'Economic welfare is only one part of human welfare'

Print edition : January 02, 1999
Interview with Amartya Sen.

There were innumerable official receptions organised in honour of Professor Amartya Sen during his first visit to Dhaka, Calcutta and Santiniketan, after winning the 1998 Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences, instituted in memory of Alfred Nobel. The real measure of the pride and warmth that ordinary people in this region feel about his achievement was, however, the spontaneous, huge popular receptions that awaited him wherever he went.

In his second major interview to Frontline after he received the Nobel Prize, Amartya Sen shares his views on issues of politics, culture and economics in present-day India. He spoke to Parvathi Menon on the journey to Santiniketan in a special Eastern Railways saloon car attached to the Santiniketan Express, interrupting the interview only to acknowledge the greetings and congratulations of a rapturous crowd that had gathered to see him at Bardhaman. Excerpts from the interview:

What have the intellectual traditions of Santiniketan and Calcutta meant to you? What part have they played in your life and intellectual make-up?

Santiniketan and Calcutta were very important in their influence on my own thinking, but they influenced me in rather different ways. I was in Santiniketan from 1942 to 1951. Of course, I did not recognise at that time how special a place it was. By the time I enrolled, Rabindranath Tagore had died, but his ideas were quite strongly present. I knew him of course earlier, and even had the privilege to have some conversations with him when I was in Dhaka but visited Santiniketan regularly.


Thinking back, I would say three different things were particularly important in Tagore's school which reflected his thinking. One was the insistence that one has to be interested in Indian traditions, as well as being aware that they are part of many other traditions which are also important, which also flourished and interacted with each other, in fact also influenced Indian traditions, and were in turn influenced by Indian traditions. It was a non-insular cultural view of India. Some of the things that Satyajit Ray (an ex-student of Santiniketan) did as a film director, I later thought, reflected that aspect of Santiniketan's understanding of culture, namely, pride in one's culture, but pride in the cultures of other countries also, in a very strong way.

Secondly, social radicalism played quite a big part in our thinking. In terms of conventional politics, it was not a radical place. In fact, in some ways Rabindranath was of course a conservative, and yet he was deeply humane and concerned about iniquities in the world which many of his writings bring out sharply. In fact, in a long essay I did on Rabindranath Tagore in the New York Review of Books, I argued that perhaps the most important thing about Rabindranath was his insistence on the importance of people's ability to reason in freedom. That, to some extent, was reflected in his school too, and this free reasoning often led to rebellious thought about inherited traditions.

Third, there was a degree of professionalism that was very important in Santiniketan. The teachers were often absolutely excellent. The absence of a strong focus on doing well in examinations was also a greatly liberating factor. I remember I would come to Calcutta and see students of my age in schools where they were severely geared to doing well in exams and being "good students", a tremendous limitation because they seemed focused on preparing for examinations, rather than preparing for a life.

Santiniketan had many other progressive features. It was one of the earliest co-educational schools. In fact, my mother herself has been a student there a long time ago when co-education was not all that common in India, or for that matter in Europe. Some of these features were even emulated and expanded by an old Santiniketan ashram person, Leonard Elmhirst, who started a progressive school, namely Dartington Hall, in England. That school has now deceased, but it was a very famous progressive school in England.

I arrived in Calcutta in 1951, and was a student there for two years. I found the intellectually challenging nature of Presidency College very exciting. There were classmates of mine who were tremendously good students, not merely in the sense of being good examinees, which they also often were, but they were also unbelievably learned and had critical faculties of the highest order. Perhaps the most well known name in that group would be that of be Sukhamoy Chakravarti, a close friend, who had a striking command over contemporary thought across the world, and it was always educational for me to chat with him or argue with him. This was a time when I got interested in student politics, which had a broadening impact on me. I led quite an active social life too. So it was a very engaging set of two years before I set off to England. As it happened, I went through quite a big problem in the sense that I had quite a serious case of cancer in the mouth. The tumour itself came up not long after I arrived in Calcutta in July of 1951, but it was not really diagnosed till later next year. I kept reading medical books and really self-diagnosed myself, since I knew that this form of carcinoma was quite common in those days in the mouths of the local population, and the description seemed to me to fit. Indeed it was a carcinoma of that type, and when actually diagnosed was no longer as docile, so we had to rush to have a heavy dose of radiation. So all that happened during that period. It was a trying period, but also to some extent a triumphant one, because I emerged from the cancer. Though I knew that the probability of coming down with it again later was quite high, winning the first round of the battle was a great source of joy. So it was a very eventful two years and then I went off to Cambridge. Happily, the cancer never returned - at least not yet !

What about the Dhaka phase?

Dhaka was a very big presence in my life, from my birth until 1945. My family is formally from a village in Manikganj , but moved to the old city of Dhaka. I was born in my maternal grandparents home in Santiniketan, but my home was still Dhaka. I was a student of St. Gregory's school between the ages of six and eight. It was a good missionary school - very broad based but not severe as some missionary schools could be. Unlike Santiniketan, St. Gregory's had ranks. I think my rank was something like 33 in a class of 40 which could not be regarded as exceedingly high!

Some of your recent writing has been on culture, politics and society, and the way, as in India, a majoritarian ideology can erode pluralism, a valued civilisational asset. Can a government committed to an exclusionist ideology like Hindutva generate economic policies that expand social and economic opportunities? In other words is there a relationship between Hindutva, freedom and economic welfare?

I think the first and second parts of the question deal with very different issues. I think there are many arguments against what you are calling a majoritarian view. There are enormous civilisational arguments against it. But to base the case for pluralism on economics would be a great mistake. Many countries have had economic development, even fine pursuits of economic welfare, under the most extreme forms of cultural tyranny. I don't think the problem is so much that Hindutva is a barrier to economic welfare. Indeed, in the Middle-East, the standard bearers for concerns for economic equity have often been people who have been very inspired by the egalitarian features of the Koran. In my view it would be a mistake to base the rejection of fundamentalism on purely economic grounds.

Would not minorities be excluded from the economics of a government with an exclusionist agenda like Hindutva?

That is possible, but it is also perfectly possible for even asymmetrical societies to give a functional role to minorities. Christian cultures have standardly given particular roles to minorities - Jews, for example, in the context of London. It was standard for many centuries that even though the country was Christian and Protestant, a lot of the trade was carried out by Jews and Italians. In fact, even the Bank of England is located in the Lombard Street which reminds one of Lombardy, the centre of Italy. Similarly, when the great 12th century Jewish scholar Maimonedes, sought refuge from European intolerance, he received the patronage of the Muslim emperor Saladin in Egypt. Saladin fought with the Christians in the Crusades for the victory of Islam, but he gave protection and appreciation to Maimonedes.

To construct an argument against Hindu fundamentalism on grounds of economic progress is, I don't think, a very sound basis of criticism. The real bases of criticism are much more fundamental, much more foundational. I think economics is invoked in hundreds of ways where it does not really belong.

Economic welfare is only one part of human welfare. It is very possible for asymmetrical societies to look after minorities very well. If you look at a document like Arthasastra of Kautilya, it is quite clear that the obligation of the Emperor is to look after the economic welfare of the entire population, but it was not an egalitarian society in terms of political power, in fact very far from it. A society in which a rigidly dominant group looks after the economic well being of the non-dominant group, "from above", would not be a good society, as the dominated are denied the right to enjoy political influence, civil freedom, and participate in the decisions of the state and the society.

The main argument against Hindu rule is that this is not a Hindu country, and that Muslims, Christians, Buddhists and others have as much right to take part in the polity of India, in the society of India, as Hindus do. In fact I don't accept the term "majoritarian" which you used. The majority of Indians may be Hindu, but the majority of Indians are not intolerant Hindus or intolerant Muslims. I would not accept the right of Hindu sectarians to be described as majoritarian. They are minoritarians. The majoritarians in India are those who regard religious tolerance to be very central no matter whether they are themselves Hindus or Muslims. The main argument against asymmetry of power in religious and social matters is the barbarity of that arrangement itself, not its implications in terms of economic welfare.

What is your assessment of the change in India's nuclear policy? Will it heighten the risks of nuclear war in the subcontinent? Does a nuclear weaponisation programme divert resources from development needs and priorities?

I won't dissent from the argument that the recent nuclear events have added vastly to subcontinental tensions. But before I go on, let me mention that I fully understand the extent of Indian frustration on the subject that make many people feel sympathetic to the nuclear programme, even though they see its dangers. This arises from seeing iniquity in the contemporary world, in which there are some established nuclear powers who have a lot more freedom to carry out experiments with certain types of nuclear weapons development, which others don't. That is certainly one factor. Second, the asymmetry of military power in the world is also very striking, as is the "pushing" of military sales by the big powers. My friend Mahbubul Haq from Pakistan who used to be in charge of the Human Development Reports, produced by the United Nations Development Programme, pointed out in one of his reports that 85 per cent of the armaments sold in the world market are sold by five permanent members of the Security Council. It is not surprising that the Security Council does nothing to curb the arms trade! Third, some Indians feel that by constantly equating India with Pakistan, which is one-seventh its size, and not giving India the status of a large country like China, the West in particular is unfair to India.

I understand all that logic. But having said that, it was still a great mistake, I think personally, to undertake the nuclear tests.

First of all I think it was a big moral mistake. We are thinking of a world in which nuclear weapons are unlikely to be used, so that the moral quality of it is partly a matter of our self-discipline. And the discipline of having the ability to blast nuclear bombs and not doing so has a certain moral quality to it. So this odd position India had, whereby it acknowledged that it could make the bomb but nevertheless did not want to pursue a nuclear programme, could be described as having an ethical characteristic, which is now completely lost.

But even at a more pragmatic, realpolitik level, there is no question that India has lost a lot from it.

First of all, if India is worried that India and Pakistan are being treated symmetrically, rather than India and China, nothing ensured a continuation of that international thought more than India blasting five bombs followed by Pakistan blasting six. That puts us in an exactly tit-for-tat situation. Pakistan's rulers feel, I think with justice, quite successful in this particular respect, because after all to be treated in the same way as India which is seven times larger, is quite a big recognition of Pakistan's military prowess. Through this programme India has helped to consolidate that view.

Second, India had already blasted a nuclear bomb in 1974. It wasn't in overwhelming scientific need to do more. Obviously, nuclear scientists always think there's need for more experiments, but it was not in such dire need of an experiment as Pakistan's nuclear scientists were. While most of the Indian nuclear programme is home grown, quite a bit of Pakistan's programme is derived from abroad. Under these circumstances, a scenario whereby both sides will have one round of blasts, is much more important for Pakistan than for India. I would have thought, this could not have been a stunningly clever move by India, from a realpolitik point of view.

Third, India was very keen on keeping Kashmir off the international agenda. I personally think that it will be very hard to keep Kashmir off the international agenda anyway, but the guarantee that it will continue to recur in the international agenda was provided by the nuclear blasts. Since Kashmir is a major - perhaps the major - bone of contention between India and Pakistan , the threat of a nuclear war makes it natural for other countries to take an interest in all this.

Fourth, India had - and still has - massive superiority over Pakistan in conventional warfare. I hope these arms will never be used, but India had military advantage in this respect. In a nuclear war, however, there are no winners and losers. If India wins, but Delhi, Bombay, Madras, Calcutta suffer a nuclear holocaust, that's not a victory. So what India did was to trade its massive non-nuclear advantage for a nuclear stalemate. And so it does not now have any military advantage either. I don't personally attach very great importance to military advantage, in fact I am very anxious that India and Pakistan should both disarm, and I think there is a very strong economic case for that. However, in the narrow-minded thinking about power balancing, it did not serve India's interest in respect of military advantage.

I would add one more thing. No country has as much interest as India in having a democratic government in Pakistan without strong power-sharing by the military. And yet the nuclearisation of the subcontinent makes the military much more powerful in Pakistan than it would have been otherwise.

So in all these respects, I think, this was not a fruitful move, aside from the moral case against it.

Would spending on a nuclear weaponisation programme divert resources from development needs?

Well, I think that argument is much more contingent, because we don't know how much expenditure is incurred in nuclear war. But it can be argued that that is not the primary argument against nuclearisation. For two reasons. First of all, it is not always the case that nuclear programmes are more expensive than conventional warfare. Second, conventional armaments are often bought from abroad. Thanks to the nuclear discipline in the world, the expenditure that is incurred on nuclear programmes is domestic expenditure - primarily. So in both these respects, the primary argument against the nuclear programme is not the economic cost. There is an enormously strong argument against military expenditure altogether in India, and I am very anxious to emphasise that. But this is not a specific argument against nuclearisation only.

You have stated that you have differences with present economic policies, but have refused to be drawn into "If you were the Finance Minister..." questions, or into offering prescriptions for specific problems (the Insurance Bill, for example). On the other hand, India has in some senses been your research laboratory, and there are many people who would be interested in knowing what you have to say on post-1991 economic liberalisation. What would be the main features of an alternative economic strategy, one that would ensure an end to the kind of poverty and deprivation in which the majority of our people live?

In order to talk intelligently about specific economic policies, one has to be enormously well informed. Nothing is as sensitive to information as policymaking. Flying in from London and giving high sounding advice on economic policy is unfair to the people who make economic policies, and also to those who, through hard empirical work, have earned the right to criticise government-made policies. This includes thus both the Opposition and the government.

Having said that, however, I should also say that there is a level at which one can operate which is neither one of silence, nor one of involvement in concrete details beyond one's competence and beyond the field of relevance of one's knowledge. There is an intermediate level at which one could advise.

Before the reforms came in 1991, I had consistently taken the view then that there were two major deficiencies in the Indian economy. In terms of government activity, I thought there was massive underactivity in the fields of education, land reform, health care, and social security in general; and there was a vast overactivity of the government in running a licence raj, in preventing anything from happening on the basis of private enterprise without a bureaucrat clearing it, possibly taking some money too, or if not, at least having the ability to put various spokes in various wheels to stop them from turning. My main criticism of the policies that followed in 1991 concerned errors of omission rather than commission, namely that they addressed only the second issue. Manmohan Singh was very concerned about the overactivity of the government, and I don't think he was mistaken in thinking that these policies needed a radical change. On the other hand, there was a need for a big initiative from the government of expanding the social basis of economic development in terms of education, health care, land reform, social security and so on.

One government after another has neglected these vital social opportunities. There was a need for a radical change in that. Unfortunately, that need still remains unfulfilled. And the need for change is not merely in terms of verbal recognition, in statements whether in Parliament or outside. The creation of social opportunities depends vitally on the actual facilities of education, health care, land reform, social security, etc.

Also, this requires me to emphasise the importance of gender equity. In my last book with Jean Dreze, India: Economic Development and Social Opportunity, we argued how women's empowerment, both through education as well as through employment opportunities, and in other ways, is a major necessary force for social change as well as for economic development.

These are very general policy recommendations, which have to be scrutinised and pursued with detailed analysis of particular policy instruments. But general directions are, I believe, quite important nevertheless. Navigation requires detailed knowledge, but it also demands a clear understanding of where we have to go.

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