A Brief Case for the Indian Jhola

This book serves as a timely refresher of current efforts to establish action-based research models that can positively influence public policy

Written by Ashwini Deshpande | Published:October 14, 2017 1:39 am
Sense And Solidarity, Jean Drèze, Permanent Black, book review, indian express book review, indian express news Drèze writes elegantly and passionately, shorn of rhetoric, arguing that we see India from the lens of the marginalised.

Book: Sense And Solidarity – Jholawala Economics for Everyone
Author: Jean Drèze
Publication: Permanent Black
Pages: 354
Price: Rs 795

Beautifully produced, with a catchy and moving introduction, this volume is a collection of Jean Drèze’s op-ed pieces written between 2000-2017. The original pieces are grouped by theme, with a short new introduction to each section. The material in the book would be familiar to most regular newspaper readers; yet, this collection is a pleasure to read. Drèze writes elegantly and passionately, shorn of rhetoric, arguing that we see India from the lens of the marginalised.

Drèze, arguably India’s best known action-oriented researcher, is well-known for his active role in the formulation and/or support of several of contemporary India’s social security schemes — the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), Right to Food or the National Food Security Act, Right to Information and so on. (Incidentally, in the book he disparages the media spotlight on him as the “architect” of NREGA, and suggests that if one has to assign that role to a single individual for what was essentially a massive collective effort, it should be assigned to Nikhil Dey).

For someone who is seen as an unbridled champion of government provision of social security, Drèze is candid about the sorry state of government delivery of social services, of corruption, leakages and all the familiar problems with government schemes. However, his solution is to fix these problems, rather than abandon the schemes altogether. His analysis of why these programmes are plagued with constant trouble is summed up in his pithy analysis of NREGA: “it is a pro-worker law implemented by an anti-worker system”. This would be true of a host of protective policies, including affirmative action, another instance of a social policy, the implementation of which is left to the mercies of those who have a visceral hatred for it, and can’t wait to see it fail.

He takes the attacks on him and his ilk of “jholawalas” — a term used to rubbish the views of those seen as bleeding-heart, sentimental and naive Lefties, who refuse to recognize the hard truths, trade-offs and constraints of policy making — head-on, and raises a set of hard-hitting counter questions. He attacks the clear and deep influence of corporate India on state policy, and what that is doing to the poor, especially the rural poor.

Why is carrying a corporate briefcase innately more respectable than carrying a jhola, he asks metaphorically, as he questions, repeatedly, the ivory tower view of India, both of policy makers as well as of professional economists, which focuses on the privileged, the powerful and the rich. It is worth noting though, that Drèze himself has worked with members of the economics royalty, what with two Nobel laureates as his co-authors. Like all professional establishments, economists too have their share of the good, the bad, and the ugly, and it would have been nice to see an acknowledgement of that nuance.

The articles question the current narrow view of what constitutes valid evidence for policy, and make a strong case for fieldwork-based evidence. Drèze’s arguments about the power of action-oriented research to effect a positive policy transformation raise a larger point. Professionally produced evidence using secondary data, and field-based evidence informed by personal observation need not be seen as dichotomous, as Drèze seems to suggest. His own journey and involvement in the larger cause of the marginalised and the underprivileged reveals what good fieldwork can achieve, provided one looks in the right places and for the right signs. However, ideological blinkers are not the monopoly of ivory towers: there is plenty of dogmatic, or narrow-minded stuff that passes as voices from the ground; equally, there is path-breaking and visionary work done by professional scholars, including economists, who carry neither a corporate briefcase nor a jhola.

It all boils down to ideology. And that brings me to my final question. The evidence about the inter-state variation in the effectiveness of social service delivery, especially the positive turn-around by a state like Chhattisgarh that otherwise supports exploitative policies towards tribals, or the consistently good performance by Tamil Nadu — what does it tell us about the political economy of state intervention? What combination of factors, including political ideology and caste-class background of the ruling elite, ensures that a scheme works in one place and not in another? How does globalisation shape both the evolution of policy (i.e, dictate what is possible), and the realities of implementation? The essays in this book zoom in, and show us very important detail, warts and all, which mainstream media and government propaganda constantly try to hide. To answer the larger political economy questions, however, one would need to zoom out, step back, and join the dots.

The writer is professor of economics, Delhi University.
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