Amartya Sen of India won the Nobel Prize in economics in 1998 for his pioneering work on development issues. He has focused attention on the social sources of famine, poverty, and inequality, and he has highlighted the need for women’s empowerment.

Sen was born in Santiniketan, north of Calcutta, in 1933. His family lived there and in Dhaka, which was then part of India but is now the capital of Bangladesh. Sen studied at Presidency College, Calcutta, and at Trinity College, Cambridge, U.K. He is Master of Trinity College, Lamont University Professor Emeritus at Harvard, and honorary president of the Oxford Committee for Famine Relief (OXFAM). He has also taught at the London School of Economics, Oxford University, and Delhi University. And he helped establish the United Nations’ Human Development Index, which compares the social welfare of people across countries.

One of his better known works is Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation (Oxford University, 1981), which challenges the view that a shortage of food is the main cause of famine. Sen proved, instead, that famines have a class basis and occur only in undemocratic countries. His most recent book is Development As Freedom (Knopf, 1999), a collection of lectures he gave at the World Bank.

I talked with Sen in his office at Harvard in mid-April. He told me he was “always a little worried” about doing interviews for fear that his views would be misrepresented.

But when he found out I had spent some years in India, it seemed to set him at ease a bit. He told me of his admiration for the Indian poet and fellow Nobel Prize-winner Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), who was, it turns out, a friend of the family. Tagore actually gave him his first name, Amartya, which means immortal. “I had met him a number of times as a child,” he said. “I remember him as a benign, friendly presence.” Sen’s mother was a dancer and “played the lead role in several of Tagore’s dance dramas in Calcutta,” he told me. Today, at ninety, she edits a literary magazine in Bengali. Tagore’s emphasis on the power of “reasoned scrutiny” and his appreciation for the “seamless whole of world civilization” were imprinted on him, Sen said. “I grew up in that culture.”

Other influences he cited were John Stuart Mill, Adam Smith, Karl Marx, and Mahatma Gandhi. He also expressed admiration for Akbar, the great sixteenth century Mughal emperor, who viewed India as a place where a multiplicity of peoples and cultures could live together.

A cosmopolitan, urbane man, Sen got choked up when recounting the opening story of this interview.

Q: Tell me about the childhood experience you had in Dhaka that made a big impression on you.

Amartya Sen: It happened when I was about ten. I was playing alone in the garden of our home when I was suddenly made aware of the presence of somebody. I looked up and there was a person profusely bleeding from his stomach. He had clearly been knifed. He came through the door wanting help and some water. I shouted for help while trying to make him lie down on the ground. He was a Muslim daily laborer named Kader Mia, who had come for work in this largely Hindu area called Wari. He had come despite knowing that these were troubled times, where in Hindu areas Muslims were getting butchered and in Muslim areas Hindus were getting butchered. He came with great reluctance, but he was poor. His family had very little to eat. He was offered a job. He was on his way there when he was knifed. He kept on telling me that his wife had said not to go to such a dangerous area. But he felt economically compelled to do so in order to have an income. The penalty of that economic unfreedom proved to be death.

This incident had a tremendous impact on me. It was incredible to me that members of one community could kill members of another not for anything personal that they did but simply based on their identity. That’s still a hard thought for a human mind to comprehend: Why should you take the life of someone who has done you no harm, whom you don’t even know, just because he belongs to some group? I found that terrifying and utterly perplexing, both from an ethical point of view and intellectually. What kind of thought process was it?

It also made me deeply skeptical of community-based identities. Even to this day, I remain instinctively hostile to communitarian philosophy and communitarian politics. Part of that hostility is based on some analyses, which I’ve tried to present in my writings. But I think the instinctive revulsion is connected with having seen some of the ugly sides of community identity. That was a very strong thing. I knew that there were riots going on, but until I held somebody in my own arms who was bleeding to death—and he did finally die in the hospital—it wasn’t as real to me. Kader Mia’s moving explanation of why he could not listen to the wise counsel of his wife has held a strong presence in my thinking. Because of the lack of freedom in his life, he had to take every opportunity that came his way, even at great personal risk, if he was to be a good father and feed his children. He took the risk and lost his life. That made me realize that lack of economic freedom could be a very major reason for loss of liberty, in this case, liberty of life. The fact that different kinds of freedom interrelate has become a central notion for me. The beginning of that idea was in those moments.

Q: Another important experience was the Bengal famine of 1943. I read that as a child you handed out a tin of rice to starving refugees as they passed your grandfather’s house in Santiniketan.

Sen: First, a comment on the tin of rice. Somehow, in one of the interviews that was done of me, I did mention that my grandfather allowed me to take a cigarette tin of rice from the large jar we had and give it to any family that came for help. But it’s not a big thing, and it’s not my strong memory. The main memory that I have of that period is not of my trying to help in a tiny little way, but the bewilderment as to why suddenly people were dying in such numbers. Where did they come from? I didn’t know any of them. They didn’t come to the school that I went to, not a rich person’s school, but a middle class school with a very nominal fee.

Like all famines, this was a rigidly class-based one. Depending on which occupational group you belonged to, which class you came from, you either got decimated or you had no problem whatsoever. Ninety to 95 percent of Bengalis’ lives went on absolutely normally, while three million died. They all came from a small community, a small class. The people who died were primarily rural wage earners, but also wage workers in river transport or other trades and services, like barbers and craftsmen. Once the famine hit, there was no market for them. This small group of people were economically most vulnerable. They got drowned by the flood of the famine.

So the class basis of the famine was a very strong memory. Later I would find that hardly any famine affects more than 5 percent, almost never more than 10 percent, of the population. The largest proportion of a population affected was the Irish famine of the 1840s, which came close to 10 percent over a number of years.

There was also considerable evidence, which I gathered from my parents and others, that the harvest hadn’t been bad in any sense, so it was surprising that there would be a famine. The Bengal famine happened during World War II. The Japanese were in Burma, and the British army was in Bengal. There was war-based high demand and inflation. Prices shot up. In normal circumstances, sharecroppers and cash wage laborers are almost equally poor. But when prices shot up, the wage earners, with fixed-money wages, started going down right away, whereas sharecroppers, since they got part of their income in the form of food, were not distressed at all in the way that cash wage laborers were.

At the age of ten, when I watched the famine and its class-based nature, its suddenness and its contrariness, I had the beginning of the recognition that the complexity of the entire economic system must be brought into the story.

Q: In Development As Freedom, you write: “No famine has ever taken place in the history of the world in a functioning democracy.” Why is that?

Sen: It became increasingly clear to me by the 1970s that, empirically, famines have actually not occurred in functioning democracies and that this didn’t seem like a fluke but there was a good reason for it. My first book on the subject, Poverty and Famines, came out in 1981, and by then I understood something about how famines operate and how easy it is to prevent them. You can’t prevent undernourishment so easily, but famines you can stop with half an effort. Then the question was why don’t the governments stop them?

The first answer is that the government servants and the leaders are upper class. They never starve. They never suffer from famine, and therefore they don’t have a personal incentive to stop it. Second, if the government is vulnerable to public opinion, then famines are a dreadfully bad thing to have. You can’t win many elections after a famine, and you don’t like being criticized by newspapers, opposition parties in parliament, and so on. Democracy gives the government an immediate political incentive to act.

Famines occur under a colonial administration, like the British Raj in India or for that matter in Ireland, or under military dictators in one country after another, like Somalia and Ethiopia, or in one-party states like the Soviet Union and China.

The Chinese had the failure of the Great Leap Forward, which led to a famine between 1958 and 1961 in which nearly thirty million people died. While tens of millions were dying, the disastrous policies of the government were not revised. This would be unthinkable in a democracy. Similarly, while the famine was going on, there was also a starving of information. This is an additional factor, the informational connection as opposed to the political incentive connection. People in each collective obviously saw that they were not doing very well themselves but they read in the papers that everything was fine in the rest of the country. That’s what censorship does. They all came to the conclusion respectively that they alone were failing. So rather than admitting failure, they cooked the numbers. When Beijing added these up at the height of the famine, they thought they had a hundred million more metric tons of rice than they actually had. So the censorship of the press, which often goes with the lack of a democratic system, had the effect of hoodwinking not only the public but ultimately hoodwinking the state.

Something similar happened in the Soviet Union. They were partly deluded and partly theoretically arrogant. Of course, in the case of the famine in the Ukraine, there was also a dislike of one group, the Kulaks. But on top of that, the lack of political incentives that goes with the absence of democracy and the lack of information added to the story.

Q: India is often hailed in the Western press as the world’s largest democracy. Yet paradoxically, it’s being led by a nationalist, Hindu party, the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party), which has some very fanatical elements. What has led to the “jihadization” of politics in India?

Sen: I don’t think that India is much celebrated for its democracy. Democracy has been a very neglected commodity at home and abroad. In India, it did not get much praise from others whom I would see to be roughly on the left because there is a tendency to dismiss democracy as bourgeois and a sham. Such a view was very strong in my student days, when I was active in leftwing politics. Nearly everybody else who was active in politics thought it was an amiable eccentricity on my part to regard democracy as such a big thing. Similarly, in the West, people have taken relatively little interest in Indian democracy. The governments and the hard-headed military establishment and the general conservative part of America have never taken much interest in democracy, anyway. But also on the left there is a deep skepticism about what democracy means if you are hungry and poor. The celebration, in that context, of China (which had many reasons to be celebrated but not for its lack of democracy) acted as a kind of barrier to see that India was doing something major. So I want to correct that impression.

I regret, of course, the fact that the BJP is in power. I’ve never voted for it and never will. However, it has to be said that the BJP has not been opposed to democracy as such. There has never been a proposal to suspend the constitution, to change voting rights, or to dispense with elections. So, in that respect, you couldn’t say that a nondemocratic party had been elected to run the government. That’s not the case. But their interest, of course, is much more in favor of one community in a multicommunity country. India, I believe, is quintessentially multicommunity, multireligious, multicultural, with Hindus and Muslims and Sikhs and Christians and Jains and others making up the population. The political underpinning of the BJP lies very much in Hindu sectarianism. But the BJP has always tried to argue that it has Muslim members. I don’t take that terribly seriously. They’re not very powerful. But it’s interesting that even with that sectarian base, given the nature of Indian polity, they have to claim that they are somehow multicultural themselves, which to me is a kind of backhanded tribute to the constitutional democratic secularism that we are lucky enough to have in India.

The BJP gets about a quarter of the vote. Its share of the vote has not grown for many years now. It is in a coalition government, and it has made good electoral alliances, more skillfully than the Congress Party or the left coalition has managed to do.

As a good democrat, I think it’s only right that they should run the government. You have to take the rough with the smooth, and the BJP is part of the rough edge of Indian politics.

Q: In May 1998, India conducted nuclear tests. A month later Pakistan followed. What was your reaction?

Sen: I thought this was a disastrous development. But it was part of the BJP’s agenda during the election campaign to carry forward the nuclear program, and this they did.

A lot of the writing in the West has underestimated the extent to which there was opposition to it. It’s very easy to capture pictures of jubilant people in the street after the nuclear bomb. But there were no pictures of morose people sitting in their kitchens and living rooms. After the initial euphoria, which was mainly in urban areas, was over, the government got nothing in terms of popular support for nuclearization.

The nuclear tests made the entire subcontinent less safe. It was predictable that Pakistan would retaliate. Everybody knew that Pakistan had the capability to produce the bomb. It doesn’t matter that its capability is much less than that of India because if they share in a nuclear holocaust you get hundreds of millions dying anyway.

On top of that, from an economic point of view, India diverted a lot of resources that could have been much more productively used for economic and social development.

Q: You are a strong advocate for women’s rights, and you’ve written about the connection between the lack of women’s empowerment and increased fertility rates.

Sen: There’s a clear and strong connection between fertility reduction and women’s literacy and empowerment, including women’s gainful employment. If you look at the more than 300 districts of India, the strongest influences in explaining fertility variations are women’s literacy and gainful economic employment. No matter what the effect of the rapid rise of the population may be in the long run for the environment, the immediate impact of constant bearing and rearing of children is on the lives, liberty, and freedom of young women. Anything that increases the voice of young women tends therefore to reduce the fertility rate.

It seems to me to be kind of inescapable that one has to be interested in the issue of gender and gender equality. I don’t really expect any credit for going in that direction. It’s the only natural direction to go in. Why is it that some people don’t see that as so patently obvious as it should be?

Q: What are your views on globalization?

Sen: Globalization is a complex issue, partly because economic globalization is only one part of it. Globalization is greater global closeness, and that is cultural, social, political, as well as economic. I think the whole progress over the last two or three millennia has been entirely dependent on ideas and techniques and commodities and people moving from one part of the world to another. It seems difficult to take an anti-globalization view if one takes globalization properly in its full sense. I’m beginning on this high ground because it’s hard to be opposed just to economic globalization while you want globalization in everything else. The anti-globalization movement is one of the biggest globalized events of the contemporary world, people coming from everywhere—Australia, Indonesia, Britain, India, Poland, Germany, South Africa—to demonstrate in Seattle or Quebec. What could be more global than that?

We live in a world community, and economic contact has partly contributed to that. It’s also the case that economic opportunity opened up by economic contact has helped to a great extent to reduce poverty in many parts of the world. East Asia’s success is in that direction. Going further back, the escape from poverty in Western Europe and North America is also connected with the use of economic opportunity that international trade helped foster.

Q: But the American experience was built on genocide and expropriation of an entire continent, and Europe’s wealth was directly connected to its colonial empires.

Sen: I think one has to separate out the different factors in it. To say that certainly America was very lucky to get a large amount of land, and the native Indians were extremely unlucky to have white men coming over here, is one thing. But to say that the whole of the American prosperity was based on exploiting the indigenous population would be a great mistake. To a great extent, it was based on the productivity of modern industries, which Karl Marx overall saw very clearly. When he asks, in Kapital volume 1, what is the one great event of the contemporary world, he singles out the American Civil War. What is the Civil War about? Replacing a non-trade-based relationship, namely slavery, with a wage-based relationship. He doesn’t talk about 1848 and the Paris Commune as a great event because Marx, as a realist, saw that industrial capitalism was bringing about a big change that was never achievable earlier and that could be the basis of a prosperous society. He may have got somewhat mixed up as to how you might have a more egalitarian basis of that, thinking about a socialist feature. But certainly he was a great follower of Adam Smith and David Ricardo in seeing that a market economy had enormous opportunity for expanding wealth and enabling people to escape poverty.

Q: What about Europe and colonialism? Bengal itself was stripped of its wealth, pauperized.

Sen: Bengal got a very raw deal. Its development was put back. There’s no question that Bengal suffered enormously from colonialism. But to say that Europe would not have had any industrial revolution but for the colonies is a mistake. I don’t think that’s the analysis you get. Ultimately, imperialism made even the British working classes suffer. This is a point which the British working classes found quite difficult to swallow, but they did, actually. To say that the whole of the industrial experience of Europe and America just shows the rewards of exploiting the Third World is a gross simplification.

Look at some other country, like Japan. It became an imperialist country in many ways, but that was much later, after it had already made big progress. I don’t think Japan’s wealth was based on exploiting China. Japan’s wealth was based on its expansion in international trade.

One has to be realistic. One’s concern for equity and justice in the world must not carry one into the alien territory of unreasoned belief. That’s very important.

Q: What about the downside of economic globalization?

Sen: I’m generally in favor of economic globalization. Having said that, it doesn’t always work and does not immediately work in the interest of all. There are sufferers. What we have to look at is not a kind of wholesale denunciation of globalization, which gets us nowhere. This is like King Kanute trying to discipline the sea. Quite aside from the importance of globalization, it’s inescapable. It’s a question of how to make it more humane and just. That requires paying attention to the underdog.

I believe that virtually all the problems in the world come from inequality of one kind or another. And what we’re looking at is inequality. We have to see how we can make it more equitable. That requires that we pay a great deal of attention particularly to labor conditions. It requires much more activism by the labor movement. It requires a revival of cooperative efforts. It requires revision of the financial architecture of the world, because as it emerged in the 1940s it reflected a reality that is no longer true.

Even though I’m pro-globalization, I have to say thank God for the anti-globalization movement. They’re putting important issues on the agenda. The themes that the anti-globalization protesters bring to the discussion are of extraordinary importance. However, the theses that they often bring to it, sometimes in the form of slogans, are often oversimple. But just because the theses may be easy to reject—and a skillful economist or even a skillful financial journalist will be able to shoot them down—does not mean that the process itself is valueless. The process is basically putting certain items on the agenda.

Globalization can be very unjust and unfair and unequal, but these are matters under our control. It’s not that we don’t need the market economy. We need it. But the market economy should not have priority or dominance over other institutions. We need democracy. We need political activism. We need social movements of various kinds. We need the NGOs [nongovernmental organizations]. We live in a world where there is a need for pluralistic institutions and for recognizing different types of freedom, economic, social, cultural, and political, which are interrelated. It’s that complexity that cannot be captured by either being anti-globalization or being pro-globalization without qualification.

Q: What drives you?

Sen: I am not sure that I am very “driven.” But let me try to say why we might have reason to be driven! We live for a short stretch of time in a world we share with others. Virtually everything we do is dependent on others, from the arts and culture to farmers who grow the food we eat. Quite a lot of the differences that make us rich and poor are matters just of luck. To somehow revel in one’s privilege would be a mistake. An even bigger mistake would be trying to convert that into a theory that the rich are so much more productive than many of us. It’s scandalous when one thinks about the people who live in a world in which they need not be hungry, in which they need not die without medical care, in which they need not be illiterate, they need not feel hopeless and miserable so much of the time, and yet they are.

But this is not just a matter of poverty. There are some people who say that they’re concerned only with poverty but not inequality. But I don’t think that is a sustainable thought. A lot of poverty is, in fact, inequality because of the connection between income and capability—having adequate resources to take part in the life of the community. So you have to be interested in inequality. The issue of inequality and that of poverty are not separable.

We need to ask the moral questions: Do I have a right to be rich? And do I have a right to be content living in a world with so much poverty and inequality? These questions motivate us to view the issue of inequality as central to human living. Ultimately, the whole Socratic question—“How should I live?”—has to include a very strong component of awareness and response to inequality.

David Barsamian is the director of Alternative Radio in Boulder, Colorado. He interviewed Arundhati Roy in the April issue.


Mr. Sen seeing poverty as a moral problem without its material and spiritual basis is a problem. I do not know about the economics that got you the Nobel prize, but one thing is certain, that certain incidents in your life have blinded you to reality. I too had an inccednt that had a lasting imoression my Hindu friend and I visited our Muslim friend for an hour, and during this hot symmer moth we needed some water to drink, I drank abot four glasse, my friend did not drink any. After we left Shabbir's house he told me that he was dying of thirst, so i asked him why had he not drunk the water at Shabbis's home. you can guess the answer, because Shabbir is a moslem. It had such adeep effect that I would delibrately seek out moslems as friends.Now this clouded my mind that about fort years later that I rejected Indian history, the history that the Turkish invaders killed millions of hindus and raped women. Just because this ignorant hiindu boy would not drink water at Shabbir's house does not whitewash history. Needless to say i never giva damn if my friend is a Hindu, moslem or a catholic i like him as long as he supports the Cleveland Cavaliers. Just a joke. Seriously though history cannot be whitewashed. The Jews havew made a boatload of anti holocost films, I have not seen any Bollywood films assailing the massacres of Taimur, Ghazni, Babur or Aurungzeb. Sir, you are playing a dangerous game by letting the right wing steal the show. You yourselmake caasual remarks about Aurungzb and goo on t the syncretism of Inidan music etc. Naipaul understands the hurt and thiis hurt unless brought can create hindu terror. There is no such thing at present, there are soome hoodlums creating occasional non sense but that is it. It would be wiser to come out and admit the atrocities and tell the moslems that they had nothing to to with that but the Turks and the British did. Secondly you love the bourgeois democracy. It is truely like the Athenian democracy,namely a sham. Athenians were barbarians more busy in passing deathsentence on dissenters. Anaxamander, Socrates, themostecles and Aristotle.Tjhe democracy effected about 20 percent of the population.Please do your research and you will find the freedom of expression in the Persian empire. All the pre-socratics were subjects of Cyrus, Darius or Xerexes. This narrative of the Greeks is a bigger lie then the ones promulgated by Himmler and and Hess. China has accomplished more then India because it is not saddled with McCauley thinking. We are taught about the greatness f Greeks. Other than Plato and Aristotle an Aeschelys and Sophocles the Greeks have nothing to show except that Alexander the murderer liked them. What democracy are you talking about? One that is based on an education system that lies about history and philosophy. Check out the internet and wikepedia will tell you that Euclid was Greek. Was he ? Ithought he was from Alexandria in Egypt as was Theron and Hypatia. So where is the Greek democrcy in contribution. There were a lot of contributions by the Egyptians Are the indians taught about that or even the westerners. after seventy years India has one of the lowest literacy rates, that is because of the fact that India is ruled by British empericist bourgeois democrats who cry morality and reject direct democracy. Much of your writing is done for a western audiance, and not much for India. I agree with Lukacs that Tagore may have been a great guy but he was basically a reactionary and that is why he got the Nobel prize. I am not denigrating the Nobel prize as I am a fan of Srtreand Hesse both Nobel Laurttes, but to me the Nobel is dubious and is political. How else do you explain Kissinger who directly opposed India aginst Bangladesh Indi is waking up to the inefficiancies of Congress rule, and i do not know if the BJP can pull it off by introducing some kind of state capitalism as China or not but hunger and poverty are cultural problems as well. Our culture is slavish. Narayna murthis only interested in making money while bill gates is interested in being most innovative, this is colonial thinking vs human thinking. This sir is the biggest problem. Although I have PhD I am a jock and a oach in tennis and I have found this inferiority complex in Indian athletes, mso i am not sitting in an ivory tower or Ivy tower pontificating, i am a blue collar roughneck who believes that an ontological investigation into current state of affairs is necessary.

Add new comment

By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.


The beauty and the tragedy of everyday life in a war zone.

Maybe I should only be shocked that I wasn’t shocked a long time ago.

By Wendell Berry

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more 
of everything ready made. Be afraid 
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery 
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card 
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something 
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know. 
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord. 
Love the world. Work for nothing. 
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it. 
Denounce the government and embrace 
the flag. Hope to live in that free 
republic for which it stands. 
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man 
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers. 
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.

Say that the leaves are harvested 
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus 
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion—put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come. 
Expect the end of the world. Laugh. 
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts. 
So long as women do not go cheap 
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy 
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep 
of a woman near to giving birth? 
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head 
in her lap. Swear allegiance 
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos 
can predict the motions of your mind, 
lose it. Leave it as a sign 
to mark the false trail, the way 
you didn’t go. Be like the fox 
who makes more tracks than necessary, 
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Wendell Berry is a poet, farmer, and environmentalist in Kentucky. This poem, first published in 1973, is reprinted by permission of the author and appears in his “New Collected Poems” (Counterpoint).

Public School Shakedown

Progressive Media Project