Ambedkar my father in Economics: Dr Amartya Sen
Prof.Sen ,6th Indian to get Prestigious Nobel Prize has recently claimed in a lecture session :
“Ambedkar is my Father in Economics. He is true celebrated champion of the underprivileged.He deserves more than what he has achieved today. However he was highly controversial figure in his home country,though it was not the reality. His contribution in the field of economics is marvelous and will be remembered forever..!”
Read further :’An interview with Dr. Amartya Sen’
The celebrated economist, Professor Amartya Sen, is the sixth Indian to get a Nobel, and the first Asian winner of the economics prize. Professor Sen is presently in India to deliver this year’s Sir Dorab Tata Memorial Lecture in Mumbai and Delhi. His research has covered many areas in economics and philosophy. His contributions range from the axiomatic theory of social choice to the development of welfare and poverty indicators and further, to empirical studies of famine, all of which focus on issues of income distribution, particularly with reference to the most impoverished members of society.
His early works laid the micro-theoretic foundations for development economics. In the second phase, he was involved in studying capital theory and growth. He moved on to social choice, where he opposed the much-acclaimed conditions of Pareto optimality and its total imposition on economic theory. He also started focusing on income inequality and constructed a new measure of poverty widely known as the ‘Sen index’. He also continued his work on the empirical realms of development economics and started working on famines.
In his celebrated works on poverty and famines, he showed why and how famines are caused by a collapse of economic entitlement rather than any decline in food availability (which may or may not occur).
The wide gamut of his work includes diverse topics such as rationality of choice in moral and political philosophy. More recently, his concerns have included the interrelation between social, political and economic rights.
In an interview with Christabelle Noronha, Professor Sen discusses his work and some of his concerns.
tata.com: Most of your research is centered around the human face of economics, what made you decide on this aspect?
Amartya Sen: I think the human face of economics is important for my work though I don’t think that most of my research is centered around it. In some ways of course all economics involves human behaviour and as such it is not possible to study economics without encountering the human face, directly or indirectly, in terms of dealing with human lives, human capabilities, human freedom and human rights. I think that a part of my work focuses on that area though most of my work has not. It’s not the part that I’ve spent most of my life working on.
My research focused a lot on social choice, in which I used a broad framework in a variety of applied problems, such as: to assess poverty, to evaluate inequality, to clarify the nature of relative deprivation, to develop distribution-adjusted national income measures, to clarify the penalty of unemployment, to investigate the working and consequences of democracy, to analyse violations of personal liberties and basic rights and to characterise gender disparities and women’s relative disadvantage.
I think the specifics of human issues often tend to get neglected in economics because it’s much easier to deal with human behaviour in a stylised form, seen in terms of profit maximisation only. In such analyses you tend to lose certain aspects of social relations. There are other aspects that one has to look into — human behaviour and its complexity, human freedom and human rights — which have implications on public policy.
The first time that any central government in this country was voted out of office was the Indira Gandhi government because of the imposition of the emergency. The issue of political and civil liberty particularly upset people; it was not only about poverty, but about human and civil rights and, most importantly, the suppression of human rights.
Also, in emphasising the importance of human freedom we have to ask whether the standard criteria for economic welfare were adequate They are not. Of course human well-being is important but so is freedom in general and freedom to pursue well-being in particular and to pursue other objectives as well.
tata.com: It is fifty years since India has become a republic, with not much economic progress; is there need to take a fresh look at our constitution, in terms of an economic model, so that there is equality of income?
AS: I think the Indian Constitution is a marvelous constitution in many ways. It may need a little tinkering here and there but I think it’s got the basic structure right. The constitution focuses on equality, specially in the section called Directive Principles. It deals with equity in a variety of spaces — it considers inequality of income to be bad, but it is also concerned with inequality of educational opportunities, inequality of healthcare and of life in general. I think we get a lot of guidance there about distributional issues.
Inequality of income is not the only kind of inequality that matters. Furthermore, the inequality of income often arises because of inequality in other spheres. For example, inequality in educational opportunities is sometimes the principal cause of inequality of income.
The constitution is focused on a number of issues that are central but which have been neglected and continue to be neglected. I would be more supportive of the idea of making the constitution more effective than the question of reviewing it, by giving the Directive Principles more importance. Inequality of income to a great extent relates to a lack of opportunities that some people have compared to others.
I would be in favour of implementing constitutional provisions, elevating some of the Directive Principles, and bringing public policy in line with the constitution’s concern about equality and I think there is a lot to be done in that direction. I do not feel there is any need to seriously change the constitution. Some of the things that the constitution guarantees are secularism, protecting minority rights, which is particularly important when there is a danger of intolerance from majority communities. The constitution provides protection to religious minorities, their culture and concerns.
I think the constitution continues to provide a good backdrop for India because it is pro-equality, pro-freedom, pro-opportunity. In all these respects we have much to be grateful to the makers of the Indian Constitution, in particular to Dr. Ambedkar.
tata.com: Your subject of concern in recent years seems to be the right of people to improve the quality of their lives. In such a scenario, what about the moral aspect of human behaviour? Will it not lead to a Machiavellian society?
AS: Well I think the expansion of human freedom and quality of human life need not have the effect of making people selfish. It may in fact have the opposite effect. We seek freedom not only to improve our own lives but also to do those things that we value and many of the things we value involve other people, and as such, there is no particular reason to think that improving our own freedom or our own quality of life will have the effect of making us less concerned about the lives of others.
Indeed improving the quality of life and expanding human freedom should have exactly the opposite effect. Because of poverty, illiteracy, lack of healthcare, people are bothered constantly by illnesses, bereavement in families and so on. We are then not able to help others. So anything that makes life more secure more stable and less precarious enhances our ability to help each other. That’s the direction we expect to go.
Machiavelli was a great political thinker who had a great deal of sympathy for the underdogs. He was concerned about how to improve and increase the ability of those who were powerless to have more power in a society where power is heavily concentrated. If by Machiavellian you mean being selfish, I don’t really see that improving the quality of people’s lives will have the effect of making people more self centered and less concerned. There is no empirical evidence in this direction.
tata.com: What are your views on the relationship between health and education and productivity?
AS: I think these are very interesting and important issues to think about because the limitation of educational opportunity and healthcare has been one of the major sources of underdevelopment in India and continues to be. On the eve of Independence, one of the things that Pandit Nehru outlined and emphasised in his famous speech ‘Tryst with destiny” was opportunities for education and healthcare. This has not happened. Inequality in education and healthcare has increased. Not that everything has been negative — overall educational opportunities have increased and healthcare has generally improved — but inequality has certainly gone up with opportunity at the higher level having expanded relatively much more.
You have several technical institutes offering higher education — the IITs and other places that have done extremely well. The Indian software industry and generally IT has been very successful within the country as well as abroad. This shows how important education is, but if you take care of education only at the higher level and ignore the basic level, you are missing out the opportunities that less advantaged people have to improve their living conditions as well as to participate more fully in social life, or to raise their productivity and thereby increase their levels of income.
I think expanding school education is one of the central questions facing us today. In addition to quantity, the quality of education in Indian schools is also very low, though it varies in different states. For instance, Kerala has better and more accessible education than most of the other Indian states. UP, Bihar and Rajasthan have very limited educational opportunities, especially for women, and it does make a difference that opportunity be created in terms of more accessible and better run schools. In instances of teacher absenteeism, the education of children gets neglected. Schools must be managed well. I think that requires a change in public policy, a much more extensive public policy on education.
I’ve been arguing that for several years without a great deal of success. It will make a dramatic difference, like it has to successful economies such as those of Japan, South Korea and China. Education can be very powerful in improving the economic conditions of people.
A lot of low productivity in India comes from poor healthcare, poor nutrition, under-nourishment. Little has been done for improving public health, and tackling illiteracy and poverty. The effort has to be to reach benefits of a liberalised economy to the socially deprived. In certain parts of the country, land reforms, primary education and health issues have been tackled well, for instance, land reforms in West Bengal, education in Kerala and Himachal Pradesh and public health in Kerala are applaudable. But the need is for the development to happen all over India at the same time.
So, I return to my basic theme which is that even impoverished societies can improve the well-being of their least advantaged members. Societies that attend to the poorest of the poor can save their lives, promote their longevity and increase their opportunities through education and productive work.
tata.com: What role do you see for the government and corporate sector in the area of education and healthcare?
AS: Obviously the public sector has a major role here but the corporate sector is also important as are individuals who can contribute to public healthcare and education Both areas can be expanded with the help of private corporations, especially in urban areas, and through cooperation among individuals who can make the systems of delivery more efficient. I mentioned earlier how school children suffer from teacher absenteeism. In general schools are very badly run. There could be more parental control over schools and that is in a way a cooperative action. I would say yes, the public sector has a big role but so has the rest of society — varying from individuals at one end to the corporate sector at the other end.
tata.com: What are your views on the concept of trusts?
AS: I think trusts are extremely important as a way of human cooperation. The advantage of a trust is that it has flexibility in a way that a politics-driven public policy may not have. It gives greater scope for philantrophic intervention. In a small way, I’ve been a beneficiary myself in being able to set up a trust when the Nobel Prize money came my way. It also gave me an opportunity to do something immediate and practical about my old obsession. The Pratichi Trust which I have set up in India and Bangladesh with the help of some of the prize money, looks at literacy, basic healthcare and gender equity. It is, of course, a small effort compared with the magnitude of these problems. But it is nice to re-experience something of the old excitement of running evening schools, more than fifty years ago in villages near Santiniketan
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