Sense and Solidarity: Jholawala Economics for Everyone is a profound work by Jean Drèze that compels the exploration of an alternative, people-centered approach to economics. Drèze, a renowned economist and social activist, presents a collection of articles and essays that span two decades of his research and fieldwork across India. The collection of essays in this book provides readers a deep-dive into the evolution of social policy valuable insights into the complex and multifaceted nature of social development in India, arguing for a “bottom-up” approach that prioritizes the needs of the poor and marginalized communities.
In the introduction, Drèze posits, “In India, as elsewhere, the privileged tend to nurture the illusion that they deserve what they have. This illusion, however, evaporates with even the most casual introspection. Sure, some rich people work hard — but so do koilawalas, construction workers, and domestic helpers”. The book challenges the notion of meritocracy arguing that those in a privileged position, often overlook the role of social, political, and economic capital in their success. He highlights the precarious situation of millions of poor people in India, who are deprived of basic necessities like nutritious food, clean water, education, and healthcare facilities because of their caste location. This critique aligns with the broader discourse on the inequality of opportunities, which argues that systemic factors often limit the opportunities available to individuals based on their social, political, and economic circumstances (Sen, 1992). Drèze’s argument finds resonance with scholars like Deaton (2013) & Piketty (2014), who have also highlighted the structural barriers to equality, emphasizing the need for a more people-centric approach to economic and social policy making.
The various sections of the book extensively explore the crucial dimensions of India’s socio-economic context and also highlights the failure of the Indian state to adequately address these issues and argues for a more comprehensive approach that takes into account the interdependent nature of these challenges. He underlines the flaws in the current economic system and argues for an alternative approach that prioritizes the well-being of people and the planet.
Understanding the Indian economy: The foremost part of the book delves into the Indian economy’s relationship with the social life of ordinary people. Drèze provides an overview of the most pressing challenges faced by the poor in India, such as malnutrition, illiteracy, and lack of basic healthcare. He discusses the role of the public distribution system in addressing food insecurity and the potential of initiatives like the Midday Meal Scheme to enhance school attendance and reduce dropout rates (Drèze, 2017, p. 45–60). His extensive fieldwork across rural India provides unique insights into issues of hunger, inequality, and conflict. This section scrutinizes and explains historic legislations and initiatives relating to the right to food and the right to work, as well as the fierce debates that often accompanied them. A significant focus of this part is on people’s lived experiences. Drèze highlights the resilience of ordinary people who are fighting back against inequality and injustice, using their knowledge and resources to create more equitable and sustainable communities.
Critique of dominant economic theories and models: Drèze’s critique of GDP-focused economic models aligns with a growing body of scholarship that questions the adequacy of GDP as a measure of societal well-being and progress (OECD, 2019; the Guardian, 2019). He argues how dominant economic theories and models that prioritize GDP growth often ignore the social and environmental costs of such growth. He joins scholars like Stiglitz, Sen, and Fitoussi (2009) in critiquing the inadequacy of GDP as a measure of societal well-being. However, Drèze goes beyond critique to propose alternative approaches grounded in the realities of the Indian context. His emphasis on “Jholawala economics” offers a practical alternative to the dominant GDP-focused models (p. 120–135). Drèze introduces the term jholawala economics, as a participatory approach to economic and social policy making that is grounded in social justice, solidarity, and sustainability. This approach, inspired by the itinerant vendors in India who sell various goods in jholas (or bags). He provides examples of successful jholawala initiatives, such as community kitchens and participatory budgeting, which have brought about positive change within marginalized communities (Drèze, 2017, p. 111, 159, 177, 194). This can also be seen in Drèze’s larger body of work, which emphasizes the need for action-oriented research and democratic action in addressing social issues, including his research on India’s public distribution system, employment guarantee, and school meals, which exemplifies this approach (Drèze & Sen, 2013).
Policy recommendations and vision for the future: The final part of the book is dedicated to policy recommendations that can help achieve a more equitable and sustainable economy. This section also covers a breadth of topics and issues where Drèze argues that a combination of state-led initiatives and community-driven programs is necessary to tackle the challenges of poverty and inequality in India (Drèze, 2017, p. 300). Drèze’s work has been recognized for its unique blend of rigorous economic analysis with a deep understanding of the ground realities faced by ordinary people. He advocates for an economy that is not only efficient but also fair, equitable, and responsive to the basic needs of all its people.
What stands out to me as a reader of this book is how the debates of inequality opportunities find a dignified home in Drèze’s analysis. The problem of inequality is a longstanding one, across the globe, and many scholars have written about it from different perspectives. However, the contributions in Sense and Solidarity are most relevant to contemporary India. The author’s insistence on dismantling caste structures and developing ethical norms is particularly crucial to understanding the broader context within which inequality operates in India. In this way, Drèze’s analysis not only highlights the urgency of addressing poverty and inequality in India but also provides a framework for imagining a more equitable and just society.
The book’s accessibility to a wide audience is one of its strengths. Drèze avoids technical jargon, presenting complex ideas in a clear and straightforward manner. His writing style is engaging, and he uses a mix of anecdotes, case studies, and data to make his arguments. The book also highlights the need for a more compassionate and inclusive approach to economic development, which is particularly relevant in today’s world, where the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed and exacerbated the inequalities that exist in our societies.
In conclusion, Sense and Solidarity is a compulsory read for students of economics who are unable to make sense of what is being taught in their classrooms and for anyone who is interested to get a grasp of India’s political economy and its profound challenges.
His critique of GDP-focused economic models, his emphasis on people-centred “Jholawala economics”, and his concrete examples of successful initiatives in India provide a compelling alternative to mainstream economic thinking. His work is a testament to the power of economics to effect positive social change when it is grounded in the realities of people’s lives and aimed at promoting social justice and sustainability (Rethinking Economics, 2020).
Drèze’s insights and recommendations are both practical and inspiring. His emphasis on empathy, solidarity, and a holistic approach to development offers a refreshing vision for the future of economics. His passion and commitment to social justice are evident throughout the book, and his writing is both engaging and insightful. This book is not just a critique of the current economic system but a call to action for a more just and equitable world.
For more heterodox resources, check out Rethinking Economics India’s Pluralist Resources Database. The project aims to build a public repository of resources to support students and scholars in learning pluralist economics. The database is constantly updated by our team by collating resources of various forms from several sources and organized across 21 categories.
This book review is authored by Rahul Kumar. Rahul is a staff writer at the Rethinking Economics India Network and Associate Consultant with the Policy and Development Advisory Group (PDAG). He has a Master’s degree in Society and Culture from the Indian Institute of Technology, Gandhinagar and is also reading for an M.A. in Economics at the Aligarh Muslim University.
Deaton, Angus. The Great Escape: Health, Wealth, and the Origins of Inequality. Princeton University Press, 2013. https://press.princeton.edu/books/hardcover/9780691153544/the-great-escape
Drèze, Jean. Sense and Solidarity: Jholawala Economics for Everyone. Oxford University Press, 2017, https://ophi.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/Jean_Dreze_2017_Sense_and_Solidarity.pdf.
Drèze, Jean, and Amartya Sen. An Uncertain Glory: India and its Contradictions. Princeton University Press, 2013. https://press.princeton.edu/books/hardcover/9780691160795/an-uncertain-glory
“Is it time to end our fixation with GDP and growth?” The Guardian, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/news/2019/jun/17/is-time-to-end-our-fixation-with-gdp-and-growth.
OECD. “Beyond Growth: Towards a New Economic Approach.” OECD, 2019, https://one.oecd.org/document/SG/NAEC(2019)3/En/pdf.
Piketty, Thomas. Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Harvard University Press, 2014.
Sen, Amartya. Development as Freedom. Oxford University Press, 1999.
Sen, Amartya. Inequality Reexamined. Harvard University Press, 1992.
Stiglitz, Joseph E., Amartya Sen, and Jean-Paul Fitoussi. “Report by the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress.” INSEE, 2009, https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/documents/8131721/8131772/Stiglitz-Sen-Fitoussi-Commission-report.pdf.
“Book Review: Sense and Solidarity: Jholawala Economics for Everyone.” SAGE Journals, 2019, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0020881719828127.