Interviews |

Prof Jean Dreze I Integration, Equity and Universal Quality Education

G’nY. What in your view entails inclusion? Do you think India’s policies internalise inclusion?
Inclusion sounds to me like an elementary aspect of social equity. To illustrate, if some children are excluded from the schooling system, including them in it is certainly a good thing to do. The question remains whether they are well integrated in the system and whether they are included on equal terms. Eventually, I would prefer to think in terms of integration, or even better, of equity, rather than just in terms of inclusion.
A well integrated society has been aptly described as a society where everyone is a potential friend. India can perhaps be seen as an inclusive society, in the sense that there is a place in it for everyone and that different communities have found an accommodation with each other, at least when they are not incited by fanatic elements. But it does not look to me like a well integrated society, because friendship and love across social boundaries are relatively limited. Belgium, where I was born, is even worse of course, with Flemish and Walloons living in their own worlds, not to speak of citizens and immigrants. But since India is often thought of as a model of social inclusion, the myth is worth questioning.
Coming to India’s public policies, the idea that they internalise inclusion sounds very rosy. I don’t think we can say that public policies in India are generally inclusive or exclusionary. In a democracy, public policies come in all shapes and colours. Some reflect the power of privileged interests, others also involve some accommodation of people’s demands and aspirations. The privileged classes in India have managed to get a pretty good deal from the state, whether it is in the form of low taxes, ample subsidies or elite educational institutions. On the other hand, there are also progressive policies and legislations, concerned for instance with civil liberties, the right to information, minimum wages, gender equality and social security. The Constitution of India itself is quite progressive, certainly by the standards of its times. The main concern, I think, is not the paucity of progressive policies but the nature of the system that is expected to implement them. This system is shot through with biases against underprivileged people. To illustrate, the Scheduled Castes or Scheduled Tribes Atrocities Act is supposed to give Dalits and Adivasis robust protection against discrimination, but in practice, it has achieved very little because the police, administrative and legal systems are all biased against them.

G’nY. Can we bank only on policies to make India inclusive?
Public policy is one tool that must certainly be used for this purpose. For instance, India still has a long way to go in building the foundations of a social security system. That is a matter of public policy and an essential requirement of inclusion. But there are also other means of action than public policy, such as legal action. To illustrate, the recent Supreme Court judgement on Section 377 helped to end a long history of exclusion of people with a different sexual orientation. Changes in social norms and public attitudes are also important. Ending the caste system, for instance, cannot be done through public policy or legal action alone. It also requires cultivating egalitarian values. The same applies to gender inequality.

G’nY. You have often been heard saying that India’s growth is lopsided. In what context is it lopsided?
During the last 25 years or so, India’s per capita GDP has grown at about 5 per cent per year in real terms. Had this been fairly shared, the average person’s purchasing power would be more than three times as high today as it was in the early 1990s. That would have made a big difference to poor people. In reality, their incomes and wages are rising very slowly, even as the incomes of the super-rich are growing by leaps and bounds.
Even the expansion of public services, in some respects at least, has benefitted the privileged more than the rest. Privileged railway travellers, for instance, enjoy a range of new services such as Internet connectivity, sms alerts, tatkal bookings, customised meals and high-speed trains. Ordinary travellers, on the other hand, are more or less where they were, except that unreserved compartments are even more overcrowded than they used to be. This may seem like a trivial illustration, but it is symptomatic of the tendency to ignore poor people in public policy, unless they find a way of effectively voicing their demands. It is also an example of how India is in danger of creating a two-track society, with a world-class environment for the privileged and ramshackle facilities for the rest.

G’nY. You have been strongly advocating the need to uplift people’s living conditions and quality of life. Do you think there are adequate parameters in our growth measurement to determine the quality of life? What inclusions do you think it would necessitate in terms of data and analysis?
I don’t think that this is a question of growth measurement. Economic growth and development are distinct issues. Economic growth is about the rate of increase of GDP, per-capita income and related indicators. Development is about the progress of people’s living conditions and the quality of life. Any sensible person would agree that these are two different things, yet they are routinely conflated in official lingo and public discourse.
As far as measurement is concerned, the range and reliability of social statistics have significantly improved around the world in recent decades. They shed considerable light on many aspects of the quality of life. India, unfortunately, has become a lame duck in this field. For instance, the last two National Family Health Surveys took place at an interval of ten years, compared with just a few years in most of our South Asian neighbours. Similarly, data on real wages are very useful and easy to collect, but they receive little attention in India’s statistical system. Indeed, there are growing indications that the Indian government is not averse to hiding, delaying or massaging inconvenient statistics.

G’nY. Rural women’s work participation rate declined from 28.7 per cent in 2001 to 24.8 per cent in 2011, according to the Census of India—making it even more dismal that it was. However, you have said in many places that women’s work participation has increased. Is this specific to MNREGA?
Yes. I have commented, in different places, on both issues. Women’s workforce participation rate in rural India is indeed among the lowest in the world. Of course, most women actually do a lot of work, but most of it is unpaid family labour, largely unrecognised in official workforce statistics. Correspondingly, women’s share of total employment in India is around 30 per cent, again one of the lowest in the world. Women’s share of MNREGA employment is much higher and has also risen a little over time, from just below 50 per cent in the early days of the programme to more than 50 per cent today. Thus, MNREGA helps to address the issue of low female workforce participation in India, by providing millions of rural women with employment opportunities at their doorsteps. However, this makes little difference to national workforce statistics, because MNREGA employment is a very small proportion of total employment.

G’nY. What is the one thing that social inclusion should achieve as topmost priority?
It seems to me that the most important thing to do for social inclusion and equity in India is to ensure universal quality education. Much progress has been made in raising school participation rates, but the quality of schooling remains abysmal, especially for deprived children. There are plenty of things to do to improve the quality of school education in India, as recent initiatives of the Delhi government illustrate. Yet, there has been no national initiative of any significance in this field during the last five years. The abysmal state of the schooling system is an abominable injustice and puts underprivileged children at risk of lifetime social exclusion.

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