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The only way to attract talent is to make it a successful place: Amartya Sen

Amartya Sen was in town on Monday for the launch of An Uncertain Glory: India and Its Contradictions, the book he has co-authored with Jean Dreze. Hours before the book launch at Nandan, he met Suman Ghosh, professor of economics at Florida Atlantic University, who had made a documentary titled Amartya Sen: A Life Re-examined in 2003, and Mohua Das of The Telegraph, at Taj Bengal. Excerpts from the chat...

This book has a political connotation and given that the general election is next year, is it right to interpret it as a critique of the UPA government?

No, itís got nothing to do with it. Itís a critique of India. The UPA government is not the central issue. If you read the book youíll see that itís not just the government on which policies depend. It depends on political culture, on political parties, on the Opposition and the dialogues in the democratic system. Therefore it is not a critique of any government. Neither UPA nor the BJP-led NDA government earlier, though they were obviously responsible for policy at different stages in Indian history.

It is a critique of Indian politics. That we have been able to successfully mobilise democracy for some causes but not in others.

So it is neither seeing this as Bhagwati versus Sen nor seeing it as a critique of the UPA government.

A lot of the comparisons in the book are with China and it is stark how weíve fallen behind China in terms of GDP, growth or education, health. What do you feel about the fact that the twin purposes of growth and the social issues that youíve been so concerned with all your life have succeeded in a place like China which does not have a democratic institutional set-up?

And therefore it shows the lack of democracy helps? As it did in North Korea, it did in Cambodia, as it is doing in Iran, in Somalia... so what is the thesis? The fact that accidentally in some of the governments you might have an Ashoka or you might have Nadir Shah also. It depends on your luck. Therefore monarchy is better or monarchy is worse?

Itís a question of taking the initiative to do it.

China also made the gigantic error by abolishing universal health care in 1979. Weíve discussed a lot of problems that China went through. Through trial and error, right now they are on a very good pivot.... But thereís nothing indicating here that a non-democratic system is better, on grounds of the solitary experience of China in a particular period but not in others.

Then there is the issue of media bias, how it reflects issues of the rich and powerful and a major part of the country is shunned. In a market economy like Indiaís how can media be given incentives to correct this negligence?

Iím a great believer in reasoning. I think the media manages to do it only because it sells well and I donít think itís so much about the ownership of newspapers.... But you see that media does a lot of good work which may or may not be in their interest. Itís that element of epistemic failure of knowledge and understanding which makes the media itself biased. If that failing could be reduced by more empirical, detailed analysis then theyíll do it. I donít see it in terms of giving them incentives but as giving them an empirical basis for thinking differently, which is what the book is about.

There is a chapter on accountability and corruption in your book but there is also an omission of recent political scandals. Was that a conscious choice?

Weíve dealt with what we thought were immediately relevant to the particular policies that we were discussing. These arenít populist policies but vested-interest policies.

You talk about womenís security. The ďlack of security and deep vulnerability of women to rape and harassmentĒ, the ďmale prejudice and sexism in blaming the victimĒ and ďthe lack of preventive planningĒ in terms of ďuncaring police, bad security arrangements, an unfunctioning judicial system, and ultimately an uncaring societyĒ. How much do you feel that depends on the attitude of people and how much on law enforcers?

Primarily law enforcement, but peopleís attitude is also changing about law enforcement as you see and that is a good illustration of the fact that it is possible to change peopleís mind by drawing the attention to more facts, more empirical analysis.

The rape issue has now got on the cards because the newspapers carry it a lot more. I wish there would be more on sexual trafficking. But there is a class issue and the rape issue, particularly in this case of a medical student (in Delhi), made it easier for the middle class to sympathise with. Itís still wonderful that it (the protests) happened but a lot of rapes take place in the rural areas and with Dalit women, but at least at the broad level the rape issue had been politicised.

Sexual trafficking, which primarily happens with girls from very poor families, has not received that attention. How do we expect to get it? Itís difficult actually but by taking that slogan of Ambedkar Ďeducate (very important to say that first), organise and agitateí, we take that seriously.

In a place like Bengal where complaints of harassment or abuse are on the rise, what would be the best way to carry out an apolitical campaign against injustice to women?

Why does it have to be apolitical, this is political. The rape campaign was unrelated to the existing political parties. In many ways the anti-corruption campaign was originally too. I was sceptical of some of the quick remedies suggested but we celebrate the fact that there was such a lot of agitation about the corruption issue outside the political parties. Itís quintessentially political but not based on the party politics.

You have been an advocate of free speech. Do you think as a country we are becoming more intolerant, politically and socially?

I donít want to talk about this now because the book has a focus and this is not one of them. We do discuss that in one of the chapters, quite a bit, and we even cite Pankaj Mishra saying Ďthatís exactly whatís happeningí and I have sympathy for that. This book has enough problems to deal with without me going into that question. Focus is important.

How did your visit to Presidency go today?

It went well. I enjoyed it very much. It was very nostalgic for me to be back in Presidency College. This is my college where I was educated and I welcome the fact that there is a major initiative there, partly to reinvigorate the long tradition of Presidency College, to revive that and people are trying to work hard on it. I connected with the mentor group.... Iíve never attended a mentor group meeting as I am not a member of it, I am the adviser.

As adviser to the mentor group, how would you define your role in Presidencyís revival bid?

Itís not my role to reinvigorate Presidency. It is the role of the mentor group to do it. My role is to give it advice. Among the advices given and advices sought I just donít go around with a bag, a tholi of advice to distribute. But my position has beenÖ somebody asked me if we need centres of excellence. I think, for education, we do need centres of excellence because quality is extremely important.

Should Presidency be the only centre of excellence in India? No. Should it be the only centre of excellence in Calcutta? No, also.

There are other centres also. Iím very proud of the fact that my teaching career began at Jadavpur (University) and it is also a centre of excellence. It is possible to build all the colleges to a level of excellence which most of them may not have right now.

Is Presidency part of a bigger vision? Yes.

Thereís a conflict in my saying Iím an adviser and not a mentor and then to take on saying, Ďhad I been a mentor I would have done thatí! Thatís not fair to the mentor group. The mentor group should exercise their own judgement. Iíve given you a bigger picture which I pretentiously call a vision of a role of an excellent Presidency College in the company of other colleges of excellence in Calcutta and elsewhere in Bengal. Calcutta is unusually large for the capital of a state compared to the size of the state and the ratio of population is very high.

Nevertheless, there are many many centres and why not look at the quality of education at Santiniketan, where I was a student? Yes. Do I have immediate suggestions to offer as to how to improve the standards there? No. That is for people who are involved in teaching, working or leading there to do it.

How should Presidency try to fix the teacher crunch?

Thatís a complicated question. It depends on how much satisfaction they get from the teaching. There was a time when you would get in Santiniketan people like Bidhushekhar Shastri or in fact my grandfather Kshitimohan Sen, at a salary level unthinkable even in those days of low salary. Because there was a kind of dedicated commitment.

But in this world today of mobile salaries, mobile population, mobile academics there is also a question of Ďdoes Presidency suffer for not being a central university?í Yes. If so, is there any way of making it more comparable so that you can retain the staff? Yes. Should that be the only consideration in retaining staff? No.

Thereís also the question of the team spirit, the work, the work satisfaction and students that they produce. Itís a bigger story of which such issues as salary and central university may figure.

Iíve already said more than I should as adviser to the mentor group. These are issues for the mentor group to take up and pursue. I was at one stage asked to be in the mentor group, indeed to chair it. If I had to do that job I would have done it and I canít both not do it, saying that Iíve engaged in another thing, in particular in building Nalanda University, and at the same time do it. I canít have my cake and eat it too! (Laughs)

A problem that the cityís seats of learning are facing is attracting and retaining talent. What must Presidency do to address that?

The only way to attract talent is to make it a successful place. Thatís why people go. Why did I go to Presidency College? I went there not because I thought I was very talented, well maybe reasonably talented (smiles), the reason why I went was because it was a good atmosphere.

And for me another single-most reason for coming to Presidency was because of the fact that I came to know Sukhamoy Chakravarty quite well when I was a student in Santiniketan he visited me a number of times. We got on very well and then he visited three or four times. I was his Santiniketan guide, in the process of which I recognised how we have many things in common. I was enormously influenced by the reach of his vision of a world where academia is important and the excellence of education is important, the quality of his mind, his dedication to academics, and I sought his company and that of others.

My decision to go to Presidency was not based on an organisational principle but based on the fact that I thought I would have good teachers, which Sukhamoy told me I will. And I did eventually when I went there. I wanted good fellow students of which a prime example I already knew before I went to Presidency to do economics.

What would you like to ask Amartya Sen after reading this interview? Tell ttmetro@abpmail.com