The economist Jean Drèze’s book, Sense and Solidarity, published in late 2017, deals with the impact of Aadhaar on social-welfare programmes, such as the National Food Security Act and the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, among other things. Drèze was a member of the United Progressive Alliance government’s advisory council, which designed the NFSA and MGNREGS. He co-authored some of the essays in this book with colleagues and activist friends, including his wife, Bela Bhatia. Drèze spoke to Sagar, a web reporter at The Caravan, about the National Democratic Alliance government’s indifference towards social-welfare programmes, many of which have seen the exclusion of genuine beneficiaries due to the mandatory requirement of an Aadhaar number.
Sagar: You have suggested in the book that in the framing of a public policy, empathy and interaction with the oppressed is as important as statistical evidence. Does the government share that approach to public policy?
Jean Drèze: What I have written is that experience is as important as evidence, and that one useful role of experience is to help us re-examine our values. Our values are often influenced by our interests, or the interests of the class or caste or social group we identify with. For policy-makers, that would usually mean a privileged group. Spending time with underprivileged people can help to see things from their point of view. To illustrate, India’s public distribution system tends to be disparaged as a wasteful freebie in the business media, but poor people often see it as a lifeline. That is not, in itself, a vindication of the public distribution system, but it is certainly a useful insight.
Coming to your question, the government’s approach to public policy seems to me to pay little attention to the lives of the underprivileged. Critical decisions are mostly taken behind closed doors in the Prime Minister’s Office or finance ministry, where the poor are just numbers on a computer screen. Demonetisation is a prime example of the dangers of this approach. To this day, the government claims against all reason that the operation was a success, based, for instance, on statistics related to digital payments and tax compliance. The fact that millions of poor people were pushed to the wall for weeks if not months after demonetisation does not seem to matter at all. In the recent debate that accompanied the first anniversary of demonetisation, one even sensed a kind of Darwinian outlook that celebrates the survival of the fittest.
S: You recount incidents of extreme hunger and starvation during 2001 in villages of Jharkhand, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. What had led to such a situation there, and have the government’s health and food schemes reached those places yet?
JD: These incidents were partly due to chronic poverty, aggravated by widespread drought. But they were also made possible by a virtual absence of any sort of public support for vulnerable households. Instead, the government was busy accumulating huge food stocks at that time, well in excess of official buffer norms. This reduced the effective food supply and heightened food prices, even as people were struggling to survive. Far from helping, public policy contributed to starving the poor.
This has certainly changed to a significant extent, with the creation or expansion of social programmes such as the public distribution system, school meals, social security pensions and the MGNREGS. These programmes do reach far and wide, and there is considerable evidence that they make a difference. Of course, there are plenty of shortcomings and irregularities. But at least some foundations have been laid for a possible social security system.
S: The prime minister once scoffed at MGNREGS in Parliament and said he will not abolish it and keep it going so that he can trumpet the failure of the UPA government, which introduced the scheme. Do you think there is a deliberate attempt from the NDA government to weaken schemes such as the MGNREGS?
JD: The prime minister spoke in jest on this subject, and while the remark was in bad taste, we should not read too much in it. However, there are many other signs that the NDA government is not interested in social policy. The main priority seems to be to save money. Social schemes have been retained, because rolling them back would be politically risky, but they have been left to languish. With the partial exception of Swacch Bharat Mission, there have been no significant initiatives in the field of social policy during the last four years.
Sometimes, the fixation with saving money is truly deplorable. Consider for instance maternity entitlements—all pregnant women have been entitled to cash benefits of Rs 6,000 per child since 2013, under the National Food Security Act. After brazenly ignoring this for three years, the NDA government finally made a modest provision for maternity entitlements in last year’s Union Budget and notified a new scheme for pregnant women, the Pradhan Mantri Matru Vandana Yojana. In the same stroke, however, it discontinued an earlier scheme, the Indira Gandhi Matritva Sahyog Yojana, taking back with one hand most of what it was giving with the other. Further, maternity benefits under this new scheme are restricted to one child per woman, and reduced to Rs 5,000 instead of Rs 6,000. In short, the government is making a pretence of accepting its responsibilities under the food security act, but actually diluting women’s entitlements at every step. This is not only unfair and illegal, but also very short-sighted considering the importance of maternal health for the well-being and future of Indian children, not to speak of women themselves. Maternity benefits are not very costly and could go a long way, but this is of no interest to the NDA leadership.
S: This government has shifted to Aadhaar-based transfers for schemes such as old-age pensions and MGNREGS, and claimed that the new system is saving crores of public money. What’s your view?
JD: Most of the recent claims about Aadhaar-enabled savings are nothing but government-sponsored propaganda. Ministries and state governments are under pressure to report figures of Aadhaar-enabled savings, and some faithfully toe the line. One recent example is the Jharkhand government’s startling claim, on 11 September 2017, that it had cancelled more than 11 lakh fake ration cards with the help of Aadhaar. Firstly, the figure is wrong, and was indeed retracted later. Second, most of the cancelled cards are not fake cards at all. Some of them were ordinary ration cards that had been cancelled in the routine process of updating the lists. For instance, when a joint household splits, the old card is often cancelled in favour of separate cards for the new households. In other cases, cards were cancelled because the cardholders had failed to link their ration card with Aadhaar, for no fault of their own. This is the worst type of so-called Aadhaar-enabled savings, where eligible people are bumped off the lists and then the savings are credited to Aadhaar.
S: Last year, Baba Ramdev was lobbying to win a contract worth Rs 700 crore to supply packaged food under the midday-meal scheme to schools in Uttar Pradesh. How would this affect the scheme and children who are beneficiaries?
JD: This sounds like a replay of the infamous hijacking of Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) in Uttar Pradesh by Ponty Chadha. Even as most other states were moving away from ready-to-eat mixtures to cooked food for children in the age group of three to six years, Uttar Pradesh continued to give them a useless mixture called panjiri. This panjiri did nothing for child nutrition, but it meant a hugely lucrative contract for the winning supplier. In this case, the winner was Ponty Chadha, a notorious gangster-businessman close to Mayawati, who also had the monopoly of liquor licenses in Uttar Pradesh at one time. Baba Ramdev is the new Ponty Chadha. Replacing cooked midday meals in UP schools, if it happens, will be disastrous for children but it will be another business coup for Ramdev.
S: There have been reports of caste conflicts in the implementation of the midday-meal scheme because upper-caste families did not allow their children to dine with Dalit children and refused to let them eat food prepared by Dalit cooks. How will the packaged food system negotiate with this caste conflict? Will it get worse or better?
JD: What needs attention here is not just caste conflict, but also the positive value of midday meals as a way of combating caste prejudice. It may be true that replacing cooked food with packaged food would ease caste tensions around midday meals, since upper-caste parents who object to their child eating wholesome food cooked by a Dalit woman may not object to them eating biscuits or potato chips. In the process, however, an opportunity will be missed to challenge these prejudices and impart more egalitarian values to children. When children learn to sit together and share a meal irrespective of caste, the caste system takes a healthy blow.
S: Recently, the government also made Aadhaar compulsory for children to avail the benefits of the midday-meal programme. How will it affect the coverage?
JD: Hopefully, this will not affect the coverage of midday meals because school teachers will be sensible enough not to deprive any child of food for lack of Aadhaar. But it will cause a lot inconvenience and waste of time, for no purpose. If midday-meal registers are inflated, by adding the names of pupils who are actually absent, linking children’s names with Aadhaar will not help unless it is combined with biometric authentication for every meal. Daily biometric authentication is bound to create the sort of chaos we have already seen in the public distribution system. It would also reduce coverage, and exclude many children for no fault of their own. Quite likely, the real purpose of making Aadhaar compulsory for midday meals is to force children to enrol. This is one example, among others, of the coercive and invasive nature of Aadhaar.
S: In September last year, hundreds of MGNREGS workers were on dharna for five days in Delhi to protest against delays in wage payments and other infringements of their rights. What does the protest indicate?
JD: The protest was mainly about the stagnation of real wages under MGNREGS, delays in wage payments, and the denial of compensation for delayed payments. Almost ten years have passed since bank payments of MGNREGS wages were introduced. Yet the system is still unequal to the task of paying wages within 15 days, as prescribed under the act. Sometimes wages are even lost in transit due to technical glitches in the Aadhaar-based payment system. Wages are also held up for other reasons from time to time—in Jharkhand, for instance, wages were held up for months last year because a few districts had not submitted their social audit reports to the central government. In one district, apparently, the report was delayed because the district coordinator was on paternity leave. In these and other ways, MGNREGS workers are constantly held hostage to lack of funds, centre-state disputes, and technical hurdles. Aside from being a grave injustice, this threatens to undermine the entire programme. If people have worked, they must be paid without delay.
S: You write that whoever thinks the Kashmir problem is due to lack of development is severely deluded. Could you explain why it is not a problem of development?
JD: Kashmir is actually a prosperous state compared with most Indian states. That is obvious to any visitor, and also evident from statistical data. For instance, official poverty estimates based on National Sample Survey data suggest that poverty rates in Jammu and Kashmir are among the lowest in India. Jammu and Kashmir’s social indicators are also quite good: better, for instance, than those of Gujarat, almost across the board, despite Gujarat being regarded by some as a model. Kashmir does have a serious unemployment problem, aggravated by years of conflict, but living standards there are relatively good. So, lack of development is a very misleading explanation for the Kashmir conflict. This explanation is part of a larger discourse aimed at denying or obfuscating the real reasons for the deep alienation of the Kashmiri people from India.
This interview has been edited and condensed.