The barefoot economist : Jean Dreze

There are three types of economists:

  • Academics who bury themselves in research reports,

  • activists who campaign hard.

  • And Jean Dreze kind of ...Can you give him type ?
  • Call Jean Dreze at Allahabad's Gobind Ballabh Pant Social Sciences Institute and chances are receptionists will not know who he is. Email the well known economist by his name and you will get the same result. That is because the Belgian-born, naturalised Indian's email user name is "jaandaraaz," the popular mispronunciation of his French name.

    His email is only symbolic of the Indian identity Dreze adopted seven years ago. Since he came to India three decades ago, India's development issues have consumed Dreze in a way that not only has he done academic research on hunger, famine and its failing primary education system but also stepped out of academia in to being an activist and campaigner for these issues.

    Dreze has cycled through several states, staged dharnas and mounted public interest litigations in a role that blurs the boundaries between academia and activism and stops at nothing to push the agenda of development.That Dreze is not your regular economist who buries himself in mountains of paper has been evident many times. Ganga Bhai, a tribal man from Chhattisgarh's heavily forested Surguja district, realised this in their first meeting.

    The two were riding on a motorcycle through slushy, thick forest, having gone to research the area's starvation deaths in 1993. It was dark and raining, and they had lost their way. Eventually their bike skid and they fell. Dreze got up and asked Ganga Bhai to ride the bike himself so it would be easier to maneuver while he ran alongside. Dreze ran for about two kilometres in ankle-deep water before they found shelter in a potter's house.

    Over the last couple of decades, Dreze has crisscrossed between being an academic who drafted the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) and his activist role to ensure these policies work.

    In the process, he has become a one-of-a-kind academic activist to campaign for, write, critique and fix India's welfare policies.

    Dreze, 50, first came to India with his well-known economist father, Jacques Dreze. He had studied mathematical economics at the University of Essex but then moved to India for his Ph.D at the Indian Statistical Institute and with Nicholas Stern, the celebrated British economist known for writing the Stern Report on climate change.

    And since he moved to Delhi, in 1979, Dreze started by living in a slum and fasting to know what the lives of people he wanted to research were like.

    Dreze became known and celebrated at the Delhi School of Economics campus, where he has taught for decades, for his skinny frame, straggly beard, reticent nature and limitless energy to step out of the school and immerse himself in his research and his subjects' lives.

    For instance, in a class on environment and development, Dreze talked about how he had noticed from his research in a village near Uttar Pradesh's Moradabad district that at sowing time, every farmer would wait for other farmers to sow to ensure that they timed their sowing perfectly. In this waiting game, Dreze found, sowing got delayed by two weeks and the soil dried up. Dreze had brought game theory by way of UP's farm problems to his classroom.

    He became known for his research, with Amartya Sen, on hunger and development and later for co-authoring a report on the state of primary education in India's poorest states, which showed that half of all Indians could not read or write and that many schools did not have roofs or toilets.

    By 2000 though, Dreze, who did not speak to Forbes India for this profile because he says he does not believe in singling out individual achievement over team effort, seems to have felt the shortcomings of a purely academic approach.

    "In seminar halls in Delhi, or for that matter in London or Harvard, one hears all kinds of weird ideas that would never pass muster in an Indian village," wrote Dreze in 2002 research paper called On Research and Action.

    This was after he had started working with Akal Sangharsh Samiti, a group of organisations working with drought affected people in Rajasthan.

    "I discovered… that my painstakingly accumulated academic baggage was not always useful as I had expected in this venture," Dreze says, while writing about his work with the Akal Sangharsh Samiti, in that same research paper.

    Even the "insights" of his well-known research on hunger and famine with Amartya Sen were "fairly obvious" to the affected people, Dreze realised.

    And on the National Advisory Council, a body of experts meant to ensure the UPA government's agenda was being met, Dreze the activist seems to have married Dreze the academc.


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