Recently, in the course of a single week, I met two Indians of very different professional and personal backgrounds, yet commited to the same goal—getting all of India’s children into school. Jean Dreze is an economist of Belgian extraction, who has lived in this country for more than two decades. He took his Ph D at the Indian Statistical Institute in New Delhi, and later taught at the Delhi School of Economics. Mohandas Pai is a chartered accountant, originally from the Konkan coast, but who grew up in Bangalore. Here he ran his own consultancy firm before joining Infosys in 1994, where he is now Chief Financial Officer.
Dreze I have known for a long time, but sadly (for me) our conversations have been few and far between. This is chiefly because I am a man of the city, and he of the countryside. He is an outstanding fieldworker, who probably knows the villages of India better than any purely ‘desi’ social scientist. By foot or on bicycle he has toured much of Northern India. He is also a superb analytical economist. His understanding and learning are on display in the books Hunger and Public Action and India: Development and Participation, both written in collaboration with Amartya Sen.
In the last weeks of 2000 Dreze and I were both in Orissa. Except that I was in the state capital, Bhubaneshwar, while he was engaged in a walking tour through the tribal district of Kashipur. And although I go to Delhi often he always seems to be somewhere else. However, late last year I was in Delhi, and Dreze, unusually, was in town. We arranged to meet, but then he mailed to tell me he could not come, as he was occupied at the Belgian Embassy. He had been told that his long pending application for Indian citizenship had been granted. But the Belgians refused to believe that he was serious about relinguishing their nationality. They finally let him go only after he had produced a mountain of supporting documents.
Given this history of near-misses, I was delighted when Dreze called to say that he and his wife Bela Bhatia were in Bangalore. Bela I knew to be a considerable character herself. I had admired her essays on the political economy of water in Gujarat—a state where she had spent years as a social activist—and had just finished reading her excellent Ph D dissertation on agrarian conflict in Central Bihar.
When Dreze phoned, I naturally dropped what I was doing and went over to meet Bela and him. We spent the morning together, talking about their ongoing campaign for the right to food. The economist had helped the Peoples Union for Civil Liberties draft a public interest petition to the Supreme Court, which urged that part of the excess grain held in government godowns be used to supply food to schoolchildren. In November 2001, the Court passed an interim order directing all states to introduce cooked mid-day meals in Government and Government-aided schools. As a follow-up, Dreze was now travelling around the country to put pressure on state governments to adminster the order fairly and effectively. For there is wide variation in the scheme’s implementation. As Dreze points out, ‘in Uttar Pradesh alone, about half a million children die every year for lack of basic health and nutrition services of a kind that is widely available in Kerala and Tamil Nadu. This is nothing short of implicit mass murder’.
Dreze I am honoured to call a friend, but Mohandas Pai I have met precisely twice. The first time was at a party where I was introduced as one who was writing a history of independent India. ‘I hope you will then properly criticize Jawaharlal Nehru’, said Pai. ‘To the contrary’, I replied, ‘I shall properly defend him’. That started a lively argument, later carried on over email. This revealed large areas of disagreement—with regard to Nehru’s foreign policy and cultural policy, for example—but also one fundamental agreement—with regard to education. The neglect of primary education was, in retrospect, Nehru’s most notable failure. In 1947, India had skilled and honest ministers, capable and fair-minded administrators, and a vast reservoir of energetic activists who had partaken of the idealism and self-sacrifice of the national movement. At Independence, we had, in sum, the social capital to wipe out illiteracy. What was lacking was the necessary push from the political leadership.
Within Karnataka, Mohandas Pai has been a vocal advocate of the mid-day meals scheme. He has pressed upon the state government to give it more emphasis, and to extend its operations beyond the seven northern districts where it is currently being implemented. Pai is also actively involved with a programme run by the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, which supplies food to 230 schools in and around Bangalore. One morning he took me to the ISKCON headquarters in the city, where we had the scheme explained to us through a PowerPoint presentation made by two gentle swamis with IIT degrees. We were shown the clean and modern kitchen where, in huge vats, rice and sambaar was cooked for distribution to 43,000 schoolchildren. The kids who benefit from the scheme are Hindus of all castes, as well as Muslims and Christians.
Like Jean Dreze, Mohandas Pai sees a successful countrywide mid-day meals programme as perhaps the key to the universalization of education. By providing a healthy cooked meal at lunchtime, it induces parents to send their kids to school and to keep them there. This is particularly important in the case of Dalit families, and with respect to girls, who tend not to be sent to school or to be withdrawn too early. And, of course, the programme would be a productive way of dispensing of grain now rotting in the godowns of the Food Corporation of India.
In character and background Jean Dreze and Mohandas Pai could not be more opposed. One grew up as a cosmopolitan European, the other was raised in a traditional South Indian Brahmin home. One is an academic who lives austerely—perhaps too austerely—the other a corporate whiz. One is agnostic, the other religious. One is gentle and introverted, the other effusive and articulate—perhaps even opinionated. But forget these differences—remember only that the two are united by their deep patriotism, and their practical focus on the rights of India’s poor children.
Dreze and Pai are both in their early forties, which must make them the youngest individuals ever to be featured in this column (cricketers only excepted). Without diminishing their singularity or their achievement, I would still like to see them as each carrying forward an old and honourable tradition. Behind the wispy frame of Jean Dreze lies a long line of foreign-born fighters for the Indian poor. His precursors include C. F. Andrews, ‘Deenbandhu’, who worked tirelessly for the rights of indentured labour; Verrier Elwin, the self-appointed yet uniquely effective spokesperson for the Indian adivasi; and Laurie Baker, the Quaker architect who designed so many low-cost and elegant homes for the people of his adopted Kerala. And behind the thick-set and bearded visage of Mohandas Pai lies a long line of socially sensitive industrialists. Think thus of the Tatas of Bombay, of the Sarabhais of Ahmedabad, and, not least, of the other software billionaires of Pai’s hometown and mine, Bangalore.
Courageous and public-spirited scholars, as well as courageous and public-spirited businessmen—heaven knows that India needs them both.