agenda of the successive governments. The free rice has actually resulted in poorer people not going to sleep on empty stomachs! Also i was surprised by the number of girl student all going to schools, thanks to the introduction of free sanitary pads, uniforms, cycles and of course noon meal school with egg being served daily…many of the schools lack many basic facilities, i agree, but the fact that TN has highest gross enrollment ratio among all states is a pointer that in one or two generations, it is going to result in techtonic changes in the social fabric!

    Of course the life is still miserable and hand mouth and not to mention the deep rooted caste schism that clearly demarcates oor (village-upper caste inhabitants) and cheri (where mostly dalits stay)…women suffer a lot in these pre modern, with a fledgling feudal structure…but their plight has been better off in the last 10-15 years…

    also the interest rates charged by the SHGs is not due to usury, but more to do with embedded interest in the money they are given…when they themselves are given loans at 1.5% to 2% on a monthly basis, charging 26% seems practical. However SHGs have now taken the role of usury type lenders, although harassment and interest is considerably less when compared to the latter…

    and it is a sad commentary that the poor in TN who are considerably well off have mean income salary of less than $1 shows how the state has failed our poor and marginalised for long….

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