‘Successful use of humanity, reliance on reasoning and public discussion’, key assets that will help Kerala as it looks ahead: Amartya Sen

Published : February 03, 2021 21:37 IST

Amartya Sen. A file picture. Photo: V.V. KRISHNAN


If it is to pursue the future with the same success and more than in the past, Kerala needs to continue its reliance on humanity, reasoning and public discussion, central assets that the State will have use for in the days ahead, Amartya Sen, Nobel Laureate and University Professor, Harvard University, said.

Addressing the concluding session of the online international conference ‘Kerala Looks Ahead’, organised by the State Planning Board, on February 3, Professor Amartya Sen said he would be personally very optimistic about Kerala looking to the future, “not just because the State has been successful in the past, but because we can also understand why it has been successful, what is it that made it different.”

But Kerala also needs to keep the mind open, to ask the question again and again, “Are we doing the right thing?” he said.

Sen referred to his days at the Delhi School of Economics in the early 1960s when he often had arguments with his colleagues when he said that Kerala could be a ‘world-beater’ and he was told he was being ‘blinded by political prejudice’. “Now that proved to be not the case. But I also had the opportunity of talking with people who were great leaders and I have to say now that in India the Left seem to be in a sort of, for want of a better word I have to say, ‘doldrums’. It is nice to find people whose minds are open.”

Recalling his association with E.M.S. Namboodiripad at that time in Delhi, he said, “I think there is, in my judgment, no substitute to an enquiring mind, a mind that has, as Rabindranath Tagore said, not been blocked off, by free flows being choked. In Kerala, the free flow has not been choked, and I hope it will not be choked,” he said.

Amartya Sen said that “the successful use of humanity, the concentration on human reasoning, the particular focus on public discussion whereby people learn from each other, and if there is disagreement, then they criticise each other for it” — these are features that have been part of Kerala’s economic strategy. “This is not so much the standard economist’s fare about whether you get to one kind of industry or another, agriculture or manufacturing, larger scale or smaller scale. These are all important, but they are subsumed by the role of human reasoning, human thinking and then ultimately human practice based on the formation of skill coming both from schooling and from practice and from discussion,” he said.

Pointing out that, indeed, Kerala “looked ahead” a long time ago, he said, even as early as 1967 the State was announcing different plans about looking ahead, particularly focussing on the quality of the human labour “with a kind of ancestry that goes back to Adam Smith, in particular, but also to Karl Marx.”

The big thing then was about how to judge the productive potential of an economy with focussing on the quality of labour, he said. Kerala was one of the poorest three economies in India at that time and the argument was on whether Kerala could afford to have education for all, health care for all, social security for all, given the fact that the State was so very poor.

“I told them [colleagues at the DSE] to look at many factors, including the fact that being poor means that labour costs were also rather very low. On the one hand you needed to spend more, but the spending was moderated by the fact that the wages were lower in Kerala. I am talking about all that because I was told then that Kerala wouldn’t succeed. Well, then it so happened that within a couple of decades Kerala had not only moved away from that position, but was competing for being one of the top three, rather than the bottom three, in terms of per capita expenditure, which is the subject on which we have data, but constitutes per capita income, in fact. Therefore, in a while, of course Kerala became also the richest State in India in terms of per capita income,” he said.

Amartya Sen said that there was “historical interest” in the question of what happened in Kerala then, “because of the labour theory of value, which has often been criticised on grounds that labour is only one factor of production among many others. But, as Maurice Dobb argues, there is a certain role of labour which cannot be replaced by anything else and which can actually generate a potential for expansion that nothing else can,” he said.

The earliest credit for it has to be given to Japan in the mid-19th century, when the country had the Meji restoration and was ready to race ahead and decided to focus on education for all and health care for all and so on. “So, it is not only a Marxian way of thinking — though Marxian thinking is very strong in this — but the Japanese have always differed a little from standard theory and were ready to go in that direction,” Sen said.

The question was, to what extent can Kerala look ahead, “continuing the efforts of focussing on humanity rather than physical capital accumulation”, which also, he said, must be important. “Physical capital accumulation is important even in theory, it is important in Marxian writing, it is important in Ricardian writing, and so on and, of course, is very much important in neoclassical economic theory. But the role of labour, which is very important to that, and the scale of production, training, learning, and generally skill formation whether by education or by practice, is really quite central to an understanding of economics. But I would say that the possibility of expansion here remains very strong. This is partly because the mindset that focusses on humanity as opposed to physical assets is something that is well established in Kerala.”

Pointing out that one has to take a broad approach and see what are the “different tributaries to that force that developed in Kerala”, he said, missionaries clearly played a role there and so did royalty in the two native states that later formed the State of Kerala. “You have to bear in mind that India emerged with 13 per cent education at the time the British left. Kerala was an exception. It came within, almost close to 50 per cent. But it needed to get to 100 per cent. But in some way, you can argue that 50 to 100 per cent is easier than 13 to 50 per cent, because there is a tradition there, an attempt to understand how to proceed — and this is a very big part of what happened in Kerala.”

Referring to the different kind of history in Germany and Japan which were devastated by the War, he said these countries too were then, rapidly and within a short period, performing at a high level. “And, why is that? Because in some ways the focus was to recreate the atmosphere of productivity with this “conviction that you can make use of human labour and go straight ahead”.

When we look at the successes and failures today, this focus on labour has to be seen as being very important because of the fact that “nothing is as important productively as what happens to the attitude of human beings to change, to progress,” Professor Amartya Sen said.

Read also: ‘A Kerala experience’,  on Amartya Sen’s visit to Kerala in 2001.

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