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The importance of being Jean Dreze

Aditi Phadnis  |  New Delhi 

(D-School in student parlance), that splendidly derelict building that is considered the wellspring of conservative economic thought, has had better teachers than Dr Jean Dreze.
Prof was considered methodical and thorough. Students found Prof fiery and passionate but intellectually exacting. Dr Manmohan Singh taught here, using his learning to rescue India from economic disaster. went on to win a Nobel.
D-School may have produced first-class scholarship, but make no mistake, it doesn't like radicalism and positively abhors the subversive.
Somewhat inarticulately, a student explained that that's why so many students had nervous breakdowns here "" it is an institution that does not encourage experimentation. "We leave that to JNU," she said, oblivious to any note of snobbery.
Jean Dreze, honorary professor of development economics, is everything D-School is not. "I saw this lo-o-o-o-ng white man in a khadi kurta arrive on a bicycle. He disentangled himself, walked into the D-School canteen, sat down and began reading a Hindi newspaper.
It was the opposite of everything I'd expected. I thought to myself: 'Oh man, I'm going to have so much fun in this place'!" said a student about her first impression of D-School "" and Dreze.
So what's a man like Dreze doing in a place like D-School? Actually, Dreze started out as a straightforward, god-fearing, mathematical economist from Belgium "" which is where he was born.
His mother is a former physiotherapist who runs a home for battered women and his father is an econometrician "" so Dreze learnt to respect numbers as well as what they represent for those who use them.
He is the second son in a big family and his youngest brother was adopted from Korea, so he is anxious to clarify that he didn't have an unhappy childhood or any of the other reasons that usually drive people to activism. As a young student he had good teachers who believed not just in offering learning but also encouraged social commitment.
He went to England for a BA in Mathematical Economics, an exercise that left him feeling vaguely discontented despite excellent grades "" because he wanted to put to use what he had learnt, instead of mathematical jugglery on paper.
Dreze was different from others here because he had imagination: he could see that what he was being taught had practical application in creating something new.
And what was this? He didn't really know, but as he observed in his speech at the World Social Forum earlier this year: "It is just as well that another world is possible, because the present one is something of a catastrophe."
So for young Dreze it was a choice that faces many young idealists: he knew what he didn't want but didn't know what he wanted. It was this search that made him want to travel and see the world to decide where he could live and work. He sort of drifted to India.
"My intuition told me that it would be exciting to live in India "" it didn't seem like paradise but didn't seem like a hell-hole either," he said.
He applied to the Indian Statistical Institute where he thought he could study for a year just to find out what India was like. He was told he would have to enrol for a PhD programme and that if he liked he could leave after a year.
His PhD was on cost benefit analysis "" "pure theory", he says. But being in India allowed him to travel and see the country "" not from the Lonely Planet perspective but through the eyes of the very poor.
He tried to understand the way the drought of 1979 and the food for work programme had affected rural society. In the summer of 1980, Dreze did a cycle tour covering that part of India where the drought was most acute "" Jaipur, Ajmer, Kota, Bhopal... Could the cost-benefit analysis be applied to the management of the drought?
The framework was not very satisfying, he said. Dreze found Amartya Sen was addressing some similar questions. It seemed that famine could be prevented through public intervention. He wrote to Sen about his work. That's how their collaboration began.
In 1983, Dreze finished his PhD and pondered over what he would do next. He decided to stay with the discovery of India. It was fortuitous that D-School had done a project in the Palampur village of Moradabad that had begun in 1958 and continued at almost 10-year intervals till 1993.
The project was data-collection on whether development had brought any changes to the village. Dreze stayed in the village to collect data and observed Palanpur's economy and society: employment patterns, power structures, how panchayats work, gender relations, and more.
The data "" which has been compiled in a book edited by Nicholas Stern and Peter Lanjouw "" concluded that over the years, the village had seen a growth in incomes but also continuing social backwardness and decaying public facilities.
Social inequality was responsible for the breakdown of public facilities "" caste, class and gender prevented collective action. As a result, if a school building collapsed, no one would repair it because action was so fragmented.
In 1986, after prolonged correspondence Dreze met Amartya Sen for the first time in India and talked about famine prevention, employment and India's experience. Soon they were collaborating on their first book: Hunger and Public Action. The late 1980s and early 1990s were years that shaped Dreze.
He was living in London because Amartya Sen was teaching at Oxford and they had a book to write.He was teaching at the London School of Economics "" the only time, he says, he's had a full-time, paid job. But he was living at No. 1 Clapham Road "" an abandoned children's hospital that was taken over as a squat by the homeless, of whom Jean Dreze was one.
How did Dreze become interested in homelessness? In December 1988, he says, a small bunch of friends who knew each other mainly through their common involvement in peace action and who might be described as 'practical idealists' started talking to each other about helping the homeless of London to "reclaim" a large empty building.
"Our vision was something like this: we would break into some fairly conspicuous building, throw it open to the homeless and help them organise the squat along the line of a commune.
There would be banners and posters all over the place, free soup, noisy meetings, press visits, music, workshops and an open dialogue with the police and the owners.
We would defy eviction as long as we could "" a few days, perhaps even a few weeks. Then we would all be dispersed again and the homeless would return to the streets. But at least some action would have been taken, some hope created, some friendships struck," he said.
Thus began the Belgrave Homeless Project where any homeless person in London could find a roof, a blanket, something to eat and most importantly, some kind of community. Dreze lived here with fellow squatters for almost three months.
He kept a diary which has been published as a booklet: No.1 Clapham Road, the Diary of a Squat. It is a moving human account of what the three months were like and how, finally, the squat disintegrated. The proximate reason was a fire, but the real reason was power politics among the dispossessed.
Soon after Dreze finished his stint at LSE, it looked as if war was about to break out in the Gulf. He, along with peace activists from Japan, Australia, England, US and India and other countries set up a peace camp on the Iraq-Kuwait border. This symbolic act of non-violent interposition did not prevent the war, but it did give some inspiration to the anti-war movement around the world.
The peace activists also did some valuable data collection on the human consequences of war and economic sactions in Iraq. They found that infant mortality had doubled because of sanctions. The only thing that saved Iraq from almost total starvation was a superbly organised public distribution system.
Dreze returned to India in 1992 and joined D-School in 1993 in an honorary capacity to do research, teaching and field work. The question was where to live. He and his friend Bela Bhatia, herself a researcher and activist who is interested in issues of radical democracy, decided they had to find a place near Delhi University.
You and I would have gone to an estate agent. They went to a jhuggi near Balakram Hospital and asked if there was any place for them. Here they started living in one brick room, and somewhere along the line they got married.
In 2002 Dreze became an Indian citizen, a process that took some time because the Government of Belgium could not understand why he wanted to renounce Belgian citizenship. Dreze continues to supervise students at D-School but like many others living in Delhi, found he needed to get away and has accepted a visiting professorship at the GB Pant Social Science Institute in Allahabad.
Here too, he lives in a slum where his immediate neighbours are rickshawpullers. Isn't he afraid of falling ill? He is in good health and attributes this to the lasting benefits of good nutrition in childhood.
Dreze's politics are simple and dazzling for their clarity. He is a sort of libertarian socialist who believes in individual freedom as well as social responsibility.
Markets, he thinks, have a place in any modern economy but need to be brought under social control. He is not for a minimalist state but opposes the concentration of power and considers modern nation-states as a historical accident.
Dreze doesn't usually do battle or trade-unionism. He tries to change minds and has that stuff that economists are so fascinated with "" data "" to argue his point. It is data that is obtained by blood, sweat and tears.
For him the National Advisory Council (NAC) is just one more forum where the Indian state can be nudged towards doing what it is supposed to "" not on the basis of political slogans but through reasoned argument backed by data.
In the NGO circle in India, there are critics of this approach who believe that the NAC is trying to do the job that is the domain of political parties and politicians.
So an Aruna Roy or a Jean Dreze might begin debate on the Right to Information Act, but in states or regions where there is no Dreze or Roy, the debate will never take off.
A more effective way of doing this would have been laterally, through trying to create consensus "" or competition "" among political parties for radical agendas.
But Dreze and his colleagues argue that they are not appopriating these issues: that the Communist parties or the Congress should be happy and proud to claim ownership of say, the proposed Employment Guarantee Act. This sensitisation is going to take time coming. Dreze, while continuing his activism, is also doing serious academic work on child mortality. He is here, there and everywhere.
BORN In Belgium in 1959, has lived in India since 1979, and became an Indian citizen in 2002.
STUDIED Mathematical Economics at the University of Essex; PhD (Economics) at the Indian Statistical Institute, New Delhi.
WORKED Taught at LSE and DSE, and is now visiting professor at GB Pant Social Science Institute, Allahabad. Has made wide-ranging contributions to development economics and public economics, with special reference to India
WROTE Is co-author (with Amartya Sen) of Hunger and Public Action (OUP, 1989) and India: Development and Participation (OUP, 2002), and also one of the co-authors of the Public Report on Basic Education in India (OUP, 1999).
ACTIVIST Jean Dreze is also an active member of the Right to Food Campaign, the National Campaign for the People's Right to Information, and the worldwide movement for peace and disarmament.

First Published: Sat, December 18 2004. 00:00 IST