By Ullekh NP, ET Bureau |


Jean Dreze, Economist & former NAC member
Jean Dreze, Economist & former NAC member
Jean Dreze, until recently the intellectual driving force behind the National Advisory Council, is measured but unmistakable in his disenchantment with many current UPA welfare schemes. The economist who quit the Sonia Gandhi-led NAC in late June, won’t comment on whether the UPA government has failed the NAC.

But, he tells Ullekh NP, there’s not enough empathy in the Indian establishment for the poor. Programmes like NREGA, he says, attract the hostile attention of both employers and government officials.

Why did you not want Sonia Gandhi to extend your membership at the NAC? Has she replied to your letter?

I had agreed to join the NAC for a limited period of one year. Having done what I had agreed to do, I felt that the time had come to return to other commitments that are closer to my heart. Ms Gandhi has kindly agreed to release me.

What are your worries about the proposed Food Security Bill which sets aside a huge sum of money for the purpose of “feeding the poor”?

My main concern is that the proposed framework for the public distribution system (PDS) is confused, impractical and divisive. The whole framework is based on a division of the population into three groups (excluded, general and priority), without any clarity as to how these groups are to be identified. By default, the “priority group” is likely to be equated with the below the poverty line ( BPL) list. This is a major setback, because the NAC’s work began with an almost unanimous rejection of the BPL approach.

Is India‘s “self-sufficiency” in food production a joke?

It is not quite a joke, but the apparent self-sufficiency certainly reflects low levels of food intake, in quantitative as well as qualitative terms. For Indians to eat like the Chinese, let alone the Germans or Canadians, there would have to be a lot more food around. For instance, vegetable consumption was recently estimated to be more than twice as high in China as in India, and meat consumption eight times as high. In the age group of 4-6, average nutrient intake as a proportion of the Indian Council of Medical Research‘s “recommended daily allowance” is only 16% for Vitamin A, 35% for iron and 45% for calcium.

The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA; formerly called NREGA) has had many ups and downs in the past five years. What is your assessment of the future prospects?

NREGA is going through a phase of enhanced vulnerability, when workers’ organisations to defend it are yet to be formed, while hostile forces are gaining strength. Among the hostile forces are employers’ lobbies, concerned with the rising or allegedly rising cost of labour. In many states, the local administration is also turning hostile, because NREGA means extra work, more accountability, and no easy gravy.

n Jharkhand, where there is no concept of government employees doing anything without inducement, I am told that narega marega (NREGA will die) has become a popular slogan in sarkari circles. This happened after the transition to bank payments of wages, when the corruption tap was tightened. Perhaps the greatest vulnerability is the loss of interest on the part of many NREGA workers, due to prolonged delays in wage payments. Of course, millions of people still have a very strong stake in NREGA. But this needs to translate into organised collective power if the programme is to survive and thrive.

What are you currently working on? Are you pursuing any new interests?

My current interests are quite enough for a lifetime. But if possible, I would like to contribute to the democratisation of social sciences, including development economics. In my view, the “expert monopoly” of social sciences has done a lot of damage. Fortunately, with the spread of communication facilities and growing possibilities of associational life, a large number of people are getting involved in collective thinking.

You have famously opposed the creation of Natgrid. What are your major concerns?

I don’t remember opposing Natgrid, let alone “famously” opposing it. But I’m pretty sure that I would oppose it if the details of the project were in the public domain. I am opposed to the concentration of power in general, and of state power in particular. Naturally, this makes me very suspicious of Natgrid, which seems to be part of the move towards permanent state surveillance of all citizens. It is amazing how all the good libertarians who constantly bash the state in the business media watch this without a squeak.

Is there conspiracy of silence on the part of the government when it comes to implementing pro-poor initiatives?

There is certainly too little discussion and public debate of poverty and related issues inIndia. But it is not a conspiracy, and nor is it confined to the government. It is a reflection of the control of democratic institutions by privileged classes. If you want to do well as a minister, or a journalist, or a lawyer, talking about the poor is hardly the way to go.

How do you rate Poor Economics, by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, which has quoted your work quite extensively?

Judging from the reviews, it seems to be a great book. I am hoping to find out why after reading it.

Enhanced by Zemanta