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Dec 25, 2009, 07.49 AM | Source: Forbes India

The economist-activist who strives for a better India

Since he came to India three decades ago, India’s development issues have consumed Jean Dreze.

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The economist-activist who strives for a better India

Since he came to India three decades ago, India’s development issues have consumed Jean Dreze.

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The economist-activist who strives for a better India
There it got subsumed by the assembly elections where Congress-led government lost but the Congress promised it in the national elections instead and with the UPA’s surprise win, in 2005, NREGA became the government’s flagship welfare programme.

But by this year the gaps in implementation were being talked about and Dreze found himself leading a dharna to the Latehar district’s Deputy Commissioner asking for non payment of dues.

He organised a Lok Adalat but when he found it not working, Dreze got off the stage and led the Dharna instead. Not surprisingly, in June, the Jharkhand government paid a compensation of over Rs 5 lakhs for delayed wage payments to around 250 odd workers.

But for a man with boundless energy for his activist and academic careers, Dreze is known to be famously reticent. On most personal questions, such as where his love for India stems from, even his closest associates say “we never really asked.” Dreze, with his deep-set, blue eyes, is known as a patient listener and laser focused researcher. He is always at work and remains shy off it.

But according to Reetika Khera, a former student of Dreze and member of the Right to Food Campaign, Dreze chose India because of the immense scope for development work as well as the democratic and free framework under which the country functions. What is known is that Dreze, who is one of five brothers, has adopted a deeply Indian personality along with his Indian passport and wife.

“He is very Gandhian in his outlook. He generally sleeps in his office or else he is on the field, staying with the villagers,” says Biraj Patnaik, principal advisor to the Supreme Court appointed Commissioners on Right to Food.

For the last few years, Dreze’s large pieces of research have given way to his advocacy on NREGA and the right to food campaign, which stems from his involvement with the Akal Sangharsh Samiti. Dreze is closely involved with a coalition of organisations campaigning for the government to bring legislation to ensure food security. This year after the UPA returned to power, with a promise of giving 25 kilograms of rice to poor families at Rs.2/kg, Dreze, along with others campaigners, wrote a draft of the ambitious Right to Food bill. The 95-page draft, expanded the UPA’s promise along with other provisions that would ensure meals for children, pregnant women, older people among others.

But after an eight-year-long battle to get food security, the organisations tugged in disparate ways and asked for a broader agenda. Eventually, the draft was altered to include several clauses, including one that said that the government should encourage the growing of millets rather than genetically modified foods and that subsidised food should be made available in larger quantities to people above and below the poverty line.

While some campaigners say the right to food movement, which includes some of India’s best-known social organisations, has come as far as it has because of its stomach for internal debate. It is now campaigning for the revised bill although some organizations say the initial draft would be more practical to implement, especially given that the government is now said to be dragging its feet over this.

But Dreze seems to have taken this in his stride and was at a rally pushing for the bill recently. “That is his nature. He is very patient and does not get discouraged easily. If he thinks it is worth fighting for, he can be very persistent,” says Khera. “He understands that it is team effort and does not want anything to harm the campaign.” Dreze, of course, told Forbes India he is “suspicious” of profiles and any kind of personal limelight.

What he seems to love best is hanging out in some part of India where development has taken a bypass. “Unlike officials and politicians, Jean is not a burden on the poor villager he visits. That’s why people welcome him and trust him with their struggles. Neither is he a slave of his own opinion. Instead, he listens to them,” says Ganga Bhai.

That jog of Jean Dreze still continues but here is a small instance that proves that he has made a huge difference. In 2001, Dreze’s father, with whom he first came to India, was over and lectured at the Delhi School of Economics (DSE), where Dreze Junior is an honorary professor. Jacques Dreze is a noted economist for his work on economic decision under uncertainty. His paper on the Dreze Equilibria is considered a major contribution to this field. Naturally then the head of the department of DSE read through all such accomplishments of Dreze Senior and invited him to speak. Dreze started off by saying the HoD had forgotten to mention “his greatest contribution to economics”. It was, of course, only said half in jest.

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