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Sen drops sub-Sahara shocker

New Delhi, July 31: Nobel laureate Amartya Sen today ripped the comforting cloak of pride that Indians love to wear when he said that in some areas India was worse off than sub-Saharan Africa.

“We fail to readily acknowledge that there is endemic hunger in this country,” Sen said, adding that it was tragic that the government continued with its mealy-mouthed talk about food security and its overflowing grain silos when a very large section of the population remained very badly nourished.

“This is not just about Kalahandi — that is awful. But if you take the weight-for-age index, 20-40 per cent of children in sub-Saharan Africa could be termed as undernourished. In India, that number would be 40-60 per cent.”

Sen, who was addressing a seminar that carried the theme Development as Freedom based on a seminal work he wrote four years ago, said it was true that there hadn’t been a famine-like situation in India since Independence (unlike China which had a particularly bad one between 1958-61). But the fact that a large section of the population remained badly nourished, with protein malnutrition being pretty widespread, was one of several indicators that the country’s social policies had failed its people.

Sen, who was setting the agenda for a two-day discourse to evaluate the quality of reforms in India against the touchstones of the five freedoms he enunciates in his book Development as Freedom, said it was evident that India’s social policies had very limited reach, which explained why a very large chunk of its people still struggled under the burdens of illiteracy, ill-health and deprivation.

The five freedoms are political freedom, economic empowerment, social opportunities, protective security and transparency guarantees. “There’s nothing sacrosanct about this five-fold classification. You can dice it up any which way — it’s open to further enumeration,” he said. “There is no ideal country in the world which has got everything just right.”

“I was shameless in taking the whole world as the domain of application in my book because I have adopted this dogmatic, universalism position which is predicated on the assumption that people around the world share common concerns and aspirations,” Sen said.

Taking a gentle sidewipe at the organisers, Ficci and the Shri Ram Centre for Industrial Relations and Human Resource , for tacking on the words “An India Perspective” to the main theme, Sen said: “There can be no specifically Indian perspective of development as freedom. The Indian perspective has to be only one part of a larger global perspective.”

He cited the examples of China, South Korea, Singapore and Thailand which have achieved robust economic growth over the years without a concomitant degree of freedom for its people. India has given its people a fair degree of freedom, but very little else.

He said many people posited the view that by choosing democracy (which many felt was half-baked anyway), India had lost a non-democratic alternative for development — and could have matched the stupendous growth in China and South Korea. He said he did not hold this view and if there was anything in India that was worth saluting, it was the freedom to make choices and voice opinions without fear or favour.

Sen said he couldn’t avoid a comparison between the two great Asian states and observed that it threw up some amazing conundrums.

In 1979, before China under Deng Xiaoping embarked on its economic reforms, the average life expectancy in that country was 68 years while it was 54 years in India — a full 14-year lead.

Life expectancy in India has grown three times faster than in China since then and the lead has been pared to just 7 years — 70 years in China against 63 in India.

India has pockets of development, which is best illustrated by a state like Kerala, he said. In 1979, the infant mortality rate in China was on a par with Kerala at 37 per thousand. Interestingly, the infant mortality rate in Kerala has dropped sharply to 14 per thousand now, but in China it has gone down somewhat slower to 30 per thousand.

India’s healthcare system was practically non-existent encouraging all sorts of shamans and ojhas to exploit the situation.

He said the Pratichi Trust — which he set up with funds from the Nobel Prize money — had carried out studies on the healthcare system in Birbhum of West Bengal and Dumka district in Jharkhand and the facts they had uncovered were shocking. “About 29 per cent of the people needing medical attention in Birbhum go to quacks — there is no other word for them. In Dumka district of Jharkhand, it is as high as 69 per cent.”

“These quacks are giving saline injections to cure malaria and nobody benefits from it except perhaps the salt sellers,” he said.

He said there was need for greater freedom of information in the healthcare systems around the world, not just in India. “China had kept the wraps on the SARS epidemic for five whole months before the world woke up to the scare. That’s just the sort of thing that we can do without,” he said.

Earlier, deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani said the NDA government was committed to a balanced and integral development of the country without exclusion of any community, region or language.

“We do not believe in, nor do we practice, the ideology of exclusion and discrimination. That is completely antithetical to our belief in secularism or our understanding of Indian nationalism,” he said.

Stating that several well-intentioned people, including Sen, had in the past raised questions about “our secular credentials”, Advani said: “We are prepared for an open debate on secularism. We are prepared to argue our case with anybody that the Indian concept and ethos of sarva panth samabhaav are most in harmony with the ideals of freedom and development.”

The NDA government under the leadership of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee was trying to translate Sen’s ideas into reality. He said the plan was to turn India into a developed country by 2020.

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