Day 77: Jean Dreze and public-spiritedness

Jean Dreze. Photo Credit: Ramachandra Guha, 2018.
Jean Dreze. Photo Credit: Ramchandra Guha, 2018.

09/06/2020

Day 77

The day began slow, with a cup of coffee and music. In this town, industrial sounds are non-existent. The soundtrack is of pure domesticity – a washing machine here and a water pump there. Sounds of cars starting and mixer-grinders in kitchens. In-between all this is plenty of birdcalls. The other day we counted seven different bird species around the house in a few minutes. Sunlight is softening these days which is characteristic of these days of transition of seasons. It is a peaceful setting to sit in and muse over the state of the world without feeling any perceptible threat from what’s going on. The difference in public spirit in a town versus a city is intriguing. Does this behaviour even has anything to do with rural or urban character? I believe it does to the extent that the everyday tussle between people for space and resources is not as high as in a city.

After a webinar on a data initiative from APU (i-card.org) which is tracking select districts on their state of infrastructure and effect of Covid-19 on the people, I returned to Jean Dreze’s book Sense and Sensibility. Sense and Solidarity: Jholawala Economics for Everyone. He was on the webinar sharing his views on the relevance and utility of the data effort. He is one of the few development economists I care to read and listen. His is the kind of writing that I return to for hope, learning and often emulate. The intellectual honesty in his pieces is appealing. In Sense and Solidarity introduction, he writes, 

Among many other gaps in this book, I would have liked to write about what I have learnt from the Adivasi (tribal) world in Jharkhand. Tribal communities tend to be seen as relics of the past, and no doubt their lifestyle will evolve, but I see some of their norms and values (equality, co-operation, freedom, honesty, gusto) as the wave of the future. The last essay in this book, “Development and Public-Spiritedness”, is partly inspired by their example.

When was the last time you heard an economist in this country speak of the Adivasi in this way? He lives in Ranchi and is affiliated to Ranchi University. I guess it was a deliberate choice to pick a place at least a thousand kilometers away from Delhi. Ram Guha describes him as an ascetic, teacher and humanist. I am reminded of Guha’s piece on his visit to Ranchi to meet Dreze where they ride on Dreze’s motorcycle on Ranchi- Hazaibagh highway. I know that highway from my years in Ranchi. To know that Dreze chose to be at Ranchi University and engage with the tribes of the region is an extraordinary example of commitment and service. 

 On the scope for cultivating public-spiritedness in social life, Dreze reasons – 

If public-spiritedness required strong ethical commitments, we might be sceptical of the possibility of it spreading beyond a minority of principled individuals. On the other hand, if it takes the form of sensible habits of thought that can be rationalised (if need be) with light-touch ethical reasoning, public-spiritedness may have much more of a future. This is not a small matter – it could help not only to avoid many day-to-day tragedies (from vandalism to violence) but also to build social institutions that reconcile liberty and equality. Dr Ambedkar put it very well in his stirring speech to the Constituent Assembly on 25 November 1949: “Without equality, liberty would produce the supremacy of the few over the many. Equality without liberty would kill individual initiative. Without fraternity, liberty and equality would not become a natural course of thing.” 

The distinction he draws between public-spiritedness requiring strong ethical commitments as opposed to it taking the form of sensible habits of thought, is a useful framing to continue aspiring for public-spiritedness. 

Even as Covid-19 pandemic continues to rage through the world striking fear and anxiety, there are stories of extraordinary acts by individuals in helping to make things a little less hard on people around them and wanting to help them get through the variety of consequences that the pandemic and the lockdown has had. These instances make one feel hopeful about the future of our society as a collective. Formation of sensible habits of thoughts can take us far in this direction.

2 thoughts on “Day 77: Jean Dreze and public-spiritedness

    1. Damn! Why was I writing sensibility. Thanks for flagging that V. Yes, it is ‘Sense and Solidarity: Jholawala Economics for Everyone’.

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