This month, Jharkhand celebrated the 10th year of its formation. The state was formed on 15 November 2000 from the southern part of Bihar. Jivesh Ranjan Singh of the Hindi daily Prabhat Khabar caught up with economist Jean Dreze on the occasion.

Jean Dreze is an economist and is currently an honorary professor, department of economics, University of Allahabad. He is considered one of the main architects of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA). Over the past few years, he has been spending time in Jharkhand to monitor the implementation of the NREGA and conduct research.

Jivesh Singh: Assess the ten years of formation of Jharkhand.

Jean Dreze: The people of Jharkhand fought for a separate state in the hope that it would give them more control over their lives. It was supposed to be a form of liberation. But in fact, the formation of Jharkhand has given greater control to their oppressors. The formation of a separate state has consolidated the hold of corrupt politicians, industrialists and contractors. And even those who were at the forefront of the liberation movement have turned oppressors. This is a common pattern in the history of liberation movements.

JS: What are the main hurdles in path of development of Jharkhand?

JD: The main hurdle is political: the state’s resources are under the control of this criminal nexus, and people have no say. There is no democracy in any meaningful sense of the term. Therefore, people’s basic needs are not a political priority, whether it is education, or health, or nutrition, or protection from harassment and exploitation.

Another consequence of mafia rule is the breakdown of governance. Jharkhand has developed a unique system of governance, which might be called “government by fiction”. That is, what happens on paper has little to do with the ground realities. The administrative machinery doesn’t work, and therefore, government officers take refuge in a pretence of action. For instance, orders are issued in full knowledge of the fact that they are going to be ignored. False reports are sent to the Central Government. Meaningless statistics are published. The implementation of NREGA is a prime example – the official figures and the ground realities are poles apart.

The breakdown of public services is worse in Jharkhand than in most other Indian states. A few weeks ago, I visited the district hospital in Latehar, on a Saturday afternoon. Not a single member of staff was present. The patients had just been parked there, without any medicines, and left to their own devices. What is extraordinary is that people accept this without protesting. This speaks volumes about their disempowerment: it’s not that they don’t feel like protesting, but they know that if they step out of line, they expose themselves to harassment.

JS: Do you think that economic liberalisation can help Jharkhand out of its current predicament?

JD: This idea is based on the belief that market forces in Jharkhand are held up by excessive controls and government interference. But in fact, there are very few controls. Here again, we must separate the fiction from the reality. On paper, yes, there are plenty of controls. But they are largely fictitious. The reality is that there is no regulation worth the name - certainly not regulation of a constructive kind.

In fact, Jharkhand is an interesting example of what happens in an economy where market principles have already been pushed way beyond their legitimate domain – an economy where almost anything can be bought and sold without restriction. It is supposed to be a highly regulated economy, with a large public sector, but in fact this is not the case. Everything has a price – licenses can be bought, degrees can be bought, bureaucrats can be bought, votes can be bought, the police can be bought, NGOs can be bought. There are regulations, of course, but they can be waived, if you are willing to pay. Similarly, the public sector in Jharkhand has already been “privatised”. It is almost entirely run by private contractors and middlemen.

The result is a living hell – environmental destruction, subversion of democracy, rampant exploitation, massive inequality, breakdown of public services, and other ills associated with the private plunder of public resources. To think of “liberalization” as the answer, in this situation, is wishful thinking. On the contrary, what is required is a restoration of the constructive role of the state in the economy.

JS: Is NREGA making an impact in rural Jharkhand?

JD: It has an impact, no doubt, but the question is – does NREGA have the impact it should have? The answer is a resounding “no”.

NREGA has an enormous potential in Jharkhand, almost entirely untapped. In fact, I wonder whether any other state in India has such a wonderful potential for NREGA. Jharkhand has an ideal topography for labour-intensive projects and a vast potential for productive works – ponds, wells, checkdams, rural roads, tree plantation, land leveling, among many others. The people of Jharkhand have excellent technical skills and a strong tradition of collective action, especially in tribal areas. In all these respects, Jharkhand is a paradise for NREGA. And all this can be done with Central Government money! The fact that the Jharkhand Government has done so little to make NREGA work speaks volumes about its contempt for working people.

Here again, there is a basic failure of democracy. If political leaders were accountable to the people, they would try to make NREGA work. But in fact, they are hand in glove with the contractors and middlemen who are siphoned off NREGA funds. So the loot continues.

JS: What are the biggest challenges before NREGA?

JD: The biggest challenge is to ensure that the system is accountable to NREGA workers. The whole idea of NREGA is to give people enforceable entitlements – to make sure that they are able to claim employment as a matter of right, and that those who fail to do their duty under the law are punished. But in fact, this is not happening. All the accountability provisions of NREGA have been ignored: for instance, the provisions for unemployment allowance, for compensation in the event of delays in wage payments, and for penalties on officers who fail to do their duty. It is only in rare cases, where people have organized and made a lot of noise, that some of these accountability provisions have been used.

Aside from this, of course, there are many other challenges: rooting out corruption, ensuring timely payment of wages, improving the quality of works, and so on. But most of these problems are rooted in the lack of accountability of the system. This is the paradox of NREGA: it is a pro-worker law implemented by an anti-worker system.

JS: Does the NREGA, as a source of livelihood, have the potential to address malnutrition, considering the fact that implementation of the Act has been fraught with problems in several states?

JD: The NREGA can certainly help, and it does. In a recent survey of 1,000 NREGA workers conducted in 10 districts of North India, 69 per cent of the respondents felt that the NREGA had “helped them to avoid hunger”. But even if the NREGA functioned really well, which is not the case, it would have a limited impact on the nutrition situation, for many reasons. Some people are unable to participate in NREGA work because of illness, disability, old age, and so on. Those who do participate earn a meagre income at best, even if they work for 100 days in the year. And most importantly, good nutrition is not a matter of income alone. This applies especially to child nutrition, which is the foundation of good nutrition for all. For all these reasons, we cannot rely on NREGA alone to eliminate undernutrition.

JS: The relation between inequality and rebellion is indeed a close one. Do you relate Naxal problems in Jharkhand with it?

JD: I am not convinced that inequality is the main reason for the resurgence of Naxal activity in Jharkhand. There is inequality everywhere in India, and no obvious correlation with Naxal activity. A more plausible reason is the high degree of exploitation and state repression – in this respect Jharkhand is ahead of many other Indian states. When people are constantly exploited by the forest guard, the police officer and even the BDO, and the Naxals offer to protect them, what do you expect them to do?

JS: What do you have to say about regional media reporting of hunger and malnutrition issues?

JD: Media reporting of hunger and malnutrition, at all levels, has a very important role to play in the realization of the right to food. Media support has been of great help in the right to food campaign, whether through high-profile coverage of Supreme Court orders at the national level, or local coverage of starvation deaths, or in many other ways.

However, much more can be done. Small-town journalists tend to be part of the local elite, or at least aspire to be part of it. So they rarely confront the structures of power or side with the underprivileged. Committed journalists can make a big difference.