India’s economists should listen to its activists

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John Dreze is known for his influential work on hunger and gender inequality

Economist John Dreze’s new book makes an increasingly necessary argument that creating a morally good, progressive society is as important as improving traditional development indexes, writes Nilanjana S Roy.

The jhola, a sturdy, often exuberantly decorated cloth sling bag, can be spotted all across India. Over time, this precursor to the backpack and the man bag became the accessory of choice for a varied set of Indians, from sadhus (holy men) to college students to clerks.

It has also become synonymous with social activists, field researchers, academics, artists and rural workers, collectively dubbed “jholawalas”.

The term, once mildly affectionate, is now often used derisively by the media and politicians as a denunciation of forms of liberal thought and activism branded as bleeding heart, communist or anti-corporate.

“Jholawala has become a term of abuse in India’s corporate-sponsored media… a disparaging reference to activists,” development economist Jean Dreze writes early in Sense and Solidarity: Jholawala Economics For Everyone, a welcome collection of his essays.

Mr Dreze reclaims and reinvents the term, though he’s quick to add that the “jholawala economist” is a mythical being.

His “jholawala economist” would be the “road scholar” researcher or progressive economist who believes that social development in countries like India must be accompanied by ethical development, and the spread of civic sense.

Creating a morally good, progressive society would be as important as improving traditional development indexes.

Mr Dreze, born in Belgium, is an Indian citizen who’s lived in,…

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