Jean Dreze is a Belgian-born Indian development economist and activist. Jean Dreze’s work in India has focused on several developmental issues like hunger, famine, gender inequality, child health and education, and the NREGA. In his new book Sense and Solidarity: Jholawala Economics for Everyone, Dreze has trained his eyes on such developmental issues like drought and hunger; poverty; school meals; healthcare; child development; employment guarantee; food security; corporate power; war and peace, Aadhaar and couple of essays on Kashmir. In this interview, Jean Dreze talks about his new book, Kashmir and its economy; its challenges and promises.
Wande Magazine: Can you briefly talk about your new book Sense and Solidarity: Jholawala Economics for Everyone and would you say the book has something to offer to Kashmiri readers in terms of the subjects and themes that you have written about?
Jean Dreze: The book is about social development in a very broad sense of the term – not just the traditional topics like health and education but also other means of creating a decent society such as resisting the concentration of power in the economy, society and family. I would like to think that it is relevant to Kashmir. Indeed, Kashmir has a rich history of engagement with social development, evident not only in early documents such as Naya Kashmir but also in practical initiatives like bold land reforms. Also, it is important to think about these issues in advance of achieving the political freedoms that the people of Kashmir aspire to. Besides, the book includes two essays on Kashmir, where I share some thoughts on Kashmiri society, the Kashmir conflict and last year’s uprising.
WM: How do you look at Kashmir’s economy? As an economist, what is your assessment of it?
JD: I cannot claim to know much about Kashmir’s economy, but some features do strike me as a visitor from Jharkhand. One is the region’s relative prosperity. Unemployment is certainly a major problem, but living standards look quite high compared with most Indian states. This impression is borne out by survey data, such as the National Sample Survey. This prosperity seems to be rooted partly in traditional factors such as abundant resources, good skills, and private enterprise, but I think that there is more to it. For instance, land reforms have probably made a big contribution to poverty reduction in Kashmir. Other assets include reasonably good public services and a tradition of mutual support and cooperation. All this, of course, is relative.
WM: How do you assess land reforms and their impact on Kashmir’s economy even after more than sixty years of the abolishment of the big landed estates act?
JD: Kashmir’s land reforms have gone largely unnoticed in India but my sense is that they have played a major role in reducing poverty and improving the quality of life in Kashmir. It is not just that most people in rural areas have some land and are able to earn something from it. Beyond that, land reforms have helped to avoid the existence of a huge reserve army of labour, as one finds in most Indian states. This is one reason why wages in Kashmir are relatively high. Further, land reforms must have helped to preserve the relatively egalitarian character of social relations in Kashmir. That makes a lot of things easier, for instance the effective provision of local public services such as schooling, health care, water supply and so on.
WM: You have devoted a chapter on Aadhar in your book and elsewhere as well you have extensively written about it. In a conflict zone like Kashmir, what do you think will be the ramifications of Aadhar, do you think it allows for the state to conduct mass surveillance?
JD: My guess is that Kashmir is already the site of a great deal of state surveillance, using more traditional means such as intelligence agents, phone tapping, police interrogations, monitoring of social media, and so on. But in Kashmir as elsewhere, Aadhaar could be used to vastly expand the powers of mass surveillance. Aadhaar can help the state to collect, collate and analyse vast amounts of personal data, by linking multiple databases and keeping track of everyone from birth onwards. Even if this apparatus of surveillance is not used, which is extremely unlikely in the case of Kashmir, it will further stifle the right to freedom of expression and dissent. When people know that they are watched, or can be watched, they tend to conform.
WM: Would you say poverty, or other social issues in India have a connection with the occupation of Jammu and Kashmir? How would you access the argument that the cost of India’s occupation of Kashmir is not good for the people of India, it’s not helping in the alleviation of the rampant poverty there?
JD: I would certainly agree that India’s military presence in Kashmir is very costly and a drain on the country’s resources. India being a large country relative to Kashmir, the cost is a small fraction of the country’s GDP. Nevertheless, it is a huge waste. We can also think of it as a squander of human resources, as half a million-army personnel waste their time controlling the Kashmiri population. Again, this is just a small proportion of the Indian population, but in absolute terms, it is staggering. Of course, appealing to India’s self-interest in this matter is a very limited argument, but it does reinforce other arguments for an urgent resolution of the conflict.
(A version of this interview was originally published in Greater Kashmir weekly magazine Kashmir Ink. www.kashmirink.in)