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October 22, 1998


Solution to India's poverty 'within reach', avers Amartya Sen

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Amartya Sen, Nobel winner for economics, has called for a ''non-dogmatic approach'' in dealing with India's massive poverty, the alleviation of which, he feels, is ''within our reach''.

''What is required is the acknowledgement of the seriousness of these issues rather than getting bogged down in some kind of dogmatic debate about whether you rely 100 per cent on market or reject market mechanism 100 per cent,'' Professor Sen said in a radio interview.

Professor Sen said elimination of poverty depended very much on the public policy. ''I see poverty in terms of widespread illiteracy, poor healthcare system, incomplete land reforms, gender differences, deprivation of women and neglect of children,'' he said.

He said, in his view, it was a question of being quite clear about the precise nature of the problem and methods to deal with it.

''What are the objectives?'' he asked and then went on to recommend an ''open-minded'' approach to do things that were needed to achieve them.

India has a higher ratio of malnourished and under-nourished children than even, perhaps, sub-Saharan Africa, he lamented.

Professor Sen believes that a good deal of use could be made of market mechanism. ''It is a question, above all, of avoiding dogmatic policy,'' he added.

In reply to a question, he said, the market-oriented reforms, in many ways, were long overdue in India. In 1991, when the government began their introduction, it faced two types of problems: there was enormous over-activity of the government in areas of control and licensing and the ''so-called licence raj reflects that''.

Simultaneously, there was also enormous under-activity of the government in the fields like education and healthcare, he observed.

He, however, said the debate got somewhat derailed because some people wanted less government and the others needed a lot of government.

In his view, both of them were correct. ''You need to reduce the overactivity of the government in those areas where it was counter-productive and expand in areas -- education, healthcare, land reforms, social security and child nutrition -- in which government activity could be positive and under-performed in the previous situation,'' he added.

''So, reforms were a move in the right direction but not an adequately complete move in that direction,'' he remarked.

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which gives the Nobel Prize, said in its citation that Professor Sen had ''restored an ethical dimension to the discussion of vital economic problems''.

When asked to respond to this observation, he said, ''This statement is very pleasing, specially one which is very satisfying to hear. It is difficult for me to elucidate on that remark. I guess what they are referring to is the fact that I had an interest in ethics other than economics.''

''I think what is being referred to is that my choice of problems might have been affected by that (ethics),'' he said. ''I would interpret that remark to be perhaps a kind reference of the fact that I have chosen problems with the influence of ethics and often tried to concentrate on the downside of economics -- the people who end up getting the rough edge of the economy, whether they are unemployed or starving. It is a kind of remark by the academy on the kind of problems I have chosen to work on.''

Professor Sen, 64, who hails from West Bengal and is now Master of Trinity College in Cambridge, recalled in vivid detail the 1943 Bengal famine and its impact on his thought process but said it would probably be an exaggeration to say that direction of all his economic thoughts were influenced by that experience.

''When I actually began my work, I did not think that famine is a very difficult subject to study. I did not go in that direction for quite some time. Then, I again started working on famine in 1973 -- some 30 years after the Bengal famine. Then, quite a lot of thought that I had even as a child proved quite relevant,'' he added.

''Who were its victims?'' He posed a question and then stated, none of his friends, schoolmates and family members had any problem. ''That of course is a characteristic of a class nature of the famine,'' he added.

''That a famine besets some occupation groups and not others and very often very limited occupation groups and the fact that I did not know any one who was remotely affected by the famine, one reflection later became a part of my the evidence that drives in me the idea that one has to see famine as very divisive phenomenon in which most people remained completely unaffected,'' he added.

He said that thoughts of his childhood returned in his work. Also the general understanding that it was taking place at a time when food supply was not very bad. ''The experience and memories of that period did play a part in my work,'' he added.

And then, he went on to explain his theory of how democracy helps in averting famines.

Asked as to what he intended to do with the prize which includes a cheque for about $ 964,000 he would receive in Stockholm on December 10, he said, ''I have no clue, no idea at all. I am still an American resident in addition to being a British resident, even though I am exclusively an Indian citizen.''

He said half of the money would go in taxes to the US. ''Any way what I would do with rest I don't know.''

Besides being Master of the Trinity College, he is Professor Emeritus at Harvard University. He was president of the American Economics Association in 1994 and still teaches part-time at Harvard. He is finishing a book on democracy and capitalism due to be published next year.


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