VIEWPOINT - The New Indian Express (Kerala), 25 September 2000

Amartya Sen: Sense or nonsense

In Kerala, the Nobel laureate is conceived in three forms - St.Thomas, Pontius Pilate, and Serpent. But are we not missing somebody here?


Amartya Sen's pre-Nobel reputation in Kerala is rooted in his popularisation of the "Kerala Model" highlighting social advancement despite low economic growth. In the State, Sen is conceived in three forms - St.Thomas, Pontius Pilate, and Serpent. But are we not missing somebody here?

Those faithful to Kerala-style Left politics see Sen as the most celebrated apostle who spread the religion of "Kerala model" in the West. At the same time, Sen is hesitant to join 'the anti-market' crusade and has cast doubts on fiscal sustainability of the Kerala Model. Hence, despite better evangelists within the community, Sen remains a Saint - the doubting Thomas - whose quotations come in handy to prove your point.

Another group - Leftist at heart, but disenchanted by the Kerala Model rhetoric -- holds Amartya Sen partly responsible for the State's underdevelopment. These are the people who receive shabby treatment in government health centres (and hence have shifted to private hospitals), are worried about the employment prospects of their educated children, and feel helpless when faced with indifferent officialdom in a public sector state. To them, Sen is the Pontius Pilate who attested the goodness of the Model, and helps the intellectual-leadership of the ruling parties, cover up for slow economic progress. In this perspective, if Sen expresses doubts regarding the sustainability of the Model, he is only washing his hands off the matter.

To the dogmatic Left, Amartya Sen is the subtle serpent in God's garden. They are quick to slot Sen (and anybody) into either pro-state or pro-market. The find Sen's praise for Left-led initiatives in Kerala seductive. And through thick 'pro-state' lens, they see Sen fostering the forbidden market surreptitiously.

Ironically, to those who have read Amartya Sen's development writings with an open mind, these conceptions appear very un-Christian.

Development economists use income as a key indicator to track well-being. Crudely put, higher a person's income over time, the more developed she is. According to Sen, we are developed only when we have the freedom to lead the kind of lives we have reason to value. A person with the ability/freedom to choose between alternative lifestyles (and not just earn more) is more developed than a person without that freedom.

Do you have the choice to be educated, to be healthy, to freely participate in politics? Does she have the freedom to spend the money she earns? Different people value different things, but some of these may be common to all (example: desire to lead a healthy life). The important thing is to ask whether we have the ability to choose, and to overcome un-freedoms. This is the spirit of Sen.

Amartya Sen's perspective of 'development as freedom' is not criticism-free. But its popular version (human development) is the most influential strand in contemporary international Development thinking. Today, it is acknowledged that governments should seek to not just increase income, but also provide conditions for enhancing people's freedoms in political, economic, social, and household spheres (including access to education, health, employment, politics).

Sen invariably uses Kerala to illustrate (1) the existence of Development in terms of non-income freedoms like education and health, though incomes of people are low - highlighting the government's role (2) the importance of education - for example, how literacy helps women gain more control over family planning (3) the importance of political freedom - for example, how the freedom to protest can be used to monitor and ensure good medical services.

Amartya Sen is also a weapon in Kerala politics, used to save losing battles. Consider the Human Development Index. To claim 'human development' in Kerala citing our high HDI score, one has to suppress the fact that education and health are representative examples of freedoms. The evolving HDI does not claim to comprehensively reflect all freedoms or human development. Second, the HDI as a political tool was developed to put pressure on governments to achieve non-income freedoms. When those who have quantitatively performed well (like Kerala), use the HDI to mask quality aspects and economic backwardness, we are clearly missing the spirit of Sen.

It is erroneous to hold on to Sen's usage of Kerala and claim blanket endorsement/blame for Kerala's development efforts of the past and present. Unless we appreciate the spirit of Sen's freedom perspective and critically examine how Kerala has fared in that setting, we cannot hope to devise solutions for leading lives that we value.

We have ill-treated Amartya Sen, and more importantly harmed Kerala.

Sen, on his part, has written that he avoids advising governments, and prefers to place his thoughts for public discussion. In the rush to collect quotations for pushing an ideology or justifying inaction, some Keralites, in public fora, have ignored the spirit of Sen. Yet others have swallowed a selective reading of Sen and proceeded to blame him in living room chat.

Either way, by neglecting informed public discussion, we have ill-treated Amartya Sen, and more importantly harmed Kerala. This week's seminar on education (which Sen is attending) provides an opportunity to initiate constructive public discussion regarding a key sector. We can cling on to the rhetoric of anti-market. Alternatively, we can transcend state vs market debate, identify potential in each, devise various choices for education-seekers, promote mass discussion of ideas generated, and evolve a flexible education system that can respond to individual and social needs.

This Christmas, with an open mind, let us give birth to in Kerala, the real spirit of Amartya Sen.

This article at The Indian Express newspaper's website
More newspaper articles by the author
Contact the Author

Copyright © 2004 The Indian Express