Now if anyone had to write a book with the word jholawala in the title, that would have to be Dreze, because whatever you might think of his views, he is the uber-jholawala, or to paraphrase ustadon ke ustad, the jholawalon ka jholawala. He is the ultimate scholar-activist, with a laptop in his jhola while he travels all across the country. It is not a one-man show though. He has an impressive band of co-authors, including Nobel Laureate economists Amartya Sen and Angus Deaton, as well his wife Bela Bhatia, also a scholar and activist, his long-term research-collaborator Reetika Khera, and many young scholars.
Jean Dreze is a force of nature. (Disclaimer: as fellow Development Economists with a special focus on India, we share cordial professional relations and follow each other's work. However, we have never had any institutional connections, research collaborations, or done any co-authored work.) Born in an affluent and distinguished Belgian family (his father is a very well-known economic theorist, Jacques Dreze), he has lived in India since the late 70s, earning his PhD at the Indian Statistical Institute, Delhi, and becoming an Indian citizen in 2002. In many ways, his trajectory is the opposite of that of many in the field of Development Economics, a field where Indians are a dominant group. Many of them (myself included) were born in India but did their doctoral research abroad and spent a large part of their career there.
Not just that, Dreze is well known for a Spartan lifestyle, eschewing most of the basic comforts that most educated professionals take for granted. I choose the word Spartan carefully - Dreze is a man of peace but he is also a passionate warrior for causes he writes about in this book. More unusually, he is also a happy warrior. I have had my fair share of arguments and disagreements with him on specific issue over the years but I have seldom seen someone who is more agreeable while disagreeing!
The economic policy debates in India are too often stuck in a rather tedious jugalbandi between two dominant narratives on the state of the Indian economy, one centring around growth and reforms, and the other around poverty and inequality. As with any debate, each side ends up caricaturing the other. Any mention of poverty or human development and you will be called a jholawala or a socialist who somehow does not understand the magical power of growth to lift people out of poverty or has a vested interest in keeping the poor in poverty. Any mention of growth or reform, and you are likely to be called a suit-bootwala who either does not care about poverty or believes in trickle-down economics as a cure-all.
Even though Dreze calls himself a jholawala, he steers clear of some of the standard positions taken up by the Left in India, which involve a dismissal of any talk of employment generation through private investment as neo-liberal and an implicit but lingering premise that socialism will cure all the ills of the world (the overwhelming evidence to the contrary from countries that actually went down that path notwithstanding). Refreshingly, Dreze's approach to issues is empirical and case based and free of overarching theoretical pre-conceptions such as "markets work" or "without armed revolution there is no hope". Dreze's position, often articulated in his joint work with Amartya Sen, has always been that growth is indeed necessary for long-term poverty alleviation, but to take advantage of growth opportunities, the poor need access to human capital, especially education and health. Fostering investment in the human capital of children helps achieve both higher growth rates and reduces poverty.
In this elegantly-produced volume, Dreze has put together the op-eds he has written along this broad theme since the early 2000s for newspapers (mainly, The Hindu) and online media. The book is thematically divided into ten sections, with titles such as Drought and Hunger, Poverty, School Meals, Health Care, Employment Guarantee, and Food Security and the Public Distribution System. Each section begins with a very well-written introduction and closes with notes on the background, statistical and bibliographic sources, and occasional updates, which will make the book valuable even for readers familiar with the essays. The essays are lucidly written and despite the obvious passion the author has for the topic, designed to make the reader think and reconsider his or her position, as opposed to relying on an appeal to the emotions.
If I have one criticism, it is this: there isn't enough discussion of policies other than the ones Jean obviously favours (like the Public Distribution System or MGNREGA). The trouble with this is that all policies have costs and benefits which vary depending on the context. In Dreze's essays, I would have preferred to see a slightly more flexible approach. For example, his aversion to anything to do with monetary mechanisms is strong. That is why he has written strongly against Universal Basic Income (UBI). Yes, like any policy, using cash has its problems. For example, cash transfers only make sense if you have ready access to markets, which is not true if you live in remote rural areas in which we have to rely on in-kind transfers. But that does not mean it cannot be a more effective policy than in-kind transfers in a more urban setting.
However, in conversations, Dreze is always open to such discussions. Let me end with a humorous email exchange on a policy debate where we are on opposing sides, the possibility of a UBI scheme in India. In my view, UBI should be tried out on a small scale on an experimental basis, but Dreze argues it is premature to do so, and worries that it may displace existing social sector spending programmes. I wrote to him that given that there is no action on UBI in the budget, isn't his criticism of UBI a bit like flogging an embryo? Pat came his reply: "It's not meant as infanticide - just temporary contraception."
It's the same touch of humour that often shows up in the essays - for example, when talking movingly about his band of dedicated research volunteers who work for almost no pay, he drily adds that some of them may have been attracted by the prospect of sampling local rice beer or being in the same research team as their sweethearts (real and imagined)! It is this combination of passion and humour, of sincerity and argumentativeness, that makes Jean Dreze's book such a compelling read. You may not always agree with the happy warrior, but you have to engage with him. Besides, he is good company!
(Maitreesh Ghatak is Professor of Economics at the London School of Economics, and earlier taught at the University of Chicago. He writes regularly on economic and political issues with a special focus on India.)
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