The book is a collection of the author’s previously published essays written between 2000-2017 with a fresh general introduction, section-wise commentaries and bibliographic additions. The themes encompass a whole range of development issues, namely drought and hunger, poverty, school meals, healthcare, child development and elementary education, employment guarantee and food security and PDS. Then there are chapters on corporate power and technology (and their hold on public policy such as in the relentless drive for Aaadhar), war and peace (focussing on nuclear deterrence and Kashmir) and a ‘top up’ section on varied issues connected to the other themes in the author’s underlying philosophical vision for an ethical social development path.
Jean Dreze is one of the country’s most well known development economists, known for his influential work on hunger, poverty and gender inequality in particular. He also has worked with an extensive team of colleagues over the years, including Nobel Laureate economists Amartya Sen and Angus Deaton, his partner Bela Bhatia, also a scholar and activist, and his long-term research-collaborator and frequent co-author Reetika Khera.
At the same time, he is equally at home with his activist collaborators, the ‘jholawalas’—ranging from right to information activists to field researchers, rural workers and even student volunteers. He then, despite his disclaimer to the contrary, is the ultimate ‘jholawala economist’, who is ‘found not only in universities, governments and corporate sector, but also among the public at large—working with civic organisations, trade unions, political parties, alternative media, the peace movement or just freelance’ (p. 20).
The methodological distinction of his work not surprisingly hence lies in emphasizing the importance of experience, ethical values and democratic debate in the world of public policy and public action besides the current dominance of evidence based policy making, expert knowledge and academic research. In outlining an agenda for ‘action oriented research’, an effort to achieve practical change through democratic means and processes, he regards ‘pursuit of knowledge as a collective endeavour’ with research as helping with ‘useful arguments and evidence that contribute to more effective action’. Here the expert and the activist learn from each other’s knowledge and from field insights and the lived experiences of the actual stakeholders and intended beneficiaries. Far from seeing research and activism as antagonistic, he dismisses the idea of objectivity as a mythical neutrality or distance (that is in any case nonexistent within institutions of power or even within academia), emphasizing objectivity requires ‘intellectual honesty, not an abdication of convictions’. And his own convictions lie in the idea of social development as the move towards creation of a good society, where ethical progress is as important as improvements in quantitative indicators, when viewed from the lens of the marginalized.
The essence of the book then lies in the distilling of almost two decades of work and field experiences from this positionality, combining deep insights with passionate conviction, a broad scholarship and a keen eye for details. Economics, philosophy and extensive field experience are all brought together in critically assessing and chronicling aspects of India’s social development and the ups and downs in the course of the formulation and implementation of social policies over this period from this perspective.
So anecdotes and lived experiences abound with empirical evidence and field insights all through—while contextualizing existing conditions, while gauging the ground impact of social policies ranging from mid-day meals in government schools to NREGA to PDS and food security to health care schemes and ICDS, and while pointing out the existing loopholes and the nitti-gritties that determine the effectiveness of their actual implementation.
The book begins with a bleak picture from Dreze’s office of ‘Hundreds of young men, many emaciated and dishevelled … have walked twenty or thirty kilometres with this stupendous load (smuggled coal) to sell it in Ranchi and earn just enough to feed their families’ (p. 1). As we proceed, it brings in glimpses of the harrowing living conditions and dysfunctionality of the basic public delivery system in far flung corners of the country—amongst Sahariyas of western Madhya Pradesh, the Bhuiyans of Palamau, and the Pahari Korwas of Surjuga in Chhattisgarh. To the story of an old man carrying enormous loads over long distances to earn less than a bare minimum for survival in the context of starvation deaths in Kashipur. To Dablu from Latehar district, a young adivasi casual labourer with a dependent family, paralysed by an unfortunate accident and unable to get a BPL card for months due to absurd bureaucratic hurdles. This while millions of tonnes of foodgrains lay rotting in the godowns of FCI. These serve as stark reminders of the continued precariousness of the everyday existence of India’s underprivileged masses and contextualize the environment in which social policies become so essential in restoring a bare minimum of humanity for our collective conscience.
The critical eye for detail with an overall grasp of reality brings out the nuts and bolts of what worked and what did not work: the problems of identification and class vulnerabilities in targeting of schemes like distribution of foodgrains under the PDS, of corruption and middlemen, of abysmal infrastructure and unhygienic conditions in public schools and the occasional incidents of food poisoning and continued caste discrimination in the context of mid-day meal schemes, of politically motivated resistance to effective simple measures like addition of eggs to the meals; the contradictions in ‘creating accountability’ under NREGA with routine violation of state obligations like providing work on demand and timely payment. NREGA here is pithily summarized as a ‘pro-worker law implemented by an anti-worker system’ (p. 143).
Equally significant is the rare chronicling of gradual changes and improvements over time from repeated field visits and empirical evidence: from the quiet progress and growing accomplishments of the mid-day meals as one of ‘India’ s most effective social programmes’ with their positive impact on school attendance, child nutrition, pupil achievements and even in countering caste discrimination to some extent, to some distinct improvements and systemic turnarounds in public delivery of basic services with moves like universalization and expansion of PDS in initially laggard States such as Chhattisgarh, Odisha and Madhya Pradesh. The positive changes in school participation, infrastructural development and the effective provision of school incentives (from mid-day meals to free bicycles); the role of NREGA in providing a wide range of benefits from supplementing livelihood security to creation of useful infrastructure (here he effectively takes issue with critics); the efficacy of measures such as direct payment transfers through bank and post office accounts, of NGO awareness campaigns and social audits in policy implementation and fight against corruption, are highlighted.
The differences amongst States on these social development indicators are also touched upon, with consistent high achievers like Kerala and Tamil Nadu, the less than average performance of Gujarat and the continued laggardness of BIMARU States despite some improvements and achievements overtime. And so are the huge tasks that remain—improving transparency and accountability and participation across the board, improving the quality of school education and classroom learning, of the continued deep flaws in India’s health care system despite some improvements under specific initiatives such as NRHM (National Rural Health Mission) and JSY (Janani Suraksha Yojana).
The sections on corporate power and technocracy, war and peace and top up bring out the other side of this system speaking about the corridors of power and privilege: of the nexus between the state and corporate power and the disproportionate influence of technocracy in determining public policy; and the convergence of these interests in strengthening surveillance powers of the state behind the relentless drive for projects like Aadhar; of war-mongering by the state against its own citizens; of the ‘bullet train syndrome’, drawing ‘attention to a pervasive feature of public policy in India; the tendency to create separate public facilities for the privileged and the rest, and, quite often, to give priority to the former instead of aiming at decent services for all. This pattern helps to understand India’s education system, its health care institutions, and many other aspects of economic and social policy in India’ (p. 261). The last chapter ends
on a philosophical note, in advocating the case for public spiritedness as a ‘reasoned
habit of consideration for the public interest’ in contrast to the reigning supremacy of ‘rational self interest’ in driving the theoretical discourse of mainstream economic thought.
In these chronicles then comes alive the work, experience and insights of Dreze which weave a narrative of incremental change despite overwhelming odds and enormous challenges which remain. The god of small things lies in connecting the little dots, the hard painstaking unsung labour that goes behind it, and provides ample food for thought to help piece together a way forward amidst the chaos of an infinitely complex political democracy.
The significance of this book at a time when almost two decades of lessons learnt in public policy for tackling endemic hunger, poverty and social inequalities are in real danger of being overtaken by the ‘bullet train syndrome’ cannot be underestimated. More than ever, the ‘jholawala’ today has become a term of abuse and hate mongering in large sections of India’s corporate sponsored media. More than ever, the very idea of ‘public spiritedness’ has been subverted in whetting the public appetite for such abuse amidst rampant media trials and witch hunts of dissenting voices. Here, Dreze’s eloquent appeal for a good society as one where ethical progress is deemed to be as important as improvements in traditional development indicators assumes greater significance than ever before.
Shipra Nigam is a consultant economist who has worked with various national and international organizations on areas of macroeconomics of growth and development, development policy and feminist economics.
The essence of the book then lies in the distilling of almost two decades of work and field experiences from this positionality, combining deep insights with passionate conviction, a broad scholarship and a keen eye for details.