Idea Exchange: Public discussion could have saved poor from suffering in pandemic. India needed more democracy than was allowed, says Amartya Sen

“I don’t know whether the country in any sense aspired to become a ‘$5 trillion economy’ — some people did certainly — but people mostly wanted basic justice,” Sen said.

Amartya Sen, Economist and Nobel Laureate
Amartya Sen, Economist and Nobel Laureate

Economist and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen talks about the ‘contrast’ between Constitution’s idea of justice and what’s happening now, elaborates on the ‘tragic choice’ between holding and not holding polls in the pandemic, and believes South Asian nations can still fight Covid together. The session was moderated by National Opinion Editor Vandita Mishra.


VANDITA MISHRA: How has the pandemic affected you and your teaching?
It has had an impact… I prefer to teach face-to-face, but in the Covid period I have taught courses through Zoom. I don’t like it so much because I like to be able to see my students and interact more directly with them. I am looking forward very much to the next session beginning in September when I hope things will not be virtual… Virtual teaching was the biggest change. The other change has been not to be able to go anywhere, and being stuck in my home in Massachusetts. I would like to go out, visit my little house in Shantiniketan.

VANDITA MISHRA: One of the most entrancing parts of your book is how you describe your childhood. It’s full of travel, rivers, Kabir, presence of Tagore. How much of the intellectual adventures that you undertook later in life would you attribute to the springboard that you got at Shantiniketan?
Shantiniketan had quite an effect on my thinking, on my personality… It was not just the influence of (Rabindranath) Tagore’s thinking… that too, but also the nature of the students who were there… Most schools in India make students give priority only to do well in exams… My school in Dhaka (St Gregory’s) judged in terms of the standard criteria of preparing students well for exams. It was altogether excellent but there the students mostly wanted only to score top positions in exams. I found that priority to be a limiting influence on education and generally rather depressing. Shantiniketan liberated me from the constant assessment of how my work was proceeding in terms of exam success.

In many ways I liked the academic climate in Shantiniketan much better. I loved the library there. It was an open-shelf library where you could walk around, go up to the top, and decide what you wanted to read. I ended up reading a lot of things which had nothing to do with my curricular subjects. But it had a big impact on the way I thought about the world. Later, when I was travelling in Europe, America and East and West Asia, I think my early development of curiosity had considerable influence on what I wanted to see and think about. For me at least, it was liberating.

VANDITA MISHRA: In your book, you say that one of the things that you carried with you from Shantiniketan was the unique combination of the emphasis on freedom and reason. Now, we have a situation where the vice-chancellor of Shantiniketan writes to the HRD Ministry asking for paramilitary presence there. What has gone wrong now? Is there a larger narrative that you see, the depletion of the university in a state with such high intellectual capital as Bengal?
I don’t think Bengal is more gifted than other states, but like every region it has its own strength. And Shantiniketan was lucky to have a teaching tradition that encouraged students to think freely with independence, which enriched the academic atmosphere. When Shantiniketan was bureaucratised, the institutional control went away from teachers and academics to the national political powers. The Prime Minister became the chancellor of the university. That can be okay, if the Prime Minister wants to encourage freedom, be enthusiastic about reasoning, rather than wanting to impose narrow-minded, sectarian beliefs.

Shantiniketan’s downfall has not been unique. We can see calamity in the making by studying what happened in, say, reviving the Nalanda (University)… It’s a great university, the oldest university in the world, which the international community wanted to revive. But the moment the control was moved away from academics to bureaucrats, you couldn’t stand against what the Government of India wanted to impose. So it became like every other university in India.

VANDITA MISHRA: Your work on famines was seminal and it taught us that famines do not happen in a democracy, because in democracies there are institutions such as a free press and political parties that seek accountability. Now we are facing a pandemic and democracies, including the US and India, have responded in very slow and heavy-footed ways. Does the pandemic and response of democracies to it complicate your argument about what democratic pressure can or cannot do?
Actually these unfortunate experiences bring out the central feature of the argument involving democracy. We must remember that democracy is not just about the mechanical act of voting, but also about being open-minded and the freedom to argue and to express your opinion. What went wrong in the British imperial days of big famines was that public discussion was thwarted. For example when the Bengal famine was occurring in 1943. If you wrote critically about government policy in the Bengal famine, you could be jailed. Democracy changes that altogether, but we have to ask how does this happen?

No famine affects more than 5-10% of the population. So if you relied only on famine victims for electoral success, you won’t get there because there aren’t that many people devastated by any famine. However, if free public discussion — including actively independent newspapers — were to write about the fact that people are starving and dying, then a much higher proportion of the population can turn against the authoritarian regime that allows the calamity of a famine. That’s how famines are prevented by democracies, not just by vote, but by public discussion. When India became independent it became possible to have public discussion and then famines became difficult to have because public criticism and scrutiny would make it hard for a terrible government to survive.

Now, to the extent that a nasty social situation generates that kind of attention, democracy can be very effective. This is where clear-headed political arguments can add force to the power of public discussion. For example, as I discuss in my book Home in the World, in England when the war was going on and Britain had very little food, there was a sense that the ruling classes may neglect the hunger of the people and this should not be allowed to happen. That concern became politically important, and public discussion led to the demand for rationing of food for all, and the selling of food at controlled low prices. This was introduced during the war, and suddenly even the poorest could afford to buy food. Undernourishment fell dramatically, and severe undernutrition completely disappeared, just when Britain was very short of food. The experience of sharing of food and medicine led to the National Health Service and ultimately to the European “welfare state.”

This type of concern for the interests of the poor, reflected in powerful public discussion, could have occurred in any country suffering from the pandemic, including India. That would have saved the disadvantaged and reduced the suffering of the poor. But it has not happened much in India, and the poor has had little voice in policy making. It was amazing that when the first lockdown was imposed, the interests of the poor rather than getting special attention were quite neglected. The poor dependent on finding jobs with wages could not even look for jobs, confined as they were. The migrant labourers far away from their home had to rely on walking back home, since the transport was discontinued shortly after the official announcement of the lockdown.

Still, public protests did eventually make a bit of a difference, and in a limited form democratic instruments had some effect. But India needed much more democracy than it was allowed to have.

HARISH DAMODARAN: Despite the scale of the pandemic, we haven’t heard of people dying of starvation. Don’ t you think this is an achievement when we see it from the historical perspective, vis-à-vis the Bengal and Sahel famines which you have studied so extensively?
Things could have been worse, certainly. On the other hand, the fact that it could have been even worse does not make the situation particularly acceptable. Could it have been much better? The answer is yes, a lot, lot better, particularly for the poor and the disadvantaged. As an Indian citizen, I don’t like celebrating the fact that our people’s lives could have been even worse.

SUNNY VERMA: Do you think Covid has led to an increase in income inequality in India, and does it require a different kind of redistribution strategy from the government?
I have not studied this connection thoroughly, but it is very likely that income inequality has increased. There has been more unemployment, more deaths among the poor, and there is evidence that the suffering has been quite class based and much sharper for the poor.

ABHISHEK ANGAD: Do you think the judiciary as an institution failed to save Father Stan Swamy’s life?
I think the answer to the question must be yes — at least we need an explanation of how the judiciary failed in its protective role. Stan Swamy was a philanthropist, he was working tirelessly for helping people. The government, instead of providing him protection, made his life more precarious, more difficult, through adverse use of legal means. One result of it was that he was in a much more fragile state than he should have been. Could the judiciary have helped him more? The issue that has to be examined is whether the judiciary failed to keep the excesses of the Executive in check.

LIZ MATHEW: So, do you see a contradiction between the country’s aspiration to become a $5 trillion economy and common citizens’ aspiration to get justice?
I don’t know about contradictions, but there is a contrast between what the Constitution expected will be the direction in which we will go (also what the vast majority of Indians hoped will happen in terms of justice), and what has been actually happening. I don’t know whether the country in any sense aspired to become a ‘$5 trillion economy’ — some people did certainly — but people mostly wanted basic justice.

VANDITA MISHRA: You have said that injustice has grown, and that it is most visible in the ways in which we handle disagreements. You had suggested reform in how the US president is chosen. Is there a need for some electoral reform which can make governments more responsive in India, more discussion-oriented?
One of the big problems that India suffers from at this time is surely the widespread suppression of public discussion… Public discussion could be suppressed in many different ways, by police action, by punitive arrangement. Voting reform can help to some extent, but the overuse of Executive power by the Central authorities is perhaps a much bigger source of suppression of public discussion. Just check how many people are incarcerated without being tried, how many people are silenced through authoritarian force.

NIRUPAMA SUBRAMANIAN: At a seminar on South Asia’s response to Covid-19, you said that we have to learn to maintain physical distance but at the same time create economic and healthcare closeness in South Asia. Has the pandemic created further divisions between rich and poor nations and stratified geopolitical divisions?
I am very glad you have asked that question. The pandemic has certainly added to the distance between the rich and the poor, and so has the unequal ways through which the pandemic has been handled. There is a much better way of fighting the pandemic together, which we have lost. But I don’t think we have lost it forever.

We have to think about how it is possible to maintain physical distance, but not be economically or socially separated. Our protections can be shared (through getting vaccinated and other means), while taking particular care not to make the poor specially prone to unemployment and to further deprivation.

RAVISH TIWARI: It seems now that there is a brewing cold war between the liberals and the conservatives in so-called liberal societies — a kind of battle between the woke crowd and hardcore identity conservatives who subscribe to Trumpism, Hindutva, Chinese nationalism. Do you see this societal schism merging in the coming decades?
My guess is that the possibility of solving the problem with concessions to both sides — the liberals and the conservatives — is very limited now. But instead of trying to have a symmetric coalition between two hostile groups, we can attempt to have symmetric treatment of every person in the society — for which there is a good ethical case.

DIPANKAR GHOSE: When elections in Bengal were being held during the second wave, questions were raised about the need to hold elections at all at a time when so many people were dying because of the virus. But it is also a constitutional, democratic requirement. We will be confronted with the same questions again in six months when more state polls are due. How do we confront a choice like this in a democratic setup?
It’s a very difficult question… Not having an election has its own penalties. In the case of West Bengal there was also the issue that the BJP, which had never held office in West Bengal, was very keen that elections take place, which the BJP was definitely hoping to win. Both the Prime Minister, Mr Modi, and Home Minister Amit Shah were frequently giving lectures in Bengal. They couldn’t have said at that time that ‘let’s not have an election’, which would have looked like a sudden lack of self-confidence. For the secular parties, particularly Trinamool, to try to call off the election would have looked like not giving the BJP a chance. And yet there was a good case for not holding the elections at that time. In decision theory this is often called ‘a tragic choice’.

As far as future elections are concerned, there could be more preparedness against the spread of infection. Elections in West Bengal, Kerala, Assam and Tamil Nadu have given us some helpful understanding of what to avoid in future elections.

MANRAJ GREWAL SHARMA: What can India do to make the most of its demographic dividend? About 50 per cent of our population is below 25 years of age.
I am sceptical of thinking in terms of demographic dividend. Having a high proportion of very young people can be costly too, because they should be looked after carefully. In India, we tend to economise on these expenses — particularly good education and healthcare. The healthcare that is offered to the young tends to be far less than what they should get. Rather than thinking in terms of demographic dividend, I would tend to think about what makes the lives of all people, young and old, be as good as we can possibly make them. Each person — young and old — should count as being important to society.

AAKASH JOSHI: In the aftermath of the pandemic, there is a sense that democracies haven’t been able to respond very well to it, while China has handled it better. In the post-pandemic world, how do you see this challenge to the democratic model from China playing out at a philosophical level?
This is a very important question. It would be very foolish not to give credit to the Chinese for the many big things they have achieved. It would be unfortunate not to recognise that they have done things from which countries like India have a lot to learn. I admire the Chinese people’s innovativeness, good education and careful training. And yet many Chinese people worry about the balance between these achievements and being able to give a bigger role to freedom in their social life and in their freedom to disagree. The Chinese are very strongly involved in trying to see what is the best they can do for their own country. We have to know more about what the Chinese themselves think. The way the Chinese universities have expanded is truly admirable, but if the young Chinese think that the balance could have been fruitfully different, I won’t dismiss their scrutiny and concern.

The assessment has to go beyond the formulaic slogans in terms of which the contrasts are often summarised. There is a lot more to discuss in all this.

VANDITA MISHRA: When you look at India, what are the two or three things that give you hope?
Why only two or three things to hope for? I want to think about 17 or 20 or 35 things! We have to improve in many different ways. Reduction of blinding poverty, reversal of tremendous inequality, arranging social security for all, greater freedom of speech in general, the courage to stand up against authoritarianism and bullying… as an Indian, we have to think of the many different things we need! I’m ready to look for them and ready to work for them to the extent I can.

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First published on: 18-07-2021 at 04:00 IST