Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen spoke to Rukmini S and Girija Shivakumar about his new book with Jean Dreze, An Uncertain Glory, rights and the rise of the right.
In the last few years there’s been a considerable resurgence of right-influenced politics and economics in India. Do you think this is this in part a response to Left’s perceived failure at solving major development concerns?
Central to that concern are two bits of foggy identification. One is the idea that being pro-market and making good use of market requires you to be pro-business. So that if you are not being pro- business then you cannot conceivably be asking for getting market efficiency. So anyone who maybe critical of the reach of business is seen as being against pro-markets. While that happens on the right, on the left there is a tendency to assume that since you are anti-business you have a reason to be anti-market, whereas you do need markets for many kinds of efficiency. That confusion is quite strong and it applies on both sides.
Similarly, the other confusion is that blaming bad things, or things not happening in India on the part of the left tends to be linked to `reform’. And on the right, it is because of those things that in addition to the reform have been tried, namely the supportive policies. In fact, it’s neither the reform nor the supportive policies but not doing sufficiently in the supportive policies…Since our position — Jean’s and mine — has been not anti but pro-reform (certainly in my case) and at the same time pro-activism of the public sector in education and healthcare, that is quite a big problem.
What you mention about people feeling that we’ve tried it and it doesn’t work — that may well be their immediate perception but it’s not in fact an empirically grounded belief; Kerala is one of the richest Indian states today. The basis of that transformation, from a very poor state to where it is now is exactly the education and health care policies led by the State. Tamil Nadu does well and is also one of the richer states and Himachal too is moving up fast; all this reflects that these policies do work.
The idea that it hasn’t worked is nothing to do with the nature of the policies but the way they have been executed particularly in the north and west and some times in the east. I think it is very important to get a clear diagnosis of what is it that has prevented the larger scale achievement of health and educational transformation.
You are often credited with pioneering the right-based approach. When it comes to translating this into policy, do you feel that that there has been enough attention to accountable delivery mechanisms?
When it is thought that these are the rights to certain things, it is not an abstract sense of people recognising you’re entitled to it, but people recognising that there is need for an effective delivery of it for the right to be realised. So that in fact the delivery and the way of achieving feasibility is part of the story of a rights-based approach.
…I don’t think I pioneered the right-based approach in any way. At some very basic level, that’s the way that people have thought in the past… I think it has much to offer but some times it’s helpful to think in terms of rights, at other times it’s not.
With the food security entitlements, for instance, do you think delivery mechanisms have been integrated into the debate?
I’m not an expert on food security. I’ve seen in the press being described as the ‘father of food security’ and I have to say this is like a paternity suit. I claim no responsibility. The perception that I’m a great food security-wallah came from the fact that I was asked in a TV interview whether I was in favour of food security. And I said that I think until I know a better alternative, I would rather have it than nothing at all. I did think that there probably are better alternatives because you could do much better nutritional planning than they’ve done in the food security bill. But will it on its own solve the development problem? Not at all. Will it help? Yes.
Your book speaks of the deep deprivations India still has. Does it surprise you then that many economists are currently questioning whether we should be spending on basic entitlements?
No, I am not surprised. In defence of a position with which I am not in agreement, those who are against entitlements or what is called redistribution, their main argument is that the process of growth would be much faster if we didn’t do it now, and then once we have grown, we can do it very quickly. I can understand what the thinking is at an analytical level. The fact that there isn’t a single example of any country in the world which has developed education and healthcare way after they became rich makes me think that the empirical presumptions behind that theory may not be very strong… The fact that there are lots of examples — Europe, America, Japan, China, Korea, Taiwan — of the opposite, namely that they do education and healthcare and their growth rate goes up and they can do very well, makes me think that the connection we are focussing on is empirically more solidly grounded. I don’t think there’s anything evil or nasty about taking the other view. I do happen to think that it’s mistaken.