Prioritising the poor

Print edition : November 24, 2017

Nobel laureate Amartya Sen and Jean Dreze. A file picture. Photo: ASHOKE CHAKRABARTY

Damaged wheat stocks at an open-storage facility of the Food Corporation of India on the outskirts of Karnal in Haryana. A file picture. Photo: KAMAL NARANG

Jean Dreze's collection of essays is a critical evaluation of the development agenda and performance of the States, corporate power and technocracy and much more.

JEAN DREZE may not be a familiar author for some readers though he is one of India’s outstanding economists. A Belgian by birth, he came to India after studying mathematical economics at the University of Essex, London, and did his doctoral work in economics at the Indian Statistical Institute. Although he went back to teach at the London School of Economics, his heart was in India, especially in its rural areas. Hence, he was in India again, teaching and doing field studies and becoming an Indian citizen in 2002. Currently, he is Visiting Professor at Ranchi University. He has co-authored several studies with Amartya Sen and a couple of other Nobel laureates. In fact, Amartya Sen is reported to have said that the agreeable thing about working with Dreze is that “he does most of the work and I get most of the credit”.

What distinguishes Dreze from many economists is his solidarity with the lower strata of Indian society. He has used his understanding of economics to study their day-to-day problems, of making a living, of attending to their health problems, of educating their young ones, and much more. This is the content he gives to what has come to be known as “development economics”.

Development economics as a field of study has been quite popular since the end of the Second World War, when many countries, formerly colonies of the Western powers, gained independence. They were designated as “underdeveloped” by economists and referred to collectively as the Third World.

Development as numerology

Development has also become a popular political slogan. But for economists, by and large, and for politicians in general, development has come to be identified with a number called “growth”, the annual increment in the country’s gross domestic product (GDP), yet another number. In essence, therefore, development has become just numerology.

Growth of GDP has its place in understanding development, but if development is essentially the development of people, it is much more complex. And, while an upward movement of growth will benefit some people, it may not touch the vast majority. It is this paradox that constitutes the theme of the pieces brought together in the volume under review. Consider the plight of a family in Kusumatand in Jharkhand. During a field visit to this village in 2002, Dreze noticed that the people often died “from the combined burden of malnutrition, weakness and hunger-related diseases”. Here is a specific instance of Kunti Devi’s family. “Her husband, Bageshwar Bhuiyan, suffers from TB [tuberculosis] and is unable to work. His illness goes untreated because he has no money and the staff at the local health centre charge patients for TB drugs that are meant to be given free. The burden of looking after him and his six children falls on his mother, a courageous seventy-year-old widow who walks to Manatu from time to time to glean rice from the local mill. The rice is barely fit for human consumption, but there is nothing much else to be had—the family survives exclusively on wild food…”

Are there not others in a similar situation in Jharkhand and, indeed, in the rest of India? And recall that in 2002 politicians (and many economists too) were celebrating the “India Shining” slogan because growth had begun to pick up.

That is the paradox that this collection of some 50 pieces written and published from the early 2000s to 2016 in newspapers and other popular publications features. It is economics for everyone.

A claim that is frequently put forward by economists and politicians alike is that India is the fastest growing among the major economies of the world. Factually correct. But consider the following facts that Dreze quotes in a piece he wrote in July 2014 from the World Development Indicators:

“Public spending on health and education is just 4.4 per cent of GDP in India, compared with 7 per cent in sub-Saharan Africa, 7.2 per cent in East Asia, 8.5 per cent in Latin America, and 13.3 per cent in OECD [Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development] countries. Even the corresponding figure for the ‘least developed countries’, 6.3 per cent, is much higher than India’s.”

He gives further comparative figures from a recent Asian Development Bank report: India spends only 1.7 per cent of the GDP on social support compared with an average of 3.4 per cent for Asia’s lower-middle-income countries, 5.4 per cent in China, 10.2 per cent in Asia’s high-income countries, and 19.2 in Japan. He concludes: “If anything, India is among the world champions of social under-spending.”

Food security

Dreze has been championing the cause of comprehensive food security, that is, a minimum quantity of foodgrains for all citizens, say 35 kilograms of grain per household every month. He calculates that it may cost something like one lakh crore rupees a year. This may sound like a mind-boggling price, he concedes, but goes on to point out that it is just about 1.5 per cent of India’s GDP. By way of comparison, he shows that the fertilizer subsidy, too, is in the realm of one lakh crore rupees, the beneficiaries being better-off farmers. From such instances, Dreze makes a call to use “lived experience to put statistical data in perspective”.

A related issue is the public distribution of foodgrains, about which a number of related questions have to be raised. To begin with, it may be noted that what is usually referred to as “food subsidy” is not the amount spent to bring food within the reach of poor families but essentially the deficit of the Food Corporation of India (FCI), whose operations are chiefly geared to keep food grain prices up rather than down. It may be recalled that there have been times when foodgrains stored in FCI godowns tended to rot and there were calls to make the grain available to those in need. The fear of a fall in foodgrain prices stood in the way of feeding the millions. But what stands in the way of using mounting food stocks via a food-for-work scheme or other anti-poverty programmes?

“Possible reasons include political inertia, organisational gaps, and reluctance to bear the financial costs”. Another widely debated issue is whether all households should be eligible for grains under the public distribution system or whether it should be restricted to those below “the poverty line”. Dreze favours the former mainly because many deserving households will get excluded when public distribution is selective.

Because of his awareness that the interest of the poor is not in condescending charity but in opportunities to earn a living, Dreze has been a champion of employment guarantee schemes. As a member of the National Advisory Council set up by the United Progressive Alliance government in 2004, he and his colleagues, who shared his enthusiasm, worked hard to draft the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) to provide 100 days of work to anyone who wanted it. Combined with attempts to create productive assets in rural areas and to activate gram sabhas, the programme has been rightly acclaimed as a major attempt to empower the rural population, especially women, to protect the environment and to restrain distress migration.

Dreze admits that the implementation of the scheme ran into problems, especially those of administration, but maintains that what is required is more effort to achieve the objectives of the programme.

Two sections of the book are devoted to a discussion on child development and elementary education along with a critical evaluation of school meals. Dreze was the moving spirit behind the widely acclaimed Public Report on Basic Education (PROBE), 1999.

There is much more in the book—critical evaluation of the development agenda and performance of the States, corporate power and technocracy, war and peace. At a time when development has become essentially an emotive political slogan and is used to build the power and prestige of the nation, Dreze reminds us that the priority must be to meet the basic needs of the neglected people, and if that is taken seriously, the agenda will change. To academics, I strongly recommend the Introduction in the book, especially the section on research and action where the author brings out the complementarity of the two pointing out that action-oriented research need not compromise on scientific methods or objective inquiry.

Research can help with arguments and evidence that contribute to more effective action. A major difference between what may be called academic research and action-oriented research is the language they use: the former will be more in line with the language of the profession (theories and their derivations, for instance), whereas the latter will have to be largely in the language of day-to-day discourse. Economics started as a discussion of problems of daily life, but in its attempt to become a science, like physics, it developed a language of its own. Those who are engaged in action-oriented research on real-life problems must, therefore, become “bilingual” in a very meaningful sense because theory can throw light on real problems and earthiness can prevent theory from escaping into abstractions. If economics deals with social issues, it cannot pretend to be a “pure” science. Development economics is surely policy-oriented. But what is policy without action?

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