A wonderful book by Jean Dreze, India’s Orwell

November 27, 2017

     By Duncan Green     

Notes from my talk at last week’s launch of Jean Drèze’s new book, Sense and Solidarity.

Has anyone written Jean Drèze’s biography? If not, why not? A fascinating figure, surrounded by myths and legends (did he really sleep rough in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, the square next to LSE, when he was a lecturer there?). He’s a wonderful writer who reminds me of George Orwell, with a distinctly Orwellian anger at poverty and injustice, combined with a commendably sparse prose and forensic eye for detail. But Drèze is Orwell Plus, because he is also an economist and has been an important participant in some of the most interesting social change episodes in recent Indian history. Just to muddle the comparison, Drèze was born in Belgium and Orwell in India (Bihar).

Drèze’s new book Sense and Solidarity brings together his writings on India in the 21st century – years of economic take-off and political and social tumult. His perspective is what he calls ‘jholawala economics’ – a tongue in cheek subversion of the derogatory Hindi word for backpacker activists.

The essays capture an unashamed commitment to ‘Research for Action’, as Drèze and his colleagues have sent hundreds of students (as well as himself) into the villages and households of the subcontinent to conduct research that is often life-changing (for the researchers, and sometimes, for India’s poor). Drèze argues that far from detracting from research, involvement as activists gives researchers new insights, joking ‘there’s nothing like a few days in jail to see the state from a new angle’.

The ‘action’ he seeks is a very Indian combination of public debate, judicial activism, and solidarity with the poor. And he has been at the heart of some spectacular actions, not least the Right to Food campaign, and the creation of the transformatory National Rural Employment Guarantee Act.

The essays are clustered by topic – hunger, poverty, school meals, health care, child development and elementary education, employment guarantee, food security, corporate power, and war and peace. Anyone interested in public/social policy will find rich pickings here. Like Orwell, he is fascinated by details that matter – the debate over whether eggs should be included in school meals, themselves a victory for the Right to Food movement, warrants a whole essay.

His style is steely, but not shrill – the title captures his blend of dispassionate analysis and deep solidarity with the poor. He is charitable and finds hopeful initiatives to celebrate even in something as dire as India’s health system. But when he dislikes something (like the biometric identity system Aadhaar – here’s a critical film of testimonies about Aadhaar, collected by his students), he takes no prisoners. He concentrates on the policies, and so does not go in for the kind of Modi-bashing that commonly features on the Indian left.

However, he does share some other aspects of its world view: In Drèze’s narrative, India is made up of citizens organizing to put pressure on the state, both directly or through the courts. The private sector appears only as pantomime villain, pillaging the state or crushing the poor. Environmental issues warrant barely a mention (a gap he himself acknowledges).

When I raised these points, Drèze stuck to his guns (via skype) ‘I‘m in favour of the private non-profit sector. The profit sector is important, but in the field of social policy, especially in India, the corporate sector has been a bit of a nuisance. It disparages all the social programmes, and my guess is that is because they know that if the government spends more on social policy, it means higher taxes or less money for infrastructure contracts.’

All in all a wonderful book and an indispensable man. Oh, and I checked with the man himself; his reply ‘About sleeping in LIF, yes, it’s true – I feel nostalgic!’

Update: some people have asked how to get copies of the book outside India. Answer is, it’s difficult, but if you are in the UK, OPHI, who hosted the launch, have a few copies at £9. Email them at ophi@qeh.ox.ac.uk or call 01865 271915.