February 22, 2020
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'Our Democratic Process Is Far From Participatory, It Is Elitist'

The internationally renowned development economist offers several disclaimers to the many changes we've been gung-ho about in the last 10 years

'Our Democratic Process Is Far From Participatory, It Is Elitist'
Nilayan Dutta
'Our Democratic Process Is Far From Participatory, It Is Elitist'
Internationally renowned development economist Jean Dreze has studied India minutely for over two decades. An apostle of alternate views on education, poverty, development, the nuclear doctrine, freedom of information and the Narmada struggle, he has also co-authored many publications with Nobel Laureate Prof Amartya Sen, including India: Economic Development and Social Opportunity and The Political Economy of Hunger: Famine Prevention. Recently, he's been a champion of two crucial legislations pertaining to rural employment and reservation for women in legislatures. In this interview, he offers several disclaimers to the many changes we've been gung-ho about in the last 10 years.

There is a view that the last 10 years in India have seen 'change' of the kind not seen before. Is this just a lop-sided, urban middle-class, English-speaking view?
There has certainly been rapid change in India during the last 10 years, but I think that euphoria about this has to be tempered in three ways. First, we have to recognise that rapid change in some fields has gone hand-in-hand with sluggish change in others. For instance, if we look at the country's GDP, or international trade, or urban lifestyles, there is much evidence of fast change. But what about, say, child nutrition, or the unemployment rate, or the infant mortality rate? The decline of infant mortality has been so slow in the last 10 years that Bangladesh, which used to have a much higher infant mortality rate, is now way ahead of us. And there is little indication of any rapid improvement in child nutrition—India still has some of the highest levels of undernutrition in the world.

Secondly, we must distinguish 'change' from 'progress'. Some recent changes are not particularly heartening. For instance, massive environmental degradation is taking place in many forms—decimation of forests, river pollution, urban congestion, among others. This seriously affects the quality of life, in ways that are not always captured in the standard economic statistics, or even social indicators.

Thirdly, we must ask—change for whom? Life has certainly become freer for substantial sections of the population in the last 10 years. But the signs of improvement get fainter and fainter as one moves away from the centres of power and privilege. Among the Sahariyas of western Madhya Pradesh, or the Musahars of Bihar, or the Bhils of southern Rajasthan, life goes on much as before, with all its dreadful hardships.

You travel widely. Which are the regions seeing change? And why are some regions lagging behind?
I think that regions that have done some serious 'homework' in terms of laying the foundations of participatory development have done comparatively well. States with a relatively good infrastructure, high levels of basic education, good health facilities and a functioning administration have tended to achieve substantial progress during the last 10 years. This includes large parts of southern and western India, and also some north Indian states such as Himachal Pradesh. On the other hand, states where these basic facilities are lacking, and where traditional social inequalities continue to have a strong hold, have fallen further behind the rest of the country.

The tragedy is, states which have not done their homework will find it very hard to catch up, because their governments are bankrupt. To illustrate, in Tamil Nadu most villages today have basic facilities like a good access road, electricity, a functioning school, a health centre, an anganwadi, and so on. This greatly facilitates the diversification of the rural economy, which is essential to eradicate poverty, and also enhances the quality of life in other ways. This environment reflects many years of comparatively effective public investment in the social infrastructure. But in Bihar, most villages still lack these basic facilities, because public resources have been squandered year after year. The consequence is economic stagnation and large-scale labour migration. And, it is going to be really hard for Bihar to catch up, because of the crisis of state finances. When the salaries of public sector employees are unpaid for years, it's difficult to persuade the state government to invest in rural schools or health centres. So, the gap between Tamil Nadu and Bihar is likely to continue growing.

We saw caste violence (in Gohana) and labour unrest (in Gurgaon) recently. Is this indicative of the fact that the majority of the population is being left out of the changes that we have been chasing in the last 10 years?
There is a long history of caste violence and police violence in India, and in that sense there is nothing new in these incidents. We really don't need to invoke anything that's happened in the last 10 years to make sense of them. However, some of the current socio-economic changes are probably conducive to greater violence. For instance, there is some evidence that violence and crime are particularly high in societies with high levels of economic inequality. In the last 10 years, economic inequality has increased sharply in India and this may lead over time to a resurgence of violent crime. Similarly, urban unemployment is commonly associated with social unrest and criminal violence. My feeling is that in India, the swelling of educated unemployment among high-caste youths is particularly explosive. Think for instance of the "BA fail" Rajput boy selling eggs at a bus stand. He must be feeling quite frustrated; it's not hard to see how he could be incited to "take this out" on a poor Dalit or Muslim. The ranks of the Bajrang Dal and the like must be full of such people.

India has seen electoral reforms in the last 10 years, the EC has been consistent in its proactive role, the politician whom we thought could never be tamed has become relatively more accountable, but in spite of all this, we have not been able to arrest the growing cynicism and disinterest in our political system. Why?
I'm not aware of these sweeping 'reforms' or of politicians becoming "more accountable". The Women's Reservation Bill is nowhere near being passed; more radical reforms such as a move towards proportional representation aren't even on the agenda. As for accountability, politicians continue to enjoy virtual immunity from legal prosecution even when they've raided public resources in broad daylight.

More importantly, the democratic process remains far from participatory. Most people are not involved, except in the very limited form of being able to vote once every five years. In that sense the political system remains highly elitist, in spite of having the trappings of democracy and egalitarianism. In this situation, the real puzzle is not why people express "cynicism and disinterest" in the political system, but rather why they continue to place their hopes in it. I guess the answer is that they see no alternative.

You have a fellow economist as India's prime minister who promised globalisation with a human face. The Congress talked of the aam aadmi. Do you think his government has got its priorities right in the one year of its existence?
I think there have been important instances of responsiveness to the concerns of ordinary people, such as the passage of the Right to Information Act, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act and the Domestic Violence Act. But these achievements are superimposed on a system that remains fundamentally indifferent if not hostile to the concerns of the aam aadmi, not to speak of the 'aam mahila' or 'aam bachcha'.

Consider, for instance, budget allocations. The Indian government spends less than Rs 5,000 crore a year on the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS), the only major programme for children under six, who represent 15 per cent of the population. This contrasts with more than Rs 80,000 crore for defence expenditure. There is a stunning imbalance here, yet the defence budget continues to increase by leaps and bounds. The ICDS budget also increased this year, at long last, but the basic imbalance remains. The priorities of this government are much the same as of the last: the reason is that the real masters (the corporate sector, international financial institutions, the military establishment and so on) are much the same.

It is often said that India is feared and respected internationally for its IT prowess, but if one deconstructs the euphemism of 'IT prowess' it would just mean our ability to provide cheap labour. Is India's new self-confidence a hollow image?
I am not aware that India is more self-confident. What does national self-confidence mean for someone who is driving a rickshaw or carrying bricks to feed the family? Only a small minority has the luxury of worrying about international perceptions of India.

As far as IT prowess is concerned, I don't think it is hollow. Indian labour is bound to be cheaper, but that does not detract from the value of having been able to train large numbers of people in IT skills. The tragedy is that this genuine achievement in the field of higher education goes hand-in-hand with a dismal record in elementary education. This contrast reflects the elitist nature of India's education system, and beyond that, of the society at large. The answer is not to refrain from further advances in IT, but to combine this with much more emphasis on the universalisation of elementary education.

There is an outrage among the salaried middle class that in order to make the Employment Guarantee Bill work the FM has taxed them heavily. How legitimate is this grouse?
This grouse has no basis. So far, no special financial provisions have been made for the Employment Guarantee Act. Indeed, the Act is yet to come into effect. Further, the Indian middle class can hardly be described as heavily taxed. For one thing, there is massive tax evasion. For another, even those who do pay their taxes get away lightly, compared with their counterparts in many other countries. India's tax-GDP ratio is quite low by international standards, and huge sectors of the economy, such as services, remain virtually untaxed. Income tax rates are also quite moderate.

How assured are you that the Women's Reservation Bill if passed would not be subverted like the panchayat positions for women were appropriated?
I'm not convinced that the reservation of panchayat positions for women has been subverted. True, women who stand for panchayat elections are often "proxies" for a male candidate, usually their husband. But not everywhere. And even where proxy candidates are common, women are rapidly learning to contest elections in their own right. This is not driven by reservation alone, but reservation is a helpful part of it.

Similar comments apply to the reservation of parliamentary seats. In the beginning, it may well be subverted in some places. But in due course I'm sure it will shake the patriarchal foundations of the parliamentary process. The fact that more than 90 per cent of MPs in India are men is an insult to democracy. It is a loss not just for women, but for society as a whole because their participation is bound to enrich parliamentary debates and public policy. Of course, rectifying this gender imbalance is not just a question of reservation. It requires creating conditions that enable women to participate in democratic politics on an equal basis. Insofar as reservation is a step in that direction, I'm for it. In fact, I'd happily support 50 per cent reservation, instead of just one third.

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