Saturday, January 8, 2005

Sen and sensibility

Amartya SenNobel laureate Amartya Sen is no ivory tower intellectual. The eminent economist enjoys interaction and discussion with people across the board. A firm believer in India’s argumentative tradition, Sen engages with people and issues at a number of levels. Listening to Sen is an enriching experience as he interweaves narrative and facts and draws upon his vast experience as a teacher, writer and speaker. A.J. Philip recounts a Sen-sational experience in Kolkata.

A HUGE crowd had assembled at Nandan, the prestigious cinema complex on the Jagdish Chandra Bose Road in central Kolkata. Many of them had been standing in a serpentine queue to get an entry from early in the morning. An impatient West Bengal Finance Minister Asim Dasgupta was at the gate to receive us. He was feeling the heat as he did not want to let in the assembled till we arrived and occupied our seats.

Surprisingly, the crowd did not at all mind when we reached a little late and Dasgupta ushered us into the hall. Nor did they break the queue when they saw among us noted film actress and former MP Shabana Azmi.

It was an embarrassment to sit beside her in the front row when an army of camerapersons descended on her and started clicking. The veteran actress, who plays the lead role of a godwoman in an untitled film, where she is just a mother for her own daughter while being an incarnation for the multitudes, seemed to be enjoying all the media attention.

Electrifying effect

Amartya SenPolitical conviction is essential to earmark a greater share of the Gross Domestic Product for health and education. We must remember that we have the world’s largest number of poor.

It took a few minutes for the photographers to return to their assigned position and Shabana to fiddle with her cell phone. By then the large hall, the venue of several film festivals, which, has the best acoustic system in the metropolis, was jam-packed. Dasgputa was happy that he could accommodate everyone who came to attend the meeting.

Suddenly Nobel laureate Amartya Sen arrived and sat between Shabana and Marxist leader Sitaram Yechury. It electrified the audience as several more photographers, amateur and professional, jostled to get better shots of him.

Shabana was no longer the cynosure of all eyes. She was sporting enough to stand up and speak aloud: "When we saw a large crowd at the gate, I thought they were waiting for the first show of a new Shah Rukh Khan film. Now I know who the Shah Rukh Khan among us is." Sen just smiled away the comparison.

Amartya Sen

Shabana Azmi
As Sen took centrestage, Shabana was in the shade
— Photos by the writer

Sen’s popularity and cult status in Bengal were not new for me. I remember a train journey with him from Santiniketan, where he grew up, to Kolkata when almost every passenger sought and obtained his autograph on anything they could lay their hands own –a newspaper, a diary or a train ticket.

I also knew how valuable his autograph was when an officer at Writer’s Building, where the West Bengal secretariat is located, went out of the way to help me complete a work which would have otherwise taken several weeks, realised that I was at that time Director of Pratichi (India) Trust he had set up with his Nobel Prize money. All he wanted in return for his labour of respect for Sen was the promise that I would get his autograph for his son.

Accessible icon

Though we had assembled there after a three-day intellectually exhausting discussion on rights and resources vis-à-vis education, health and employment, there was no trace of tiredness on the visage of the welfare economist. It was almost unbelievable that he had presided over the workshop listening intensely to every participant and responding to him or her in the best argumentative tradition of the country.

As Sen and others were led up to the stage at the base of the huge screen for a public meeting, the Kolkata Group was setting a new precedent. An initiative of Pratichi, organised and supported by UNICEF India and Global Equity Initiative of Harvard University, the workshop was the third in four years and the second that I attended.

He did not want the discussions on such vital issues as education, health and employment to remain within the four walls of the Taj Bengal. He wanted not only to disseminate the group’s viewpoint but also to involve the people in discussions. "I am not bothered if some dismiss the Kolkata Group as a talking shop. After all, it is through talks that solutions are found even for problems that appear intractable," said Sen as he occupied the rostrum to the applause of one and all.

He delineated the argumentative tradition with the story of the encounter Alexander the Great had with an Indian mendicant, who coolly told him: "I know you have conquered several countries and added thousands of miles of land to your territory. But do you really need so much land? At the end of it all, I know you just need that much of land to bury your body? Is not all your conquests an exercise in futility?" The greatest conqueror the world had ever seen was left speechless by that Indian.

As a writer, speaker and teacher, Sen always believed in the power of argument. His visit to Bangladesh just before the workshop to recognise and financially support some grassroots women writers under the aegis of his Pratichi (Bangladesh) Trust was still fresh in his memory. He saw many impressive changes in that country, which many had dismissed as a basket case. The least of them was the prayer that preceded the Bangladesh Biman flight. "I would rather trust the Bangladesh pilot’s skill and the aircraft’s condition than the invocation to the unknown".

What impressed Sen the most were the giant strides Bangladesh, in whose birth India used the forceps, had made in social sectors. While the rightists cry hoarse over the swarms of Bangladeshis allegedly infiltrating into the country, he found it amazing that a nation often ravaged by floods, pests and pestilence has dramatically reduced its population growth. He cited figures to prove that Bangladesh has overtaken India in terms of literacy and infant mortality rate.

He seemed to substantiate Alaka Basu of Cornell University who had earlier in the day brought to light her research finding that in India the infant mortality rate was lower among the Muslims than the Hindus. It has become fashionable for academics and writers to suggest the Chinese model of development. Sen did not buy this argument. "It is true that China has overtaken India in many respects but it is also true that its achievement, be it on literacy or infant mortality rate or enrolment in schools, is nowhere near that of Kerala.

It has been Sen’s thesis that it is democracy which prevents famines like the great one Bengal witnessed during the British period and promotes development. "China’s compulsory one-child norm has caused havoc, though figures are not available on how it has impacted upon infant mortality rate. But remember it is the only country in the world where parents have to pay to have their children innoculated against diseases like polio and smallpox".

Sen’s conviction oozed through the words as he said Botswana, which is an oasis of democracy, recorded the highest economic growth in Africa. Sri Lanka, pre-reform China and Costa Rica could improve the living conditions of their people because the state spent more on health and education. While India’s spending on education was not all that bad, it spent a very low amount on public health.

He was not speaking out of thin air as he was armed with the report of a study the Pratichi team of young researchers at Santiniketan had done about the basic health services in Birbhum (West Bengal) and Dumka (Jharkhand) where in the absence of an affordable healthcare system, "quackery and thievery" flourished.

"The neglect does have penal penalties. For example, the proportion of children with full immunisation in Birbhum is only 45 per cent; that proportion is exactly zero in Dumka". Political conviction was essential to earmark a greater share of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) for health and education. "We must remember that we have the world’s largest number of poor".

Sen was inundated with written questions from the audience and it was a tough task for Sudhir Anand of Harvard University, who moderated the discussion, to select some for Sen and others to answer. A young student asked him, how he felt when an economist was ruling the country. That was enough of a provocation for the Nobel winner to recall his long association with Manmohan Singh. "We often argued and we often differed but we always respected each other."

I remembered the newspaper clipping I had preserved in which Sen, who has no time for faith healers and astrologers, had predicted as early as 2000 that Manmohan Singh would one day become the Prime Minister. He was happy to use Yechury’s words that "M.F. Husain’s paintings and Deepa Mehta’s films were no longer in the national discourse" as people discussed issues like health and education. He had in mind the previous workshop which was held against the backdrop of the horrendous riots in Gujarat.

Collective effort

For Jean Dreze, who co-authored a seminal work with Sen, nothing mattered more than the employment guarantee programme the Manmohan Singh government has promised. But he wondered whether the laudable scheme to ensure at least 100 days of employment to the needy poor would remain in the fashion that grassroots activists like him had wanted it to be.

The strength of the Kolkata group is its informality and the certainty that the frank and free discussions would remain within the minds while making a profound influence on policy making.

Small wonder that the group has attracted people like the Delhi Chief Minister, Sheila Dixit, the Science and Technology Minister, Kapil Sibal, the young MP from East Delhi, Sandeep Dikshit, several ministers of West Bengal, academics like Lincoln Chen, Emma Rothschild and Sabina Alkire from Harvard, Kaushik Basu from Cornell and economists like A.K. Shiva Kumar, Amiya Bagchi and Arjun Sengupta and bureaucrats like Sujata Rao and Anil Bordia.

Sen’s hope is that the discussions will have a profound influence on policy formulations more so when many of them hold positions of power.