Early in this collection of essays, you will encounter the story of Kusumatand village in Jharkhand, where a landless community called Bhuiyans made meagre wages working as seasonal labourers in neighbouring Bihar. All they could afford to eat was broken rice with the flowers of the mahua tree, or a wild spinach called chakora.

In the summer of 2002, three people in the village died of starvation. To investigate the deaths, a team of activists travelled to Kusumatand, which lies in Manatu block in Palamau district. Jean Drèze, the Belgian-born economist who became an Indian citizen that year, was one of them. “The mahua season was now coming to an end and many people were eating lumps of chakora,” he wrote, with Bela Bhatia, another team member. “Of twenty-one sample households, twenty said they frequently skipped meals for want of anything to eat.”

Most of the families did not have ration cards to buy subsidised foodgrains under the public distribution system. The village had “no approach road, no school, no electricity, no health facility, nothing”.

This dismal picture – “a humanitarian emergency”, as Drèze rightly called it – was not unique to Jharkhand. It was seen in most of northern and eastern India in the early 2000s, as he vividly and movingly sketches in the essays.

By the end of the decade, however, several states had begun to show improvements. In Manatu block itself, as Drèze records in the notes to the essay on Kusumatand, a survey in 2014 showed the public distribution system was functioning better.

Hard-won victories

Much of this became possible because of the painstaking work done by Right to Food and Right to Information activists. Drèze was actively part of these movements – in fact, as he briefly recounts, a conversation he had with activist Kavita Srivastava and lawyers Colin Gonsalves and Yug Chaudhry in 2001 sparked the public interest litigation in the Supreme Court which came to be known as the Right to Food case.

The case ran for 16 years, becoming a powerful tool for activists to hold governments, both at the Centre and in the states, accountable for the provision of food in schools, anganwadis and ration shops. It also laid the ground for the passage of enabling legislations, including the Right to Information Act and the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act in 2005, and the National Food Security Act in 2013.

This collection of Drèze’s essays, originally published in the opinion pages of news publications between 2000 and 2017, offers a remarkable view of these tumultuous years. Drèze has arranged the essays thematically and chronologically to serve as “a sort of retrospective on the course of social policy in India”. Not just younger readers but even those familiar with the ground covered in the book will find it useful – occasionally startlingly – to be reminded of the distance India has travelled.

In 2001, for instance, many state governments were scuttling schools meals by arguing they could not afford them. Today, school meals are a staple, and the debate has shifted to whether eggs should be included. Even anganwadis, or government crèches, were once precarious, and now have the backing of law.

Halfway through the book, however, Drèze observes: “In a democratic system, progress towards our goals and visions generally proceeds in steps (and not always forward).”

The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government, which passed the progressive laws drafted by activists, quietly whittled them down through administrative fiats. In its second term, looking for technological fixes, it launched the Unique Identification project, called Aadhaar, in the belief that assigning 12-digit identification numbers to the poor would plug leakages in social spending.

Jean Drèze

A reversal

“The idea that social spending in India is too high would be amusing if it were not so harmful,” writes Drèze, pointing out that India spends just 4.4% of its gross domestic product on health and education, compared to 7% in sub-Saharan Africa and 6.3% in the least-developed countries of the world.

Still, in 2014, the Bharatiya Janata Party, fighting elections under the leadership of Narendra Modi, went about claiming that India needed growth, not handouts, to lift people out of poverty and hunger.

After it came to power, the Modi government began to dismantle the gains of the previous decade by starving the rural employment guarantee programme of funds, and transferring the onus to the states to keep other important social programmes running. And just when the public distribution system had begun to record significant gains, it made Aadhaar mandatory for buying subsidised foodgrains, among other social welfare benefits.

Now every time they go to the ration shop to buy foodgrains, India’s poor have to prove their identity by getting their fingerprints scanned on an electronic device. Never mind that the hard manual work they do often wears out their fingerprints. Or that the country has patchy internet connectivity. Sometimes, the problem is even more basic – the poor have not been able to get their Aadhaar numbers linked to their ration cards.

The results are tragic. As I finish reading Drèze’s book, reports come of a 11-year-old child dying of starvation in Simdega, Jharkhand, after her family was denied subsidised foodgrains for six months because their ration card had not been linked to Aadhaar. The alert has been sounded out by the state’s Right to Food campaign, of which Drèze, who now lives in Ranchi, is a member.

Does social activism make research less credible? Do economists have anything to gain from jholawalas? “Objectivity requires intellectual honesty not an abdication of convictions,” Drèze writes in the introduction to the book. “Statistical analysis, important as it is, is often overrated in economics, while other means of learning, including experience are undervalued.”

This is good food for thought for journalists as well.

Sense and Solidarity: Jholawala Economics For Everyone, Jean Drèze, Permanent Black.