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'Aadhaar is helpful at times, so is torture'

Last updated on: March 22, 2018 16:55 IST

'The issue is not UIDAI's surveillance powers, but the government's.'
'Aadhaar enables the government to access and link wide-ranging databases that hold a wealth of personal information.'
'Contrary to official claims, the Aadhaar Act offers virtually no protection against possible misuse of that information.'


Photograph: Reuters

After chasing Jean Dreze for two months, Rediff.com's Syed Firdaus Ashraf finally secured responses from the economist who played a central role in conceiving the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme and was also instrumental in the struggle for Right to Information and the National Food Security Act.

"Mass surveillance is unacceptable in a democratic society," says Dreze -- who has just published his latest book Sense and solidarity: Jholawala Economics for Everyone -- in an e-mail interview.

 

When one reads your book, one comes to perceive that three things unite India very well: Corruption, corruption and corruption. There is corruption at every level.
All governments want to do good for the people, but their efforts fail due to massive corruption.
There is corruption in MNREGA, banks, post offices, gram panchayats, block development offices and every other place.
Faced with such a scenario, how will India grow as a country?

This is an odd reading of the book. The book does talk about corruption in many different contexts, but it is also about the battle against corruption.

That is not a losing battle at all.

It is true that big-ticket corruption, including corporate scams, has probably grown in recent years. But I doubt that this is true of everyday corruption.

Corruption is a form of exploitation, and over time, people learn to defend themselves against it, with a little help from the spread of education, improved communication facilities, the Right to Information Act, and other means.

Dealing with big-ticket corruption is perhaps a harder battle, but there is no reason for it to be a lost cause either.

For instance, rich people could be required by law to disclose their wealth, not just their income.

That would make it much easier to go after the crooks, and to convict them when they are caught.

Similarly, high standards of financial transparency could be imposed on political parties. That, too, would help a lot, since electoral funding is a fountain of corruption.

All these measures, of course, require political courage, and that is where the real battle lies.

Don't you feel helpless when you see such a state of affairs, knowing that you cannot do anything to change it?

There are plenty of things to feel happy about in the world, and also plenty of things to be depressed about.

Whether you feel happy or depressed is largely a matter of temperament.

In terms of getting things done, it's probably best not to drift too far either way, if possible, and to stay focused.

What does help is hope, and I think that there are good reasons to be hopeful, without taking anything for granted.

All said and done, the world is a better place today, in many ways, than it was a hundred or even fifty years ago.

Looking to the future, it is reasonable to hope that life will continue to improve, without ignoring the fact that it could also end soon, through climate change or nuclear war or some other catastrophe.

Doesn't it prick the conscience of bureaucrats when they steal food meant for the poor from the public distribution system and sell it in the open market?

The main culprits are not bureaucrats, but private dealers who manage the ration shops. However, it is true that they often act in connivance with bureaucrats and political leaders.

I have no idea whether their conscience pricks, as you put it, but in any case, I don't see that as something we should count on to remove corruption, at least not in the short term.

In the long term, of course, we can try to alter personal attitudes and social norms.

Every profession has its work ethic, and if those exclude acts of corruption, nothing like it. However, we should not passively wait for the work ethic to change.

In the short term, much can be done to prevent corruption in other ways, for instance by putting in place transparency safeguards and grievance redressal facilities. That, for now, is the way to go.

Rural people tell you, 'Hamari baat koi nahi manega... hum log lathi chalane wale nahi hai (No one will listen to us... we aren't the sort that wield lathis)'.
Why do India's poor not revolt despite so much poverty? How do they tolerate the kind of injustice they face every day?

India has one of the most oppressive social systems in the world, revolting against it is very difficult for the victims.

They are conditioned to stay in their place, and they know that if they step out of line, the worst may happen.

The oppressors are experts at undermining their struggles. All you need to do is to identify the leaders and harass them, for instance by slapping false cases on them.

We have seen this at close range wherever MNREGA workers have tried to organise.

Another difficulty, unique to India, is the caste system, which divides the working class.

As (Dr B R) Ambedkar aptly said, the caste system is not a division of labour, it is a division of labourers.

In spite of all this, there have been revolts from time to time, not only violent ones like the Naxalbari movement, but also non-violent rebellions like the mass conversion of Dalits to Buddhism under (Dr) Ambedkar's leadership.

So, resistance is not impossible, but it is very difficult in India's circumstances.

You mention in your book that Aadhaar could become a tool of mass surveillance and that total surveillance is the dream of intelligence agencies.
Don't you feel Aaadhar is helpful at times like this when the Ahmedabad blast suspects were arrested in Gaya as they could not produce their Aadhar cards when asked to do so?

I would not deny that Aadhaar is 'helpful at times', as you put it. So is torture. But that does not make torture acceptable.

Similarly, mass surveillance is unacceptable in a democratic society.

To this, the Unique Identification Authority of India responds that the system is designed so that it does not give UIDAI access to personal information beyond what is collected at the time of enrolment.

This is extremely misleading. The issue is not UIDAI's surveillance powers, but the government's.

Those are enormously amplified by Aadhaar, because Aadhaar enables the government to access and link wide-ranging databases that hold a wealth of personal information.

Contrary to official claims, the Aadhaar Act offers virtually no protection against possible misuse of that information.

What, according to you, should be the definition of the Below Poverty Line in Indian cities and villages?
Do you feel the current lower limits of earning -- Rs 32 per day in cities and Rs 26 per day in villages -- are far off the mark as international standards, if I have it right, is $1.90 (Rs 123.89) per day?

I am not particular about the poverty line as long as it is just a statistical benchmark to make poverty comparisons, for instance to find out whether there is more poverty in Bihar than Punjab or today than 10 years ago.

Quite often, answers to these questions are much the same wherever you draw the line, within a reasonable range.

And if they are not, sensitivity analysis can tell us how the answers vary with the poverty line.

It is when the poverty line is used for targeting purposes that the choice matters a lot. Not so long ago, the central government insisted on most social programmes being targeted as Below Poverty Line (BPL) households.

That was a very problematic approach, partly because of the inherent flaws of this method, and partly because the official poverty line was very low, severely restricting the reach of these programmes.

In recent years, however, there has been a move away from BPL targeting, in favour of other approaches such as universal coverage, as with midday meals, and self-targeting, as with the employment guarantee act.

Ideally, the poverty line should not be used at all for targeting purposes.

When the Indian economy was liberalised in 1991, there was growth in Indian cities and a change of lifestyle in the Indian middle class.
Why was rural India left out of this boom?

Firstly, the common perception that India's growth rate shot up around 1991 is incorrect. In fact, economic growth increased in steps in the post-Independence period.

Roughly speaking, there were three phases of acceleration.

The growth rate increased from virtually zero to 3.5 per cent per year in the 1950s, from 3.5 per cent to 5 per cent in the 1980s, and from 5 per cent to 7.5 per cent in the 2000s.

This account is simplified, but it is certainly more accurate than the common myth that the Indian economy took off around 1991.

In fact, the growth rate was much the same in the 1990s as in the 1980s.

Of course, one can argue that the acceleration in the 2000s reflects the delayed impact of liberalisation, but that is quite speculative.

Coming to your question, I am not sure that the main contrast is between urban and rural. The working class in urban areas is not doing much better than its rural counterpart, in terms of improvements in living conditions.

In both cases, standards of living are being held up by the existence of a huge reserve army of low-productivity labour.

That, in turn, is partly due to abysmal levels of nutrition, health and education.

Aside from holding up productivity and wages, these failures also diminish the quality of life in their own right.

The privileged classes are not only better off in the first place, but also better placed to take advantage of the new opportunities offered by a liberalised and globalised economy.

This is not the whole story, but I think it is an important part of it.

Syed Firdaus Ashraf / Rediff.com