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October 15, 1998


'It is very difficult to be absolutely certain what the economic policy at the moment is'

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Dr Amartya Sen Amartya Sen, Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, was in Calcutta for a couple of days recently. Though he studiously avoided all public engagements during the visit, he did make time to chat with Sunday magazine's Sumit Das Gupta. The 64-year-old Nobel laureate spoke about some of the social, economic, and political problems facing India today.

If you were to analyse the track-record of post-Independence India, how would you evaluate its success and failures?

I think it's been a very mixed record. If you think of three quite different aspects of it, the attempt at sustaining political democracy -- elections, civil rights, the freedom of the press and so on -- has been by and large quite successful. If you look at the subject of economic development, the record is mixed. There are some successes and some big failures too. Altogether, I'd say it has been rather disappointing.

Turning now to the third subject, social advancement, especially elimination of social deprivation, in the form of illiteracy, lack of basic health care, chronic under-nourishment of children, and so on, I think our record is pretty disastrous.

Any one particular area of failure?

Surely, the most remarkable failure is in the field of elementary education. Before Independence, whenever the nationalist leaders talked about the nature of post-Independence India, a point of focus always was complete and rapid eradication of illiteracy. That has not happened. Even today, about half the adult Indian population is illiterate. Two-thirds of the adult women are illiterate. This is completely intolerable in any country at the end of the 20th century, and it is particularly peculiar for a country whose political leadership is always pontificating on the need for social equity, which must include removing illiteracy.

How much does a lack of commitment have to do with the persistent failure to mobilise social change?

Yes, it has to be a lack of commitment. Eliminating illiteracy is not a hard thing to do; many countries have done it very well and quite fast. India's level of literacy compares with backward parts of sub-Saharan Africa. Many countries in Asia are way ahead of India in this respect.

We have to ask, where does political commitment fail? Partly, the failure is in the local commitment of state governments, partly also in the priorities of the central government. Elementary education is mainly a 'state subject,' but after all, quite a lot of the state budget does come, directly or indirectly, from the Centre, and the Centre can have a role in influencing state policy. However, the lack of local commitment is a very big issue.

There are parts of India where progress in elementary education has been very sharp and very fast. People talk of Kerala, and rightly so. But there are other parts, too, for example, Himachal Pradesh, where there has been a dramatic reduction in illiteracy, and a very successful schooling programme. Himachal Pradesh is particularly interesting as it is proximate to the Hindi belt (Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh), the area of greatest failure in this respect. So, ultimately, it is, at least partly, a matter of local commitment.

This recognition raises the question, what generates this political commitment? We have a 'chicken-and-egg' problem here, in the sense that there will be more commitment from the government if it became electorally more important an issue, because then the government would tend to lose elections if it did not do adequately well in the elimination of illiteracy. In fact, it has not become a politically dynamite issue.

One way it could become an electorally sensitive issue is if the political parties took a much greater interest towards literacy than they do at the moment; Opposition parties can criticise governmental failure more seriously. So, on one side, the political parties can take an initiative and change the nature of electoral politics; and on the other side, the process of electoral politics can change and force the political parties to take a greater interest. The nature of the 'chicken-and-egg' problem here is that it could begin in either direction. This is a matter of responsible citizenship. If one is an activist -- which I hope we all are -- then we should try and do what we can to influence both sides.

The successful experience in Himachal Pradesh means that when you actually put in an effort, the problem can be dealt with. This is a positive sign, but -- to look at it in another way -- in the light of the fact that the problem of illiteracy has been so quickly and so effectively reduced in some parts of the country, it seems monstrous that so little is happening in the rest of the country.

Don't you feel that there is some confusion in the current economic policy?

It is very difficult to be absolutely certain what the economic policy at the moment is. It's certainly true that in the early 1990s, there was a determined department made in the direction of opening up the economy. This was a move in the right direction but not in itself adequate. My analysis of the situation had been that there were two important points to address in the early '90s: one was severe overactivity of the government of the counterproductive kind in some fields (the so-called 'licence raj'); the other was the severe underactivity of the government in those social spheres that are complementary to economic development.

Manmohan Singh What was required was to reduce governmental activity in some spheres and to increase it in others. What was needed was more of a combination of policies in order to achieve this. What my friend and ex-colleague Manmohan Singh did was quite admirable. I know many of my friends, especially in the Left of Indian politics, to which I also see myself belonging, don't agree with me on this. They take the view that the economic reforms were not necessary. I don't take that view, I think they were very important. This would have been one part of a combined policy for which I had argued for a long time, and I see no reason why sensible economic reforms could not have become a part of a Left-wing programme either.

But along with economic reforms, there is the need to recognise that the state has a very positive role in social spheres: dealing with education, health care, nutrition, and land reforms. Socially constructive policies are important in themselves -- indeed, directly important for the well-being of the people involved. But they are, in addition, also quite crucial for successful economic development.

There is much to learn here from East Asia -- I know that these days people are sceptical because of their financial crisis, but it would be a great mistake to underestimate what East Asia did achieve. The transformation of economies, beginning with Japan, then South Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore, then China, then Thailand, have been major achievements that we mustn't belittle because of their present-day financial crisis.

If you look at the preparation for success which they made, it was not just the opening up to the world economy. Indeed the opening up happened (after an initial period of relying on domestic markets) on the solid foundation of social development programmes, with completed land reforms, much expanded school education, a good basic level of health care.

In India, the social foundations have been very weak. Despite seeing the necessity of opening up, there has been a persistent inability or unwillingness on the part of respective governments to see the importance of social change which is both crucial on its own, and for sustaining and spreading economic development.

What do you make of the swadeshi line that the present government is advocating?

Kind courtesy: Sunday magazine

The Amartya Sen interview, continues

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