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October 14, 1998


Prof Sen gave ethical underpinnings to mainstream economics

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Prof Amartya Sen, the Indian Nobel laureate for economics, has made enormous contribution to the central themes of economics and fashioned new concepts to the theory of growth and welfare.

Prof Sen gave ethical underpinnings to mainstream economics, a domain so far regarded as the prerogative of philosophy.

Prof Sen, who teaches at Britain's Trinity College in Cambridge, got the Nobel prize for his contribution to welfare economics. This helped in the understanding of economic mechanisms underlying famines and poverty, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said in its citation.

Few people know that he is still an honorary professor at the Delhi School of Economics, where he taught for eight years until 1971. Described by his colleagues in the country as an 'absolutely brilliant' academic and a 'fine conversationalist', Prof Sen moved with equal felicity in philosophy and economics.

He is a joint professor of philosophy and economics at Harvard University.

Prof Sen brought ethics into economics as he grappled with the issues of hunger and poverty, mostly in India but also in Bangladesh. He has brought out two outstanding volumes on social choice theory in welfare economics and articles in all major journals.

Prof Sen argued that famines have occurred even when the supply of food was not significantly lower than during the previous years, or that sometimes famine-stricken areas have exported food.

He challenged the view that shortage of food is the only explanation of famines, as there is perpetual under-nourishment and deprivation.

Prof Sen has also made important contributions in several key areas including savings, planning, gender, empowerment, growth theory and choice of technique.

Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation is regarded as a benchmark contribution to economic policy. He holds the view that India has done well in areas in which it wanted to, that is, where policy is directed. It did poorly in areas which were ignored. On the whole India has not done too badly, he says.

A large part of Sen's work deals with development economics. Prof Sen, who is described as a 'brilliant presenter and prolific writer', has argued that growth economics has missed the boat as it deals with issues of maintaining growth with stability and not underdevelopment. It is like a poor man having spent all his day's hard-earned money on a drink.

Prof Sen has made a careful study of a number of catastrophes and is sympathetic to the sufferings of the girl child in conditions of deprivation. It is the females who lost out most in such situations.

Prof Sen has been married thrice. His first marriage was to a Bengali 'talented' intellectual Nabnita Deb Sen, the second to Colorni and the third to Emma Rothschild. He has two daughters, one of whom is a well-known journalist.

Prof Sen, who took his early education in Santiniketan, later studied in Presidency College in Calcutta. He later moved to the Delhi School of Economics and Cambridge, where he did significant work in various themes of economics.

Prof Sen has co-authored a book with John Dreze, an economist and at present with the Delhi School of Economics.

Prof Sen's 1981 work titled Poverty and Famine: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation, had quietly changed some of the terminology of development planners. Instead of talking of food availability, the planners started talking of food entitlement.

His 1971 book Economic Inequality along with Choice, Welfare and Measurement provided a guide to the planners to gauge inequality and direct public policy. His works also influenced the UNDP's human development report.

The fair sex too hail Sen as one of them. As noted historian and women's activist Prof Yashodhara Bagchi said, "Sen's recognition is also a triumph for us in the sense that he had always championed through his subject the need for entitlement of women in the family."

In 1996, Sen was a front-runner in the Nobel economics race as eminent world economists had expected him to emerge the winner after the Wall Street Journal had placed him among the top five probables. However, it was not to be for the professor who despite staying in the West for most of the time -- the Nobel laureate had in fact chosen to stay in the UK for health reasons initially -- never forgot his roots. So when something like a lecture on subjects like 'our culture, their culture' is organised the intelligentsia turn up in droves to relish his valued opinion.

Amartya Sen's brilliance is his authority on subjects as varied as Satyajit Ray to Charles Darwin.


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