Amartya Sen interview: India must fulfil Tagore’s vision, not Gandhi’s

20 August 2013

11:19 AM

20 August 2013

11:19 AM

Amartya Sen is Thomas W. Lamont University Professor and Professor of Economics and Philosophy at Harvard University. Sen’s previous books include: Development as Freedom; Rationality and Freedom; The Argumentative Indian; Identity and Violence, and The Idea of Justice.

In 1998 Sen won the Nobel Prize in Economics. Much of the work done by the Indian economist has focused on poverty, specifically looking at developing new methods to predict and fight famines. His research also discusses ways to measure poverty, so that more effective social programs can be designed to prevent it.

Sen has recently co-written a book with fellow economist, Jean Drèze, called An Uncertain Glory: India and its Contradictions. It argues that, despite massive economic growth rates in India over the last three decades, there has been a lack of attention paid to other areas of Indian society: most notably, the inadequate use of public resources. They also point out a very obvious but salient point about India in 2013: hundreds of millions of its citizens are undernourished and living in extreme poverty. Other subjects the book touches on include growth and development, gender inequality, India’s health care crisis, and democracy, inequality and public reasoning.

I met with Sen at Trinity College in Cambridge University, where he has been a Fellow since 1957. We chatted for over an hour about his latest book and many other issues.

Can you speak about the complex nature of using market incentives in society to try to change things that are outside of the functions that markets actually serve? 

Well I think that markets can be very good at doing the things that they are designed to do. I am pro-market in recognising the need for good markets.

What is a market? It’s a transaction between one person and another. To be instinctively against markets is like being instinctively against conversations between people. But it’s one thing to say it is helpful, and quite another to say it will work beautifully in every field, and that it does not require any kind of regulation.

Adam Smith, the pioneering market economist, who made the world understand how markets work and why they are needed, was very clear on this. He explained that you have to supplement the market, for example in providing education for all. He didn’t talk so much about society’s role in providing healthcare for all, but it would be quite plausible to think (given other things he wrote) that he would have gone in that direction if he were born in a later period. He did want social safety nets for the very poor.

On the other hand, he also wanted regulation to control what Alan Greenspan would call 200 years later the “irrational exuberance” of speculative markets.

To recognise the need for markets and to appreciate their limitations (and the need for state institutions) are both very important. The unregulated market can be catastrophic, as we saw in 2008. However not having functioning market institutions in the economy could be terrible too. That is one of the reasons why it can be quite fruitless to debate on who wants capitalism, who wants socialism. It’s a question of what market institutions and what state institutions do we need?  There is much to discuss on the balance, using good reasoning. That great phrase by Bagehot, following John Stuart Mill, that democracy is government by discussion: well that is very important for India.

Amartya Sen's new book argues that India's development is far from complete. The interview continues below.

Amartya Sen’s new book argues that India’s development is far from complete. The interview continues below.


In this book you talk about people in India getting beyond cynicism. Looking at India — but also the world at large — do you believe that cynicism is one of the greatest obstacles to social justice and alleviating poverty?   

I absolutely agree with that. When we present a critical book of this kind we have to say who we are arguing with. There are two types of people to whom we are particularly addressing our arguments. The first are those who say, look, everything is really fine, what are you grumbling about? Things are much better now than when the British ruled India. Literacy levels were 15 percent, now they are more than 70 percent. They say, don’t grumble too much, it will happen slowly. But other countries have done this far quicker, so why can’t India?

The other group we want to argue with consist of people who (like us) are not satisfied with what is happening, but who do not think the government can make things better by expanding public services. We have spent a lot of money, they argue, on public services and still these services do not work.  Certainly, we have to improve the accountability of public services in India – we share that view too. But it is also true that India spends 1.2 percent of GDP on governmental healthcare, while the Chinese spend 2.7 percent.

Those who want to rely on markets only, without public services, say the market will just take care of all the things that are needed, including healthcare for all. But that has never happened in any country.

The government has to play a big part in making healthcare and education available to all. And if the mechanism is not adequate, then change the mechanism. So yes, I would say, don’t be cynical of what we can make the government do through systematic scrutiny and assessment of performance: we can change things.    

I noticed that you mentioned the British Raj in your previous answer: how would you describe the legacy that the British Raj left in India? 

The rate of economic growth was close to zero percent a year for about 200 years when India was part of the British Empire. Adam Smith suggested in 1776 that India was one of the richest countries in the world. That quickly changed. Literacy rates in India when the British Empire ended in 1947 were abysmally low, something like 15 percent.

In the British period famines occurred on a regular basis in India. When the British Raj ended, the new democratic system made sure that famines stopped. The last famine in India was in 1943 – four years preceding independence. The Indian national movement, which was about independence from Britain was guided by the idea that once we become independent, we would rapidly make the country fully literate and establish health care for all. Neither of those two things happened. What actually happened was that the relatively prosperous middle class found a new source of dynamism. They didn’t quite have this in the British period. 

Why do you think there has been such a lack of enthusiasm for education within Indian culture, particularly for the poor? 

There are two things going on here which we have to distinguish between. The first is a kind of elitist scepticism of the education of the masses, which unfortunately is very strong in India. The traditional focus of education in India has been heavily biased in the direction of higher education, especially in specialized areas like IT or pharmaceuticals. This scepticism may be connected with the caste system. The other thing is a general scepticism of general education. If you think of the two great leaders of thought during India’s independence movement, namely, Mahatma Gandhi, and Rabindranath Tagore, they differed completely on the issue of formal school education. Tagore was very keen on education: reading, writing, arithmetic and science, along with play. Gandhi, on the other hand, had a very different approach. He was very sceptical of formal education and thought that education should be acquired through work, in a practical way. But I think that is a way, really, of not educating people much. Tagore was very critical of that. When Gandhi had said that you can bring about great personal improvement by spinning a wheel, Tagore responded that spinning a wheel consists of endlessly turning the wheel of an antiquated machine with a minimum of imagination and a maximum of boredom.

A worker cleans a statue of Rabindranath Tagore in Kolkata. (DESHAKALYAN CHOWDHURY/AFP/Getty Images)

A worker cleans a statue of Rabindranath Tagore in Kolkata.  (DESHAKALYAN CHOWDHURY/AFP/Getty Images) The interview continues below.


You also quote Tagore saying: ‘In my view the imposing tower of misery which today rests on the heart of India has its sole foundation in the absence of education.’ Do you agree with this? 

Yes I do. Tagore’s development thinking was deeply influenced by Japan’s focus on education and what I would call development through human capability expansion. Gandhi was much keener on self-improvement. He had a very powerful influence on Indian planning. There was a strong sceptical element in his thinking about formal education, which I think became very important in India in the first Five Year Plan. In the first Five Year Plan the planners said that they did not want to focus on expanding school education in the usual formal way. They said they wanted “basic education” – in a rather loosely defined way. That was completely wrong. What they needed was a huge number of new good schools, not people spinning wheels or pining for some foggily defined basic education. 

Speaking about the issue of rape in Indian society you say, ‘It is a very positive development that violence against women has, at last, become a big political issue in India, starting with the public outrage that followed a horrific incident of gang rape in December 2012 [in Delhi].’ Are we finally seeing a shift in the discourse that is happening around this topic in Indian society, do you believe? 

I think the short answer to your question is, yes, and politicization of women’s security is a major change in the right direction. Contrary to what you might believe, reading the newly invigorated newspapers in India, the rape rate in India is not very high. As far as reported rapes are concerned, the UK rape rate is around 15 to 20 times higher than that of India’s. And the rates in the US and Sweden are even higher. The Indian rapes are, of course, hugely underreported, but even if India is underestimating the incidence of rape by a factor of 10, the country will still have a rape rate that is lower than these other countries. But one of the real problems is that often the police are very unhelpful in these matters. The victims get far less help than they might do in the UK. Now some change has been brought about by the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, which was passed very quickly in March 2013.

Until quite recently, if a woman said she did not give consent [to sex] but a man said she did, the police would typically not accept this as non-consensual sex. So there are a lot of ways in which the handling of rapes is changing. Part of that is to do with policing, and other parts are to do with the courts. The 2012 Delhi gang rape case brought a lot of attention to the issue. I was delighted that it did because almost for the first time this issue of gender insecurity and inequality was getting such attention. One gender inequality issue that demands much more attention is the trafficking of young girls from very poor families for the sex trade.

Can the Amendment Act do anything with regards to this issue?

The Amendment Act does talk about sexual trafficking and affirms its illegality and recognizes the need for dealing with it urgently, but its incidence is, I think, hugely underestimated in public discussion. There has to be more investigation in this field: we don’t have collected data to determine how widespread this exactly is. The newspapers have become full of reports of rape now, because that has become a big thing to report. But sexual trafficking, where young girls are kidnapped and brought to brothels in Bombay and so forth, needs to be discussed as a serious problem in Indian society.

Another neglected issue is that of martial rape in India: where a man forces sex on his wife when she is unwilling. At present that is not, on its own, a criminal offence in India. We need to broaden public attention from the issue of rape to other problems of gender inequality and insecurity in Indian society. 

An Uncertain Glory: India and its Contradictions by Amartya Sen and Jean Drèze is now available from Allen Lane.

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