Prof Amartya Sen, who is in Delhi for the launch of his new anthology of essays, The Country of First Boys (OUP/The Little Magazine), spoke to Seema Chishti on a range of issues, from curbs on panchayat election candidacy to the Human Development Index, which he, along with economist Mahbub ul Haq, invented, exactly 25 years ago.
Q: Why does India lag China on important questions like health and education for its people?
A: I think there have been three sources of education/health as a priority in the world. The European enlightenment was where people thought it was very important for people to be educated and healthy. It was an idea shared by Condorcet, Adam Smith, and in different ways, also by David Hume and Immanuel Kant, Europe went in a general education direction, and everyone came around to the view that healthcare is also very important. Even people like Bismarck.
Then there is an Asian perspective, initiated in Japan, from the time of Meiji restoration (1868) and they made a famous declaration, saying why is it that we Japanese are so unproductive, whereas the Americans are so productive (it’s of course a very dated question, no one would do that today!). And then they concluded that the Americans are very educated and we are not, and then by the beginning of the 20th century, they had become fully literate. That lesson was followed by South Korea, Taiwan, HK and Singapore. They combined business with literacy and what the market economy can’t do well, the state must do.
The third source is Communism as an idea, and in some ways, the most radical commitment it made. This is what Rabindranath Tagore praises when he visits Russia and writes a book Russia theke Chitthi (‘Letters from Russia’) and the book was immediately banned by the Raj because he praised the fact that the USSR was providing education to everyone, so the British, very interested in education for everyone in Britain but not in India, got agitated. Even today, you can see which parts were a part of the USSR by looking at the map. Wherever there is high literacy (99%) and life expectancy (above 70 yrs) in central Asia, it’s the former USSR. China too under Mao Tse Tung, made several changes in the kind of Communism he followed, but this has been a foundational type of commitment of Communism, in China, Cuba, Vietnam, even Cambodia. This was the case in Kerala too, with long years of the Communist party there, remained very big, in some ways, somewhat less in my home state (West Bengal), but in the rest of India, not at all. Some states later, like Himachal Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, have gone in that direction.
The big difference is the vision, the vision articulated by the Congress party and Nehru, which had an enormous amount of very abstract thought about education for all, but very little concrete planning of education for all and healthcare for all. The first Five Year Plan had nothing on that, the second one spoke little about that. I remember as a young man writing about it, already in the 1960s, when I was teaching in the Delhi School and being horrified how that vision which had sounded great had become so distorted. The Chinese had a bigger vision than we had, we have to admit that.
Q: Was betrayal of the Indian vision intentional, or just inefficiency/inability to execute a grand idea?
A: I don’t think it was intentional, but it wasn’t inefficiency only either. I think the vision was extremely unclear and people talked about all kinds of great things. A very great figure, a person that I greatly admire, Mahatma Gandhi, wanted not to have formal literacy in terms of alphabets and numerics, but wanted people to learn things by work. Rabindranath Tagore wrote a stinging attack on that, the Charkha, is an antiquated way of spending time – by spinning – the minimum of work by maximum of effort, he didn’t believe that could be a good way to learn anything. Nehru’s vision was not Gandhian in this respect and more like Tagore, but again, I think, there wasn’t enough there, Nehru was a big figure, but he did not totally understand the problems with education and healthcare. And I think that was true of all the governments that followed.
Q: It is exactly 25 years of the Human Development Index this year, a concept developed jointly by Mahbub ul Haq and you that has changed the way people look at lives and ‘development’. How do you look back on this journey?
A: I cannot express adequately my good luck in befriending some of my classmates, one of them, Mahbub ul Haq. I met Mahbub on my first day as an under-graduate, I thought he was a visionary guy. I was doing theory, he was doing mainly application. He hated maths.
He was right to think that human development as an approach has to be publicised, you need an index on it, only to get people interested and an index to compete with GDP. When I said it would be vulgar to have an index, he said we need an index, but more vulgar than the GDP, which could capture more important things. I think the HDI needs fixing as it is now. The only things we can understand now is a weighted average open to public discussion. I believe now they are using, multiplicative things, which I hope they may change next year – the multiplicative elements in my view are a mistake – the more things you introduce in it, the less important the things already in it become. Mahbub was right to include health, longevity, education, and income. We then weighted and did what we in Statistics call ‘normalisation’. We don’t have to confine ourselves to just the index, though in the Indian context, it still picks up a lot of right things but what it doesn’t pick up are some of the questions that you are raising. But HDI as a concept remains very central.
Q: In some Indian states like Kerala, Tamil Nadu there is consensus across party lines on the idea of a welfare state. Why does that consensus elude north Indian states?
A. I wish I knew. I think the nature of politics plays a big part in that, nature of women’s involvement plays a big part in that. When I wrote an article in the New York Review of Books and earlier in the British Medical Journal, if the country splits into two halves, north and west on one side and south and east on one side, it would split them in terms of how much sex-specific abortion there is, then south and east has ratios similar to Europe, and north and west has ratios way below that and way below even China. I think the women’s backwardness plays a part. But it’s a kind of two-way relationship. Women’s lack of power, pulls back economic and social development and lack of social and economic development contributes to women remaining backward. Take Punjab, it used to be the richest state in India in the 1960s, now it is 7th or 8th. Kerala was the among the poorest states, now it’s the richest state.
I think it indicates both the power of human development, not just making life better, but in actually contributing to economic growth.
People often seem to think that I am against economic growth, I am concerned about economic growth and development being talked together. And you cannot dissociate that. The idea that you would have growth first and then you would do development, that’s what I find very difficult to understand and there is no experience anywhere in the world connected with it.
Q: For local panchayat and municipal elections, some states like Gujarat have controversially, made it necessary to have a toilet, literacy criteria by Rajasthan exclude large parts of the population, but Haryana’s most recent bid to do that, has been upheld by the Supreme Court, a decision widely commented upon and criticised. Comments?
A: I hesitate to criticise the SC, because it does such a lot of good things. On the other hand, it’s not being critical of the SC to say we want a Constitutional Bench and we want the wisdom of the SC to get full play on this. Three things to recognise here:
One, the fact that it is our objective that people should be educated and should have toilets in their homes. That does not mean that people deprived of it should not have the power to exercise their political right. So, it’s a confusion to think of something as goal and if the goal not realised, to say that those who have not got it, should be somehow deprived.
The second, it’s like saying, these people are not educated, don’t have toilets, so they wont have political voice either. This is also against the whole theory of political incentive, because people who don’t have the education and toilets, have reason to agitate for it and to remove them from body politic is to remove forces demanding this change. It’s very unclear thinking.
Thirdly, there is a long tradition in India that one way of dealing with inequality is to empower the deprived in some ways, the reservation system is like that – in panchayats, asking that one-thirds should be women is like that – not because women are more powerful than men but this will make them more powerful, giving them political power. This has given them big power, as studies have brought out. Not because they already had power, but they had the biggest interest in helping enlarge the conditions of deprived people. So, now, it’s very unfortunate to deprive these people of political power, when they already don’t have other facilities like education, healthcare and toilets and it’s a confusion and I have enough faith in the SC and a Constitutional bench to consider all these arguments. We have a very long tradition of arguments in the SC and I am sure they would consider these and take a more intelligent and a more humane view.