By Tadit Kundu
Jean Drèze’s new book of essays defends action-oriented research, especially in the field of development economics
Designing government policy to eradicate corruption is not easy. As the “demonetization” exercise demonstrated, such earnest endeavours can have big and unintended consequences and they often might not proceed according to plan. Although not concerning itself with demonetization, a new book by economist Jean Drèze delves into the challenges of making public policy for India. Specifically, it focuses on policy in the field of poverty eradication, rural employment guarantee and overall social development.
Consider the problem of alleged corruption in the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS). In its bid to prevent officials from siphoning off wages meant for MGNREGS workers, the government stated processing payments through banks and post offices. By separating the payment agency from the agency implanting MGNREGS on the ground, the government hoped to reduce the scope for fudging muster rolls and, hence, corruption.
However, as is explained in the book, this had the unintended effect of demotivating many local officials from doing any MGNREGS-related work. Suddenly, massive delays in wage payments cropped up in various places, discouraging workers from participating in scheme-related works. Perhaps, government officials hoped that as workers became discouraged, the MGNREGS scheme would die and their workload would lessen.
These and other challenges in making public policy are discussed in the book, which is a collection of essays on India’s social development. Most of the essays had previously been published as op-eds in The Hindu newspaper. The scope of the book is wide and it covers issues ranging from poverty, drought, hunger and inadequate healthcare to the alleged nefarious influence of corporations on government policy.
True to its title, the book does not require prior knowledge of economics. It is written in an accessible and reader-friendly manner, with minimum use of jargon. The book relies much less on statistics and charts than the author’s earlier book, co-authored with Amartya Sen, India: Development And Participation, which deals with similar topics and is often used as study material in undergraduate economics programmes in India.
Sense And Solidarity is not a standard economics textbook on “development economics”. The book does not try to prove any statistical hypothesis, but narrates India’s experience in battling problems of hunger and poverty since 2000, with an adequate dose of economics. The book may be seen as a bridge between the more standard economics texts and the more lucid narratives of the struggles of marginalized people, such as Arundhati Roy’s Broken Republic, which also deals with topics such as poverty, tribal rights and government policy.
Sense And Solidarity can be useful as a good primer or reference material for some of India’s flagship social security programmes, such as the public distribution system, midday meal scheme and the MGNREGS. The book provides a peek into the lives of the poor and the bureaucracy they deal with, from the vantage point of an economist with years of experience in policymaking. Drèze was a member of the United Progressive Alliance’s National Advisory Council (NAC) and was associated with formulating the national rural employment guarantee law. He is now a visiting professor at the department of economics at Ranchi University.
Drèze defends “action-oriented research” and contends that economic research mixed with activism can complement mainstream research. He argues that it is possible for research to remain objective, i.e. based on facts, while the researcher may remain passionate about social causes. There is a case for making use of both—data and experience on the ground—in the field of “development economics”.
Drèze further argues that economists and activists can learn a lot from each other. Activists can benefit from knowledge of game theory to understand how people and bureaucrats might respond to new rules and regulations. On the other hand, development economists can learn a lot about the struggles of the people from right to information (RTI) activists.
Last, research should not be directed towards the government alone—it should address the public at large. In an understated way, Drèze takes a dig at the customary “policy implication” section of most academic research papers, which try to provide some real-world relevance to the research. The “policy implication” section often exhorts the government to do something by taking cognizance of the findings of the paper. Instead, says Drèze, more sustainable change can be brought about by fostering “public spiritedness” and increased participation of citizens in ensuring that government programmes work for the common good.