Nobel Laureate, an eminent welfare economist and author of The Argumentative Indian Amartya Sen is a down-to-earth man. All his success has not left him feeling giddy and with his head in the clouds: his feet are firmly on ground and he is well in tune with India and the ground realities of the economy.
It took him 10 years to research this book and it is not just a treatise on how to do away with poverty but rather what makes India the democracy it is -- the noisy, colourful, chaotic democracy -- the largest in the world -- exists because Indians have a great capacity to argue!
But this could be interpreted as being analytic and reasonable or quarrelsome and unreasonable, so which is it?
The book is a collection of essays -- some which are a sharp critique of policies that India has followed and these can be stinging. For instance, on the subject of hunger, Sen has written that "India has fared worse than every other country in the world."
He says that "being fired up about hunger or illiteracy" is more fundamental than being "fired up about public ownership or private ownership. If you do, then there is something wrong with you!" This was in reference to divesting of public sector businesses.
He elaborates, "People are always thinking as if equity and efficiency are constantly in battle but there is a question of what is the best way of promoting equality." He says that the issue should only be, is it instrumental to whether a business is better managed as a public sector company as opposed to in a private sector or vice versa. Either way, the businesses should be efficient in generating equity.
The professor was at his enlightening best on that and other issues affecting the country of his birth. Excerpts from an interview given to CNBC-TV18.
Is the title The Argumentative Indian a bit of a pun?
I'm not sure it's a pun because argumentative has several senses, but a general propensity to question and dispute, which is neither methodical argument necessarily nor is it somebody saying 'show me why, show me how and let's discuss'.
That is the main sense in which I mean argumentative. By and large, people are keen in chatting and asking questions about each other. I remember, a lovely 19th century poem by Raja Rammohan Roy, a religious reformer, about the horror of death. In the poem, he said, "Just imagine how dreadful the day of your death will be. Others will go on speaking and you will not be allowed to argue back!"
'The real roots of Indian democracy lie not so much in the periodic system of elections and voting but in the Indian tradition of reasoning, questioning and disputation.' Why do you say that?
What I'm saying is that democracy can be seen in two ways. One is by just balloting. The other is government by discussion, responding to public discussion and protecting public discussion. Voting is just a part of it. Indeed, no government has won 99% majority without its people having discussed or the opportunity to know what's going on.
So, it's that general thing about democracy, of every country, what happens in the nature of discussion is extremely important. India, having a strong tradition of public reasoning makes it easier for us to conduct a discussion and it also helps to sustain the balloting. I'm not overlooking the importance of balloting but it is a part of a bigger story.
For Indian democracy to achieve its full potential, "a more vigorous and vocal use of democratic participation is necessary." What sort of participation is lacking?
There are two problems.
One, some issues are easy to discuss - like famine. An editor says how dreadful and publishes an attack on it with a picture of someone with a child dying of hunger in her lap and an editorial, which does not require much skill and that has been a success and famine has got eliminated because no government wants to face crticism. The problem is something more serious and complex, namely regular under-nourishment of a massive kind in terms of numbers. No one is dying of it but the chances of dying is there and weigh statistically and then the numbers count up.
The other problem is Hindutva. Not only is it trying to take India away from secularism but distracts from development issues which are more important like hunger.
To what extent do you think the press fails to project the right voices of protest and to what extent does it get readily distracted by voices that are too easy, but at the end of the day, not that important?
One point in defence is that when something is going wrong like the Babri Masjid, Gujarat riots or the Rath Yatra, it's very difficult for the press not to concentrate on the issue of the day. But, there are other moments, when nothing of the dramatic kind is happening, then one has to bring out the kind of quiet violence that goes on, in the form of people dying of hunger, or lack of medication.
Press coverage of such issues is not well cultivated, not just in India but elsewhere as well. For eg. very few people know that on 9/11, 2001 many more people died of AIDS than they did of violence.
With regard to chronic malnutrition, you say in the book that "India has done worse than every other country in the world." Why do you say that?
There are three issues -- one, quiet hunger that kills gradually and makes children's lives much more miserable. Second, the lack of health facilities and the dreadful state of public services and the exploitation that goes on in the name of private healthcare. Third, is the gender inequality.
I think, this has received more attention and that's because of women's movements. Let may tribute here, I think it's an indication that if you get concentrated on gender issues, pay attention to bring it over to public discussion, then you do have a public discussion and it does have an effect. It has an effect in legislation and in execution.
You write in your book that "About half of all Indian children are chronically under-nourished and more than half of all the adult women are anaemic than Africa. Africa still manages to ensure a higher level of nourishment than India." So where did India go wrong?
I think it goes wrong in two respects. One, even though Africa has famines, higher mortality rates and much more chaos, but the issue of eating enough is quite a big issue in Africa. The African rebelliious spirit is stronger. The other reason is, women are much more important in Sub-Sahara Africa, they have a much bigger voice.
We know, within India, whenever women have had a bigger voice, the hunger problem has dramatically reduced. The fact that gender inequality is far less in Africa is not unrelated to the fact that regular hunger is also far less in Africa than in India.
Sometime in 2001, India had buffer stocks exceeding 60 million tonnes and beside that somewhere between 220-300 million people went to bed on an empty stomach, every night. You ask the question, "what could explain the simultaneous existence of the worst under-nourishment and the largest foodstocks in the world?"
It's lack of politicisation of that issue. The famine issue got so easily electrified into politics and the success in dealing with that made people forget that hunger is a bigger problem than famine. Great academics went on saying that there isn't so much hunger in India.
The problem is more complex. If children are underweight for their age, then you are courting trouble. There is a lot of denial of the significance of that statistic. I've been looking at it since the 1970s-80s. I heard this argument from the finest Indian economists over and over again, that these children are not underweight, they were just smaller!
It's both a moral and a scientific failure. It's a moral issue that you don't pay attention to the agony of these people. But it's scientifically you fail when you believe that these lean children are perfectly healthy, then there is a moral problem that your letting these children die at a higher rate than would have happened. Ultimately, it's politics we are looking at.
When I had to make a statement after the Nobel, I did alittle research about what I wrote in the 1950s. Even then, I was grumbling about illiteracy and illhealth being neglected.
The neglect was a peculiar denial. It was emphasized in Nehru's speech, 'Tryst with Destiny' that mentions healthcare, medicines and education for all. There was relatively little or nothing.
There was a hold of the upper class way of thinking, India has always concentrated on higher education and its success. Many of the Left parties are guilty of being driven by upper class rulers. So, even though the rhetoric may come from Marx and Lenin, there was this great skepticism with regard to basic education.
This is surprising because even in China, Russia, Vietnam and Cuba the emphasis was on basic education, which the Left in India initially missed, except in Kerala. In Kerala, the situation was different because the Left movement originated there as an anti-upper caste movement.
In May 2004, you were delighted with the election results - 15 months later, are you equally delighted?
I was concerned that India was such a broadminded country with such a long tradition of secularism was moving towards a narrow, sectarian view. When Manmohan Singh was a finance minister, though he's a good friend of mine, I criticised him though I admired his introduction of economic reforms as it was good and needed.
But I did think, the more constructive act of expanding healthcare, education and other things that the government has to do, did not receive sufficient emphasis.
This time around, education has received a much bigger allocation of the budget and there has been a considerable expansion there. I'm not sure about expansion of healthcare but in all these cases, it's not just a question of putting in more money, which is important but there is also the question of requiring structures to carry out the structural reforms.
It's early days yet but on the whole I'm not pessimistic because I don't underestimate rhetoric either because you have to get the speech and the accent right. Last time, I thought the speech was limited primarily to economic reforms and funds from abroad.
Should FDI be permitted in the retail sector, which employs around 40 million people almost entirely in the unorganised sector?
This is again the science of the issue because it's not a foundational issue. Wal-Mart being here or not being here has not moved me in itself. I think the positive thing of Wal-Mart coming in might be, that it reduces the margin that we have between the prices that the sellers get and the prices at which the purchasers buy.
It may allow more income to go to the poor who produce it. To that extent, Wal-Mart being here might also expand Indian exports and improve the lives of the poor. On the other side, ofcourse, would be that a lot of people will be out of their retail trade, so it's a question of balancing.
One doesn't come out with an immediate slogan of an answer, one points out what is that one ought to examine. This is an issue, where both the Right and the Left government need to consider whether it would be in the interests of the people.
Does it serve the interests of the poor, in terms of hunger, education, health, freedom and well-being or does it not? That's the scientific issue.