Jean Drèze is a Development Economist of Belgian origin (now an Indian citizen) and has co-authored several books with Nobel laureate Amartya Sen. He studied Mathematical Economics at the University of Essex and did his PhD (Economics) at the Indian Statistical Institute, New Delhi. Jean has made wide-ranging contributions to development economics and public economics, with special reference to India. He is currently a visiting Professor at the University of Allahabad. In an exclusive interview with Santosh H K Narayan of HeadlinesIndia, Dreze shares his views on wide ranging issues of agriculture and social development.

India ought to be a country of farmers. But, large number of farmers are committing suicide across the country. What do you think are the reasons-contemporary or traditional?

Jean Drèze: I don’t see why India “ought to be a country of farmers”. It ought to be a country where people have the freedom (economic and social) to choose their occupation, whether it is farming or something else. Having said this, farmers’ suicides are certainly an important issue. In particular, they underline the need for better protection against risk in Indian agriculture. Agriculture is too much of a gamble, and the losers are often at the mercy of ruthless moneylenders who push them to the wall. The National Rural Employment Guarantee Act is a useful initiative from that point of view, among others. Fair, effective and transparent arrangements for rural credit, crop insurance and water management would also be of great help.

Production of foodgrains has increased, still the country is facing hunger deaths, particularly among peasants. Is it only due to population increase or something else is also responsible for this?

Jean Drèze: I don’t think that population growth is the main problem. Hunger deaths reflect circumstances of poverty and deprivation that are entirely avoidable, and have little to do with the size of the population. Perhaps it would be easier to prevent destitution if the population grew more slowly, but this is not an excuse to blame population growth for hunger deaths.

Do you agree with the thought that without improving the agricultural sector widespread impoverishment can not be wiped out? If yes, then how can the farmers be made independent and their occupation be made more profitable?

Jean Drèze: I would agree that reviving the rural economy is essential to avoid impoverishment. But this is not just a matter of improving the agricultural sector. Of course, agriculture is important, and needs greater attention. But, it is quite misleading to reduce the rural economy to agriculture. Diversification of rural economic activity can also be of great help in preventing poverty. This requires constructive public intervention in a range of fields, such as elementary education, land reform, rural infrastructure and scientific research. Preventing impoverishment also requires effective social security arrangements, based for instance on public works, nutrition programmes, pension schemes, and more equitable property rights.

Rural-urban migration has been a cause of concern for long for both the regions. How can it be checked?

Jean Drèze: The best way to check rural-urban migration is to implement the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act in letter and spirit. There is a lot of anecdotal evidence that the Act is already having a substantial impact on distress migration, in areas where it has been actively implemented.

Baird Smith said in a well-known statement that famines in India were rather famines of work than of food. Is it still valid?

Jean Drèze: Yes and no. The statement is obsolete in the sense that famines (at least large-scale famines, of the kind Baird Smith was talking about) have not occurred in India since 1943. On the other hand, there are still regular threats of famine in India, and the observation that the threat comes from a lack of work opportunities, rather than from a shortage of food, remains valid.

You have been continuously assessing various developmental programmes like NREGA, Antyodaya, PMGRY. But, the result is not satisfactory in many states and money is going to the sewage. Isn’t it?

Jean Drèze: I think that this statement is too sweeping. There is certainly much corruption in these programmes. Nevertheless, something reaches the people, and what reaches (food, employment, education, health care) is too important to be withdrawn on the flimsy presumption that it’s all “money down the drain”. Further, recent experience, particularly in the context of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, shows that corruption can be substantially curtailed. This calls for putting in place transparency safeguards, and empowering people to enforce these safeguards as well as to make active use of the Right to Information Act.

The relation between inequality and rebellion is indeed a close one. Do you relate Naxal problems in India with it?

Jean Drèze: The term “Naxal problem” is quite misleading, because the real problem that is to be looked into is, what prompts people to take up arms in a democratic system that is supposed to be responsive to their needs. My feeling, based on limited experience, is that the main cause of discontent is not so much inequality as state repression in these areas. For instance, the endless harassment and humiliation people suffer at the hands of the police, the Forest Department, and so on. Viewed from that angle, responding to the “problem” through further repression is very short-sighted and counter-productive. What is required in these areas is to build a new rapport between state institutions and the people through constructive initiatives. Here again, effective implementation of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act would be of great help.

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