Tamil Nadu is seen (probably next only to Kerala) as a 'progressive' state. It is known for, among much else:
- a near-complete dominance of the 'Dravidian' political parties, accompanied by a decline of all the national ones
- its universal Mid-Day Meal Scheme (introduced by M.G. Ramachandran by expanding an earlier, limited scheme initiated by K. Kamaraj); this program is now credited with keeping children (girls in particular) in school during the eighties, and the resulting surge in social indicators in the nineties and later.
- a militant caste-based 'reservation' (or, affirmative action) policy that led to, at one point, reservation of almost 70 % of the seats in professional courses (50 % for Most Backward/Backward commnunities, and the rest for Scheduled Castes and Tribes); the state was a pioneer in reservation for 'backward communities', and a fore-runner to the 'Mandal' politics that exploded at the national level in the early nineties.
One area in which Tamil Nadu has an atrociously shameful record is in the lack of (or a very slow pace of) progress made by the Dalits of this state; to be fair, the other states, too, share in this shameful record. Two episodes stand out in Tamil Nadu: (a) many years ago, Dalits in the village of Meenakshipuram converted en masse to Islam, and (b) just about five years ago, there was a case of massive police brutality against Dalit workers in Manjolai (I will try to dig up the links for these news stories).
A more egregious example is the inability of the state government to organize the panchayat elections in four villages in south Tamil Nadu; these villages are 'reserved' for Dalits, who are prevented from contesting the elections; in one bizarre episode, a Dalit was allowed to contest and win, but resigned immediately after the result was announced.
Today's Hindu published K. Nagaraj's review of DALITS IN DRAVIDIAN LAND — Frontline Reports on Anti-Dalit Violence in Tamil Nadu 1995-2004, a collection of articles and news reports by S. Viswanathan published in the Hindu's sister publication, Frontline.
From the review:
The articles painstakingly document these deprivations and discriminations in terms of livelihood issues: Dalits are denied access to land; their legitimate and traditional fishing rights in ponds are taken away; they are denied access to roads and often their living space, the Cheri on the outer fringes of the village, is encroached upon by the `caste Hindus'; their access to clean drinking water is virtually non-existent and their wells are often poisoned during anti-Dalit riots; the majority of Dalits are agricultural labourers with low wages and long stretches of unemployment — the list appears to be unending.