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October 29, 1998


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The Rediff Business Interview/ Prof Amartya Sen

'Taking a dogmatic anti-Western view is dangerous'

Economics Nobel laureate Prof Amartya Sen has a new job these days -- giving interviews. "I have over 200 interview requests," he said, tongue-in-cheek. "People forget that I do have a full-time job at Trinity. And I have been saying the same things again!"

His office secretary said it has been chaotic. "There are so many calls and people wanting to meet him." Despite the awesome demands on his limited time -- he had just returned from Italy, and even as Amberish K Diwanji was trying his number, the telephone was more often than not engaged as others interviewed him. Prof Sen agreed to answer a few questions over the phone.

You have often spoken of how the Bengal famine affected you. Can you tell us something about that?

When the Bengal famine came, I was a nine to nine-and-a-half years old boy. It was certainly a major catastrophic experience in my life. The famine had two features which were striking: its suddenness and its class-based nature. The famine came almost without warning, and second, it affected some groups of people but not at all others. There was also much discussion that there was adequate food in the country. This was another factor that seemed fascinating to me as a young boy then in the midst of the gigantic tragedy and the terrible spectacle all around us.

It did indicate to me that if at some stage I should be able to read more clearly on that, I should study it. And this I did after 30 years. The Bengal famine occurred in 1943, my studies on it began in 1973 and I worked for about a decade on famines, among other things. So it did affect the nature of my work, again not all of my work obviously, but some of it substantially.

You have been called the Conscience of Economics, a Philosopher in Economics. What do you see yourself as?

Well, first of all, that discussion on being called the Conscience of Economics, I don't follow. It was said by Robert Solow (himself a Nobel laureate), a great and leading economist in the world, a friend of mine and someone whom I admire greatly. But I don't know what he means by describing me as the Conscience of Economics, I simply don't. But I guess what he is referring to is that I am and have been interested is in those problems of economics which are matters concerning the worst-off people in society -- the poor, the hungry, the unemployed, the famine victims.

But then he is not off the mark, is he?

That has been my primary focus of attention, but not my only focus of interest in economics. A lot of my work is on general theory, social choice theory dealing with aggregation problems on consistency problems, of majority rule, of how to incorporate liberty in the process of decision-making. But quite a lot has been with economic poverty, and I guess the reference is to that. And it is really a question of a choice of problems. I think one has to make a distinction between how you choose an economic problem to study, and what do you about it.

Now when it comes to the choice of economic problems, to be guided by conscience is quite legitimate. But when it comes to answering that, I think you have to see yourself as looking for truth and reality in an uncompromising way. That is not a moment of displaying your conscience, that is a moment of using your science. So I think there are two distinct issues. The choice of problems, in which conscience is important, and the answer to the questions, in which conscience should not play much problem and science should take over from there.

Do you think India can ever match the Chinese growth rate unless we achieve primary literacy and primary health for all the citizens?

First of all, I think we cannot achieve such high growth rates without having a much more participatory democracy. But apart from that, the overall growth rate is also the question of who all are actually taking part in the process of expansion. So I think the thing to look at are those factors which will influence the overall rate of growth as well as the division of the fruits of growth between the different classes and different sections of the community.

And from both these points of view, literacy and school education are extremely important. The basic public healthcare as well as nutritional support are also important, because India, in fact South Asia because this includes Pakistan and Bangladesh, all three have the highest ratio of child undernourishment in the world, even higher than the sub-Saharan Africa.

These are important in themselves to be removed, but they are also important in making people take up the challenge of economic expansion and responsible job search. There are also issues such as land reforms and micro-credit. So there is a whole variety of issues in order to make the process of economic expansion both faster and more fair.

You have often criticised the idea of swadeshi and anti-Westernism that seems to be growing in India. Do you see it as posing a danger to India?

Yes, I think that taking a dogmatic anti-western view is a danger. I think the issue is not so much becoming pro-western or anti-western, it is a question of giving a sufficient place to reasoning and rationality in deciding to what you want to do. That is to say that something is western is neither an argument in favour of it, nor against it. The question is, does it make sense?

So what I was referring to (in an interview to another publication) is that the terms of the debate have to be not whether you are pro-Western or anti-Western, but whether you are willing to use reason to assess what is it the country needs. And it may sometimes turn out that what the country needs is to be more in the direction of what is seen as being western. And sometimes it may turn out that that is not so. So one has to choose.

Is reason being discounted in India?

Some of the things connected with rationality and reasoning have a long history in Indian intellectual tradition. There is a long, very large body of atheistic literature in Sanskrit and Pali. In fact, Sanskrit and Pali have a larger atheistic and agnostic literature than any other classical literature such as Greek or Latin or Hebrew. I think it is a question of viewing these problems in terms of relative arguments and assessing them. I am not suggesting that one should necessarily be an atheist, which is my own position, but that one should be able to argue about these things.

And to say that these things are anti-Hindu, or anti-Indian, or anti-Asian, or even that they are pro-Western, or for that matter even anti-Western, are arguments that do not cut ice without looking at the context and the implications that it would have for the country. And that is what I have been arguing about.

Amartya Sen: The Economics Nobel Laureaute


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