Swaraj at 70 Part 10: Food sovereignty means democratic control over what we eat, says Jean Dreze

Editor's note: It's ironic that 70 years after India became an Independent country and a democracy, the invocation of aazadi evokes bitter conflicts. Whether it is on university campuses or in the midst of the conflict in the Kashmir Valley – both calling for aazadi and challenging that call as anti-national arouses mighty passions. By comparison, swaraj is hardly ever invoked in the public discourse. It almost seems like a historical artefact, a fragment of fading memories of the Freedom Struggle. This is the tenth part of a series titled Swaraj at 70 that seeks to take a closer look at this dichotomy.

After living in India for 38 years, Belgian-born economist Jean Dreze identifies more with the name 'Jaan Daraz', which is how he is known to people in hundreds of villages and towns across the country. Unlike most economists, Dreze's knowledge of the Indian ground realities is based on countless days spent living among the people, whom policy makers and marketing experts perceive as the 'bottom of the pyramid'. In the late 1980s, Dreze often travelled across rural India in a manner akin to sadhus – moving on foot and depending on the hospitality of people for food and shelter.

After graduating from the University of Essex, Dreze did a PhD at the Indian Statistical Institute, New Delhi. Dreze has taught at the London School of Economics, Delhi School of Economics and has been a visiting professor at the GB Pant Social Science Institute, Allahabad. In the academic world, Dreze is known for the various books he has co-authored with Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen.

But Dreze's place in history has been secured by his seminal contributions to the campaign which led to the right to food being enshrined as a Fundamental Right in the Indian Constitution. For the millions who still live on the edge of poverty or below, Dreze is a familiar face because he personally engages in extensive data collection exercises to monitor the implementation of both the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA) and the Right to Food.


Firstpost spoke to Dreze, who also served briefly on the National Advisory Council in both terms of the UPA government.

Edited excerpts follow:

swaraj2-1024x435

What feelings does Swaraj evoke for you today?
Oddly, it evokes a vague feeling of indifference. I say oddly because some interpretations of the term do appeal to me. For instance, I am attracted to ideas of self-management, self-determination and self-governance. The term Swaraj, however, also has other connotations that I find much less appealing, such as nationalism and self-sufficiency, so it sounds a little murky. I prefer to think in terms of freedom.

To what extent do you view Swaraj as an inward journey of greater command over the self, and to what extent is it an outward journey of individuals and collectives seeking a greater sense of agency in society and markets?
Both interpretations are valid, but as I said, I don't tend to think in terms of Swaraj. Command over the self sounds like a useful ability and if you wish to call it Swaraj, I have no objection. The same applies to agency.

In this context, what are the areas of satisfaction and disappointment in your work on the right to food?
Keeping the focus on Swaraj-related issues, I think that some progress has been made towards better provisions for social security including food security. Swaraj, however you think of it, is impossible when people live in constant fear of hunger. Twenty years ago, there was a shocking absence of any kind of social support in rural areas, especially in the poorest districts. Even today, many people live in a situation of extreme insecurity and helplessness, but they can at least claim some basic entitlements from the state.


Turning to the main disappointment, it is in our own movements that I feel Swaraj is still deeply lacking. As I understand it, Swaraj in social movements would mean that we have been able to develop a culture of cooperation based on equality and freedom. In reality, social movements often reproduce the inequalities and hierarchies of the society at large. This problem, of course, is understandable, but I think that there is a need for better awareness of it and stronger commitment to strive for Swaraj in that sense.

Is freedom from reliance on free or subsidised food a desirable goal?
I think that in some contexts, it is a valid goal, but only one among others, including some that may be more important, such as food security and good nutrition. If subsidised food enhances good nutrition, there may be a strong case for it, even if it creates some dependence on the state.

In some situations, reliance on free or subsidised food does not seem to me to be an issue at all. For instance, school meals involve the distribution of free food, but it is a very positive activity from many points of view. It contributes to better nutrition, higher school attendance, and social equality, among other important goals.

How do you visualise the future of food sovereignty? How would the structure have to change so that virtually all have adequate nutrition and livelihood?
I think of food sovereignty as popular control over the food system, as opposed to corporate control in particular. Commercial interests are constantly invading and distorting the food system, whether it is by promoting branded products in school meals, or mistreating animals in industrial farms, or sponsoring unsustainable food production methods, or enticing us to eat junk food.

In contrast, food sovereignty would mean democratic control over what we eat and how it is produced or distributed. That's a long haul, but we can at least hope to move in that direction in various ways, for instance by resisting the influence of corporate interests on food policy or fostering environment-friendly technologies.

Swaraj at 70: The concept of aazadi is no longer enough
Part 1: Past 25 years are a matter of pride, but there's a long way to go, says Baijayant 'Jay' Panda
Part 2: Not being able to disagree without causing upheaval is dangerous, says Sushobha Barve
Part 3: Alternative brand of politics has disappeared from India, says Piyush Mishra
Part 4: Youth can play a significant role in solving farm crisis, says Kavitha Kuruganti
Part 5: For true freedom, we need to end oppression of handouts and subsidies, says Arun Maira
Part 6: People's aspirations are no longer limited by age and class, says Ashni Biyani
Part 7: India needs a more inclusive model of development, says Vijay Mahajan
Part 8: Politicising of human rights issues has pushed liberal discourse into corner, says Kalyani Menon-Sen
Part 9: Technology has the potential to redefine social fabric of India, says Siddharth Sthalekar


Published Date: Aug 25, 2017 11:23 am | Updated Date: Aug 25, 2017 03:21 pm