Universal acclaim

Print edition : October 24, 1998

Political leaders and intellectuals join in the celebration of the award for Amartya Sen.

"HE'S one of us. Last year's award was about managing risk for rich people. This one's about the unequal distribution of income for the poor."

The economist who said that chose to remain unnamed. But he seemed to sum up the sense of public incredulity at the award of the Nobel Prize to Amartya Sen. It is an honour that, by virtually universal consent, is long overdue. The only reason it was not accorded earlier is that since the inception of the award in 1969, the Nobel Prize Committee has been guided by the ideological function of legitimising one particular field of scholarly pursuit, which in most economists' estimation has little relevance to the real world problems of poverty, unemployment, human deprivation and welfare.

When the award was announced this year, the reaction was one of deep enthusiasm. President K.R. Narayanan, in a communication to Sen, said the award as a "well-merited one" and wished him many more years of productive academic and research work. Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee spoke of a tremendous upsurge of national pride over the honour bestowed upon Sen.

The news reached West Bengal Chief Minister Jyoti Basu as he was addressing a meeting in Siliguri. Visibly moved, Basu broke the news to the gathering with a flourish: "It is a matter of pride that Amartya Sen has won the Nobel Prize... The entire nation is proud of his achievement, and West Bengal has to its credit another Nobel laureate."

Praising Sen for his work in development economics, Basu said that the Left Front Government had often in the past consulted him on various development policies and programmes. Sen had always shown a special interest in the State's alternative economic model, particularly the decentralisation aspect of it, said Basu.

Words of celebration later came from Vice-President Krishan Kant and Union Minister for Human Resource Develop-ment Murli Manohar Joshi. Official spokespersons of major political parties - the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress(I) - also joined in the acclaim.

West Bengal Finance Minister and noted economist Asim Dasgupta observed that Sen's research interests in the initial stages were confined to the problems of developing countries. Subsequently, his focus shifted to welfare economics, verging on philosophical issues. Years ago, recalls Dasgupta, Sen acted as a referee for his admission to a doctoral programme at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Over the past decade or perhaps more, Sen has been returning to his original areas of interest, says Dasgupta: "One must take note of the fact that over the past few years, the Nobel Prize in Economics has been going to scholars dealing with market economics. But Sen through his work has upheld the problems of the common people and the role of the welfare state. Therefore, his getting the award heralds an important change in terms of emphasis." In this sense, Dasgupta believes that this award represents an honour not merely for India, but for the entire developing world.

The distinguished economist and historian Amiya Bagchi is, like Sen, an alumnus of both Presidency College, Calcutta, and Trinity College, Cambridge. He believes that Sen's work uncovers the minute details of the problems of deprivation and hunger and on the basis of such analysis suggests appropriate remedial measures. The recognition granted him by the Nobel Committee is indication that the tide worldwide is turning against a mindless reliance on the market, towards an orientation that provides greater room and legitimacy to the welfare state, concludes Bagchi.

Economist Amlan Datta thinks that Sen's uniqueness stems from his ability to merge primary statistics with abstract thought. He deals with ground realities and abstract theoretical analyses with equal finesse.

"What marks Sen out among economists is his easy command over both economic theory and its application," said Santosh Bhattacharya, former Vice-Chancellor of Calcutta University.

Internationally, the felicitations were equally profuse. United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan commended Sen's close involvement with the world body's work in the areas of poverty and human welfare. He recalled that the Human Development Index - a key conceptual innovation of the U.N. Development Programme - owed much to Sen's powerful theoretical abilities.

Ajit Singh, Senior Fellow at Queens College, Cambridge, and a colleague of Sen's since 1964, said that the "whole world will rejoice"; the award, he said, was "thoroughly deserved and long expected." James Mirrlees of Trinity College, who was similarly honoured in 1996, termed it "great news... We are all absolutely delighted. It is also important recognition of the work he had done in the areas of poverty and famine."

The unanimity with which the award to Sen has been acclaimed is testimony to the fact that the Nobel committee's recognition of the virtues of grappling with the real world may have redeemed the value of the Prize.

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