Charaiveti: Journey From India To The Two Cambridges And Berkeley And Beyond, Part 56

by Pranab Bardhan

All of the articles in this series can be found here.

After LSE I have seen Jean Drèze mostly in India, usually in conferences in Delhi and Kolkata, and at Amartya Sen’s home in Santiniketan (where he used to stay whenever the two of them were writing books together). The Kolkata conferences were the annual ones that Amartya-da used to organize for some years, held usually at the Taj Bengal five-star hotel, which Jean would refuse to stay in. While others would take the 2-hour flight from Delhi to Kolkata, Jean would take the 24-hour train in the crowded second-class compartment. Then he’d call me and often stay with me in my Kolkata apartment. If Kalpana was around and it was winter she’d warm the bath water for him and arrange a comfortable raised bed for him; but Jean would refuse even those minor luxuries, and insist on taking cold showers and sleeping on the floor.

During his days at the Delhi School of Economics faculty he’d stay in a nearby jhuggi or slum (with his newly-married activist wife, Bela Bhatia). Soon he became an Indian citizen and started devoting more of his time to social activism and less on teaching. He left Delhi and was first in Allahabad, and now for some years in Ranchi. But much of the time he’d be on the road, walking, biking, and occasionally in crowded trains and buses. Once I remember getting a long email from him describing his walking trip (padayatra) to one of the poorest villages in Kalahandi, Odisha. He had heard of near-starvation conditions there. As he was walking he saw a man carrying a headload of vegetables, going to the marketplace several miles away. He started walking along and talking to him (probably in Hindi, which Jean speaks much better than I do) and found out that the man had not eaten anything for the previous day or so, and was hoping to eat after he sold his vegetables in the market. At one point Jean offered to carry the head load at least part of the way to the market. The man emphatically refused, but Jean kept on nagging. After some time the man yielded, but when Jean tried to take the load on his head, it felt so heavy, Jean wrote to me, that he almost fell on the ground—just to think that this wiry little man was carrying it for miles with no food over the previous day!

It was amazing to see how quickly Jean could switch between his academic and activist roles. From his intensive research in issues of poverty and welfare policies—in the writing of his books with Amartya-da, the latter has often claimed, of course, with charming modesty: “I have a nice arrangement with Jean; he does most of the work and I get most of the credit!”—to his public speaking (Jean is a very cogent, forceful and persuasive speaker), to his writing of frequent newspaper columns on various topical policy problems, he’d move seamlessly to his life as an indefatigable social activist. I used to introduce him to other academics as ‘Jesus Christ with a laptop’; now in Indian academic and activist circles everybody knows him.

For a time he served in the National Advisory Council for Sonia Gandhi; in that capacity he is widely regarded as the architect of two of India’s central welfare policies for the poor in the last two decades, one involving a substantial expansion in the public food distribution system, the world’s largest, and the other involving the world’s largest rural public works program (in the latter policy the co-architect was another social activist member of that Council, Aruna Roy). It is probably correct to say that of all the academic economists in India no one has been as effective as Jean in terms of such singular policy achievements helping hundreds of millions of poor people.

I know how much he had to fight for these policies, particularly for the rural public works program. Once in the early years of this century, I got a frantic email from Jean saying that many of the important policy economists of Delhi were mildly or strongly opposed to the rural works program (they mostly considered it a waste of money). He knew that I was a strong supporter, so he pleaded with me to write immediately an op-ed defending the program in a leading Delhi newspaper to generate some support among the opinion-makers of Delhi. I remember then immediately talking to Abhijit Banerjee at MIT and the two of us quickly drafted a supportive joint op-ed and published it in Delhi. Jean was pleased and claimed that it helped him at an important stage of the debate in the policy circles. Now-a-days many more economists in India, probably a majority, support the program. Even Modi, who when he came to power in Delhi in 2014 called this program a ‘dole’ and a ‘monument’ of failure of the earlier government, has depended on it repeatedly for his subsequent need for the votes of the poor. Even now Jean keeps on fighting for those two welfare programs, as various lapses and distortions take place in their implementation at the ground level.

Over time I have noted in Jean a certain impatience when fellow economists raise objections to his policy ideas. He seems to occasionally consider them as obstacles to his mission to help the poor or a distraction from his single-minded pursuit of that objective. He and I have talked about this, and I have a feeling that sometimes the social activist in him gets the upper hand, and he is too quick to dismiss the academics’ points as minutiae, if not positively hindering his good cause. This is, of course, understandable, as it is tough to always keep the delicate balance in oneself between an activist and an academic.

This brings me to the subject of my own attitude to policy economics. From time to time I have made policy prescriptions (most recently for ways of inducing job opportunities for the underemployed, for wealth and inheritance taxes, and for universal basic income as providing some minimum economic security in India), but I have to admit that I am not always fully comfortable with making pat policy prescriptions, unlike many of my fellow economists for whom the main mission of economists is to come up with appropriate policy solutions to economic problems. I guess I am too much of a political economist and obsessed with understanding the political constraints in the local context of the real world which often make the possibility of an effective implementation of many policies that look immaculate on paper rather remote or they have unintended consequences. The discipline of political economy is as yet in its infancy in understanding the forces and motivations behind formations of political coalitions and different kinds of group bargains that work in different historical contexts to ensure a particular policy to be feasible and successful. (A leftist friend of mine and a star in the Berkeley Electrical Engineering faculty, the late Pravin Varaiya used to tell me that until he got to know me, he like most engineers used to think that many socio-economic problems could be easily ‘fixed’, but talking to me he claimed becoming more aware of the complexities around most such problems).

In India I have personally known some of the best economist-administrators like I.G. Patel, V.K.Ramaswamy, Manmohan Singh, Vijay Kelkar and Montek Ahluwalia in the government, and heads of the central bank like C. Rangarajan, Bimal Jalan, Y. V. Reddy, and Raghuram Rajan, apart from Patel and Singh who also served in the latter capacity. And Manmohan Singh was, of course, the reform-ushering Finance Minister, and later the Prime Minister–honestly, I could have never imagined before that this nicest and gentlest of persons I have known could ever be the Prime Minister for ten years in the rough and tumble of Indian politics. (When he was the Prime Minister, I often avoided his company—the elaborate network of security around him put me off: I remembered once invited to his home for dinner I wanted to take a recent book of mine to present to him, but the security establishment following their rule book disallowed it as a possible terrorist weapon).

I have often wondered about how deftly these economist friends managed to combine their steadfast belief in some policy ideas with the need to navigate every day the muddy currents and cross-currents of the prevailing politics. This is too complicated and treacherous a world for me to even contemplate ever playing an active role. So throughout my professional life whenever someone asked me about participating in the government, I have told them how painfully aware I was of the severe limitations of my capacity outside the academic cocoon. Among the names mentioned above Ramaswamy (we all fondly called him ‘Ramu’) while in government kept on contributing to academic research and publishing in journals, until a freak tragic accident at his home cut short his life at age 41; this happened the first year I arrived in Delhi.  In 1997 I gave the Ramaswamy Memorial Lecture at Delhi School of Economics.

On two different occasions I was asked by people at the World Bank if I’d like to take the job of the Chief Economist (and senior Vice President) at the World Bank. I almost immediately said ‘no’, mainly because of my above-mentioned ambivalence on policy prescriptions (amplified when applied to many different countries I knew little about). Of course, the politics of US Administrations with which the World Bank top leadership was inextricably linked played some role in my mind–even though this job was not directly connected with US policy, I was not comfortable with the possible image of complicity. I was also not sure of my administrative skills, though this job was more on policy persuasion in the international arena and on research administration inside the World Bank, than on the chores and functions of a standard bureaucracy. One advantage the holder of this job had was to be involved in potentially shaping the research direction in development economics, as they had probably the largest development economics research department in the world both in terms of resources and personnel. I took part in this in a small way as I served for some years in the Research Advisory body for the Chief Economist at the World Bank.

I also knew that some of my illustrious friends have worked on this particular job (like Stan Fischer, Michael Bruno, Joe Stiglitz, Nick Stern, François Bourguignon, and later Justin Lin, Kaushik Basu and others). On policy issues in some sense Joe Stigliz’s time on the job was the most interesting and intriguing. In international fora Joe as Chief Economist and senior Vice President often openly criticized the World Bank (and particularly IMF) policy thrusts, much to the dismay of US Treasury. I remember I once went to a conference in Rio de Janeiro with Joe, and in the morning at the breakfast table Joe with a bemused look and a smirk showed me the big headline in the local morning newspaper with his photograph. I told him that I did not read Portuguese. He said someone told him that the headline said something like: “World Bank Chief Economist blasts World Bank economic policy!” Of course, this situation did not last long, and Joe had to leave the job soon.

In the world of development policy economics in recent years experimental methods have become prominent. They have shown in a statistically ‘clean’ way how some policies mainly in the areas of health and education work effectively in particular micro contexts (application of these methods has been rewarded by Nobel Prizes to three of my brilliant friends, Esther Duflo, Abhijit Banerjee and Michael Kramer). But the jury is still out on how generalizable and reliable the micro results are; and also controlled experiments are difficult or sometimes even impossible to apply to many cases of large one-off real-world decisions that a policy-maker has to take. There is also some risk that the current glamor of experimental methods may be diverting attention from some of the big questions of development economics that remain unresolved. It is also the case that in its search for theoretical and empirical rigor the profession undervalues the need for in-depth country or regional studies of political and economic processes, which sometimes provide deeper insights into the origin and persistence of poverty than those gleaned from either cross-country standardized data or the micro experiments. But there is no doubt that new doors have been opened in policy economics, and vigorous attempts are being made in improving those experimental methods, particularly in the areas of ‘scaling up’ and extending the domain of interest to more politically sensitive areas (like governance).

One of the first experiments in the political economy of governance, my area of special interest, was carried out by Leonard Wantchekon. I have known Leonard for many years. He grew up in a small village in the West African country of Benin. He was a leftist student activist fighting for democracy in his country and was expelled from the University of Benin and later jailed for many months. He told me how he finally escaped from prison in 1986, fled to Nigeria, then to Canada, before doing his doctorate at Northwestern University in US. Now a Professor at Princeton, he had contacts with some of the past student activists in Benin who were now important politicians, and with their help he carried out actual experiments in political campaigns to see how voters in Benin reacted to different political-economic messages. Unless you are lucky to have such political connections or know some NGO which will follow your (expensive to carry out) suggestions, it is difficult for others to do many of the experiments.

Not involved in application of such experimental methods, and as a political economist I have all along felt more comfortable in trying to understand what has happened than in prescribing what should be done. Following the title of a debut collection of short stories by the writer Jhumpa Lahiri, I am more like “an interpreter of maladies” than a medicine-prescribing “doctor.” (Lahiri got the idea of her book title when she heard from an acquaintance in Boston that he worked as an interpreter for a doctor who had a number of Russian patients who had difficulty in explaining their ailments in English). Much of my professional life I have been trying to get an understanding of the incidence of economic maladies all around me (poverty, unemployment, inequality and insecurity) more than that of finding quick fixes. I am less helpful in response to Lenin’s famous question in his 1902 pamphlet “What is to be done?”. One year later, in 1903, Bernard Shaw, incidentally an admirer of Lenin, wrote his play Man and Superman where he says, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach”. That probably describes me.