Jean Dreze, a noted economist who was was a member of Sonia Gandhi-led National Advisory Council, was dropped from the list of speakers at the Delhi Economics Conclave organised by the finance ministry and inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Dreze, who was to speak at the conference on government's pet schemes of Jan Dhan-Aadhaar-Mobile (JAM trinity), later put his speech on a news portal in which he spoke of dangers fraught in government's push for high-tech cash transfers as a foundation for social policy.
In an email to the Press Trust of India, the economist said he was informed of his name being dropped from the panel of speakers at the conference two days ago.
"...I am deeply disappointed, and also concerned that the Conclave has turned into a mutual appreciation society with everyone on the same side," Dreze said.
Chief Economic Advisor Arvind Subramanian, who had sent the letter of invitation to him, however, tried to played down the matter by saying that the cancellation was due to "last minute adjustments" in the schedule of the conference and it had nothing to do with his views.
"As soon as we had decided, we informed Jean Dreze about it. Just want to make clear, this has nothing to do with views. Everyone is welcome to attend," he said.
He said Nandan Nilekani, who headed Unique Identification Authority during the UPA regime, "is of course is going to have prominent seat in the programme".
He said they respected Professor Dreze very highly and he is welcome to attend the conclave.
Dreze, however, said he was told he would not even be allowed to attend the Conclave.
"On the train to Delhi (two days ago), I received a call from a functionary from the ministry of finance who explained, with some embarrassment, that I had been dropped from the programme and would not even be allowed to attend. No reason was given," he said.
Dreze was to speak on "Political Economy and States' perspectives and preparedness".
He said since denied an entry to the Conclave, he was sharing is views with the public rather than behind closed doors and went online.
Maintaining that the required infrastructure for JAM (Jan Dhan, Aadhaar, Mobile) is not in place and is unlikely to be ready any time soon, he said "recent experiments with high-tech cash transfers in Jharkhand, Rajasthan, Delhi, Puducherry and elsewhere have been quietly wound up after sobering results."
"Second, the process of putting a new infrastructure in place can be extremely disruptive. So-called 'teething problems' often translate into massive hardships for the underprivileged," Dreze added.
Citing example of the hasty, top-down transition to bank payments of wages under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (a valuable arrangement in principle) is a prime example, he noted that the entire programme is yet to recover from the disruption that accompanied this and subsequent redesigns of the payment system.
Stressing that even with the required infrastructure in place, he said there is no reason to privilege cash transfers as a tool of social policy.
"Social security pensions, scholarships for school children and maternity entitlements are some examples. Incidentally, the Central government is quietly undermining these useful schemes even as it swears by cash transfers," he said.
Referring to international experience with cash transfer such as the Bolsa Familia programme in Brazil, Dreze claimed the international experience provides little support for the idea that social policy should be based on "rolling all subsidies into a single lump-sum cash transfer to households."
Micro-blogging site Twitter was flooded with comments castigating the decision to drop Dreze with one of them linking the decision to "open debate".
"Sonia Gandhi kept pro-BJP @bibekdebroy on RGICS panel for 2 yrs. Intolerant @narendramodi kicks out Jean Dreze after inviting him to meeting," said another tweet.
"Jean Dreze who questions why govt wants cash transfers alone for social policy dropped from Delhi Economic Conclave," read another tweet with hash-tag#jeandreze.
Another person tweeted: "I more than often disagree with Jean Dreze, but dropping him from Delhi Economic Conclave seems odd."