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Amartya Sen speaks on social justice

August 12, 2008 13:08 IST
A democratic government has to adhere to the 'niti' and 'nyaya' in delivering social justice and must respond to on-going priorities in public criticism and political condemnation, advised eminent economist and Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen.

Delivering the Hiren Mukherjee memorial lecture in the Central Hall of the Parliament, Sen said, "There are simultaneous manifestations of severe injustice in India today such as appalling levels of continued child undernourishment, lack of entitlement to basic education and medical attention of the poorer members of the society. Whatever else nyaya may demand (and we can have all sorts of different views of what a perfectly just India would look like), the reasoned humanity of the justice of nyaya can hardly fail to demand the urgent removal of these terrible deprivations in human lives."

Before winding up his speech, professor Sen also gave a simple way to select the priorities for the law-makers: "To think more clearly about what should be done, we have to ask what should keep us awake at night".

Sen was invited by the Lok Sabha Speaker Somnath Chatterjee to deliver a speech on the topic of 'demands of social justice'. According to Sen, "In probing the idea of social justice, it is important to distinguish between an arrangement-focused view of justice and a realisation-focused understanding of justice. Sometimes justice is conceptualised in terms of certain organisational arrangements - some institutions, some regulations, some behavioural rules - the active presence of which indicates that justice is being done."

"In contrast", Sen argued, "a realization-focused understanding of justice broadens the evaluation of justice to the assessment of the actual world that emerges, which includes - most importantly - the lives that the people involved are able to lead."

Sen focused on issues like lack of education and healthcare facilities for the poor section of the Indian society. According to him, lack of high accountability, abstenism and late arrivals of teachers are the predominant factors for students turning away from primary schools and depending more on private teachers (which Sen believes is totally avoidable at primary level). He cited example from his home district in India - Bankura - where a study has revealed that teachers participation has increased the student enrollment rate from 51 per cent to more than 80 per cent in just two years.

According to Sen, "the removal of long-standing deprivations of the disadvantaged people of our country may, in effect, be hampered when the bulk of the social agitation is dominated by new problems that generate immediate and vocal discontent, to the neglect of the gigantic older problems of persistent deprivation of human lives, tolerated without much political protest. Justice demands that we make a strong effort to identity the overwhelming priorities that have to confronted with total urgency."

BS Reporter in New Delhi