By David Barsamian on Sep 29, 2011
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 womens 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. Sens mother was a dancer and played the lead role in several of Tagores dance dramas in Calcutta, he told me. Today, at ninety, she edits a literary magazine in Bengali. Tagores 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. Thats 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 dont 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 Ive 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 deathand he did finally die in the hospitalit wasnt as real to me. Kader Mias 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 grandfathers 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 its not a big thing, and its 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 didnt know any of them. They didnt come to the school that I went to, not a rich persons 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 hadnt 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 didnt 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 cant prevent undernourishment so easily, but famines you can stop with half an effort. Then the question was why dont 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 dont 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 cant win many elections after a famine, and you dont 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. Thats 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 worlds largest democracy. Yet paradoxically, its 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 dont 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. Ive 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 couldnt say that a nondemocratic party had been elected to run the government. Thats 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 dont take that terribly seriously. Theyre not very powerful. But its 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 its 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 BJPs 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. Its 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 doesnt 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 womens rights, and youve written about the connection between the lack of womens empowerment and increased fertility rates.
Sen: Theres a clear and strong connection between fertility reduction and womens literacy and empowerment, including womens gainful employment. If you look at the more than 300 districts of India, the strongest influences in explaining fertility variations are womens 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 dont really expect any credit for going in that direction. Its the only natural direction to go in. Why is it that some people dont 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. Im beginning on this high ground because its 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 everywhereAustralia, Indonesia, Britain, India, Poland, Germany, South Africato 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. Its 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 Asias 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 Europes 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 doesnt 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. Theres 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 dont think thats 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 dont think Japans wealth was based on exploiting China. Japans wealth was based on its expansion in international trade.
One has to be realistic. Ones concern for equity and justice in the world must not carry one into the alien territory of unreasoned belief. Thats very important.
Q: What about the downside of economic globalization?
Sen: Im generally in favor of economic globalization. Having said that, it doesnt 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, its inescapable. Its 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 were 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 Im pro-globalization, I have to say thank God for the anti-globalization movement. Theyre 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 rejectand a skillful economist or even a skillful financial journalist will be able to shoot them downdoes 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. Its not that we dont 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. Its 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 ones 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. Its 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 theyre concerned only with poverty but not inequality. But I dont think that is a sustainable thought. A lot of poverty is, in fact, inequality because of the connection between income and capabilityhaving 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 questionHow 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.