The economist Jean Drèze’s book, Sense and Solidarity, published in late 2017, deals with the impact of Aadhaar on social-welfare programmes, such as the National Food Security Act and the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, among other things. Drèze was a member of the United Progressive Alliance government’s advisory council, which designed the NFSA and MGNREGS. He co-authored some of the essays in this book with colleagues and activist friends, including his wife, Bela Bhatia. Drèze spoke to Sagar, a web reporter at The Caravan, about the National Democratic Alliance government’s indifference towards social-welfare programmes, many of which have seen the exclusion of genuine beneficiaries due to the mandatory requirement of an Aadhaar number.
Sagar: You have suggested in the book that in the framing of a public policy, empathy and interaction with the oppressed is as important as statistical evidence. Does the government share that approach to public policy?
Jean Drèze: What I have written is that experience is as important as evidence, and that one useful role of experience is to help us re-examine our values. Our values are often influenced by our interests, or the interests of the class or caste or social group we identify with. For policy-makers, that would usually mean a privileged group. Spending time with underprivileged people can help to see things from their point of view. To illustrate, India’s public distribution system tends to be disparaged as a wasteful freebie in the business media, but poor people often see it as a lifeline. That is not, in itself, a vindication of the public distribution system, but it is certainly a useful insight.
Coming to your question, the government’s approach to public policy seems to me to pay little attention to the lives of the underprivileged. Critical decisions are mostly taken behind closed doors in the Prime Minister’s Office or finance ministry, where the poor are just numbers on a computer screen. Demonetisation is a prime example of the dangers of this approach. To this day, the government claims against all reason that the operation was a success, based, for instance, on statistics related to digital payments and tax compliance. The fact that millions of poor people were pushed to the wall for weeks if not months after demonetisation does not seem to matter at all. In the recent debate that accompanied the first anniversary of demonetisation, one even sensed a kind of Darwinian outlook that celebrates the survival of the fittest.
S: You recount incidents of extreme hunger and starvation during 2001 in villages of Jharkhand, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. What had led to such a situation there, and have the government’s health and food schemes reached those places yet?
JD: These incidents were partly due to chronic poverty, aggravated by widespread drought. But they were also made possible by a virtual absence of any sort of public support for vulnerable households. Instead, the government was busy accumulating huge food stocks at that time, well in excess of official buffer norms. This reduced the effective food supply and heightened food prices, even as people were struggling to survive. Far from helping, public policy contributed to starving the poor.
This has certainly changed to a significant extent, with the creation or expansion of social programmes such as the public distribution system, school meals, social security pensions and the MGNREGS. These programmes do reach far and wide, and there is considerable evidence that they make a difference. Of course, there are plenty of shortcomings and irregularities. But at least some foundations have been laid for a possible social security system.