In defence of Amartya Sen

At a hall inside Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, there’s only room to stand. Scholars, students, journalists and professors struggle to fit in. Some of them are comfortable squatting on the floor, as they take copious notes.

Others crane their necks to connect with the speaker on stage. It’s the Nobel Prize-winning Harvard economist Amartya Sen. Economists anywhere seldom command such appeal outside the hallowed precincts of their campuses. In his homeland, Sen is a celebrity, mobbed like movie stars.

Popular among left-liberals, Sen has been equally respected across the political spectrum. In 1999, he was awarded India’s highest civilian honour, the Bharat Ratna (Jewel of India), by a government led by the right-wing nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.

Unlike his periodic visits home, Sen’s tour of India last month to launch his new book An Uncertain Glory, India and its Contradictions, co-authored with Jean Deréz, created quite a stir.

In the span of three weeks, the differences between Sen and Jagdish Bhagwati, a Columbia University professor of economics, have metamorphosed from the academic to the political, and then perhaps, turned a tad personal.

The duel is a throwback to the no-less-vicious showdown between economists John Maynard Keynes and Friedrich von Hayek, which gripped Britain’s academia 80 years ago.

Sen is no stranger to “bizarrely drawn” academic battle lines. When he moved to Trinity College in 1953, Cambridge was dominated by a polarized debate between the Keynesians, such as Nicholas Kaldor and Joan Robinson, and neo-classicists, such as A.C. Pigou (see Sen’s Nobel Biographical for more on this).

Sen found “Kaldor” to be the most tolerant among the neo-Keynesians, while Richard Kahn was the most “bellicose”. But the bellicosity of Bhagwati has been far more pugnacious.

The current clash was triggered by a review of Sen’s new book in the venerable columns of The Economist magazine.

The reviewer of Sen’s book credited Bhagwati and his collaborator Arvind Panagariya with advocating reforms to achieve faster growth and poverty reduction. However, the reviewer lauded Sen and Drezé for aiming to go “much further” (in improving living conditions).

In a letter published in the magazine, Bhagwati took a swipe at this, saying he was “puzzled” over how far Sen could possibly go because he had been offering only a “lip-service” to growth.

Reductionist Bhagwati found the lavish praise of Sen out of place because every thing about human development and greater social good had to be about a number called gross domestic product.

Sen, of course, had to “correct” Bhagwati. “On the contrary, the importance of economic growth as means – not an end – has been a theme in my earlier writings (including Choice of Techniques in 1960 and Growth Economics in 1970),” Sen wrote in his rebuttal published in the magazine.

It barely needs saying that growth is one of the most important economic indices of a country. India rightly has been focused on achieving high rates of gross domestic product, which is, loosely, the sum total of all goods and services produced by a country.

The official target is 9% overall, which is made easy if the agriculture sector clocks 4% or thereabouts.

India’s growth has been phenomenal, although it has considerably cooled, slowing to a decade’s low of 5% in the year to March 2013. Between 2005 and 2008, real GDP growth was about 9%, one of highest globally after China.

Sen made the cardinal mistake of pointing out that all this growth has not been matched by an equal improvement in basic living conditions of a vast majority of Indians and, along with aiming for high growth rates, it might be worth paying attention to health, nutrition and schooling etc of the poorest Indians.

While Sen has never underestimated the importance of market-led growth, he places greater emphasis on redistribution, although he denied using this term in this sense. His has strived to go beyond standard economics to enter the realms of philosophy and identity.

Bhagwati and Sen have gone on to work on very different fields. As a career economist, Bhagwati has worked on the role of free trade and globalisation in improving incomes, which is a significant milestone in itself.

However, Sen’s preference to ‘formally’ work on welfare economics and human deprivation has been misrepresented – by Bhagwati – to be anti-growth.

Bhagwati has advocated a ‘growth-first, redistribution-later’ model, which is why he is enamoured of the so-called Gujarat model of development. However, he leaves unexplained a “puzzling” scenario.

Despite being an enterprising business-community-led state awash in capital, Gujarat’s social indices remain very poor.

Bhagwati should perhaps also throw light on how exactly a poorly fed, ill-clad and under-skilled labour force can generate growth?

Acknowledging Bhagwati’s economic genius, it must be said that he is far less tolerant of Sen than the latter is of the former. His recent views on Sen are no more than rant.

Could growth alone be the answer to deprivation, which is multidimensional? Poverty, or more specifically income-poverty, is an economic construct, whereas inequity is a social construct.

Indeed, in a country with a significantly huge population who are poor, where a rigid “caste system” and “narrow identities” can actively contribute to “economic unfreedom” — to borrow a phrase from Sen — the state will always be compelled to provide a modicum of support and action.

Grappling with the challenges of development in a nation steeped in poverty, one woefully lacking in infrastructure and in food output after roughly two centuries of colonial rule, India had never known the “luxury of being sweet sixteen”, as Nehru had said about war-ravaged Japan.

Although it is disturbing to see how the Indian government frittered away its impressive growth rates, or failed to address stark social inequities, the broader official goalpost of “inclusive growth” is a fairly laudable concept.

In contemporary political-economy history, few governments have made participatory growth their singular motto.

It will not be out of place to compare the India of today to a patient on the path to recovery but still in need of nursing and care. To remove the oxygen mask at this delicate stage would be to cut off crucial life support.

For example, could India have left the job of universal immunization to the markets or deferred it till future economic growth emerged?

Without state action in the area of compulsory immunization, India’s life expectancy at birth would have stagnated at 40 years or so at the time of Independence. It is 66.1 years now. See here.

The markets did not eradicate polio either in the US or lately in India. Government action did. There are some businesses the government should not be in, like running airports. But in others, its role is not just critical, but irreplaceable.

The same is true of education. As people move up the income ladder, private schooling becomes the preferred choice (given the Hindustan Times’s largely middle- to high-income readership profile, nobody reading this blog will have a child attending a government school).

But not funding school education will leave little incentive for millions to send his or her child to school.
Bhagwati’s charge that Sen’s prescriptions of state-directed services in critical sectors such as health and education as “dangerous” is as much fallacious as hypocritical.

The Columbia professor, as indeed most neo-liberal economists of his ilk, seldom direct their intellectual anger towards state subsidies in western countries, most notably in the US, which has refused to eliminate agricultural subsidies declared illegal at the WTO. (Another Nobel winner, Joseph E. Stiglitz has more on this here)

Sen has had to face a far sterner reproach from India’s hard right than he did from his thesis guide at Cambridge, the celebrated Joan Robinson, who had censured Sen for “not being quite true to the new orthodoxy of neo-Keynesianism”.

A right-wing MP called for revoking Sen’s Bharat Ratna for not endorsing Modi.

Sen had to admit – when pressed a second time by a TV interviewer – that he did neither approve of Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi as a potential prime minister or considered Gujarat as a paragon of economic virtue, as Bhagwati thinks. He did, however, say that there are lessons to be learnt from Gujarat’s high growth.

However, India would much rather do with a secular prime minister, he said.

Sen’s idea of welfare economics is closely linked to his view of tolerance.

Hatred can fatally result in “economic unfreedom”, as he had learnt as a young child growing up in Dhaka. Kader Mia, a Muslim daily labourer, was “knifed” during a sectarian clash.

He had to venture into a hostile Dhaka locality in search of work, despite being advised against it by his wife. He could have remained in the safety of his home if he had the luxury of skipping a day’s work. Intolerance can be a dead-end and curb economic and other freedoms.

The incident made Sen deeply aware of the “dangers of narrowly defined identities”, a theme he took up later in his Identity and Violence, The Illusion of Destiny.

Not surprisingly, he would not have someone who strikes fear among India’s minorities as India’s prime minister. Only free societies, after all, can make economic progress.

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  • Fact

    Saint Chidambaram by devotee Sujatha Anandan, who cares what devils like Anna Hazare, Baba Ramdev, the BJP, Subramaniam Swamy, the elderly and helpless beaten at midnight, et al may say. Many don’t share Anandan’s gushing hero worship of her shining knight. They could be excused for having a poor opinion of her darling in light of the facts.


  • Trueindian

    Who paid you to write this? By the way Lungi is a great entertainer!


  • richie

    No better than conspiracy theories around 9/11 claiming that Americans killed themselves for control over oil fields.


  • GK

    If u are right, the saffron culprits should be in jail… and so should PC… I dont know the purpose of writing such a big article… grow up! there is a world beyond hindu-muslim issues :D


  • Javed

    Sujata Anadam
    what blatantly biased piece !! absolutely dumb bjp bashing and unbelievable conspiracy logic.
    you write like this for free or charge money? And and you must be turning over this pretty quick, as you only have to precede your bizarre points with “my sources in this say … my sources in that say …”, who is to verify

    at least have some finesse in your writing – i think my first time editorial would roughly be of same quality of writing (better contents though)

    so reading this was a waste of time – it is amateurish trash.

    it is true you were brought kicking and screaming into writing these blogs, your writing reflects that. and you should be sent out the same way.


  • anil

    Mr. Sen along with Zia Haq better preach secularism in Bangladesh (Dr. Sen’s home country), if he is so eager to make the point before the world at large. If he can do that, his point on Modi will have some weight otherwise it is just another dive under the burqa of secularism!


  • Sumit Bose

    A senior judge in the London Metropolitan Court was pulled up for this comment in disposing off a criminal case that was a “crime of passion”: Never run after a bus, a woman or an economic theory, there is always another coming by..
    No amount of debate or chair thrashing is going to settle this debate, but the excesses of the failed Soviet and Eastern bloc nations have proved that Government is NOT the answer to everything. The sophistication of of the European economies also proved that unbridled free enterprise is not the panacea. The current crisis of the Euro-zone has already alerted the world to the limits of “mai-baap” sarkar”.
    This example of Kader mia is just the fig-leaf to justify the whole-sale eradication of one religious group from the first modern Islamic nation of Pakistan. For one Kader Mia, there were millions of Hindus as Jodhu. Modhu Balwant and Dilpreet who were massacred, raped. homes looted and destroyed. Want proof, look at the stark numbers. Pakistan and Bangladesh has hardly any Hindus left in its territories. This has been the largest state sponsored systematic genocide/loot/terrorism inflicted upon humans in the last millennium. One Kader Mia being killed in this whole calamity is just a fig-leaf of the pseudo-marxists to thrash a a largely peaceful community that has been always at the receiving end from followers of a inhuman brutal cult that is shamelessly supremacist and cruel to “kuffurs”.
    For Prof Sen to make a selective mention of Kader Mia and not to mention of his own families’ “dash” from East Bengal into West Bengal in the face of Islamic terror that was unbridled brutally unleashed by the Islamic state is just plain Hindu-bashing at its mischievous best.
    Such “postures” are always rewarded sumptuously in the west and Prof Sen had grasped this under-current long ago and he is a smart operator “maximizing” his returns.


    Rugved Reddy Reply:

    Good one!!


  • Farah Taneja

    Lots of misunderstandings! Let me try and clarify a few points. It is beyond ridiculous to suggest that Bhagwati believes all human development can be collapsed to a number called Gross Domestic Product. Why Bhagwati – almost no economist believes that. His co-author Panagariya has written extensively on social development and education and health and how India can improve on those areas. We can criticize other’s positions, but hopefully we don’t do that through distorting what they are saying. (I am not saying the distortion is intentional).

    What then are the differences between Sen and Bhagwati/Panagariya? Sen believes (as he explained in an article in The Hindu) that economic growth doesn’t directly help poor people – it primarily helps only the rich and the middle class. Let me point out this is contrary to what most economists believe. Sen’s views on this issue are therefore outside the mainstream of the economics profession. Of course, Sen is not against economic growth because he argues that economic growth will lead to much faster increases in tax revenues and these higher revenues can then be used by the government to directly fund social programs for the poor. Therefore economic growth is a good thing. This argument is correct. But (as I said) economic growth is important not JUST because it leads to higher tax revenues which can be spent on anti-poverty programs BUT also because it directs leads to lower poverty through better employment opportunities for the poor. In India’s case, the social programs are often very poorly implemented leading to massive corruption and wastage of resources. But we find India still reduced poverty impressively in the last decade – that seems to be primarily because of the poverty reducing effects of economic growth (which Amartya Sen unfortunately discounts). I can cite dozens of papers and studies on this, but please look at just this one


    Bystander Reply:

    Let us distil this a bit. I don’t mind sounding reductionist here but let me pose you a question.
    Do you see State intervention and “free market growth” in conflict ? At what levels ?
    You have a choice – a choice of nit-picking on my point and saying it never was your argument.
    Your other choice is to try and parse what I am saying here. Dig deeper in its semantics and continue this discussion.


  • Praveen

    The concept of secularism should best be taught in states like ” Pakistan” and ” Bangladesh” by Prof Sen.
    The idea of Hinduism coming before Nationalism is a new concept and has wrongly been used by Mr Modi ( I am not defending him neither the concept)
    But the idea of religion before nation has been the core ideology of religions other than Hinduism for sure. ( No points for guessing )
    The so called pseudo secular credentials have already been tested long in the name of Mulayam and Manmohan without getting any dividends the nation deserved.
    If u can just give the fish to poor and not teach him how to catch it , the scenario is never going to change. The 60 long years of Congress rule has not been successful in thwarting the concept of religion in politics and still has kept us divided. They have failed miserably and we need a change for sure .
    Am least interested with what Prof Sen preaches or what his detractors has to say . I am a common Indian and i want to see a common man getting the opportunity (Certainly not on the basis of religion) to fulfil his dreams . We need good infra , jobs , education and opportunity for ALL.


  • Abhi

    “Despite being an enterprising business-community-led state awash in capital, Gujarat’s social indices remain very poor.”
    This is motivated propaganda. The article gives no figures to substantiate this.


  • vijay !

    Had we followed Amartya Sen’s policies on economics we would have been back to the seventies.


  • Anonymous

    Amarty Sen is a detroyer of India in the same lineage aas several other Bengali psuedo intellectuas – Kesab Chandra Sen who openly declared that India/Hinduism were inferior to Britain/Christianity; Jyoti Basu who openly supported China during the 1962 Chinese attack of India (I vividly remeber his and EMS Namboodiripad statements)….


  • Raghavendra

    Mr Zia you say Modi strikes fear among minorities, what about crores of people who are so happy when they listen to Modi who admire Modi?
    you call yourself DEMOCRAT and how come you dismiss the liking for lakhs and lakhs of Indian voters who want Modi? you feel that is a crime on their part to like Modi?

    i hope you have the honesty to answer to my views, if you dont answer i feel you are dishonest guy with a bias in your heart.


  • Rohan

    In 1947 when my grandfather was killed on the way, rest of his family (four sons and four daughters)reached by their first international travel by the train, totally pauperized to celebrate India’s independence in India. All of them lived below Prof Tendulakar’s Poverty Line for about five years. By the sixties, 29 children were born to all eight siblings.They just got above the poverty line by the seventies. But in the meantime all of them received their basic entitlements of:

    1. Food and Nutrition (PDS ration + market supply including occasional fruits); 2. Government school education; 3. Government sponsored medical care; 4. Books from the libraries- free issue.

    But: they were always poorly clad till they started earning income;
    They did not go for well-priced entertainment;
    Their English has not been at par with the wards of the their middle class peers who went to English-medium schools; and,
    None of them is highly religious; none of them ever visits any godman; though they do normal Hindu rituals. None is fanatic about religion.

    16 of the thirty kids received higher education (Engineering, Law; Higher Sciences, Humanities, Accounts,but none in economics). They paid only between Rs. 5 to 20 per month for their higher education in institutions like IIT,DCE,DU-North campus, and some other universities.

    Now in 2013; all those thirty kids are between 52 and 65. Their families have moved on to still better positions but some of them (WHO DIDNOT RECEIVE GOOD EDUCATION BECAUSE OF THEIR OWN CHOICE) have remained relatively poorer.

    Now as per statistics: families of

    2 of thirty grand sons of my slain grandfather have reached Upper Middle class;
    1, potential Upper middle class (he didn’t take bribes even when he worked for the government on a `lucrative’ post). So he remains MM class.
    5, Middle Middle income class;
    8, middle class ( Group A -middle management or lower management officer type income);

    11, Lower middle class; and
    3 remain poor ( a foot or two above Prof. Tendulkar’s P line).
    The last 11+3 kids didn’t go for much education; for that alone was the emancipating factor for the rest of them.
    This is a miracle. A family living in a totally pauperized state makes in 60 years, a segment of population that in its totality of about 60 wards of these thirty people is poised for further– economic, cultural, governmental, corporate and self-employment sectors of income earning.

    This has happened much largely because,
    1. the phenomenon of their growth has been urban;
    2. They took full advantage of the government funded facilities/ entitlements;
    3. They were given a global outlook and socialisation right in the fifties, sixties and the seventies when they were studying or preparing for jobs, in cultural, educational and modern terms;
    4. They all believed in small, patient savings. Got Public sector interest on them and made the small savings big;
    5. They were all, without exception, ready to forgo the taboos, cultural drags, traditional bondages, and caste restrictions.
    Now what economics is this one? This economics has created the great middle class of India. This phenomenon is the Unique Indian Rebuilding Phenomenon that touched fringes and contents of various economic theories including the one that Karl Marx founded. It’s hightime we put our heads together and got ourselves rid of the shackles of freedoms that the markets and their economics promised. let those be part of the discussions but let us discover and not fritter our talent away with the taboos, stigmas and religiousity attached to various economics theories.


  • abhi

    SEN is converted christian, so is suzanne arundhati roy, and JNU is stronghold of marxist generations,,,, who listens to them?