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I don’t like brawls: Amartya - Economist fields a question on another economist

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  • Published 16.07.13
Amartya Sen at the launch of An Uncertain Glory: India and its Contradictions, the book he has co-authored with Jean Dreze. The launch was presented by Penguin Books India, in association with The Telegraph, at Nandan 1 on Monday. Picture by Amit Datta n See Metro

Calcutta, July 15: Two books by celebrated economists have set the stage for an absorbing growth battle.

Columbia University professor Jagdish Bhagwati and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen want the same end — a better India — but the means they prescribe sound different.

If Bhagwati prescribes economic growth led by the markets and overseen and encouraged by liberal state policies, Sen believes growth cannot be an end in itself without government effort to build human capabilities. If Bhagwati believes robust economic growth has helped the poor in India, Sen feels that the sorry state of human development overshadows the growth record.

On Monday, An Uncertain Glory: India and its Contradictions, written by Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen, was launched in Calcutta. Just before the launch, The Telegraph asked Sen a question on Jagdish N. Bhagwati-Arvind Panagariya’s book (Why Growth Matters: How Economic Growth in India Reduced Poverty and the Lessons for Other Developing Countries). Suman Ghosh, professor of economics at Florida Atlantic University and National Award-winning filmmaker, had put the question to Sen on behalf of this newspaper.

Suman Ghosh: In April, Jagdish N. Bhagwati and Arvind Panagariya’s book Why Growth Matters was released. Now we see Jean Dreze and your book, An Uncertain Glory. In a sense, it’s the Indian growth story that four eminent economists are interpreting. Would it be correct to define this as conflicting interpretations of the same growth story?

Amartya Sen: That would not be the correct way of seeing it. Ours is not a growth story. They are concerned about the role of growth in economic development. To the extent that they argue that growth matters, we entirely agree, of course it matters. The question is does growth make enough of a difference so that we can leave it in the hands of growth. Or whether you have to do much more. Secondly, not only why growth matters but how growth happens.

The entire story of growth at a high level as well as an inclusive level stems from a social initiative. The roots of which go back to Japan at the time of the Meiji restoration… the Japanese decided what they want to do most of all is to have 100 per cent literacy at breakneck speed. And I think one of the commentators quoted here… (Kido) Takayoshi said that “we are no different from the Americans and Europeans, the only difference in their being more productive and more achieving than we are is because they’re educated and we’re not”.

And later they went to health care.

The idea is that in order to have sustained high growth rate that’s inclusive, what we need is a shared education. And shared health care. Led by governmental initiative. That is the Asian economic model which Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore followed. Now China had a different history because of its communist past. Some of the things, mainly basic education forms and shared education, they had done for other reasons anyway. But when that was combined after the economic reform with use of the market, they were able to have a high growth rate based on market, a sustained high growth rate on the foundations of that change.

Our concern is not really about growth. It’s mainly that growth happens in a kind of economy where the thing to look at is not the smartness or commercial policy but the largeness of the vision of the society in which growth is going to take place. That is the theme.

So the book isn’t on the same subject as Jagdish Bhagwati and Arvind Panagariya’s book; to the extent that they argue that growth matters, we absolutely agree. We’d like to go much further than that and so, on one side is the question how to use the fruits of growth, how to use them to further expand education, health care and so on. The other side is to sustain growth by a social change. Which I think people have to talk about is not just to get hold of smart concessions for business communities…. We have got 60 pages of tables about the conditions of the people and so on…. And that’s not what their subject matter is.

One aspect of their growth story is that it isn’t that they are not concerned with matters of education, literacy but it’s a means of how it will be achieved…

Is that the way the Japanese did? Did they go for 100 per cent literacy between 1868 and 1908 by first becoming growth or is it the case that educational expansion set their rate of growth. Is that the way the Koreans did in 1948 when the massive education and then public health care rendered very little growth, and then they became rich. Which came first? Is that why Kerala, Himachal Pradesh and Tamil Nadu are among the richest Indian states? When we were arguing for going for education, health care early we were arguing that it’s not only good for people but also good for economic growth. And indeed they are. Now to say that they can afford it because they’re rich completely confuses the story.

I’m not attributing any of this to Jagdish…. I don’t want to get into an argument, I don’t like brawls. There are people who like it, I do not.

But Bhagwati has always said…

Can I not talk about Bhagwati, please? I don’t like talking about Bhagwati. He loves talking about me, I do not like talking about him (laughs).