The Amartya Sen Interview : On Democracy and Justice

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By Taryana Odayar and Sonali Campion.

An aged gentleman wearing a bright yellow raincoat slowly shuffles into the lobby of LSE’s Old Building. He is unaccompanied and moves gingerly with unhurried yet deliberately measured steps. He takes a seat on one of the cushioned black chairs in the lobby and begins a lengthy phone conversation with someone. Students eager to get home before the torrential downpour of rain that threatens to break rush past him, barely giving him a second glance. Little did they know that the stooped figure under the yellow raincoat was none other than Amartya Sen, who was at the LSE to discuss his new book, “The Country of First Boys.”

Amartya weaves a degree of lucidity and clarity into his speech and writing through the use of rich, anecdotal evidence and sound analysis of economic indicators. This is refreshingly different to the sometimes tedious and highly technical Economics jargon found in other publications, which result in a deficit of understanding. During my interview with him, it became apparent that his socio-economic views and philosophical tendencies are linked by an underlying sense of ethics and an understanding of the human condition. Indeed, at 82 years old, Amartya Sen shows no sign of slowing down any time soon.

Sen is the recipient of the 1998 Nobel Prize for his contributions to welfare economics. He is also credited with developing the Human Development Index (HDI). Currently, he is the Thomas W. Lamont University Professor, and Professor of Economics and Philosophy at Harvard University, and an honorary fellow of the LSE. (Special thanks must be given to the LSE South Asia Centre, Dr Nilanjan Sarkar and Sonali Campion for organising the interview.)

(TO) In your essay, ‘A Wish A Day for A Week’, you ask a Goddess to grant you seven wishes. Yet the Goddess tells you that her plea is inferior to the power of the Indian people. Has your faith and optimism in the power of the people and democracy ever wavered?

No – I think the Goddess was right. Of course the Goddess’ thoughts were not entirely independent of my own thoughts! But you have to recognise that if the Chinese decide that things are going wrong, as they did in 1979, they respond very quickly. They privatised their agricultural sector with enormous success. China in the 1980s grew faster in agriculture than any country has ever grown. And they privatised quite a lot of other industries with great success. Not as much as agriculture, but by and large with great success. They did not privatise the hospitals, but they eliminated universal health insurance for all. They did that by simply abolishing it, because the rural areas used to be covered by it and in the urban areas it was mostly by the state. And the Chinese health progress faltered.

In fact, between 1979 and 2004, India steadily reduced the gap between itself and China in terms of life expectancy. There was a 14-year gap earlier, which fell to 6 or 7 years. Not that India was doing anything right, but the Chinese were doing more things wrong as far as healthcare was concerned. But then the Chinese recognised that things had gone wrong. Once they recognised that, which was by about 2002, they realised they could change that by about 2004. By 2009 they could bring in a scheme of universal healthcare and by 2012 they were well in the 90s in terms of percentage coverage of health insurance. China are able to do that if ten people at the top are persuaded.

In India, ten people is not sufficient. You have to carry the population. Against the blast of propaganda that happened in the general elections last year, fed on one side by the activism of the Hindutva Parivar, and on the other side by the gigantic money of the business community which had great hopes at that time – I’m not sure where the hope stands now, or that Modi will do all the good things – democracy is slow to correct these things. It is very fast when there is a crisis. So if there is a threat of famine, India could stop it straight away. If there is a threat that a cyclone over the Bay of Bengal could kill a million people, they can move two million people out of its course. In an emergency, all the Indian apparatus comes into force. But if you want to change the system and have much more money spent in state schools, state hospitals, provide health coverage for all, that requires convincing the people. The rhetoric has been so badly distorted in India that most vocal Indians – which tend to be upper classes – don’t even recognise how bad the healthcare is for the bulk of the Indian population.

So I have never wavered my faith in ultimately democracy as the most stable way of doing things. On the other hand, are there big changes which the non-democratic system of China can bring about much more quickly? Yes.

(TO) And China has now introduced its “Two Child Policy.” Will this have a strong impact?

I don’t think that its going to have any impact whatsoever. In the ‘New York Times’ there was an article showing that the fall in fertility was not due to the One Child Policy. It was due to the women’s education. In 1968 China’s fertility was close to 6, and it had fallen to below 3 by 1978 when the One Child Policy was introduced. So 6 to below 3 came in the decade before One Child Policy, which was when women’s education was expanding rapidly under the Maoist period. From 1978 to today, they’ve come down from 2.9 to 1.7, which is roughly where Kerala is without its One Child Policy.

(SC) You have said that looking at the end point of a debate is not an ideal way of understanding the wider discussion. This seems relevant in relation to economic policy today, where developing countries aspire to high and continuous growth. What’s your view on the current Indian government’s manner of pursuing growth?

Well let me make a clarificatory point first. The point about the end point not being the only issue asks what were the counter arguments that were considered? What were the different points of view that may or may have not have been aired as relevant, even if the end point is correct? That becomes relevant when you agree with the end point but you think the reasoning was derision. In the case of the policy as it stands now, that is not the case. I think the end point is wrong too. In addition, the argumentation process is wrong as well, so there are two distinct issues here. India is the only country in the world which is trying to become a global economic power with an uneducated and unhealthy labour force. Its never been done before, and never will be done in the future either. There is a reason why Europe went for universal education, and so did America. Japan, after the Meiji restoration in 1868, wanted to get full literacy in 40 years and they did. And so did South Korea after the war, and Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore and China.

The whole idea that you could somehow separate the process of economic growth from the quality of the labour force is a danger and a mistake against which Adam Smith warned in 1776. Its an ancient danger, and he might have been right to think that the British government at his time did not pay sufficient interest in basic education for all. Unfortunately, that applies today to government of India as well. So I think the basic reason why this is a problem is because it doesn’t acknowledge sufficiently the relevance of the quality of human labour, and generally human capability to do things for one’s self as well as for others in being a productive member of society economically and politically.

That is the foundation of their mistake; their conclusions therefore are wrong. For example, they are trying to go suddenly for everything to be done by cash, which is meant to be an experiment. In one of his first interviews after winning the Nobel Prize this year, Angus Deaton said this is purely an experiment, but its an experiment with the lives of the poor. And I’m afraid I agree with him, and I also agree with his skepticism as to whether it will work out. There was a reason why somebody as intensely keen on the market economy as Adam Smith thought the government has to make the country fully literate. America is meant to be very anti-government but every American has a right to primary school education paid for by the government, you’re picked up from you’re home by government buses, delivered to your state school and educated there.

India is trying to be different from America, Europe, Japan, Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and China – all of them. This is really not good way of thinking of economic development. So foundationally, the government’s understanding of development underlying their approach is mistaken. Having said that, the previous government was terribly mistaken too. But one hoped there might be a change, and there has been, but not for the better. All the sins of the past government have been added up.

(SC) Do you see the current challenges of secularism in India as a threat to the country’s economic progress?

Recently Raghuram Rajan, Governor of the Reserve Bank (of India), said that economic goals require a tolerant economic climate and I think he is basically right. I’ve done no independent research on that; my dislike of the lack of tolerance is because it is terrible for human beings and the society, but I respect Rajan enough to think he is also right and that it is not good for economic growth.

(SC) India has a lot of lessons to give the rest of the world and vice versa, but you write about how India can learn from itself – could you tell us more about that?

When I first strongly supported Kerala’s policy for universal education and universal healthcare, it was when the Communist Party first came into office in 1957, and they declared their policy in 1960. In 1963 I was in Delhi teaching at the Delhi School of Economics and people asked me, “Do you think its feasible?” And I said, “its absolutely feasible.” Primarily for one economic reason, being that a poor country has less money, but medical care and education are extremely labour intensive and the wages are lower, so you need far less money than you would need in, say, Britain, to provide that level of healthcare and education.

Now this argument is not very sophisticated but on the other hand it could make a dramatic difference between life and death. Many of my colleagues – I won’t mention who in particular – at Delhi School of Economics said that I’m just leading people up the garden path, and that as an Economist I should be more critical, because Kerala was the third poorest state in India then. How could they afford it? And my claim was this economic argument. Also there being externalities and the “public good feature” as Economists call it. I was certain that on top of that, for reasons which we began with, that the policies would also stimulate economic growth and economic development. In the latest round of national sample survey, if you put the urban and rural together, Kerala has now the highest per capita income in the whole of India. I would have thought that some people who thought I was leading them up the garden path, would say that they were mistaken. Have I got such statements? I’m afraid I have not! Am I happy that my expectations have been fulfilled? Yes, very happy indeed. Not for myself, that’s a trivial thing. But the fact that a people-friendly education and health policy could make a difference, not only to their lives – which happened immediately, life expectancy shot up in Kerala straight away – but also ultimately on economic growth.

(TO): You’ve said before that your favourite play is Shudraka’s ‘Mṛcchakatika’ (The Little Clay Cart) and that it has deeply influenced your understanding of justice. How so?

It is indeed one of many favourite plays. Its interesting you see, the play was performed in New York in the 1920s and the critic from ‘The Nation’ thought that it was the best play he had ever seen. It had the view of humanity that was totally uplifting and he hadn’t ever seen that in any other play. My view was very similar to that. And unfortunately most literary critics don’t emphasize that.

But there is the last scene with Vasantasenā, the Courtesan, and her boyfriend, Chārudatta, who has fallen to bad times, meaning he is poor. The play is a critique of bureaucracy and a critique of moneyed peoples’ behaviour pattern as opposed to the little clay cart, Mṛcchakatika, and carriages made of gold. It’s a revolutionary 4th century play. But it is at the last moment when the person who has been trying to kill Chārudatta has been caught, that Chārudatta says “let him go.” And then Chārudatta exclaims that what he’s really interested in, is that the governance would be such that society goes well. And are we going against retribution here?

There’s something interesting about the Benthamite thought on punishment, namely that punishment is never justified by retribution but by effect. So that’s a very strong statement about the social effect of legal punishment, and therefore that did influence my understanding of justice.

Features Editor