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‘Stupidity overemphasised, ignorance underemphasised’

in conversation amartya sen and sharmila tagore

Sharmila Tagore: The average age of India is 20, as opposed to 40 in America. We saw quite a few coming out to protest with Anna Hazare and after the December 16 Delhi gang rape. What was the contribution of the youth when you were a student at Presidency College? Is there any difference in the youth of the newly Independent India that you belonged to and the youth today?

Amartya Sen: I think the picture of the youth is very difficult to disentangle from that of others. At Presidency College, I was enormously lucky in having great classmates — Sukhamoy Chakraborty, Partha Gupta, Benoy Choudhury, Barun De. I can think of a great many people who’ve enriched my life at that time. But it was also a relationship with teachers, young teachers like Tapas Majumdar who was only about six years older than us, I think (laughs).

So I think it may be difficult to separate the role of the youth from that of the others. I think what is really worrying is not so much what the youth is doing but what opportunities for the youth we are creating, attitude of mind, education…. I think that is really quite important.

I was very lucky that with my Nobel money I could create two trusts, one in India, one in Bangladesh. And with the Pratichi Trust we studied the educational situation and found it quite inadequate. The hospital system was also extremely inadequate. Health care is probably the biggest failure of India.

There is also the division of class, of which caste is a part as well… there is also upper caste and lower caste. And I think the awareness of that is far less in India. Even when we speak of aam aadmi or common people and you are talking about subsidy for cooking gas, most Indians don’t have the instrument to use that cooking gas.

One-third of Indians don’t have an electricity connection. When the newspapers hollered last year that 600 million Indians were “plunged” into darkness — and they rightly hollered because it indicated a lack of system that needed remedy — what they didn’t mention was that 200 million out of those 600 million never had any power. So they were not specifically “plunged” that night, they are plunged into darkness every night.

When people say that this (rape) happens in India, it doesn’t happen in Bharat, they completely overlook the fact that Dalit girls have been violated, molested and raped over the years and there still isn’t adequate protection against that.

There’s a wonderful book called The Moral Obligation to be Intelligent. It’s a kind of slightly odd title but I think the moral obligation is to be informed.

Sharmila: I find that today’s youth is very aspirational, they are thinking of money, cars, upward mobility, they are not really engaging with the issues, they have a kind of superficial attitude to things like gender or privatisation…. Why is it that today’s youth are more interested in knowing the pet name of Hrithik Roshan than in politics?

Amartya: I think there are three things to say on this. One is that India has been in this odd position, that it has had a high rate of economic growth… there are people coming back to India because so much is happening here. A part of the country is moving ahead, including wanting a high-salary job… and I don’t think there’s anything particularly wrong about that. I don’t feel resentful that the youth is doing that but the question is how much understanding for the need for change and how much opportunity for change are present in this system today.

The Buddha had appealed to me from my childhood. I’d tried to get away in Santiniketan by saying I had no religion but when I had to I put down my religion as Buddhism. And I was told by the headmaster that there was no other Buddhist within 600 miles of here. I said, ‘As Buddha would have put it, that makes it extremely important for me to start the pursuit of enlightenment at this moment (laughs)!”

So the general belief that I have is that a difference can be made by better understanding. I think the stupidity and the villainy of human beings is overemphasised and the ignorance is underemphasised.

In terms of privatisation or the private sector, India is the only country in the world that is trying to have a health transition on the basis of a private health care that doesn’t exist. It doesn’t happen anywhere else in the world. We have an out-of-pocket system, occasionally supplemented by government hospitals but the whole trend in the world has moved towards public health systems. Even the United States has come partly under the so-called Obama Care.

Let me take another example. India is a country where there is more open defecation than any other country for which data exists. Forty-eight per cent of households in India do not have toilets. That’s larger than any other country. Chad comes slightly close but no other country. The percentage of homes without toilets is 1 per cent in China, it’s only 9 or 10 per cent even in Bangladesh.

It’s a denial of personal liberty. And the country seems much more engrossed in space travel and missiles than in toilets! I think this has remained an oddly backward country in a way that we don’t recognise.

Sharmila: Who do we mean when we say aam aadmi?

Amartya: Well, we don’t just mean (Arvind) Kejriwal and his party. There has been a kind of redefinition of ordinary people.

In the 2011 February budget, the government had put in a very modest import tax on gold and diamond imports. And there was such a lot of protest that they had to withdraw that. Because that’s an organised group, a group of underfed kids is not.

There is so much to be learnt from China in terms of economic growth. But not in terms of democracy… China spends 2.7 per cent of its GDP on public health care — governmental expenditure. We spend 1.2 per cent.

When Jamshedji Tata was setting up Jamshedpur, he felt it’s not only an industry, it’s a municipality. He felt I have to provide free education, free health care for everyone, not only my employees but anyone in the neighbourhood.

In 1946, a committee said India’s economy is affected by terrible health care. After Independence we’ve achieved much economic growth — and I’m very much in favour of economic growth — but it’s been with an extremely foggy idea about what economic growth is.

Sharmila: The way the makers of our Constitution had visualised our democracy, how has that evolved in the last 65 years? How long must we wait… another 40 years, another 100 years, centuries? Is there a political will? Are people putting their parties before India? What’s happened to that vision?

Amartya: You know, sometimes I am asked to predict what will happen to the Indian economy. And I say, there’s a contradiction. Because I can’t be both a predictor and a recommender. Because if what I predict is successful, it’ll take very little time and if they are not, it’ll take… a hundred years!

I think to say that there’s a lack of political will is basically to give a non-answer. It’s like when the doctor says it’s an idiopathic illness. It really means damn-all (laughs). Political will is based on reasonable thinking by people.

I am sometimes told, and it is true, that I am particularly critical of Left parties. And I have been active for Left parties before. I was involved with the Student Federation at Presidency College and was part of it when they first won the student election. So I feel particularly upset when I see the Left parties going for cooking gas, electricity prices and aam aadmi issues rather than the larger picture.

And here if I may quote a relation of yours and a guru of mine, namely Rabindranath Tagore, that you could learn from all countries. Now China wouldn’t be a country to learn about democracy from but Brazil could be, Mexico could be. Good efficient public services with cooperation of the unions is very important for any country and since 1989 Brazil has transformed itself with that. In the same period, India has risen in per capita income but its position in living standards has declined. In South Asia, we were the second best, after Sri Lanka, and now we are the second worst, only ahead of Pakistan. I think Bangladesh has overtaken India in most of these categories, except per capita income.

I think it requires an engagement which I don’t see, coming from where you would expect it, namely from our ability to stand for the people. It isn’t about whether opposing the US-India nuclear deal was right or wrong, that’s a minor thing compared with what you are providing to the people. And I don’t expect that to come from a Hindutva-oriented party, I expect it to come from the Congress but also much more from the Left.

Sharmila: People today have so many sectoral priorities. Everyone is speaking only to their constituencies and the result is the division of Indians. We are Dalits, corporates, farmers, not Indians…

Amartya: I don’t think there’s a contradiction in being a Bengali, an Indian and a citizen of the world. Because we all have various identities. If I want to read poetry I’d read Bengali poetry and I don’t think there’s a contradiction there. There’s always a question of being “holistic”, though I sometimes feel that word should have a “w” in front of it!

Sharmila: Do you think ethics and morality have taken a beating in the backdrop of the rampant corruption in the country?

Amartya: I’ve never been a believer that “moral education” could make you be different. I think it’s about what you do. For example, when all these people walked past the couple (in Delhi) without helping them, I think that was a moral failure. On the other hand, there was a moral failure also when the police debated on their “jurisdiction” instead of taking them to the hospital…. In corruption, there’s no shame when everybody does it. But I think the recognition, the looking at each other is necessary, saying that this may be common but this is not standard. I don’t think there is a reason for hopelessness in any of this.