'Legal action has its limits'

By Jean Dreze

Biraj Patnaik in conversation with Jean Dreze

Legal action is an integral part of democratic politics, and the Right to Food Campaign is about supplementing legal action with other forms of public action, says development economist Jean Dreze

Jean Dreze is one of the leading development economists in the world. He has made seminal contributions to the discourse on hunger and public action and has co-authored many books with Nobel laureate Prof Amartya Sen. He is an Honorary Professor at the Delhi School of Economics and the Govind Ballabh Pant Social Sciences Institute. Dreze is an Indian citizen of Belgian origin. He has travelled extensively across India over the past three decades and is associated with many campaigns. He is one of the leading figures in the Right to Information movement and was a member of the support group that initiated the Right to Food Campaign. He is widely acknowledged as an architect of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. He was also a member of the National Advisory Committee of the UPA government.

It is now the fifth year of the Right to Food Campaign. What would you count as the most significant achievements of the campaign?

I am not sure what counts as an “achievement of the campaign”.  On almost every important issue, the campaign has been part of a larger process of democratic practice. For instance, is the Employment Guarantee Act an achievement of the campaign?  Well, the campaign certainly played a major role in putting this issue on the political agenda, as well as in drafting the Act.  But many other actors also played a crucial role: the Left parties, the National Advisory Council, the trade unions, and so on.  There is no point in trying to apportion the credit.  Having said this, I think that major issues on which the campaign made a useful contribution include employment guarantee, mid-day meals, social security, and more recently, the universalisation of nutrition and health services for children under the age of six.

While the right to food has been an important area of work for decades for many trade unions, activists and civil society organisations, the present RTF campaign has its roots in the PUCL petition in the Supreme Court. Do you think that the campaign has now grown beyond the issues that are being raised and debated in the SC and become more rooted in local action?

I think that the campaign has certainly outgrown the court case. Of course, the Supreme Court orders did give the campaign a much-needed tool for action on many issues. For instance, I doubt that mid-day meals would ever have been introduced in primary schools without the intervention of the Court. But there have also been important achievements on issues that go beyond the court case.  The most obvious example is the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. This has been a major focus of the campaign for the last two years, even though it has little to do with the court case.

Many activists believe that the right to food is a political problem that will lend itself to a political solution and that the law may not be enough to secure the right. This can also be derived from your work on famines with Prof Sen, which reasserts the importance of local action in securing rights. Are you satisfied with civil society’s level of engagement outside the legal framework?

Firstly, I think that this contrast between politics and the law is a little misleading.   The legal system is one of the democratic institutions that can be used to assert the right to food, or for that matter other economic and social rights.  There are others – electoral politics, public debate, media advocacy, street action, and more.   So I see legal action as an integral part of democratic politics.  As far as civil society's "level of engagement outside the legal framework" is concerned, I am not sure what the relevant yardstick is.   But I certainly feel that we are making poor use of this country's vast opportunities for effective social action.

Many people argue that the focus on schemes and legal action does not adequately address structural issues of poverty like land reforms and forest rights and underplays caste and gender dynamics, which are the root causes of persistent hunger. How would you react to that?

Legal action does not exclude "structural issues" as you call them.   Land reforms and forest rights, for example, certainly have important legal dimensions.  What is true is that legal action has its limits.   In fact, I am quite disillusioned myself with the legal system.  The Supreme Court of India has become an unaccountable centre of power, which brazenly uses its authority to "legislate at random in all directions", as Kropotkin described the lawyers of his time.   But while it is important to be aware of the limits of legal action, shunning it altogether would be a mistake.  What is important is to supplement legal action with other forms of public action.   That is what the campaign is all about.

The Right to Food Campaign, especially for grassroots activism, has extensively used the Right to Information Act. You have been actively involved in the protests against the proposed dilution of the RTI through the amendments on file notings. Do you think that the issue has been satisfactorily resolved?

This issue is anything but resolved, since the proposed amendments have not been withdrawn.  Their introduction in parliament has merely been postponed.  Incidentally, the amendments are not just about file notings.  What is at issue is a series of dilutions of the Act, which threaten to undermine the Right to Information altogether.

You have made significant contributions to a number of national campaigns. But the interface between various campaigns and groups is decreasing. Has the RTF campaign been able to create a more inclusive platform? How can the campaign draw in more networks and groups?

I have not noticed any decreasing interface.  In this kind of broad-based, informal movement, the patterns of association between different groups are bound to change over time. Perhaps some of these bonds are weakening, but I am sure that others are getting stronger.  For instance, strong links are emerging between organisations working on the right to information and the right to work, and similarly between activists concerned with the right to food and the right to work.  As for creating inclusive platforms that work, I think that this is the holy grail of social action in India, or for that matter anywhere.  The search continues.

One of your strengths has been your ability to mobilise young people to volunteer for campaigns you have been associated with. Would you agree with the perception that there is a decline in the number of young people willing to participate in political action, especially on an issue like the right to food which affects some of the poorest sections of Indian society?

I don’t know if such a decline is taking place. But if it is, the main reason is that we fail to present young people with opportunities to participate in effective forms of political action on these issues.  In my experience, there is a vast reservoir of latent energy, imagination and commitment among young people, waiting to be tapped.  For instance, you would be surprised to see how many students are willing to take part in field surveys during the summer months, without remuneration, even in very difficult conditions – just to make a difference. This experience often has a lasting influence on their values and priorities.  But how often do they get a chance to do something like this?

InfoChange News & Features, October 2006