Spectrum 27 September 2015, page 4
When the Nobel Foundation asked Amartya Sen to give them any two objects that had been closely associated with his work, he gave them his old bicycle and a copy Aryabhatiya — a treatise on mathematics and astronomy by Aryabhata.
The bicycle can be seen as a symbol of Sen’s practical concerns as it is economic
In a disparate society, there are the haves and the have-nots. Some children, whom Sen calls ‘first boys’, get a headstart, especially in education, because of their privileged background, while others lag behind. Sometimes, one may suffer from several inequalities at the same time if one is poor and is also from a backward class. However, there seems to be a lack of interest among the privileged on matters of inequality, and the media often caters to its patrons and advertisers. There is smugness in their minds regarding these serious issues.
Education can be one of the main tools in tackling our chronic problems. Sen postulates that having an educated and healthy population can be a major contributor in enhancing steady and sustainable economic growth. It is the ‘complementarity’ between education and health care, on one side, and economic growth , on the other that led to rapid development of countries such as Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Thailand, and China. India has failed to take a cue from these nations.
Though the private sector has invaded the healthcare sector in a big way, it is highly expensive and exploitative. Government-run hospitals, on the other hand, are inept and also lack the funds. However, these can be run properly as shown by Kerala.
Regarding famines, Sen points out that these were common during the British rule, but suddenly stopped after Independence. People normally think that drought and famine are the same thing. While droughts are caused by insufficient rain or depletion of water resources, a famine may or may not follow a drought. It can happen even if there is no drought. Mismanagement and improper distribution of food supplies can lead to a famine. It is worth noting, says Sen, that India has succeeded in preventing famines while other developing countries have not. The main reason is that in a democracy, surplus food from affluent states can be rushed to states that do not produce enough at a particular time.
More importantly, free media also plays a significant role in this. Sen observes that democratic governments help the famine-struck regions not just to get votes. The number of people affected by famine is often less than 10 per cent. Even if famine victims voted against a ruling government, the government’s position would not be threatened. So why do democratic governments try to prevent famines? Sen says it is the tremendous impact of public opinion and the role of media that can mobilise masses to protest against the ills of those in positions of power.
While applauding this achievement, Sen laments that the success of famine prevention has not yet been replicated in the case of wide-spread hunger and chronic undernourishment, education, and primary healthcare.
In a successful society, justice is paramount for progress and wellbeing of people, but justice is understood variously by different ideologies. ‘In examining the demands of social justice in India, it is important to distinguish between an arrangement-focused view of justice on one hand, and realisation-focused understanding of justice, on the other.’ He elaborates that it is one thing to have institutions that formulate laws and regulations to assure people that justice is being done, but this much is not enough. We also have to make sure that justice is being realised. To point out the subtle difference between the two concepts, he mentions two Sanskrit words niti and nyaya. Niti connotes organisational propriety and behavioural correctness, while the term nyaya stands for a more comprehensive concept of realised justice.
However, indirect means such as literature can also help shape public opinion to grapple with injustice. In the classical past, plays such as Bhasa’s Daridra-Charudatta and Shudraka’s Mrichchhakatika satirised the rich and powerful of their age. In our times, too, satires and political cartoons can give powerful voice to the underdog.
Interspersed with essays on economics and politics are interesting essays on Rabindranath Tagore, revival of Nalanda University, and the role of various calendars on a culture.
Coming back to socio-economic issues, it is the political will that would really matter in overcoming them, argues Sen. Things will not happen if you don’t want them to happen. The electorate should make sure that these happen.
The essays in this collection are erudite and analytical without being dry and dense. The language is facile and Sen presents his views with clarity, hence these will be of interest not only to economists, social thinkers, and academicians but also to the general reader.