November 6, 1998

Nobel for Amartya Sen

Print edition : February 06, 2015

Professor Amartya Sen. Photo: S.R. Raghunathan

ON October 14 at about 5-15 a.m., the telephone rang in Amartya Sen’s hotel room in New York. Sen, who was in New York to speak at the United Nations at a memorial meeting for his classmate and old friend Mahbub ul Haq of Pakistan, was initially worried that there may be some bad news. “It turned out, however,” he told  Frontline , “to be reasonably good news.” The Secretary of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences was on the line; he was followed by the Chairman and another member of the Nobel Prize Committee. “By the time I had woken up properly, the penny had dropped —and I had seized the fact that they were giving me rather a nice piece of news.”

They told him that the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences had decided to award the 1998 Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences in memory of Alfred Nobel to him for his contributions to welfare economics and, among other things, for restoring “an ethical dimension to the discussion of vital economic problems”.

Amartya Sen has had one of the most distinguished academic careers in the economics profession today. Born in Santiniketan on November 3, 1933, Sen was educated at Santiniketan, Presidency College, Calcutta, and Trinity College, Cambridge. He became a full Professor at Jadavpur University at the age of 23, has held professorships at Jadavpur University, the University of Delhi, the London School of Economics and the University of Oxford and was a University Professor at Harvard before being nominated Master of Trinity College earlier this year. The position of Master of Trinity College in Cambridge is a Royal appointment and is considered the highest academic appointment in the United Kingdom.

Sen has published 20 books and more than 225 research papers. Two books are in press. No other economist has been, as Sen has, President of the International Economic Association, the Econometric Society, the Development Studies Association, the American Economic Association and his own national association, in Sen’s case, the Indian Economic Association.

The statement—or citation—of the Royal Swedish Academy on Amartya Sen’s contribution to welfare economics is a detailed and remarkable document. Its first main feature is that it covers the sweep of Sen’s extensive contributions to academic economics in the fields of social choice, welfare distributions and poverty. It deals separately with his work on individual values and collective decisions (making special mention of his work on majority rule, individual rights and information about the welfare of individuals), on indices of welfare and poverty and on the welfare of the poorest (here it refers specifically to his work on famine, hunger and poverty). Secondly, it seeks to identify the interconnections in the body of work that Sen has produced.

Sen’s work on choice of techniques constitutes an important contribution to the analytical underpinnings of development planning and cost-benefit analysis. Sen explicitly considers a balance between employing many people today and employment tomorrow, a problem concerned with the welfare of the present generation and its labour force as well as that of future generations. This and the related question of the shadow price of labour was a question that had concerned Maurice Dobb and one that had generated a considerable literature during the early debates on economic planning in the 1930s and 1940s, a literature that continued into the 1950s. Sen refined the concept of the shadow price of labour in a way that sharply distinguished between proponents of alternative notions of the shadow price, and showed that the differences derived from their authors’ specific formulation of welfare over time. Sen’s contribution to the field of choice of techniques was particularly relevant to developing countries that had high levels of unemployment and underemployment when they attempted to strike a balance between alternative techniques, between capital-intensiveness and employment.

In the 1980s, Sen wrote a book that attracted wide attention within the discipline, in policymaking forums and among the wider public. In Poverty and Famines, Sen challenged the view that related the occurrence of famines to sudden declines in aggregate food availability. The book, which begins with a series of lucid analyses of specific famines in the modern world, argued that food availability did not necessarily decline in situations where famine occurred; what invariably occurred was that the entitlements of people to command food, whether through the market or other mechanisms, broke down. The application of what may be called “entitlement theory” goes beyond the study of famines, just as Sen’s study of famines went beyond the narrow study of food availability and drew in factors such as the influence and role of the political opposition and independent mass media in situations of famine and persistent hunger.

In 1989, Sen and his close colleague Jean Dreze published Hunger and Public Action, a study of worldwide hunger and its prevention. This was followed by a series of books of research papers on the political economy of hunger written by scholars in different fields and edited by Dreze and Sen. Taken together, this body of work constitutes the most important contribution in the economics and public policy literature today to our understanding of the terrible problem of hunger.

Sen’s work on capabilities and on public action as the basic means of enhancing human development played a foundational role in the formulation of the Human Development Index, which is computed every year by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and published in its annual Human Development Report. The index reflects the view that poverty and human development cannot be measured in terms of incomes alone; any measure of development requires that poverty and deprivation be measured in terms of a range of variables, including, for instance, the educational and health achievements of individuals in a society.

Sen’s work on issues of gender has also been the subject of wide interest. His work on the theory of the household represents the household not as an undifferentiated unit, but as a unit of cooperation as well as of inequality and internal discrimination. He has worked on problems of discrimination against women in the development process, on survivorship differentials between men and women under conditions of social discrimination against women and on women’s agency in the process of social development as a whole.

In his Inequality Reexamined (1992), Sen puts forward a case for examining inequality in social arrangements from a capabilities perspective, and in recent work in the area of the theory of knowledge, he has worked on problems of objectivity and observational position.

Sen has taken an active research interest in the Indian economy and Indian society since the 1950s. In an article on India’s achievements over 50 years of Independence (Frontline, August 22, 1997), he expressed the view that perhaps the biggest achievement of independent India was the maintenance—despite threats—of political democracy in the country, and urges that this be seen not only as an achievement in itself but be used as an instrument of political struggle for social and economic progress. Sen goes on to say that, by contrast, what has happened in respect of social inequality and backwardness is very nearly a disaster—a disaster not in the sense of something going suddenly very bad but something remaining extremely bad without there being any change in it.

The “biggest failure” in India, Sen says, is social inequality:

It takes its toll both directly—in terms of the quality of life—and indirectly—in terms of reducing the economic opportunities that people have. I think it is illiteracy, the lack of health care, the absence of land reforms, the difficulty in getting micro-credit if you belong to the rural poor, and, of course, the pervasive gender bias between men and women that make the problem of social inequality so large in India

With regard to recent policies of economic “reform” in India, while Sen has supported certain features of the policies of liberalisation and globalisation initiated during the period when Manmohan Singh was Finance Minister, he has continued to be critical of the absence of resolute public action for the poor and for the expansion of social opportunity in India. His views on liberalisation and globalisation in India have been the subject of criticism by economists and others on the Left in India, who have otherwise supported and learned from his analyses of deprivation and the need for public action. The main feature of this criticism is that Sen’s comments on contemporary liberalisation and globalisation do not sufficiently take into consideration the context of the capitalist-landlord state within which these reforms are being implemented or the recent economic history of the implementation of such policies in the less-developed world. At the same time, Sen’s views on India’s economic reforms have been the target of criticism from the Right: indeed, the economist Jagdish Bhagwati has been reported in Rediff on the Net as having said that he hoped that the Indian government would not use the Nobel win as an excuse to go slow on the reforms.

Consistent with Sen’s views on Indian democracy and the need to expand social opportunity is his advocacy of social, cultural and political pluralism in India and his consistent, outspoken opposition to communalism as a political mobilisation strategy and Hindutva as a divisive political force. He has taken a public position against the nuclear explosions of May 1998. When he has had the opportunity to vote in elections in India, Sen has always voted for the Left in his home constituency in Bolpur.

Sen is well-known as a warm and considerate colleague and as one who values friendships. Soon after the announcement of the award, when asked by a journalist whether “the news had sunk in”, Sen replied, with the eloquence that those who know him have come to expect, that “news of such matters as reward or criticism sinks in very easily; it is an understanding of really important matters, such as the death of a friend or loved one, that is very difficult to accomplish”.

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