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Public action and a lifeline for rural workers: an interview with Jean Dreze

Jean Dreze is an economist and activist who teaches at Allahabad University's Department of Economics. He has written on famines with Amartya Sen, who won the Nobel Prize for Economics for work on the issue. I met him in India earlier this year and interviewed him over email.

Justin Podur (JP): I think perhaps you are best known for your work with Amartya Sen on famines and hunger. Can you talk a bit about that, how that work came about, and your findings?

Jean Dreze (JD): It all started with my reading Amartya’s book Poverty and Famines in the early 1980s, when I was a PhD student at the Indian Statistical Institute in New Delhi. As it happened, there was a severe drought in India at that time, but no famine, mainly because India had a functional system of drought relief based on large-scale public works. So I wrote to Amartya about this, or perhaps talked to him, and he asked me to write something about famine prevention for a conference he was organising. The editorial introduction to the proceedings of that conference, which Amartya invited me to co-author with him, metamorphosed into our first book, Hunger and Public Action.

The main theme of this book is the importance of public action in development, not just to prevent hunger but also to enhance many other aspects of the quality of life. Health and education, in particular, are absolutely critical for the quality of life and require active promotion through public institutions, as opposed to leaving things to the market. There are good reasons, well understood in mainstream economics, why market arrangements don’t work very well in these fields. And there is also plenty of evidence that constructive public initiatives can be of great help in fighting hunger, disease, illiteracy, poverty, insecurity, injustice, environmental destruction, and other restraints on human freedoms. The market can certainly be quite helpful for the production of toothbrushes and bicycles, but many of the facilities and activities that make life worthwhile depend a great deal on public action of one sort or another.

After that most of our work focused on India. There are many dramatic failures of public action in India, for which the country has paid a heavy price. This applies, for instance, in the field of child health. Whether we look at child immunization, sanitation facilities, access to contraception, or breastfeeding practices, the picture is very grim, particularly for marginalised groups. That’s one reason why India now has higher child mortality rates than Bangladesh or Nepal, in spite of Bangladesh and Nepal having barely one half and one third of India’s per-capita income, respectively. There are similar failures in the field of elementary education.

The big question is why people’s basic needs, demands and rights are so neglected in a country that has lively democratic institutions as well as vibrant social movements. I think that the answer is reasonably well understood by people who are at the receiving end of the structures of power, like rickshaw pullers and agricultural labourers. They know that the system is not for them, and that the need to seek votes from time to time doesn’t prevent the ruling classes from running the show. But for an academic audience, this needs to be spelt out. So we dabbled in these matters as well.

JP: I have heard you referred to as the "architect" of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. Can you introduce NREGA and talk about your role in it?

JD: The term ‘architect’ is very misleading. Far from having a single architect, NREGA emerged from a long process involving many actors at different stages - activists, bureaucrats, politicians, lawyers, among others. This is not the best way to draft a law, but NREGA did benefit from wide-ranging contributions. Just to give one example, the act has special provisions for persons with disabilities, thanks to the involvement of disability activists in the drafting process. My own role was mainly to indulge in the initial act of plagiarism that converted Maharashtra’s Employment Guarantee Act, which goes back to the early 1970s, into some sort of draft of a national act.

Under the national act, any adult who is willing to do casual manual labour on local public works is entitled to being employed within 15 days, subject to a limit of 100 days per household per year. There are other entitlements too, such as minimum wages, payment within 15 days, basic worksite facilities, and an unemployment allowance in the event where work is not provided. In practice, workers still have to fight for these entitlements at every step. One reason for this is that the act’s grievance redressal provisions, which are very weak in the first place, have been quietly ignored by the government. For instance, the unemployment allowance is rarely paid, unless there is an organised demand for it. Similarly, if wages are not paid on time, workers are supposed to be compensated, but there have been very few instances of actual compensation so far. Basically, the government is not interested in making itself accountable to the people, which is hardly surprising. Nevertheless, the act gives rural workers a valuable foothold to fight for their rights.

JP: Journalist P Sainath, who knows the countryside well, has credited NREGA with being a lifeline for millions of people, while critics seem to dismiss it as just another opportunity for corruption. Meanwhile in the countryside some NREGA activists face physical dangers - I wanted to acknowledge Niyamat Ansari, NREGA activist who was killed in 2011, here. You know more about NREGA than most, and monitor it. What is your own assessment of NREGA’s strengths and weaknesses?

JD: The term ‘lifeline’ is appropriate, at least in areas where NREGA has been activated on a significant scale. In fact, in these areas NREGA is more than a lifeline. It has also been a springboard for many other positive changes. Women who had never earned their own income got a chance to earn the minimum wage at their doorstep. People used to distress migration during the lean season were able to stay at home with their families. Workers who had never heard of minimum wages learnt about their rights for the first time. Farmers were able to dig wells, level their land, or help regenerate the village commons. Gram Sabhas (village assemblies) came to life in places where they were rarely seen earlier. In these and other ways NREGA quietly breathed new life in the rural economy and society.

None of this, however, happens automatically. The implementation of NREGA is a constant battle against vested interests bent on obstructing or misusing the programme. The fight against corruption is only one aspect of this. There is also a lot of foot-dragging on the part of responsible officials, as well as active opposition from various quarters, including the corporate sector, private contractors, large farmers, and employers generally. Poor people in India tend to be treated very shabbily, and that applies to NREGA workers in particular. The fundamental problem with NREGA is that it is a pro-worker law implemented by an anti-worker system.

When NREGA was drafted, there were high hopes that it would lead to the formation of many workers’ organisations and trade unions, helping rural workers to counter these vested interests and secure their rights. This has happened in specific areas, but on a very limited scale so far. As a result, NREGA is only achieving a fraction of what it could accomplish. But even that means a lot to poor people, and remains a ray of hope for the future.

JP: I have heard one specific criticism of it, that in places where it actually works well, it makes it very difficult for small farmers to hire workers when they need them because they're all working on government NREGA projects. Could this be addressed through some kind of top-up scheme? Where you can work on the NREGA scheme, but if you work for the small farmer, NREGA will “top up” your earnings?

JD: Most small farmers actually have a strong stake in NREGA. This is partly because they often participate in the programme as NREGA workers, and partly because many NREGA works enhance agricultural productivity. For instance, in Jharkhand, where most rural households are small farmers and part-time labourers, about 80,000 wells have been constructed under NREGA. Many of these wells are really beautiful, and what is even more heartening is to see all sorts of vegetables being grown around them, where there was only rice earlier.

Those who complain of higher wages are mainly large farmers. But the rate of growth of real wages in rural India is actually very moderate. It went up from close to zero during the five years that preceded the launch of NREGA to something like four per cent per year after that. This mild acceleration in the growth of real wages is one the main achievements of the programme. It would be really odd to pine for the days when wages were stagnating!

Having said this, Indian farmers have certainly been left behind in the process of economic growth, and NREGA is not an adequate answer to their problems. I am a little sceptical of the idea of subsidizing agricultural employment, mainly for practical reasons. But there are many other ways of helping them, for instance in terms of rural infrastructure, power supply, credit facilities, crop insurance, marketing arrangements, and so on. If NREGA is part of a larger effort to revive the rural economy, farmers have everything to gain from it.

JP: Next year is an election year. What do you think the future of NREGA is?

Right now, NREGA is going through a phase of severe decline, after a long period of sustained improvement. The turning point happened around 2009. One explanation is that many political parties lost interest in NREGA after concluding, rightly or wrongly, that the programme had helped the Congress party to win votes. But this is not very convincing, if only because the decline is happening even in Congress-ruled states, including for instance Rajasthan where NREGA was doing so well earlier. More likely, the loss of steam has something to do with the introduction of bank payments of NREGA wages, instead of cash payments. The transition to bank payments was of great help in preventing corruption, but it also led to long delays in wages payments. Under the Act, wages are supposed to be paid within fifteen days of the work being done, but today, workers often remain unpaid for months. This has sapped their interest in the programme, and NREGA cannot succeed unless there is a strong demand for employment.

There is another, more disturbing aspect to this. When wages were paid in cash, there was a good deal of corruption and everyone down the line was getting a share of the gravy. Now that wages are paid directly to workers’ bank accounts, it has become much harder for corrupt functionaries and middlemen to make money from the programme. That has led to a lot of foot-dragging, because many functionaries in India still go by the old motto, ‘no work without inducement’. Delays in wage payments are just one aspect of this larger problem. But some Indian states, like Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, have shown the possibility of overcoming this problem and imparting accountability in the programme. So there is nothing irreversible about the recent setback.

JP: What other activism and work are you involved in?

JD: I have a general interest in economic and social rights, both as a researcher and as an activist. During the last couple of years I have been involved in the campaign for a comprehensive Right to Food Act. A very modest version of this proposal, the National Food Security Act, saw the light of day just a few weeks ago. It covers a range of food-related entitlements such as maternity benefits, supplementary nutrition for children, and subsidized foodgrains under the Public Distribution System. In many ways, this experience is a replay of the employment guarantee act, in a different context. Aside from this, I also dabble from time to time in other issues such as civil liberties and nuclear disarmament.

JP: You have an interesting personal history, in that you were born in the West and have become an Indian citizen. Over the past few decades, millions of people have gone in the other direction (including my parents). Can you talk a bit about this unusual situation?

JD: Many western students actually do come to India for a year or two, as I did in 1979 when I joined the Indian Statistical Institute. I didn’t know how long I would stay, but I did have a hunch that India would be a more interesting place to live and work than Belgium. I quickly felt at home here, and there didn’t seem to be any reason to go further. National borders don’t mean much to me, and if I can make myself useful here, that is good enough.

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