The extent of Amartya Sen's learning and the depth of his understanding of issues are now part of contemporary legend. What, however, deserves mention in the same breath is his civilization. His politeness is immaculate. He would listen, with gentle patience, even to comprehensive garbage gushing out of the mouths of a company of fools.
Which is why one read, with both surprise and a deep sense of gratitude, a comment Sen made during his recent visit to the country. He did not stand on ceremony. If the economic trends unfolding in the country continue in the manner they have of late, half of India, he is reported to have observed, would resemble California, while the other half would be reduced to sub-Sahara. Sen knew what he was talking about. He has lived in California, and has, for long years, done detailed research on the human condition obtaining in the sub-Sahara region. For want of food, nourishment and minimal health facilities, men, women and children live in dehumanizing poverty and die like flies in that part of Africa. The United Nations keeps going through the motion of organizing relief to the region, but all this adds up to nothing. The rest of the world takes it as granted that the situation in sub-Sahara is something beyond the capability of redress through collective human effort. A natural calamity such as the tsunami can be tackled; the sub-Sahara calamity is supposedly beyond repair.
Amartya Sen and flamboyance do not go together. He must have been provoked to such an extent though by the kind of economic policies and measures which are taking shape in India that he, for a moment, chose to forsake civil society politeness; he spoke his mind. True, with globalization taking splendid wings, segments of the Indian economy are experiencing an exhilarating pace of growth.
The Sensex is about to cross the 10,000 mark. A booming stock exchange, the Union finance minister has pontificated, is synonymous with national prosperity. The industry bosses have endorsed this point of view; so too the media. It is a return to the Bharatiya Janata Party's feel-good aura. The nation's foreign exchange holdings are bursting at the seams. The prime minister is determined to have more foreign direct investment not just in industry and agriculture, but in the services sectors as well, including in wholesale and retail trade. Hints to this effect have already been dropped at the World Trade Organization's recent ministerial session at Hong Kong. The IT sector, besides, is galloping ahead, and contributing to the mind boggling zilch in the country's leading urban complexes.
When distinguished Indians living abroad, such as Sen, arrive on short jaunts, specimens of the feel-good lobby capture them, accord them jazzy receptions and look forward to some conventional words of congratulatory cheer from the visiting eminences. For whatever reason, this time Amartya Sen disappointed them. In case present conditions persist, he told them bluntly, while they might succeed in rendering one-half of India into an arcadia replicating the charm and prosperity of California, another half of India might get reduced to the state of sub-Sahara, characterized by hunger, squalor, misery and the stink of a million deaths.
Sen's words were not palatable to his particular audience, nor to officialdom nor to the media. What he said did not therefore receive the attention they deserved. Truth does not always prevail in India. That should not worry Sen; he can afford to speak what he considers to be right. And there is a silent majority of scholars in the country who will agree with him.
However, particularly since Amartya Sen happens to be the author of The Argumentative Indian, may one be permitted to voice a minor query' Is he sure that, if things proceed as they are proceeding, it is only one-half of India that would be reduced to the state of the sub-Sahara region' For consider the general state of affairs. With stock exchanges on the high, citizens with money to spare do not care to put it in savings that could help capital formation in industry and agriculture; they rush to gobble up the advice of their stock-brokers. To augment capital formation, the government therefore seeks FDI at terms howsoever detrimental to the nation's interests. Agriculture in particular has suffered the most in the past decade, the rate of growth of farm output has fallen behind the rate of population growth. Yet, roughly two-thirds of the nation are still dependent on agriculture for their survival. As the process of growing income inequalities has not come to a halt either, roughly 90 per cent of the agrarian community must have experienced a further worsening in their economic conditions over the decade. Should the writ of the WTO be made to prevail, they would be even more immiserized in the immediate future.
The tragedy does not quite come to a surcease here. Foreign investors have told the prime minister point blank; they not only would prefer to take over retail and wholesale trade in the country, extend their grip over insurance and banking activities and have a piece of lucrative defence production; they would, in addition, like to send their surplus lawyers and accountants to build a career in India.
Consider the consequences if all, or even, some of these demands are conceded. The informal sector, carrying the load of disguised unemployed in the language of Keynes, perhaps currently provides some sort of livelihood to as many as one hundred million in the country: selling vegetables and fruits in the market, hawking odd bits and pieces of clothing in small neighbourhoods, merchandizing titbits of food items at street corners, running tailoring establishments and engaging in similar modest activities. Once the foreigners walk in, the profession of all these people will be gone. Besides, as call centres spread their tentacles in different directions, employment opportunities are bound to shrivel in big, small and middle scale industries. It is inherent in the pattern of jobless growth that development is accompanied by a shrinkage of work opportunities, and employment gets concentrated in the hands of a very small minority, the great majority of the nation's motion pushed towards the hellish state of joblessness, penury and destitution. In contrast, perhaps less than 5 per cent of the population will be rolling in luxury yielded by share-market shenanigans and IT benevolence will be scaling to dizzier heights of prosperity.
Which is why one has a feeling that, even while in a forthright mood, Amartya Sen's innate politeness did not quite desert him. The future landscape of India, he fears, will consist of one-half California and one-half sub-Sahara. One is tempted to have his statement slightly amended: the India of tomorrow would be only one-tenth California, nine-tenths would be sub-Sahara; we might then slip down to the status of being one of the poorest five amongst member-countries of the UN.
This column has to conclude with a lament. The country is yet to get rid of its colonial hangover. The sort of comments Amartya Sen has made has, in fact, been made, perhaps using a different terminology, by humbler economists resident in the land. They could be, and have been, ignored. Amartya Sen cannot be, because of the global regard and attention he commands. He, however, visits the country only occasionally. One remark by him during one such cursory trip is unlikely to change the order of things. How much one wishes that men like him would return home on a permanent basis and make an everyday nuisance of themselves.