India through the eyes of Amartya Sen


Book: The Country of first boys

Author: Amartya Sen

Publisher: Oxford University Press

Year: 2015

Pages:  273

Price: Rs 413 (h/b).


Zaboor Ahmad


Amarty Sen has always been an economist with a humanistic sensibility.  Many of the essays collected in the book appeared in the Little magazine, cover wide a range of topics like poverty, war, development, freedom and education. Some of the chapters provide powerful insight into issues like rise of violence in the world. Sen has blended wit and humor with intellect and engages readers without using technical jargon of economics.

Sen argues consistently that elimination of famine has been a crowning glory of India. Famines are virtually absent in democracies. But India has been unable to remove pervasive hunger. Interestingly, famines have been absent in Pakistan, which has experienced both military as well as democratic rule. No doubt food production has increased, but good is still beyond the reach of a sizeable section of people. General undernourishment is nearly twice as high in India as in sub Saharan Africa. While it is claimed that India has managed its challenge of hunger since beginning, half of its children and all women are anaemic.

India has food mountains on one side but also largest number of undernourished persons. Stocks are accumulating as people starve. It is a fallout of high minimum price of food grains. It expands procurement while simultaneously depresses demand. While the potent lobby of big farmers press for revision of procurement prices and for public funds to be spent to keep them, political parties cater to demand of poor farmers who also benefit from high price. For poor people who work as casual workers and non-farm workers price rise makes a dent in their pockets. It is pity that silence is maintained over this issue. The overall effect of food subsidy is to transfer money to farmers than to transfer food to undernourished consumers.

In the chapter on globalisation, Sen stands by the market, and advocates it as an engine of economic progress. The achievements are phenomenal in many parts of world. The failure could be because of adoption of wrong policies. But the truth is that it has excluded vast areas and masses of people from prosperity and benefits. He concedes that global capitalism is concerned with expanding the domain of market relations than with promoting democracy or education, for which he suggests course correction. Global trade in arms is causing intense misery, but world economic powers are well entrenched in this business. Those who feel exasperated with anti-globalisation movement have the largest share in arms trade. The chapter raises more questions than it answers.

The author champions dialogue as suspicion grows due to mutual ignorance and non-communication. The tendency to amuse people makes people more humane. In the chapter, “Why media is essential for economic growth”, Sen asserts that recognition of free speech and political freedom is the product of the 20th century.  Development entails expanding people’s choice. Freedom of press is critical as it facilitates critical scrutiny, gives voice to underdogs, helping to cause greater human security and in generation of values and ideas. Sen strongly makes the point that absence of freedom of press made the Chinese Great Leap Forward a disaster, in which millions of people perished. Had it been in India, it would have prevented it as India is a democracy, as if it is an antidote for every evil.  The Great Leap programme backfired because of poor weather for two years, inadequate transport system because of border war with India. The call to make steel in decentralised small units took million of units away from their normal work. Between August and November 1958 all cooperatives were converted into communes without proper management. As Marshall Peng wrote a poem, “to harvest the grain there are small children and old women, how shall we get through next year.’’ It was a matrix of causes rather than mere absence of freedom or democracy which Sen argues, made a mess of programme. The author vehemently underscores the expanding role of trade unions, from catering to the demands of their own interests only to cultivating the habit of responsibility and accountability in them.

One of the wishes which Sen makes to the goddess called GMT is to have a strong right wing party in India which could be secular. The only big right wing party which is pro-market pro-business, is using religion as a base for winning. A  hue and cry is raised over food subsidy meant for poor, the government spends 1.4 % of the GDP on subsidy of food and unemployment schemes meant for the poor, while on the contrary the subsidy on diesel, petrol, fertilizers and electricity costs 3.63% of GDP. The former is treated as a drain on resources, while the latter continues without hullaballoo. Sen lambasts the media for fixing the spotlight on issues of the rich and cites the media coverage of blackout in July two years ago creating mayhem while 200 million people do not have electricity even for a day, which hardly bothers us.

The cultural wars are dismissed forthwith by the author. He busts the myth that poverty and deprivation engender violence and cites the case study of Kolkata which is poorer than other cities, but is the most secure and safe place to live in and has the lowest level of violence in India. He attributes it to the rule of the Left which focused on identity of class and gender rather than religion.  A focus on multiple identities is a sure way to reduce violence, he argues. Incitement to violence like by USA in case of Afghanistan, ill treatment, neglect and wounded psyche in the case of the Middle East is reason of violence.