A Review of Jean Drèze’s Jholawala Economics

sensesolidarityJean Drèze is a familiar name among social science students and researchers. His contributions unarguably have helped improve the state of social programmes in India and have motivated several students to take up social research. In 2013, he co-authored An Uncertain Glory with Amartya Sen on the importance of public programmes in achieving social development.

Sense and Solidarity: Jholawala Economics for Everyone (2017, Permanent Black) is his second sole-authored book after No.1 Clapham Road, the Diary of a Squat (1990, Peaceprint, published under a pseudonym) on homelessness in London. The 2017 book is divided into 10 sections: draught and hunger; poverty; school meals; healthcare; child development; employment guarantee; food security; corporate power; war and peace; and a set of miscellaneous essays (of which only one was unpublished, but this has now been published in The Wire). His 2017 book is a collection of his previously published essays, mostly in The Hindu, with a fresh general introduction and a section-wise commentary, which sets out the context. This review post engages only with this fresh material.

Vision

Drèze’s vision, like most of the current and future readers of the book, is to “create a good society” (p.3). As he writes, this warrants the abolition of caste and patriarchy. Such a vision requires a progress in “ethics and social norms” (p.3). He titles his approach “research for action” (p.4). This reminds me of Marx, who wrote in the Theses on Feuerbach that: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.”

It is indeed commendable that Drèze along with Reetika Khera and others have been able to conduct field surveys with student volunteers. Moreover, he has participated in several village meetings, public hearings, and social audits (p.9).

Drèze’s underscoring of “ethics and social norms” is extremely important today. Many public policy measures try to create policies with appropriate incentives as if they are gods. What we truly lack, to use Adam Smith’s phrase, is good “moral sentiments”—sympathy, compassion, friendship, care, etc. These cannot and shouldn’t be quantified or reduced to monetary terms. Nor can they be incentivised. It is here that ‘experience’ plays a significant role. Looking at theory and quantitative secondary data is insufficient to capture most of social reality. It is precisely this reason that has led to the critique on men writing about patriarchy and Brahmins writing about Dalits. Not only is the lived experience missing in these instances but also can it never be obtained.

Methods

Drèze rightly criticizes the quantitative fetishism found in the community of economists and development studies researchers. And, as if they weren’t enough, the public policy specialists have joined this quantitative bandwagon, or rather the bullet train, as it were. This is not to suggest that we abandon quantitative analysis altogether but rather to use it with great care.

I completely endorse Drèze’s recommendation to study literature as a way to understand a society better. He lists the following authors in his book as people who ought to be studied: Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, Daya Pawar, Laxman Gaikwad, Om Prakash Valmiki, and Shantabai Kamble (p.17). In fact, I strongly think that the economics students would benefit with a compulsory course on ‘Literature for Economists’ alongside ‘Mathematics for Economists’ in the curriculum.

There is not much that Drèze writes on economic theory except his approval of game theory, which is not really a theory but a mathematical method of studying conflict and cooperation. I would go further and argue that there is much to be learnt from the theories of economists such as Smith, Marx, Keynes, Kalecki, and Sraffa. A deep understanding of methods—complexity theory, experiments, field work, game theory, instrumental variables estimation, lived experience, ratio and proportion, regression analysis, textual analysis, etc.—in all their plurality is much needed along with a similar understanding of various theories.

Another important learning from Drèze’s book is the need to engage with publicly available data, reports, and legislations. For instance, some of the legislations/programmes mentioned in this book are the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS), National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), National Rural Health Mission (NRHM), National Food Security Act (NFSA), and Right to Information Act (RTI). As voters, we too should be reasonably aware of their key provisions.

Action

Many students pursue social sciences with the intention of making a change in the society. And currently, there is a palpable sense of disappointment and disillusionment among these students. Perhaps, Drèze’s approach of “research for action” is one solution. At the very least, such research should be recognized and encouraged by academics and the society at large (particularly, parents). Of course, not everyone might have the means or the luck to pursue this course of action. However, this shouldn’t deter anyone from pursuing good research, which can be in the realms of theory, history, methods, action, or some combination of the four.

To me, the central takeaways from Drèze’s book are that as members and analysts of the ‘Indian’ society, we must be sensible in our approach to theory and methods by bringing in pluralism in these two areas. And, more importantly, solidarity warrants collective discussion, engagement, and action, which also aids in the progress of our “ethics and social norms”.

Finally, I felt that the book is expensively priced at Rs. 795 (hardback). One hopes for a paperback edition priced around Rs. 250. Although all but one are previously published essays, Drèze’s introductory chapter and section-wise commentary provides the readers a peek into his valuable philosophy. I end by wishing for the book to be translated into the many regional languages of India.

I acknowledge Abhigna A. S. for her editorial inputs and Aashish Gupta for alerting me to Drèze’s 1990 book.  

English for Economists: Sowvendra’s ‘The Adivasi Will Not Dance’

hansdaEconomists spend time studying mathematics because it enables them to formulate questions in a precise manner and provides solutions to economic problems expressed mathematically. This blog post, the first one in the series, finds socioeconomic issues articulated clearly in the short story ‘The Adivasi Will Not Dance’ by Hansda Sowvendra Sekhar in his 2015 book with the same title. Likewise, subsequent posts in this series – English for Economists – will examine socioeconomic issues in the Indian context as found in novels and short stories (within the genre of Indian Writing in English).

Sowvendra’s story questions the current model of economic development which displaces adivasis from their home-land. The ensuing commentary follows the news about the setting up of a thermal power plant in Godda by a businessman.

The businessman, in fact, needed electricity for the iron and steel plants he was planning to set up in Jharkhand. The plant was to be set up for his own selfish needs; but if he were to be believed, the whole of Jharkhand would receive electricity from his plant. Whole towns would be lit up non-stop, factories would never stop working for lack of power. There would be development and jobs and happiness all over. (pp. 183-4)

The rhetoric of economic development rests on its supposed ability to create well-paying jobs. Displacement is seen as unavoidable within this rhetoric and is therefore compensated for in varying proportions. Of course, hardly is the compensation ever economically just.

All very happy with the progress, the development. The Santhal Pargana would now fly to the moon. The Santhal Pargana would now turn into Dilli and Bombay. The businessman was grinning widely. Patriotic songs in Hindi were playing from the loudspeakers placed at all corners of the field. ‘Bharat mahaan,’ someone was shouting from the stage, trying to rouse the audience, his voice amplified by numerous loudspeakers. What mahaan? I wondered. Which great nation displaces thousands of its people from their homes and livelihoods to produce electricity for cities and factories? And jobs? What jobs? An Adivasi farmer’s job is to farm. Which other job should he be made to do? Become a servant in some billionaire’s factory built on land that used to belong to that very Adivasi just a week earlier? (p. 185)

The above excerpt questions the current notion of development/progress. Who are the ones progressing? Who are the ones regressing? Mainstream economic theory is still obsessed with the fruit of ‘free’ markets – the trickle-down of incomes.

Land displacement happens in the name of economic ‘reforms’ and those who protest are seen as enemies of ‘development’. What is the state of the farmland?

Only a few of us still have farmland; most of it has been acquired by a mining company. It is a rich company. (p. 171)

The struggle to eke a livelihood is visible in the following passage. It is also a passage describing, what may be called, a class struggle (a la Marx).

This coal company and these quarry owners, they earn so much money from our land. They have built big houses for themselves in town; they wear nice clothes; they send their children to good schools in faraway places; when sick, they get themselves treated by the best doctors in Ranchi, Patna, Bhagalpur, Malda, Bardhaman, Kolkata. What do we Santhals get in return? Tatters to wear. Barely enough food. Such diseases that we can’t breathe properly, we cough blood and forever remain bare bones. (p. 172)

Socioeconomically, the current and previous owners of the land are highly unequal. The latter has lost a permanent means of livelihood and a physical asset, a provider of economic security. On the other hand, the former group – the current owners – live prosperously. Santhals are denied access to good education and health. Access to communication is difficult for the protagonist because the “big post office in Pakur [is] more than twenty kilometres away” (p. 180).

We come across two interesting passages on markets and pricing in this story.

Our music, our dance, our songs are sacred to us Santhals. But hunger and poverty has driven us to sell what is sacred to us. (p. 179)

Santhals don’t understand business. We get the coal easy yet we don’t charge much for it; only enough for food, clothes and drink. (p. 175)

Firstly, forcible commodification needs to be resisted. Secondly, the notion of value and prices varies in capitalistic and non-capitalistic societies.

The protagonist of the story asks: “What do we Santhals get? We Santhals can sing and dance, and we are good at our art. Yet, what has our art given us? Displacement, tuberculosis. (p. 178)” Indeed, one wonders what ‘development’ and ‘reforms’ really mean. Owing to poor economic conditions due to ‘development’ and ‘reforms’, many Santhals “have migrated, or migrate seasonally” (p. 178) – a form of distress migration. Economic distress is not an isolated event but has adverse moral and political consequences: “We are losing our Sarna faith, our identities, and our roots. We are becoming people from nowhere” (p. 173).

Sowvendra’s short story is a real story about real people who are economically, socially and politically disadvantaged. The disadvantages have exacerbated because of economic policies undertaken in the name of ‘development’ and ‘reforms’. I think that such ‘stories’ disseminate contemporary socioeconomic issues to a wide audience in a lucid yet poignant manner. Insofar as they do that, they add to the existing vault of socioeconomic data. Moreover, such short stories can be used in schools and universities while teaching economics.