John M. Alexander
An essay in honour of Amartya Sen, the Argumentative Indian, on his 75th birthday.
Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, who turns 75 today, is the most distinguished economist-philosopher of our times. Both for his outstanding contributions to the disciplines of economics, philosophy and social sciences in general, and for his role as a lucid and compassionate public intellectual, he has received several top honours and awards including the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1998 and the Bharat Ratna in 1999. He enjoys the respect of his colleagues and critics, the a dmiration of many world leaders and scholars, and the affection of his students and friends. As a patron and promoter of the United Nations Development Programme’s Human Development paradigm, Professor Sen inspires a new generation of young researchers and policymakers. Upholding the value of reason and argumentation in public discussions, he denounces fundamentalism of every sort and makes the case for a secular and tolerant polity that celebrates religious and cultural diversity.
Prof. Sen is an economist of the poor and has championed their cause in public debates and policy decisions. Mahatma Gandhi often said to the people in responsible positions that if their thought and action did not make a difference to the life of the poorest person they had seen, their position was worth nothing. Prof. Sen’s work in economics is a scientific and reliable guide for applying the Gandhian accountability test.
Throughout his intellectual career, Prof. Sen has advocated a ‘people-centred’ rather than ‘growth-oriented’ approach to development. To this end, his message has always been simple and yet profound: the objective of development should not be merely economic growth, but the expansion of people’s capabilities and freedoms. Hence, things associated with economic growth such as industrialisation, technological advancement, market expansion and rise in personal incomes should be treated only as useful means to enhance people’s economic, social and political freedoms. In other words, when the economic prosperity of a nation does not translate visibly into improvement of the living standards of the poorest of the poor in terms of reducing infant mortality and malnutrition as well as providing better prospects for health, housing, education, employment and political participation, it cannot be a genuine development. Isn’t it ironical that a country like India that registers significant rates of economic growth leaves a bulk of its population poor, undernourished and socially excluded?
It is often thought that the job of the economist is to provide an accurate analysis and measurement of social ills, and suggest appropriate policy solutions for politicians and policymakers to execute. Prof. Sen has viewed his vocation somewhat differently, and pursued it with far-reaching consequences. He has made many penetrating and lasting theoretical contributions to address development problems of famine and hunger, poverty measurement, population control, gender inequalities, health, education, environment and ethics. These have not only challenged the orthodox ways but also suggested many policy implications for social change and the empowerment of the deprived. Yet along with these, Prof. Sen has accorded a central role to public action, thus narrowing the gap between academic work and the actual world, between elegant theories and their possible impact on the actual lives of citizens.
In Prof. Sen’s development paradigm, public action refers not merely to activities of the state but also to social actions taken by the members of the public such as participation in families, community, political protests, the media, democratic practices and social movements. Public action can sometimes be collaborative in nature with respect to government policy. For example, the cooperation of the public is crucial to the success of literacy campaigns, health and hygiene programmes, famine and disaster relief, and land reforms. But public action can also assume a critical role through journalistic pressures, political activism and informed criticism. This enables people to be vigilant and scrutinise government policies both at the initiation and implementation stages.
In the history of political economy, Prof. Sen was the first to delink famines from food availability, and to frame the problem of famines and hunger as a political issue. Drawing inspiration from Malthus, the conventional wisdom was to believe that famines occurred due to a decline in food production and availability. Prof. Sen empirically illustrated that famines occur not merely because of a decline in food availability in the region but also because people lose their entitlements and purchasing power to acquire food. For instance, millions of victims died during the famines in Bengal (1943), China (1958-61), Ethiopia (1973), Bangladesh (1974), and Ireland (1840s) precisely at a time when there was no significant decline in food availability. Simultaneously, Prof. Sen’s study highlighted the dependence between famine prevention and democracy. A democracy with opposition parties, periodic elections, and critical media has much better prospects to prevent or overcome disasters like famines simply because democratic mechanisms offer the space for public outcry, and empower the public to criticise and demand immediate action from the government. This is the rationale behind Prof. Sen’s thesis: ‘No famine has ever taken place in the history of the world in a functioning democracy.’
Involvement and reasoning of the public are critical even in other development issues such as population control, spread of basic education and access to health care. There is ample empirical evidence to show that coercive family planning practices such as sterilisation, sanctions and restriction of benefits, besides being objectionable on moral grounds, have proved least effective. The reduction of fertility rates has instead been far more successful where public policies have stressed people making their own decisions and capitalised on strategies such as awareness campaigns, education and empowerment of young women, easy access to health care and employment opportunities for women to earn an independent income. It was, therefore, not surprising that in the mid-1970s the voters rejected Indira Gandhi’s family planning measures and the ‘emergency’ as a whole.
Prof. Sen has repeatedly decried the neglect of basic education in India and other developing countries despite its widely recognised importance for a nation’s economic development and the lives of its citizens. The poor and people from disadvantaged groups realise that education is the key to upward mobility. They are prepared to spend their meagre income less on consumption and more on sending their children to good schools and even equipping them with English-medium education.
Moreover, education is also a catalyst for social change, a point so much emphasised by Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, Rammohan Roy, Swami Vivekananda, Jayaprakash Narayan and other social reformers. Educated people are in a much better position to critically understand their deprived status and chalk their own course of action. A population that cannot read and write, and critically participate in what is going on in its surroundings remains impoverished and vulnerable to exploitation. Best practices and high rates of literacy achievements in Kerala and Himachal Pradesh show that the inevitability of child labour in poor households and parents’ ignorance and lack of motivation cannot anymore be standard excuses. The real barriers to a widespread education are unmotivated teachers, the low quality of education in government schools and colleges, unaffordability of books, uniforms and off-school complementary tuitions, crowded classrooms and the lack of accountability of the school administration to parents and the local community. Indeed, remarkable progress can be made in democratising education when there is a concerted action by both the government and the public to redress the situation.
Understanding Prof. Sen’s underlying motivation for public action and empowerment is as important as are his many contributions to development economics. The 18th century moral philosopher, Immanuel Kant, noted that while things have their prices and can be replaced with something equivalent, human beings have dignity and are irreplaceable. According to Prof. Sen, all development agenda should take seriously the dignity of the human person and treat people with respect and honour. For example, it is more acceptable and dignified to link famine relief, insurance against poverty and social security programmes to employment and long-term entrepreneurship than mere cash transfers and food distribution. People should be seen not as mere ‘patients’ and beneficiaries to whom various welfare benefits are dispensed, but as ‘agents’ who can make decisions, solve their problems and take control of their own destiny. Development is not a script written by a few enlightened individuals to be faithfully enacted by others. Participation at all levels is both the end and means of development. The responsibility of a just society is to ensure appropriate conditions so that everyone, particularly the weak and poor, will have the required opportunities and institutions to exercise and develop their capabilities and agency. What else could be a more fitting way of honouring Amartya Sen, the economist of the poor and philosopher of empowerment?
(Dr. John M. Alexander SDB is the author of the book Capabilities and Social Justice: The Political Philosophy of Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum, Ashgate, 2008. He teaches at the Loyola Institute of Business Administration (LIBA), Loyola College, Chennai.)
7 months ago