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Vol. XXXII No. 24, April 1-15, 2023
While presenting the State budget, finance minister Palanivel Thiaga Rajan made a short announcement regarding the Magalir Urimai Thogai, a new cash assistance scheme under which female heads of eligible households will receive Rs. 1,000 every month from the State government. The program is a DMK poll promise and the second major welfare scheme for women from the reigning administration, the first being the provision of free bus rides. Magalir Urimai Thogai has been allocated a budget of Rs. 7,000 crores and will be launched come September 15th, marking Kalaignar Karunanidhi’s birth centenary year.
It is to be noted that the administration is working on the operational guidelines with respect to eligibility, an exercise that is said to be under the direct supervision of the Chief Minister MK Stalin with support from the Special Programme Implementation department and the Tamil Nadu e-Governance Agency. So far, sections such as Income Tax payees, vehicle owners, GST payees, government employees – Central or State public sector enterprises – and property tax assessees have been ruled out as beneficiaries. Also ineligible are those covered under the Old Age pension scheme.
The Magalir Urimai Thogai has been warmly welcomed, with the Social Welfare and Women Empowerment Minister Geetha Jeevan dubbing it ‘one of the happiest days for women.’ It cannot be denied that cash assistance is a key social safety net for women; multiple studies – some during the recent covid crisis as well – conclude that empowering women with cash augurs well for the households for it helps them build a buffer against income shocks and when long-term, save for old age as well. It is hard, however, to ignore the twinge of uncertainty given that the actual beneficiary pool for Magalir Urimai Thogai is yet to be defined, especially considering that there are no further details regarding the scheme’s architecture.
A question that arises, for instance, is that of spending guidelines. Will Magalir Urimai Thogai disbursements be unconditional? In his presentation, Palanivel Thiaga Rajan remarked that the scheme stands to be ‘a game changer in the socio-economic life of women in the state’ and added that ‘women heads of families who have been affected adversely by the steep increase in cooking gas price by the Union government and the overall price rise will be benefited by this scheme.’ These appear to be mere suggestions, not actual scheme guidelines. The ambiguity is rather surprising, as Tamil Nadu is acclaimed for its well-crafted benefit programs. Take the Pen Kalvi scheme that was announced last year – under this scheme, all girl students from classes six to twelve will be paid Rs. 1,000 a month directly into their bank accounts until completion of undergraduate degree, diploma and ITI courses. The corpus of money that women stand to build is strong encouragement for girls to obtain educational qualifications that hold them in good stead for the job market. The Magalir Urimai Thogai initiative does not seem to be as well strategized.
Of course, it has to be conceded that the need for conditions on the spend of cash transfers is an ongoing debate – both conditional and unconditional cash transfers have been shown to help their beneficiaries. But it is certainly a key factor that will shape the scheme’s intended impact.
Another question that arises is that of post-disbursement audits. Does the administration plan to study the spending trends of Magalir Urimai Thogai transfers? Perhaps more importantly, does it have a plan to encourage impactful outcomes such as a savings corpus? In some countries, unconditional cash assistance schemes are often accompanied by State forums that counsel beneficiaries on long-term financial plans. Which brings us to the next question – what will be the period of enforcement of this scheme? The budget has been allocated this year, but will it continue to be an item in future State budgets? Given that the amount disbursed to individuals – Rs. 1,000 – is arguably modest in the light of the current economy, it is only a long-term, consistent enforcement that stands to bring impactful change to beneficiaries. However, matters are unclear on this front as well.
Ultimately, cash assistance programs must be tightly aligned with the daily lives of their beneficiaries to deliver and sustain social change. Ambiguity on the beneficiary demographic as well as the scheme’s lifetime makes it hard to understand its intended impact. Critics may well see the Magalir Urimai Thogai as a knee-jerk reaction to complaints from the Opposition on the non-deliverance of poll promises. Hopefully, the scheme framework will become clearer by September 15th and dismiss such cynicism.