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October 14, 1998


Economists thrilled at Amartya Sen's Nobel

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Economists in India are extremely pleased at Professor Amartya Sen being awarded the Nobel prize, seeing in the award a recognition for the untiring efforts and his sheer brilliance. His former colleague at the Delhi School of Economics, Badal Mukherjee, who is now director of the institute, said he was delighted at the news which spread like wildfire through academic circles.

"It is an honour to Sen, to India, and also to DSE where Sen continues to be an honorary professor," said Mukherjee.

While most are awaiting details of the citation which quotes the winner's works, economists in the national capital are convinced it is Sen's work on famine and welfare that has won him the award. "His work on welfare economics is path-breaking, his two-volume book on Social Choice, which must have got him the award, was written while Sen was a professor at DSE from 1963 to 1971."

A former junior colleague, Dr Aditya Bhattacharjee points out that Sen's repertoire in economics was extremely wide and covered a range of topics, beyond that of most economists. "While he is best known for his work on famine and welfare, his works have been used in political science, sociology, and philosophy."

In fact, Sen had the amazingly rare distinction of being a professor of economics and philosophy, which only points to his vast knowledge in diverse aspects of economics. A newspaper report a few years ago spoke of how, when a student in Delhi University chose among his optional papers a particular subject which had never been taught before and for which no faculty member was present, the university turned to Sen to impart knowledge to the student.

Another person who is pleased beyond measure is Tapas Majumdar, who had the distinction of being Sen's professor at Presidency College, Calcutta, from where Sen graduated. "I am most pleased at his success," said Majumdar.

Majumdar said in terms of sheer technical brilliance, his work was unbeatable. "He has won the award on the basis of his book Collective Choice,written in 1970 and which remains a monumental work till today," he said, adding, "What was hidden in that book has flowered over the past 25 years. It was his rigorous conceptualisations beyond what we used to understand that took his economics beyond the ordinary."

Asked about Sen as a student, Majumdar fondly recalled, "I was a very lucky professor because I had not one but two brilliant students -- Sukhmoy Chakraborty and Sen. And both of them in college used to debate and argue, and both influenced each other, which even Sen today recognises. Chakraborty (who died a few years ago) too was worthy of a Nobel."

Bibek Debroy, an economist with the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation who has studied the works of Sen, however, has one major fear. "While one is pleased at an Indian winning the Nobel, I feel Sen has been somewhat unfair to the pro-reform economists," he said, adding, "And I fear that after winning the Nobel, he may become more influential."

This fear is, incidentally, being echoed in other circles also, but the economists and academics are chary of speaking openly for fear of seeming like sour grapes at a time of national rejoicing. These economists fear that with Sen winning the Nobel, the Indian government may use it as reason to take an even more anti-reform line, or go slow on certain aspects of reforms such as dismantling subsidies and privatising the public sector.

Justifying his views, Debroy adds, "Sen has always insisted that we must spend more on primary education and public health. Now we all agree, but where is the money for all this, unless we slash subsidies and divest from the public sector units? It is here that his views sound like he is playing to the gallery and are very close to the Left."

Debroy too feared that like Paul Krugman's statements against capital account convertibility being played up by the anti-reform lobby in the country, certain statements of Sen too will be bandied about out of context. "It is for this reason that I only wish that Prof Jagdish Bhagwati had been given the award before Sen," he said.

However, not all would agree. "His award is for his vision and his role in fashioning a new kind of economics," said Bhattacharjee. "His economics is an economics with a human face, and that is how it must be seen."

In Thiruvananthapurm, noted economist Dr K N Raj said he was extremely delighted at Sen's Nobel.

He told Rediff On The Net that Dr Sen, whom he has known for the last 50 years, should have won the award much earlier. The two economists had studied and worked together at the Delhi School of Economics.

Dr Raj said Dr Sen was an outstanding teacher, whose classroom was always packed. This was the case not only at the DSE but also at the London School of Economics, where students used to take their seats half an before Dr Sen's lecture started.

Dr Raj rated the Choice of Techniques, which he wrote in the '50s, as one of Dr Sen's outstanding works. The two had authored several works together, including the Oxford Economic Papers.

Dr Sen used to be a frequent visitor to Kerala, and most of the times he visits Thiruvananthapuram, he used to stay with Dr Raj.

Dr Chandan Mukherji, director of the Centre for Development Studies in Thiruvananthapuram, with which Dr Amritya Sen had close interaction, said the Nobel prize was due a long time ago. "We have been waiting for ages for this to come." Dr Chandan said his studies on developing countries were some of the most outstanding works.

Dr Sen was one of the wellwishers of CDS, visiting the centre often, and maintained close contacts with it. He has been in touch with all the work being done at the CDS, and would guide faculty members on various aspects, Dr Chandan said. He was very thorough in his comments whenever he read a paper done at the centre, and would mention where he agreed and where he disagreed. All the same Dr Sen was quite encouraging for the junior members of the faculty, Dr. Chandan said.

Dr U Shankar, director, Madras school of Economics said Prof Sen deserved the Nobel prize very much as he is an original thinker and has contributed quite a lot to welfare economics. "I have met him in one or two conferences, both in India and abroad. He is highly respected by the profession. He was very vocal about Gandhian economics and decentralisation. In the last fifteen years, he had been spending more time on the health of economics, particularly on poverty, famine, and entitlement to family. He had been pleading that government and public sector should spend more money on primary education, healthcare. He has of late published a number of books on very important issues on what governments can do, particularly in poverty alleviation.

"He is a gentleman, easily approachable and he has helped a lot of people to come up in life. He is a very highly respected as an economist, as a good scholar and as a philosopher too. Even Nobel laureates quote Amartya Sen very much. So, not only as an economist but as a philosopher too, he is well known. We are extremely happy that he has won the Nobel at least now."

Dr S Subramanyam, professor at the Madras Institute of Development Studies, had the honour of being Dr Sen's student at the London School of Economics. "It is no credit to him but he taught me! It is a matter of considerable pride for every Indian citizen to learn that Amartya Sen has at long last got a prize which he deserved years ago. So, there is no surprise in him getting the prize. The only surprise about the award is the length of time it has taken for the Nobel committee to eventually give it to him.

"He may not like to know that I was influenced by his thoughts but I am, quite considerably. Almost anybody who has read his work, or more fortunately taught by him, cannot remain without being influenced by him.

"As a student, two things had struck me. First, his tremendous versatility not only within economics but in fields outside the realms of economics too. You know, he held the chair of both philosophy and economics at Harvard. The second thing that strikes one is the co-existence of both ethical content and logical strength in his work and thought. There was a certain kind of moral force and relevance in the subjects he chooses to discuss without forsaking logic and rationality.

"There is an extraordinary lucidity in him with which he has always been able to get across extremely complex ideas, particularly as a teacher. Very often when he was teaching, there were people from other disciplines to listen to him. I still remember when I was at LSE, he was a visiting professor from Oxford to teach us a couple of times a week. There was this course in welfare economics, and for the first lecture itself, the lecture room was completely filled up with students from other disciplines and many of them had spilt over to the corridor and were sitting on the floor. So, the next time, we went to the main lecture hall.

"The clarity and lucidity on his thought was carried over to his lecture also, especially when he had to deal with a heterogeneous group of people. As a specialist, he had to maintain a certain amount of rigour. At the same time he didn't want to lose other people who were also interested in latching on to what he had to say. He somehow managed to combine this ability not to forsake rigor but at the same time be accessible to all. The net result was that very often he used to receive extremely weird questions or very badly formulated questions from people who have not quite understood what he was saying. Because of personal sensitivity, he would say very often, "Can I reformulate the question for you? It is a very interesting question." Then, he reframes the question so wonderfully, intelligently so that even the person who had asked the question would be impressed by his own intelligence! Most of the time the person wouldn't recognise the question as his own. Amartya Sen would then proceed very patiently.

"Another great merit he had as a teacher, I can still remember, was that he would come to the class and say, 'Please ask me questions because I feel very lonely out here. Let us have a conversation.' I think I will have to say one more thing about his teaching. This was a course in social choice theory, which has been pioneered by another Nobel laureate Kenneth Arrow. It is very hard logic with full of theorems and propositions to be proved. But Amartya Sen would come into class without any lecture notes, remove his coat, throw it into a corner and ask, 'Where were we in the last class?' We would say, Theorem Four. He would then write Theorem Five on the black board and go on to derive the proof one after the other, without ever having to consult any notes. It was amazing!

"Let me say once again, all of us are delighted and excited by the news."

''I feel very proud as an economist and as an Indian,'' said Prof Isher Judge Ahluwalia of the Indian Council of Research and International Economic Relations, Delhi.

''I can now claim that I have worked with three Nobel laureates. Prof Robert Snow, Prof Paul Samuelson and now Professor Amartya Sen."

Dr Ahluwalia is a well-known economist whose work is well received in India and abroad.

Associate professor of economics at the Jawharlal Nehru University Arun Kumar said Prof Sen covered a wide area of research in the fields of economics and philosophy. His work in economics includes issues such as savings, planning, famines, empowerment and choice of technique.

Dr Sujata Singh, reader at the Indian Institute of Public Administration in Delhi, recalled the two volumes Prof Sen had brought out on choice theory in welfare economics. He has written magnificent articles in all the major journals, she said.

Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee today congratulated Prof Amartya Sen for winning this year's Nobel prize for economics.

''You have made us all proud,'' he said in a message.

The Congress too hailed Prof Sen on winning the Nobel.

''We feel proud of him and proud of India,'' party spokesman Ajit Jogi said.

Amberish K Diwanji in New Delhi, D Jose in Thiruvanthapuram and Shobha Warrier in Madras

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Prof Sen gave ethical underpinnings to mainstream economics
Let us not confuse policy with academic brilliance, says Prof Bhagwati
For Amartya's mother, disbelief is the first emotion

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