A Kerala experience

Print edition : January 06, 2001

Kerala, the State which is a pet subject of Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, pays rich tributes to the economist.

R. KRISHNAKUMAR in Thiruvananthapuram

THERE was this tale that he narrated, about a Fascist recruiter going to the Italian countryside to recruit members for his party. The recruiter got to reason with a poor village resident on why he should join the party. That person gave him a lame reply : "I fear your arguments, but I cannot join the Fascist party. I have been a socialist, my father had been a socialist, my grandfather too had been a socialist. There is no way I can join the Fascist party."

The recruiter was upset by the reply and he said that it was not a good argument. "What would you have done if your father was a murderer and your grandfather was a murderer? What would you do then?" the recruiter asked hopefully. The villager said: "Of course, then I would join the Fascist party."

Amartya Sen receiving the honorary D.Litt., conferred on him by the University of Kerala, from Governor Sukhdev Singh Kang.-C. RATHEESH KUMAR

The moral: "It is sometimes very useful to see how others fear, and it is one of the virtues of democracy. India has reasons to be proud of its democratic traditions and to be jealous in guarding what it has achieved in this tradition, especially in the context of targeting of minority communities."

There were also anecdotes like the one about an American friend who came back from India and complained that Indians were "uncomfortably plain-speaking". That demanded an explanation, and the friend recounted his outing while in India to buy candy for hi s children. "I expected to find candies of different quality, but there were only two glass jars, one marked 'Superior' and the other marked 'Inferior' (rather than 'regular' or 'standard' for the latter category)," the friend replied.

The moral: "One of the things that have happened in the world as a result of globalisation is that what appeared to be 'standard' or 'regular' is now being recognised as 'inferior'. If that 'inferior' is exactly the quality that we are protesting about, we must look forward to that liberalisation, in trade policy, in economic policy, in labour policy..."

FOR three days from December 27, people of Kerala listened to several such stories, anecdotes and lessons, and got answers to a lot of questions that it had been asking for a while - from a man for whom the State had been a pet subject of eventually Nobe l Prize-winning studies.

Honouring Amartya Sen turned out to be a delightfully enlightening "festival" for people in Thiruvananthapuram, as Vice-Chancellor Dr. B. Ekbal said soon after a special convocation of the University of Kerala to confer the honorary degree of D.Litt. on the Nobel laureate. Kerala Governor and the Chancellor of the University, Sukhdev Singh Kang, appeared to be speaking for the audience at the University Senate Hall when he said that "by honouring you, Amartya Sen, we are honouring ourselves".

Sen had come to Kerala principally to address a national seminar on "Education in Kerala's Development: Towards a New Agenda" organised by the Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi, the Centre for Socio-Economic and Environmental Studies, Kochi, and, t he United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF). The occasion offered an opportunity for various sections of Kerala society to interact with the man "whose work was so intertwined with their life". Everywhere in Thiruvananthapuram that Sen went, it seemed, Ke rala, including members of the State Cabinet, was sure to follow. At several venues, a mockingly "concerned' Nobel laureate told jam-packed audiences how he was beginning to get "really worried that he was disrupting the functioning of the State Governme nt by distracting Chief Minister E.K. Nayanar (who was in rapt attention) too much". But what endeared him to Kerala - one of his laboratories, so to say - more than his sense of humour, was the keen observations that he made about its history, achieveme nts and drawbacks, its dreams, and the problems it had to address.

"From my student days I have been relatively heterodox compared with my political allies, on the importance of education on the one hand, of democracy on the other," Sen said, while answering questions on the growing intolerance in Indian society, especi ally against religious minorities. "The importance of education has now become more widely accepted in left-wing politics, even though I got a letter from an old ally in Sri Lanka that I am 'overdoing' the educational agenda. She wrote saying 'Amartya, a s you are growing old you are sounding more and more like Victorian women - constantly saying education will make all the difference'. Now, I am afraid there is some truth in that perhaps, but I think the Victorian women probably were quite right in one or two issues and that was one of them," he said.

The other issue, on which he had problems, Sen said, was democracy. "I have always thought that ridiculing democracy was a mistake. Democracy is a great perfectionist even on a subject that will agitate most people, namely the targeting of the minority c ommunity by the majority community, or the kind of intolerance that you see in terms of poverty and or inaction to deal with the intolerance you see across India."

Amartya Sen addressing the seminar on "Education in Kerala's Development: Towards a New Agenda". On the dais are Chief Minister E.K. Nayanar and Leader of the Opposition in the Assembly A.K. Antony.-C. RATHEESH KUMAR

He said: "I think the ultimate remedy of that will lie in the democratic route. Because, after all, this pogrom and arson and building of mandir instead of the mosque, etc, there is nothing to indicate that it has electoral support. This is a mino rity of a minority government, and if you look at it in totality, the Indian electorate never has approved of an intolerant agenda. So I always think it important to mention and emphasise democracy," Sen said.

A third fetish that his friends often commented on, he said during one of his lectures, was that he often reduced everything to an issue of inequality, which also is justified, in most cases.

Sen's comments on globalisation received much attention. Inaugurating the All India Sociological Conference, organised by the Indian Sociological Society, he said that one has to think about globalisation rather differently from how either its defenders or opposers see it. "Globalisation is fundamental in the global movement of ideas, people or goods. The culture of opposition to globalisation that we see today underestimates the power and resilience of their own societies - in this case, Indian society - and has remained a fundamental threat to interaction between two parts of the world." He said that as of today, such attitudes played directly into the hands of "cultural conservatism and fundamentalism".

Sen said that the criticism of globalisation on economic terms, quite often in the matter of international trade, was perhaps true, but that was often a matter of governance. "That is why a government has to think in terms of how, if you open up the mark et, there will be periodic crises and you have to manage them. But, the concept of cutting yourself out from the world of advanced technology, increasing productivity, and the opportunities that globalisation offers to the world will be a retrograde step . Several countries like China and Taiwan are committed to social objectives but had made good use of the market economy," he said.

Sen said that to think of globalisation as a kind of fire that was going to engulf you was a mistake. But along with globalisation, there were major inequalities that often occurred. "The institutional framework of the world financial architecture - incl uding the IMF (International Monetary Fund) and the World Bank - does not allow enough resistance to that... The world has changed and its financial architecture needs change too. In this, NGOs (non-governmental organisations) have a central role, to spe ak up for the silent groups who are often not represented," he said.

SEN'S refrain during his visit was that he had never used the expression 'the Kerala model' but had referred only to the 'Kerala experience'. He said that it was important for Kerala society to understand how calling an 'experience' a 'model' could be ve ry "misleading, ultimately counter-productive and even politically reactionary".

In what was termed as an "address to the people of Kerala", Amartya Sen said: "The need for this disclaimer does not arise from any diminution of my admiration for what Kerala has done in the field of education and what it has achieved in social, economi c and political fields through its remarkable educational departures. The excellence of an experience does not indicate anything like perfection or flawlessness. To call something a model is to hint at some alleged un-improvability. That is not the case with Kerala's experience. Despite its tremendous achievements, Kerala's educational experience has serious enough problems, which have to be investigated and addressed."

Earlier, inaugurating the seminar on education, Amartya Sen said that in his (Trinity) college, he was asked, essentially in the context of the targeting of Christians by the Hindu Right, 'how long will it take for India to get used to having Christians in the country?'. "I used to point out that there were Christians in Kerala even 300 years before there was a single Christian in Britain," he said. Kerala provides lessons to the rest of the country not just on the importance of pluralism but also on ho w far an indigenous culture could benefit from being tolerant towards, rather than targeting, minorities. "One should not only have a plural society but should also value that plural nature, and I believe the educational experience of Kerala has immensel y benefited from its cultural plurality," Sen said.

He said that it was important to remember what had made Kerala so special and what Kerala had got from being so special. In understanding Kerala's special achievements in education, one had to look at the constructive and combative roots of its education al background. "Kerala's educational advance has been aided partly by a positive commitment to go that way and to build on the creative virtues of educational expansion. But along with this constructive and congenial route, there has also been a combativ e process that has contributed to this."

SEN pointed out that the exclusion of the lower classes from the benefits of education in the 19th century provided a potential for combative developments that were ultimately engaged in relatively recent times. The radical politics of Kerala had transfo rmed a generally combative issue of caste and class inequality into one of public activism and educational construction. "One of the interesting differences between West Bengal and Kerala is the neglect of the educational perspective in traditional left- wing thought in the former State. The presence of the combative element has determined the agenda of radical politics in Kerala in a pro-education direction in a way it did not happen in West Bengal, or in other States," he said.

However, Sen said that the excellence of an educational system has to be judged not only by its own distinct achievements but also by the extent to which its potential benefits were adequately reaped. Despite the achievement of universal literacy, and as a result of a remarkable increase in health care, better monitoring of public facilities, positive changes in attitude towards issues such as gender equity and the need for smaller families, fall in mortality rates, increase in life expectancy at birth, less gender inequality than elsewhere in the country, tumbling fertility rates and faster reduction in income poverty, there are important lacunae in what has been achieved in Kerala when seen in the light of what could have been achieved.

"There are major issues of reach - educational, cultural, and economic. Educational reach requires a kind of versatility of outlook to make sure we are reaching all the people in a way we have reason to be committed to do it. The standard failure in Indi a is a failure that Kerala does not have, namely the reach of everyone to get school education. But, when it comes to developing higher educational potentials in tune with the opportunities offered by its wider network of school education, Kerala fails. It fails also, when compared to other States, in making the content of education suit the demands of the contemporary age, including in providing a focus on the technical facilities related to the rapidly expanding information economy in the world," Sen said.

Sen said that although Kerala's record in poverty reduction was impressive, its overall performance in raising growth rates and increasing per capita income had remained rather moderate. "The people of this State are prized everywhere in the world, and t his gives Kerala a good deal of outside income, but there is also the question as to whether the opportunities of income and wealth creation within Kerala could not be further enhanced. The extent of economic reach is particularly important given Kerala' s success in educational expansion, which is a crucial building block in an overall programme, which many other parts of India badly lack."

Answering a specific question on the lack of economic opportunities in Kerala at the seminar on education, Sen said that just as a State may have a responsibility for creating social opportunities, the State as a guardian of economic policy also had a re sponsibility for creating economic opportunities. "But what is important is the question what is holding it back - and that requires a detailed analysis," he said.

Significantly, Sen said that he was in many ways "pro-market", because he thought that the market economy offered people a number of opportunities. "The real difficulty about markets is that a lot of people cannot enter it. If you don't have any capital, or means of production or funds, there is nothing you can do very much with the markets, except offering yourself as a labourer and picking up whatever wages you will get. And that is why if you are really pro-market you have to think about how to expan d the opportunities of entry into the market and that is the area of micro credit facilities, land reforms and so forth. But these require an agenda which quite often the pro-market people never stress - even though I would argue that they were central t o a market-based thinking about the future," Sen said.

Referring to gender equality, Sen said in his address to the people of the State that even though Kerala had been successful in reducing gender inequality at one level (for example, in reducing or eliminating female disadvantage in mortality rates), it s eemed that gender inequality could survive at other levels, for example, in social and economic roles (as in Japan). "There is always a danger in fighting past battles and not preparing for new ones," he said. "The subject of cultural reach takes us well beyond any simple formula for ending gender inequalities, and provides a further reason for not taking Kerala's admirable experience in educational expansion as anything like a 'model'. A model-based thinking cannot but be rather static, and in this sen se backward-looking, rather than forward-looking."

Answering a question on how Kerala should deal with the fact of a near-total literate population and increasing unemployment of the educated, Sen said that it would be a mistake to relate the level of unemployment to education because it indicated that e ducation was over expanded. "It is a very special feature of the debate within India that Kerala's high unemployment is often quoted as an argument against education. That is not the standard reasoning around the world and that is not the reason for it."

Secondly, he said, employment was a serious issue and it was a question of economic poverty and it was the poverty that had to be addressed at that level. On the subject of unemployment and employment-related poverty, it was possible that Kerala had some thing to learn from other States or other parts of the world, he said. "What I am opposed to is throwing the baby out with the bath water on grounds that if there is unemployment just stop the educational expansion. That is not a good way of dealing with the unemployment problem. A better way of dealing with it may be looking at the content of education and how it can be made more relevant or related."

On a related question as to whether the State should encourage private education, Sen said it should be a subject for general debate. "But I think there are areas where private education can make a big contribution and that does not mean that public comm itment may go down... What is alarming (in issues like this) is the suggestion that this had failed, therefore do the opposite. It all boils down to a question of applying a critical assessment of the alternatives that we face at a particular time."

On the causal connection between economic and social backwardness, Amartya Sen said that quite often social backwardness was the core of economic backwardness, rather than it being the other way round. That was one of the reasons why the issue of social opportunities being widely shared and widely available was so important. On the other side, he said, it was probably best not to give a kind of "unidirectional causal picture" because they were inter-related - social backwardness could lead to economic b ackwardness and vice versa. "I think the hardest, most counter-productive idea in development is the idea of sequence and it comes in many forms. For example, in the context of Singapore's politics, economic development comes first, then democracy. Somet imes it comes in the form of saying economic growth comes first, then educational expansion. You have to do these things together, simultaneously," Sen said.

Citing examples of the rich intellectual history of Kerala encouraging the development of pluralism and heterodoxy, Sen said that "heterodoxy is becoming very important since the twin danger that we face in the entire re-definition of the agenda that is going on in Indian politics now raises questions both about pluralism and tolerance on one side, and on the need for objectivity, and not to mix myth with history". The confusing of myth with history had to be resisted, orthodoxy had to be resisted, the need for heterodoxy had to be raised and strongly asserted, he said. "By becoming orthodox, by confounding myth with history such that legal entitlement to transfer premises, all of it, to particular sections or groups on grounds that some epic had descr ibed it as such, I mean, all that confounding redoubt need to be resisted."

JUST as there are problems in Kerala to be addressed, there are lessons to be learnt from Kerala, and that included basic education and the importance of this education as a prime mover in Kerala's achievements, Sen said. There were lessons to be learnt also from the persistent heterodoxy and pluralism of Kerala's heritage. On the one hand, it had made possible the existence of a society in which Christians, Muslims, Jews and others could feel comfortable with Hindus, Jains and Buddhists. It also made i t possible to question orthodox statements through scientific reasoning, whether it be in history, astronomy or mathematics. "So there is real heritage here and lessons Kerala has to offer are not just on the importance of education but also on the impor tance of heterodoxy and the abiding value of having a pluralist society, which seem to me under real threat in India today," Sen said.

At a farewell civic reception, described officially as a 'Tribute to Amartya Sen from the people of Kerala', and by Sen later, as an "acquisitive occasion", the Nobel laureate was showered with affection, a song in his praise, mementos and trophies. Sen said he was overwhelmed "intellectually, emotionally, and materially", and particularly honoured to hear the note of tribute, which, among other things, said: "We feel as honoured as you are for we know that our dreams and our daily struggles for a more meaningful life have in some ways inspired a good part of your work as a great social thinker." Amartya Sen responded by citing "Tagore's jurisprudence": "Any product of any civilisation which I enjoy, instantly becomes mine."

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