Narendra Modi has given people a sense of faith: Amartya Sen

Food security programme, Nrega need revamp, says Nobel laureate Amartya Sen at Express Adda.

Narendra Modi has given people a sense of faith: Amartya Sen

Despite differences over secularism and social cohesion, Nobel laureate Amartya Sen praised Prime Minister Narendra Modi for imparting a sense of kinetic energy to the economy and highlighting the need for toilets in the country.

As the guest at The Indian Express event, Express Adda, on Saturday evening, Sen also clarified his stance on government subsidies and said the term must be “unpacked” to distinguish between essential national services, such as public education and healthcare, and subsidised cooking gas and diesel.

Sen warmed the evening with his staggering range: from how he took Mike Brearley to his “quietest” New Year Eve in Calcutta to how Sanskrit has 16 words for ‘justice’, each with a different nuance. Those who braved the December cold to listen in included former RBI governor YV Reddy, actor Sharmila Tagore, BJP’s Lok Sabha member from Mumbai Poonam Mahajan, designer Rajeev Sethi, Raheja group chairman Navin Raheja, chief economic advisor Arvind Subramaniam, Brookings India director of research Subir Gokarn, Population Foundation of India’s Poonam Moottreja, economist AK Shiva Kumar, Rajiv Luthra, artist Jatin Das, former CEC Navin Chawla, adman Suhel Seth, Mark
Tully and entrepreneur Ramola Bachchan.

“I am critical of Mr Modi but I have to say he has given a sense of faith to people that things can happen. It may not be in exactly the same way that I would have liked to have happened… I think it is quite an achievement… It is a compliment but our differences on secularism and other things don’t go away,” he said, adding that former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was not able to give that impression that things can happen (in the second term of the UPA).

A Bharat Ratna awardee by the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government in 1999, Sen is the Thomas W Lamont University Professor and Professor of Economics and Philosophy, at Harvard University now. He is one of the biggest critics of the Prime Minister and had even said he does not want Modi to lead the country due to his lack of secular credentials.

In a two-hour conversation moderated by contributing editor Pratap Bhanu Mehta and deputy editor Seema Chishti, Sen also said the Prime Minister highlighted the need for toilets in his Independence Day speech.

“I was delighted that for several years I was writing about open defecation and how toilets are needed. This is the second thing I am praising about Mr Modi now… that on top of the Red Fort, he shared many good things, one of which was the absence of toilets and the other was the fear women suffer from… not much has been done but at least it is being talked about now,” he said.

While praising former PM Manmohan Singh Singh as an economist, Sen, who was also his student at Cambridge, said had Singh stepped down after the first term, he would have been a very successful PM.

On the issue of subsidies, Sen said he did not favour diesel and cooking gas subsidies, but added the state must provide essential national services such as healthcare and education. Pointing to the example of the British National Health Service and the American system of public education, he said, “These are essential services and putting them in the same word as subsidising cooking gas or diesel is a huge mistake. The ability to distinguish between essential services the state has to provide is important,” he stressed, adding that by attacking these, we prevent the state from providing these essential services.

Pointing out that power and cooking gas subsidies were “huge mistakes” of the previous government, he said the new government has worked on removing these, helped by lower fuel prices.

He also stressed that India’s food security programme as well as the Mahatma Gandhi National Employment Guarantee Act scheme needed to be re-worked.

“On food security, there was a lot of criticism from those supporting the government, but the government has actually fought with the WTO to keep food security on and that itself is a good policy though it has to be redone,” he said, adding that similarly while there is need for an employment scheme, its current organisation is “very bad and is strongly in need of reform.”

He, however, criticised the NDA government for its failure to recognise India’s multi-cultural and multi-religious identity. “To me the biggest issue is that the central government hasn’t looked into the issue of social cohesion and culture… it is such a central recognition throughout Indian history,” he said, adding that the issue of environment protection and clean energy must also be looked into.

Jumping into the debate on growth versus development models, Sen argued that no country in the world has succeeded in maintaining high economic growth just on the basis of physical capital while having unhealthy people and uneducated citizens and workers.  “The argument that a poor country or state can’t provide universal education and healthcare is very bad economic reasoning,” he said while responding
to a question.

Sen, who along with Jean Dreze had co-authored the book ‘An uncertain glory: India and its Contradictions’,  had attracted a fair share of criticism from some for its advocacy of government spending on subsidies and welfare programmes.

But referring to the example of Kerala, which was the third poorest state in the country when it started a programme for providing universal healthcare and education in 1962, Sen said it has now become the state with the highest income, according to NSSO data. “Gujarat, which has the second highest income is always touted as the highest Indian state (state with highest income),” he said.

Providing these universal services for education and healthcare result in a rise in income, he argued, adding that even states like Himachal Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, which moved partially towards such policies, are among better off now.

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First published on: 22-12-2014 at 01:15 IST