The people's economist
An evening with Prof. Amartya Sen in Chicago.
Mail this page to a friend
My concentration has not been the successful enterprise - profitmakers, speculators, big investors. I have been more concerned with the economic problems of the less fortunate: peasants, workers, the poor, the unemployed, the downtrodden, the hungry, famine victims, people whose liberties are violated by politically repressive regimes - all those who are in difficulty. People who, in one way or another, have had the rough end of the stick.

- Amartya Sen

April 1999: It was fitting that the India Development Service ( IDS) honored Dr. Amartya Sen during his recent visit to Chicago, not only because he is Indian, but because he embodies the mission of IDS. In an evening during the course of which his intelligence and wit were outshined by his humility, Dr Sen left a lasting impact on the audience, not only of his intellect but as well of his personality.

Prof. Sen. Dr.Sen's talks around the world have helped spread knowledge and understanding of welfare economics.

The evening began with a presentation by Mahender Vasandani, President of IDS Board of Directors, about the growth of IDS, its mission and the nature of the work being currently supported by IDS. This was followed by introductions of Dr. Sen by Naresh Chandra, the Indian ambassador to the United States and Jagdish Sharma., the Indian Council General at Chicago.

Dr Sen began his speech by recalling that he like Dr Chandrashekar ( Winner of Nobel Prize in Physics and whose wife was honored as well) had quoted Rabindranath Tagore’s words from Gitanjali, Where the mind is without fear.. during his acceptance speech for the Noble prize and went on to share with the audience some of the crucial insights that he has obtained during his life-long research of the complex issue of poverty, famine and human development.

Dr Sen’s research has amongst other things highlighted the importance of primary education, provision of basic health services, gender equality and other social goals as tools to overcome poverty and the observations that he made while addressing the gathering focussed on the interactions of social, economic and cultural forces that cause poverty and act as obstacles to over coming it.

Characterizing the Indian educational system as one with a strong commitment to higher education but continual neglect of widespread basic education, he postulated that the neglect of elementary education as the most important single factor affecting the development of the country. Pointing out that nearly fifty percent of Indian adults are illiterate, he emphasized that any kind overall development effort becomes more difficult in a society where illiteracy rates are this high.

For empirical support of Dr Sen’s observations, one can observe the development path of the newly industrialized countries like Singapore, Taiwan and Korea. One of the common characteristics of growth in these countries has been the emphasis on primary education and economic growth (not withstanding the recent turmoil) has been one of the most equitable one’s that the world has witnessed. India in contrast has been heavily subsidizing higher education.( To get a measure, it was estimated by India Today that on an average the government spends nearly R 25,000 on each student at Delhi University expenditure which urgently needs to be questioned, especially when one considers the abysmal quality of education in most colleges).

Dr Sen also brought forward some of the externalities that result from greater literacy-- lower infant mortality and fertility rates. Dr Sen who has been outspoken in his support for the improvement of the status of women in society, emphasized the clear relationship between the educational status of women to infant mortality and the fertility rate and suggested that empowering the voices of young women will help reduce the fertility rate and thus help lower population growth as well. Addressing the need to provide better health services, he also elucidated how poor health and high infant mortality interact with high literacy to keep birth rates high.

The need for a greater role for women in society and its implication on population growth can in fact be understood in simple economic terms as well. Once a women becomes a wage earner, the cost of having another child increases by the amount of income the women has to forgo during pregnancy and child-care, thus acting as a disincentive for having more children. Moreover women acquire a stronger voice in decisions concerning everyday life. This simple economic fact is perhaps one of the strongest explanations for why schemes like micro-credit that create opportunities for female employment have a tremendous economic as well as a social impact and why we need to support them.

One of the most powerful messages sent out by Dr Sen’s research has been that income growth is not enough to achieve development. Dr Sen has been such a strong proponent of this viewpoint that this is one of the reasons why he is often misrepresented to be anti-liberalization and anti-economic reforms. To emphasize this point he used the example of the Indian state of Kerela, which has development indicators ( e.g. literacy and fertility rates) that rival those of developed countries without having anywhere near the per-capita income of these countries. This fact can be highlighted internationally as well: Costa Rica and Brazil both have the same average income which is one-fourth that in US, yet Costa Rica has a life-expectancy which compares to that of the US. Brazil on the other hand has a life-expectancy which is 10 years lower to both. Part of the explanation lies in the strong commitment that Costa Rica has had towards provisions of basic health and education services.

Using the example of Kerela, he further drove home the important point that democracy is not necessarily an impediment to development (to counter the frequent laments that ‘what India needs a dictator!’). He pointed out that Kerela had witnessed a greater drop in its fertility rate than did China, despite the oppressive one-child policy in China and the democracy and freedom in Kerela, during the same period.

Appropriately, the first question asked was how Indian intelligentsia, within and outside India, could help and effect change. While admitting it to be a difficult question, Dr Sen returned to the issue of committed leadership. He expressed dismay at the fact that despite the fact that India’s governing classes have traditionally come from the intelligentsia, primary education has not been made a priority by any government in India. He however believed that people like IDS supporters can make a difference by voicing their concern for the poor, by fostering debate and discussion, and not allowing important social issues to become marginalized.

An important question asked was one which concerned Dr Sen’s views on micro-credit as a tool of development. Dr Sen answer was in the positive replying that he definitely believed in the potential of the micro-credit movement and that it has been tremendously powerful in Bangladesh. His only concern was the issue of scale will the impact that this movement seeks to deliver necessitate government involvement? If so will the comparative advantage that NGO’s have in running the micro-credit organizations effectively be compromised? This was a question that still needed to be resolved, he felt.

The question-answer session also witnessed a member of the audience expressing his disappointment at what he felt was the total lack of development in India. Becoming very emotive about the issue, the questioner began detailing the lack of everything schools, wells, hospitals, sanitary napkins, electricity etc. in a village in India. This is not a uncommon trait amongst us Indians and recognizing this Dr Sen answered the question in all earnestness despite the amusement that most of the audience seemed to be deriving for the raw display of emotion. Emphasizing the need of not getting so emotional about issues he pointed how we often tend to get carried away by our frustration and in the process not only dissipate our energy but lose focus on the real issue at hand.

If there is one most important thing that I took away from the evening it was precisely this we often lose the battle for issues that we deeply care about by becoming too emotional about them. Almost all readers have partaken in intense and emotional discussions about the lack of development and immensity of the problems in India only to find that when the discussion ended, the world remained as it was before. It is precisely this energy and time that we need to channelize and time that we need to utilize if we are to bring a meaningful change in India. Dr Amartya Sen’s research highlights some of the aspects that we need to emphasize and possible directions that we could direct our energies and as we celebrate his being awarded a Nobel prize, the true celebration would be when his insights are used by us in our missions and activities.

Ankur Sarin
April 1999

  • Tell us what you think of this story
  • Economy