Sensitive economics

Anil Agarwal's article, "The poverty of Amartya Sen", publised in the December 15, 1999 issue of Down To Earth , has drawn a number of responses. Here are a few samples:

Published: Friday 30 April 1999

-- I read your piece on Amartya Sen with great interest. I, too, have some reservations on the stand taken by the Nobel laureate. As an economist schooled in the uk and the us , Sen is most likely to ignore poverty's ecological dimensions. But can the people working to alleviate the ecological poverty of the have-nots produce viable answers to correct economic and social disparities? Interestingly, the same issue carries the story of Sukhomajri. This and the experiment of noted Indian activist Anna Hazare are worth examining from the perspective of economic realities. Like ecological realities, economic realities, too, cannot be ignored. Ignoring either tends to simplify the real world situation and you will sow the seeds of failure. For example, idealists during the Indian freedom movement thought 'one person, one vote' will bring in real democracy. They failed to provide and develop checks and balances to prevent the powerful and the elite to dupe and squeeze the uneducated masses. The result is painfully visible today: criminalisation of the entire political system.

The market forces are far too powerful to be tackled by lone idealists like Anna Hazare. If small communities with little economic power have to develop on their own through indigenous leadership, they must learn to keep the market at a sufficient distance for a certain period. Even great economists like Adam Smith and John Maynard Keynes have advocated against depending exclusively on exports and imports in the initial stages of a country's economic development. They suggest production based on local capital and resources to meet local needs. The crucial question is when do such societies need to connect to the market in order to export their produce and import outside resources for further development. My point is that most communities enter this "business" before they are fully prepared to tackle the market pressures. First, they should educate themselves, acquire requisite skills, a professional approach, demonstrate a unity of purpose and develop institutional mechanisms to avoid conflicts between themselves. Frequently, it becomes impossible for these communities to wait till all these have been perfected. They are inevitably drawn to the market and to what it dictates. This, then, is the end of the idealist solution. Market does not respect the poor and the ill equipped.

Sen is right in advocating development of literacy, education, health and family planning measures, skills and the like. He cites examples from China and the so-called 'Asian Tigers'. Nearer to home, he praises Kerala where economic development is minimal yet people are prosperous through a rapid spread of education and professional skills. I think this is the right path. Sukhomajri and Ralegaon Siddhi are difficult to duplicate as Jethu Ram and Anna Hazare are unique personalities. Therefore, these are not good as instances.

The trouble is finding the resources to bring about education, health and environmental revolutions. Politicians and bureaucrats are complete illiterates as far as ecology is concerned. By subsidising industry and agriculture, they have fuelled the market forces without strengthening the peoples' capabilities. They will to bend these to work for the general advancement of the nation. The result is that the market works only to widen the gap between the rich and the poor. If we want to tackle them and reduce their power, we have to be highly professional about it. Idealism has to be supplemented with a high degree of professionalism in order to reduce ecological poverty. Only then the market can be controlled. Non-governmental organisations ( ngo ) currently working to alleviate ecological poverty use the same engineering and technological solutions as are used by people working for the market. Our ecological society is trying to develop alternate professional approaches that are cost-effective.

Prakash Gole
Director, Ecological Society, Pune, Maharashtra

The poverty of Amartya Sen reminded me of Proudhon's Philosophy of Poverty and Karl Marx's Poverty of Philosophy . I would say in one sense, Sen is better than Indira Gandhi was. She merely coined the slogan ' Garibi Hatao (Remove poverty)' which, till date has been repeated continuously by her partyworkers. Perhaps poverty is a deaf, dumb and dull creature and does not heed to slogans.

At least Sen gives us a method, which reminds me of what Portia, from Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice , said, "It is easier to teach 20 persons than to be one of these 20 to follow your own teaching." I wish Sen takes up development work in a cluster of villages and shows results.

I am part of an institution established in 1947 for providing economic support to some 3,000 families in 60-70 villages spread over six districts of Tamil Nadu. We have taken up khadi and village industries programmes such as manufacturing soap, matches, ayurvedic medicines and so on. We also cover education, health and welfare. Our organisation is well known in national and international circles for its work in rural development. Yet we are afraid of preaching to others on how to develop a village. It is a challenging task requiring dedicated and motivated workers. For interacting with the poorest sections of rural India, you have to overcome the vested interests, caste feelings, political inclinations, interference of bureaucracy and the like.

I have not said anything about environment because you have said enough and what you have said is very important and relevant. I would only like to add Ranjit Chaudhri's words: "There is a fear that global famine of resources is impending. It is true that the industrial progress has brought many comforts and made some nations affluent. But it has made the world as a whole, poorer. Industrialisation has made the Earth poorer in respect of natural resources, fossil fuel, mineral resources, greenery, marine resources, sanitation, health and ecology".

M R Rajgopalan
Secretary, Gandhigram Trust, Gandhigram, Tamil Nadu

The article was a commendable display of courage, critically discussing Amartya Sen's ideas when the entire nation was witnessing the Sen euphoria. Sen, whether by design or by default, has continuously ignored the skewed North-South disparity. The ecological implications of that are far subtler for conventional economists, but those considered sensitive ought to know the widening gap of disparity in income. Maybe it is because Sen avoids such disturbing areas that groups biased towards the North prefer him. He has studied Kerala very recently. The semi-starved state with its armies of unemployed and devastated environment was Sen's favourite. He prevented any kind of resource from coming into the state.

It will take a lot of daring to question such accepted notions. For Down To Earth, which focuses on environment, the article was certainly in order as the worldview put forth by Sen, where the rich keep helping the poor with aid, is inherently anti-national. One only hopes that such debates go on.

P R J Pradeep
Activist and freelance writer, Thiruvananthapuram

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