Despite differences over secularism and social cohesion, Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen has praised Prime Minister Narendra Modi for providing a sense that things were once again moving in the economy, and for highlighting the need for toilets in the country.
Sen, who was the guest at a packed Express Adda on Saturday evening, also clarified his stance on government subsidies — he said the term must be “unpacked” to distinguish between essential national services such as public education and healthcare, and subsidised cooking gas and diesel.
Sen warmed the chilly evening with a staggering range of stories: from how he took the former England captain Mike Brearley to his “quietest” New Year Eve in Kolkata, to how Sanskrit has 16 words for “justice”, each with a different nuance.
In the eclectic, informed audience were, among others, former RBI governor Y V Reddy, actor Sharmila Tagore, Chief Economic Adviser Arvind Subramanian, Aam Aadmi Party leader Yogendra Yadav, BJP Lok Sabha member from Mumbai Poonam Mahajan, designer Rajeev Sethi, Raheja Group chairman Navin Raheja, Brookings India Director of Research Subir Gokarn, Population Foundation of India’s Poonam Muttreja, economist A K Shiva Kumar, lawyer Rajiv Luthra, artist Jatin Das, former Chief Election Commissioner Navin Chawla, adman Suhel Seth, journalist Mark Tully and entrepreneur Ramola Bachchan.
“I am critical of Mr Modi but I have to say he has given a sense of faith to people that things can happen. It may not be in exactly the same way that I would have liked to have happened… I think it is quite an achievement. It is a compliment, but our differences on secularism and other things don’t go away,” Sen said.
He added that former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was not able, in the second term of the UPA, to send out the signal that (positive) things could happen.
Economist-philosopher Sen is now Thomas W Lamont University Professor and Professor of Economics and Philosophy at Harvard University. In 1999, the government of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee honoured him with the Bharat Ratna, the country’s highest civilian award. Sen is one of Prime Minister Modi’s most trenchant critics, who had said that he did not want Modi to lead the country because of his lack of secular credentials.
In the course of the two-hour conversation moderated by The Indian Express Contributing Editor Pratap Bhanu Mehta and Deputy Editor Seema Chishti, Sen mentioned Modi’s speech on Independence Day, during which the PM had highlighted the need for toilets for all.
“I was delighted that for several years I was writing about open defecation and how the toilet is needed. This is the second thing I am praising about Mr Modi now… that on top of the Red Fort, he shared many good things, one of which was the absence of toilets and the other was the fear women suffer from. Not much has been done, but at least it is being talked about now,” he said.
While praising former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as an economist, Sen said that had Singh stepped down after his first term, he would have been considered a very successful PM.
Sen said he was not in favour of diesel and cooking gas subsidies; however, the state must provide essential national services such as healthcare and education.
Pointing to the example of the British National Health Service and the American system of public education, he said, “These are essential services and putting them in the same word as subsidising cooking gas or diesel is a huge mistake. The ability to distinguish between essential services the state has to provide is important.”
By attacking these, Sen said, we only prevent the state from providing essential services. But power and cooking gas subsidies were “huge mistakes” that the previous government made, he said.
Sen also stressed that the food security programme and the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) needed to be re-worked. “On food security, there was a lot of criticism from those supporting the government, but the government has actually fought with the WTO to keep the food security on, and that itself is a good policy though it has to be re-done,” Sen said.
He added that while there was need for an employment scheme, its current organisation was “very bad and is strongly in need of reform”.
Sen criticised the NDA government for its failure to recognise India’s multi-cultural and multi-religious identity. “To me the biggest issue is that the central government hasn’t looked into is the issue of social cohesion and culture. It is such a central recognition throughout Indian history,” he said, adding that the issue of environment protection and clean energy must also be looked into.
On the growth-versus-development debate, Sen argued that no country in the world has succeeded in maintaining high economic growth only on the basis of physical capital while having unhealthy people and uneducated citizens and workers.
“The argument that a poor country or state can’t provide universal education and healthcare is very bad economic reasoning,” he said while responding to a question.
Sen gave the example of Kerala, which he said was the third poorest state in India when it started a programme of providing universal healthcare and education in the 1960s, and which is now the state with the highest income according to NSSO data.
“Gujarat, which has the second highest income, is always touted as the (state with the) highest (income),” he said.
Sen, who along with Jean Dreze has co-authored the book ‘An Uncertain Glory: India and its Contradictions’, has attracted criticism for advocating government spending on subsidies and welfare programmes.
Providing the universal services of education and healthcare result in a rise of incomes, Sen argued, adding that even states like Himachal Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, that had moved partially towards such policies were among the richer states now.
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