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Prof Jean Dreze reaches out to the deprived in India : Striving to banish starvation amid plenty

Wednesday 3 September 2003, by GEETANJALI* Gayatri

Clad in his usual kurta and jeans, Prof Dreze is busy working on his computer in his room at the Delhi School of Economics when this correspondent catches up with him. The switch from the machine to his only passion in life, the campaign, is easy.

Almost immediately, he is on a different wave length, talking of the project close to his heart. “The idea is to make the ?Right to Food’ campaign a mass movement and make hunger a political issue. Despite creating headlines drought after drought, hunger has not generated a debate and the problem is going unaddressed. If it becomes a political priority, there are chances that something will be done. However, at our level we are doing the best we can, roping in orgnaisations and individuals,” he asserts.

Considered an authority on development economics, he is fired by the mission of “research for action”, which has contributed to expanding the scope of the campaign.” There is no fun in research if it does not contribute to addressing problems of society and remains confined to academics. Most surveys conducted and data collected are usual since these lack credibility and objectivity. We try to overcome these problems and present the true picture,” he says.

Back to his monitor, a computer-savvy Prof Dreze clicks on the website of the campaign as he recalls the initial years of struggle when their support group of four members had no identity of its own. Travelling and touring as well as chalking out a strategy to reach out to the people kept their hands full.

“It all began in mid-2001 when the prevalence of “hunger amidst plenty” took a new turn. The country’s stocks reached unprecedented levels while hunger intensified in drought-affected areas and elsewhere. This situation prompted the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), Rajasthan, to approach the Supreme Court with a writ petition on the right to food. The petition demanded that the country’s gigantic food stocks should be used without delay to protect people from hunger and starvation,” he explains.

With a vivid memory of how the campaign took shape, Prof Dreze narrates, “We used to have regular discussions on the case and the arguments we were to present. During one such session, the idea of a campaign to push forward our cause cropped up. Our enthusiasm soared when we first tasted success in the implementation of the cooked mid-day meal in schools following interim orders of the Supreme Court. After that there was no looking back.”

Growing at a steady pace, the campaign has taken up cudgels on behalf of emancipated women, undernourished children and malnourished tribal people, in the states of Rajasthan, Orissa, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh after a rigourous round of surveys.

We are a decentralised network, which builds on local initiative and voluntary cooperation. We have a small support group of Colin Gonsalvez, Harsh Mander, Kavita Srivastava and myself, which plays a basic facilitating role in the larger campaign. In these states we have managed to strengthen our base with the help of organisations and individuals,” explains Prof Dreze.

Participating in the Right to Food campaign in their personal capacity sans any remuneration, the group members, though, have grown from strength to strength, they are still preparing the ground in other states where nourishment and health present a dismal picture.

Surrounded with files, printed matter and books in Hindi and English on the Right to Food, Prof Dreze, himself a fluent speaker of Hindi, digs into a pile of papers to recover a file on the many linkages to the campaign which have widened its scope and gone beyond the petition in court.

Married to an Indian, who shares his zest for working for the under-privileged and is as committed to making the campaign a success, Prof Dreze is accompanied by his wife, Bela, a Fellow at the Centre for Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi, on his journey to the remotest of villages. At home in India, his love for the country was almost instant.

I first came to India as a student in 1979 and knew I would never go back. I did return to the UK briefly, worked with the Gulf Peace team but returned to the place I belonged to. I am dyed in the wool Indian and I felt my bearings were here. Then, Bela came along to complete my circle,” he contends.

Traversing to the interiors of the country together, the couple has no hang-ups about travelling by third class in a train, a bus or a tempo or the place of stay. The only thing that matters is their mission and their people. “All this is tough and involves a lot of back-breaking work but she has always been by my side, supporting me, encouraging me and motivating me. I met her in London during my stint as a lecturer at the London School of Economics and, then again, in Gujarat, where she was working with small farmers. It was after this meeting that we decided to get married,” he remembers fondly.

Talking of his job at the London School of Economics, Prof Dreze turns to another interesting chapter in his life’s book-that of co-authoring three books, “Hunger and Public Action” in 1989, “India: Economic Development and Social Opportunity” in 1995 and “India: Development and Participation” in 2000 and editing a couple of others with Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen.

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