Sen & Dreze's uncertain rant

The book resembles the ruminations of two disgruntled senior citizens on all that is wrong with India. Where are Amartya Sen the philosopher and Jean Dreze the activist with a creative agenda for chan

The volume starts with an unarguable statement on the importance of democracy. I liked that. The preface identifies another important aspect of Indian growth - the creation of islands of affluence within a sea of inadequate incomes and consequent rising inequality. Then, a range of desirables is added - social progress, good health status, improved educational outcomes, social justice and so on. The preface ends by thanking the Who's Who of people working on economic development and social progress in India.

The first chapter starts the discussion in a muddled manner that is not characteristic of either Amartya Sen or Jean Dreze's writings. The writers allude to the power sector, media, health outcomes, India-China comparisons and so on and then connect them with the importance of democracy. It would have been more apt if democracy were the main topic of the volume, though the arguments are dated. The chapter is reminiscent of two disgruntled senior citizens ruminating about all that is wrong with India and how things are worsening as time goes by.

Later chapters discuss the problems of slow rate of poverty reduction, low allocation on healthcare, poor appreciation of ecology and environment, the problem of undernourishment, the failure to tap the constructive role of the state or the markets and so on. International comparisons show how, on many indicators, India performs worse than Sub-Saharan Africa, other south Asian countries and other countries in the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) grouping. All this data embellishes the arguments that India is doing worse in terms of human progress indicators than it should.

Chapter Three, thankfully, does identify some islands of successes - Himachal Pradesh, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and, to a lesser extent, Haryana and Punjab (gender biases affect the latter two states negatively). These few pages raise hopes of an interesting discussion in following chapters where the authors could draw from these successes in developing an agenda for India. Sadly, that is not the case. Instead, the authors quickly go into another set of issues that retired old men like to ruminate over - the problem of accountability and resultant corruption. We are informed of how bad things are.

Then a ray of hope emerges in the form of a section titled "Change is Possible". Ah, finally something to read with interest. But no, hopes are dashed again. The authors talk about the same old things we have been talking about for almost a decade now - right to information, the mobile phone, civil action by the youth and need to decentralise power via panchayats, computerisation, and changing the "work culture". I can't help but ask: who wrote this book and for what purpose?

The remaining chapters are more of the same: the importance of education and the need to ensure good delivery via reforms (what kind is not mentioned); the healthcare crisis and the need for greater public delivery (how to regulate and ensure good quality is not discussed); the need to provide social support to the poor through income transfers (how to provide adequate amounts to 300-400 million people month on month without creating inflationary conditions is not discussed) and through better public services (how to motivate is not discussed) and so on. Finally, the volume ends with a chapter titled "The need for impatience". My own impatience overshadows the authors' by the time I reach it.

This book has a few new examples, but there is nothing that anyone reading the editorials of this newspaper would not know. There are no new ideas, just a tired rehash of jaded arguments and recreation of facts and factoids well known to any economics student.

This volume would have been far more useful to India had the philosopher in Sen and the activist in Dreze collaborated to come up with an agenda for change. How can panchayats be empowered to oversee delivery of public services; how can politicians' interests be aligned with social progress; how can accountability be re-instituted when accountability itself has been divided among many different institutions; how can public sector healthcare providers be motivated to perform; what is the play between educational attainment, reservations and quality; and so on. Even if you are left-of-centre, there are many trade-offs that need to be thought through. Instead, all we get is a long-drawn drone on all that is wrong in India.

Overall, this is an avoidable read.

At this point, one can't but comment on the Bhagwati-Sen debate. First, Jagdish Bhagwati and Arvind Panagariya need not have wasted their time commenting on this volume. Second, the point on which Bhagwati and Panagariya are criticising this volume is also only of academic importance at this time. There is a massive governance failure in India about which Sen and Dreze complain but for which they are unable to find answers. Bhagwati's land, labour and international market reform arguments for ensuring growth are, however, tangential to the problem that India faces.

India's problem is one in which its politics has created a governance freeze at the Centre and in the states. In the states, a few chief ministers have consequently centralised power and are steamrolling their way through - both Nitish Kumar and Narendra Modi belong to this same category as do other long-serving chief ministers. They are getting things done, no doubt, but democratic norms and processes are being impacted steadily, albeit imperceptibly.

At the Centre, too, the executive has become non-functional. The imposition of accountability and risk of investigations have not reduced ineptitude, sloth or corruption; rather, it has fostered inaction right from the Prime Minister's Office down to every small official. Sen and Dreze, or Bhagwati and Panagariya, for that matter, are thinking of things that India has left far behind. Neither high growth or functioning markets will be realised nor social progress achieved in this regime of laziness and degeneracy.

The reviewer is Director, Indicus Analytics

Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen
Publisher: Allen Lane
Pages: 448
Price: Rs 699

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First Published: Aug 2 2013 | 9:48 PM IST

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