In Conversation with Jean Dreze

In Conversation with Jean Dreze
Jean Dreze

Jean Drèze has lived in India since 1979 and became an Indian citizen in 2002. He studied Mathematical Economics at the University of Essex and did his PhD at the Indian Statistical Institute, New Delhi. He has taught at the London School of Economics and the Delhi School of Economics, and is currently Visiting Professor at the Department of Economics, Ranchi University as well as Honorary Professor at the Delhi School of Economics. He has made wide-ranging contributions to development economics and public policy, with special reference to India. His research interests include rural development, social inequality, elementary education, child nutrition, health care and food security. He is co-author (with Amartya Sen) of Hunger and Public Action, India: Development and Participation and An Uncertain Glory: India and its Contradictions – the latter was one of Bloomberg/Businessweek Best Books of 2013.

  1. Professor Drèze many thanks for taking the time to talk to us. You first arrived India in 1979 and joined the Indian Statistical Institute as a PhD student. You have been living here since then and accepted India as your work place, and the people of this country accepted you as their own. Your email id jaandaraz is perhaps symbolic of how we have Indianized you, isn’t it?

I left Belgium at the age of seventeen, but I think that many of our lasting habits and values are formed before that, so there is no point pretending that I have “gone native” or something. I still brush my teeth in the evening rather than in the morning. But it doesn’t really matter – there is room in India for all sorts of people, and I’m not even sure what “Indianized” would mean. What counts is to feel at home, and in that respect, I am quite happy. Indeed I am grateful for all the friends I have found over the years.

  1. While we exchanged emails you told me about the padyatra that you undertook some years ago in tribal areas, beginning from Udaipur.  You have been through some of India’s most colorful districts: Banswara, Betul, Chhindwara, Mandla, Surguja, Gumla, to name a few. Could you tell us more about this padyatra, and share some of your impressions from this amazing journey?

Aside from being a break of sorts, this padyatra was an opportunity to learn about the lives of Adivasis in Central India. They made a deep impression on me. Adivasis are typically seen either as backward people waiting to enter the mainstream, or as victims of displacement and repression. What tends to be forgotten is that their societies are very advanced in many ways. They are certainly more egalitarian, and they also have a strong tradition of cooperative action and democratic decision-making. When you walk through Adivasi areas of, say, Madhya Pradesh, and then reach the Malwa plateau, with its feudal social relations, oppressive caste system, patriarchal culture and endemic violence, it feels like going back to the Middle Ages. Some aspects of the Adivasi way of life are likely to fade away in the future, but hopefully, the values and principles of this way of life will spread and flourish.

  1. Talking about the public distribution system, some states have performed quite well while others haven’t been up to the mark. PDS and the new idea of “cash transfer” have their own benefits and limitations. PDS or cash transfer, which is more practical now and in future?

Put yourself in the shoes of a poor person whose economic security depends in substantial measure on the public distribution system – there are millions of such people all over the country.  An expert or bureaucrat comes along and says, “how about cash transfers instead”? Many questions are likely to come to that person’s mind: Is this a serious proposal or is it an attempt to take away the little I have? Will I be able to make effective use of banking facilities? Can I trust the government to give me more cash when prices increase? Is the money going to be delivered on time? These are all pertinent questions, and I don’t think that those who advocate replacing the PDS with cash transfers have satisfactory answers as things stand. Without a strong guarantee of something better, people have good reasons to hang on to what they have. This is, I believe, why we have found strong opposition to the replacement of the PDS with cash transfers among poor people in many of our field surveys. This is not to deny that cash transfers are appropriate in some circumstances. Indeed I support some cash transfers, such as social security pensions and maternity benefits. But I believe that there is a long way to go before cash transfers are an appropriate alternative to the public distribution system, especially in the poorer parts of the country.

  1. I wish to talk about another burning agenda, related to forest rights. It is not necessary to elucidate the importance of forests for the forest dwellers and the indigenous population. As far as the laws and legislations are concerned, do you think there is enough clarity as of now on terms such as “encroachers”, “eviction drives” and “tribal rights over forest land”? I am asking this because for a long period there has been unethical and brutal eviction of tribals from forest land.

I think that as far as the clarity of people’s rights are concerned, the Forest Rights Act was a breakthrough of sorts. Ten years ago, around 2005, brutal eviction drives were taking place across the country, based on a dubious interpretation of Supreme Court orders by the Forest Department. In some places, elephants were used to demolish people’s humble homes and drive them away. The Forest Rights Act created substantial protection from this brutality for adivasis and other traditional forest dwellers, and clarified their legal rights. Today, the problem is not any lack of clarity about these rights, but the fact they are far from being realised in many states, especially community rights. Also, the threat of eviction drives has been replaced with the threat of mass displacement induced by infrastructural and development projects. The Land Acquisition Act 2013 was meant to create some safeguards against this, but as you know, this Act is in danger of being severely diluted.

  1. A different issue but very well connected with tribal empowerment is the issue of reservation. I was going through the EPW article “Caste and the Power Elite in Allahabad”, authored by Ankita Aggarwal, Aashish Gupta and you. It is troubling to see the caste imbalances in positions of power and influence, wherein all the top posts are occupied by a small upper-caste minority. The system of reservation has invited polarized opinions across all sections of Indian society, particularly from people who belong to “general category”. What is your opinion about the system itself, and the enforcement and implementation part of it as well?

Reservation has been an essential tool for the advancement of marginalised groups during the last few decades and I support the principle. In our study, we found circumstantial evidence of reservation norms being flouted in at least some public institutions in Allahabad. I suspect that closer scrutiny of this matter would uncover rampant violations. So there is still a long way to go in enforcing these norms. But I think that it is also important to look beyond reservations and consider other means of fighting caste inequalities. For instance, affirmative action is at least as important in the field of education as in that of employment. Dalit and Adivasi children needed the best schools and the best teachers, to make up for centuries of exclusion from the schooling system. Instead, the reverse happened: children from privileged families enjoyed excellent school facilities while Dalit and Adivasi children were left with ramshackle schools and lethargic teachers. As discussed in our paper, there is also an urgent need for voluntary attention to diversity in public life, of the sort that has significantly reduced ethnic or gender imbalances in other countries. Indeed, we found that the dominance of the upper castes was even greater in institutions of civil society than in government institutions. Even trade unions, NGOS and left parties are overwhelmingly dominated by the upper castes. Nothing prevents these institutions from taking steps to ensure that they are more inclusive. In response to this, the upper castes often argue that the best way to fight caste is to ignore it. But the upper castes are extremely caste conscious when it comes, say, to marriage. If you really think that ignoring caste is the way to go, marriage would be a good place to start.

  1. Talking about a subject you are more involved with, what we have noticed after the introduction of NREGA is a kind of new relationship that has developed between the rural folks and the banks. Much before Jan Dhan, NREGA brought rural workers closer to the banks. It is a step by step process and I guess many village folks are already learning the basics of banking which has been a huge shift from conventional ways isn’t?

Yes, I think that NREGA deserves some credit for a big breakthrough as far as financial inclusion is concerned. Not only did it lead to bank and post-office accounts being opened on an unprecedented scale, the account holders also came from the most deprived and excluded sections of the population. Before that, many bank managers were reluctant to even let NREGA workers enter bank premises. The banks learnt to treat them as rightful customers, even if there was little money to be made from their tiny transactions and near-zero balances. The high-profile Jan Dhan Yojana was just an extension of that initial breakthrough – the hard work had already been done. Having said this, financial inclusion is not just about opening bank accounts. It means providing effective banking services to everyone, including, for instance, timely payment of NREGA wages. There is still a long way to go in that respect.

  1. Do you think that there is some sort of failure on the part of media to show the economic injustices and social inequalities of Indian society? For example media rarely talk about the worrying picture of caste imbalance in top positions of power and influence. Nor do we get to see a well researched, well documented picture on the inefficiencies in the economic and social lives of people. Is it because the audience is more interested in India’s position and power in the international arena than serious problems in home?

I think that you are basically right, but the nature of this failure varies for different sections of the media. The business media is a full-time propaganda machine, dedicated to privileged interests, so it’s not surprising that business papers rarely talk about inequality or injustice. The mainstream media is primarily an advertisement business. As Noam Chomsky has pointed out, it is not exactly selling news to the audience, rather it sells the audience to advertising agencies. Affluent readers or viewers matter more than the poor, since they have more money to spend on the goods being advertised. So the news coverage is disproportionately influenced by their interests and concerns. Online media are somewhat more democratic, because the production costs are low, so there is less dependence on advertising. Any enterprising youngster with some pocket money can launch a website and help to develop some sort of alternative media. But even enterprising youngsters tend to come from privileged classes and castes, and that gets reflected in their concerns and priorities. So one way or another, the mass media in India tend to be quite removed from the lives of the unprivileged.

  1. While explaining the idea behind the Directive Principles of State Policy, Dr. Ambedkar said: “We do not want merely to lay down a mechanism to enable people to come and capture power. The Constitution also wishes to lay down an ideal before those who would be forming the government.  That ideal is of economic democracy.” However the Directive Principles are treated primarily as a set of instructions, not enforceable by a court of Law. Do you think that had the right to work been made a fundamental right from the very beginning, the picture could have altered significantly?

It is true that the Directive Principles are not enforceable by a court of law, under Article 37 of the Constitution. But the same article goes on to state that these principles are “fundamental to the governance of the country”, and that “it shall be the duty of the state to apply these principles in making laws”. In other words, the state was expected to frame laws that would give expression to the Directive Principles, including a wide range of economic and social rights. This legislative agenda, however, fell into oblivion, though it has been revived to some extent during the last ten years. For instance, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act can be seen as a partial expression of the right to work under Article 41 of the Constitution. Dr. Ambedkar was well aware, of course, that the realization of the Directive Principles would depend a great deal on the success of electoral politics in giving power to the underprivileged, which was far from guaranteed. That is why what he really wanted was not just Directive Principles but a socialist constitution.

  1. You wrote that the new government “appears to be caught between conflicting demands from the public and its corporate sponsors. People, especially the poor, want more social support and better public services. The corporate sector, however, tends to oppose social spending, because it means more taxes, or higher interest rates, or less public money for infrastructure and so on.” This is more or less the picture the Government confronted for about two to three decades now. How about the new Government, do you see any definite plan to address issues with priority?

I wrote this soon after the Modi government was formed, at a time when there was still some ambiguity about how these “conflicting demands” would be resolved. I think that the ambiguity has been largely removed now: the dilemmas of social policy are being resolved in favour of business interests. As you say, this has been the basic pattern for some time, but I think that the pro-business bias has intensified under the new government. For instance, ambiguity on NREGA has given way to open hostility, in line with the business position on this issue. Similarly, confused promises of “universal health assurance”, and even of health care being made a fundamental right, have metamorphosed into an assortment of business-driven health schemes. Social policy is slowly being reduced to cash transfers, which are comparatively acceptable to business because they create purchasing power for marketable commodities.

  1. You wrote a letter to Noam Chomsky way back in 1991 and invited him to give some lectures in India.

Professor Chomsky eventually arrived in 1996 and delivered a series of lectures in major Indian cities. What was it like, arranging this lecture series and being the host of one of the world’s most cited scholars? Would you like to share with us a few of the ideas that he shared with the audience here?

He was never worried about where we would put him up or what he would eat. His only concern was to make good use of his time.And since his talks were in high demand, it was not difficult to keep him busy. His talks covered a wide range of issues, but they were all rooted in a principled opposition to the concentration of power – whether it is state power, or corporate power, or for that matter the power of the upper castes in Indian society, of men over women in the family, of an unaccountable party leader, or of the boss at the workplace. This is an old anarchist commitment, but Chomsky’s formulation of it is particularly appealing: “… any structure of hierarchy and authority carries a heavy burden of justification, whether it involves personal relations or a larger social order. If it cannot bear that burden—sometimes it can—then it is illegitimate and should be dismantled”. This sounds to me like a practical and far-reaching principle of thought and action.

  1. You are an economist with a difference, going beyond convention you crossed the university boundary and reached those who desperately needed someone to speak for them. You have been addressing them in their own language; raising voice for guaranteed employment, forest rights and food security. Do you see a rising trend among ordinary people and activists to fight for their rights?

It’s difficult to see which way things are going, because there are opposite pulls and their relative strength varies with time and place. There are strong anti-democratic tendencies in India today, such as the concentration of power, the growing hold of business interests on public policy, and the resurgence of Hindu nationalism. But there are counter-trends too, such as the spread of education among unprivileged groups and the growing assertion of economic and social rights. Comparing the situation today with what it was, say, when I came to India in 1979, I don’t see any reason for defeatism. My fellow PhD students at the Indian Statistical Institute in those days were perhaps more interested in social issues than the average economics student would be today, but on the other hand, they had more limited opportunities for social action. After reading Economic and Political Weekly, it was back to table tennis for most of us. Today, we have vast possibilities of democratic action and it is up to us to make good use of them.