India’s southern state of Tamil Nadu has been a pioneer of sorts in entertaining its voters, by giving away free television sets. The last scheme, initiated by the then ruling DMK party, started in 2006 and aimed to distribute some 15 million colour television sets to as many households. It now turns out that the number of TV sets given out and the number of households that needed them are not tallying. Moreover, a damning report shows the Government gave away thousands of television sets to villages which did not even have electricity.
Between 2006 and 2010, around 15 million colour television sets were purchased by Elcot, the Tamil Nadu Government's electronics department (we will come to the interesting list of bidders in the detailed report to be published later).Of these, in the state government's own worksheet, some 13.2 million are shown as distributed as of September 2010. The criteria for distribution was not having a television set already, having a family card and having both electricity and cable connections.And this is where the interesting twist in this tale begins. In June 2011, Incoming Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa after routing the DMK party in the state elections announced that the distribution of colour television sets would be banned. She then got down to dismantle the scheme. She said the DMK Government had targeted 1 million TV sets in the '6th phase’ of the scheme which was running at that time, the majority of sets already having been distributed. Of these some 0.74 million still had to be procured. This would be cancelled. Some 127,000 sets that were already purchased and not distributed would be handed over to orphanages, government schools and public centres.Sun Ain't Shining

Then she worked backwards. According to her numbers in this Hindu newspaper report, the 16.4 million TV sets distributed by the government cost Rs.3,687 crore ($819 m) “Those who rule the roost in the cable TV network business in Tamil Nadu are Mr. M Karunanidhi's (the outgoing chief minister) grand-nephews Kalanithi Maran and Dayanidhi Maran and grandson Durai Dayanidhi. The people pay Rs.4,000 crore ($888 m) as cable subscription every year. By spending Rs.3,687 crore of public money, Mr. Karunanidhi helped his family earn annual revenue of Rs.4,000 crore.”

The reference is to the powerful and well entrenched Sun TV empire run by the Marans. The revenue numbers are her's and not SPRs but the more interesting part comes now.

The new chief minister also questioned the rationale for giving away television sets to all those holding family cards. She accused the DMK regime of not conducting a survey of how many families did not have a colour TV set before implementing the scheme. According to her, the government order stated only those households that did not have a colour TV were eligible for receiving free sets. However oral orders were given to distribute them to all families holding ration cards (SPR has in the past studied the discrepancy between ration cards and census numbers in other states such as Karnataka and Goa.)

A Powerless Bet

The intriguing part seems to be here. As per India's 2001 Census, there were 14 million households in Tamil Nadu, of which 5.6 million families owned TV sets. So, that left about 9 or 10 million households without television sets. Assuming the population grew approximately 15% in the last 10 years so, the figure could be 16 or 17 million households (actual population as per 2011 Census is 72 million as opposed to 62 million for 2001). Even assuming most households did not buy their own television sets in the period until the scheme was announced and got rolling in 2006; there appear to be at least 3 or 4 million colour television sets missing unless there is an explanation that we are not getting.

Moreover, in the hurry, the local government also forgot that the state is not fully electrified. According to a March 2010 report of the Comptroller & Auditor General (CAG), the federal accounting body, some 11,354 colour television sets purchased at a cost of Rs 2.71 crore were distributed in Erode and Madurai districts of Tamil Nadu without ensuring they had electricity. A total of 545,847 colour televisions or 0.54 million were distributed in these two districts. Presumably, the bet was on electricity reaching these households some day. But its not clear what the bet on the rest of the television sets was.