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Sen praises India, Roy rails

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  • Published 5.06.11
Arundhati signs a copy of her book Broken Republic at Westminster University

Oxford, June 4: Amartya Sen and Arundhati Roy have presented sharply contrasting portraits of Indian democracy in their public pronouncements in the UK, with the Nobel Prize winner generally holding it up as an example to the world and the Booker Prize winner deploying her pretty looks and eloquence to trash the government, the military and the police, the corporate sector, the media and the upper and middle classes.

Sen was speaking on Friday at the Said Business School in Oxford at the launch of a Visiting Professorship in Business and Development named after the late Sanjaya Lall, who came from Patna, lived in the university town for nearly all his academic life and was professor in development economics from 1999 until his death in 2005.

It was an emotional occasion with the lecture theatre packed with Lall’s former colleagues, leading economists, other academics and his widow, Rani, graceful in a yellow sari, and his son, Ranjit, an Oxford graduate who is just off to Harvard to do a PhD.

Rani came on stage at the end but later explained to The Telegraph why she had not spoken. “I would have cried.”

Warm tributes were paid to Lall who was born in Patna on December 13, 1940 and stood first when he graduated from Patna University in 1960.

Lall, grandson of the historian K.P. Jayaswal, took a First in PPE (Philosophy, Politics, and Economics) in 1963 when he was a student at St John’s College, Oxford.

He then got a distinction in his MPhil in economics in 1965.

The university said that Lall “was one of the most productive economists at the university, writing or co-authoring 33 books between 1975 and 2003, publishing 75 listed articles in reputable refereed professional journals, 72 chapters in books, 67 reports for international agencies or governments, and another 27 articles. He also acted as adviser or consultant to a wide spectrum of governments and international development organisations, from the World Bank, Unicef and the OECD to the European Commission and the Commonwealth secretariat.”

There was a panel discussion on how developing countries will shape the future of the global economy, involving the first holder of the Sanjaya Lall chair, Robert Wade, who is professor of political economy at the London School of Economics, and Martin Wolf, a commentator at the Financial Times.

The tone of the occasion was summed by one of Lall’s closet colleagues, Frances Stewart, who said: “He was not only an intellectual but a gentle and generous person, a very nice person to know.”

Several economists The Telegraph consulted later admitted they were taken aback by Sen’s sharp words on how many European countries, including the UK, were tackling the problem of deficits. It is in this context Sen praised India.

“I want to draw attention to a few other things going on right now which are important — what kind of lessons might be derived from the developing countries which might be of interest to the world including developed countries,” began Sen, when asked to sum up. “I am in many ways quite concerned about what’s happening to Europe right now and I would like to argue that there are a few things to learn from developing countries in this context.”

He continued: “One of the things that historically emerges … is the enormous importance of growth in generating public revenue. This is something that is underestimated. If you take the Indian experience, the growth rate of 6-7-8-9 per cent translates to public revenue growth to 9-10-11-12 per cent.”

He said: “So this raises two different kinds of issues. One is to recognise the importance of the connection and secondly what to do with it. As far as the first is concerned, the importance of raising public revenue, it is very important for developing countries to think of what to do with the revenue. One of the things to do with the revenue, if you have a problem of deficit, is to deal with it. So I would have thought that in any kind of deficit management strategy, which is central to understanding what is going on, including hardships across the world, the issue of growth has to be very central.”

Then, he causally slipped in his hand grenade, according to some members of the audience: “Any process that goes straight at the deficit at the risk of cutting down the growth rate is really quite a dangerous course to take in my judgement.”

He explained: “The importance of growth in generating public revenue is really an extraordinarily important thing. And I feel a lot of the thing going on, including in this country (UK) at this time, to be in some ways having a danger of being self defeating because while it goes straight at the deficit, it has the effect of cutting down the prospect of the growth rate in a very dramatic way. It is not that I am not worried about deficits. It is a question of how to deal with it.”

Sen recalled: “When I first came to this country in the early fifties, shortly after the war, these were the days of tremendous worries about the deficit and the debt that the war had left. Some years of fast economic growth just dealt with the problem. In much the same way during the Clinton era he began with a huge burden of deficit and ended with none. So... if the Chinese and the Indians are drawing attention to that, I think that is a lesson of importance not only to other developing countries but also to Europe and to some extent even America at this time: much more in Europe than in America.”

Sen commented: “With economics it is never been only about what policies are right but also about when they have to be carried out. I have to say that I worry about management of even failing economies like Greece in that context.”

Sen’s preamble was probably necessary in order to make his point about India. “One result of the mess is suddenly the dominant voices (in Europe) are no longer what got you (the Europeans) together — the idea of democracy and national democracy. Suddenly the dominant figures are bankers, financial institution leaders, not the democracy leaders at all. I feel though I am a non-European — I remain an Indian citizen and exclusively Indian citizen — I have a strong affinity to Europe. I have lived a lot of my life here.”

He asked: “Were we fighting for a leadership of bankers and financial institutions rather than democrats? How to use growth resources for developing quality of life is a lesson we can learn a lot from China. I also discuss how it is to be done if it is to be done in India. It has to be done through the democratic system. In some countries you may have to convince eight or 10 people. In India you have to convince several political parties.”

He went on: “You may have to convince Montek Singh Ahluwalia or even Manmohan Singh for that matter but you have still to go through a political process. But we are committed to it in India — that’s very important. But I wish Europe should also have some commitment in understanding that many changes that need to be done have to be done through a democratic process. On that I don’t see enough thinking about what I fear is the sea change from political to financial control of the economy.”

Europe may have done a lot in the past, but “at the moment the mantle of democracy is being held very much more strongly by India”, Sen declared in his ringing endorsement of India.

He added a qualification: “As an Indian citizen I keep grumbling we have to do a lot more but at the end I endorse the Indian commitment to do it through the democratic process. There is something to offer there. There are certain things at the level of ideas that the developing world is presenting to the rest of the world to which the richer part ought to pay some attention.”

Though Sen told The Telegraph he would defend Arundhati Roy’s right to take an opposing line, her gospel, which she has been preaching at Westminster University and the School of Oriental and African Studies, for example, appeared to be about another irredeemably brutal country.

On BBC’s Newsnight, she told the interviewer Jeremy Paxman about how she saw India: “You have millions of displaced people, you have more poor people living in India than the poorest countries in Africa.”

“But poverty has been halved in the last 30 years?” protested Paxman.

“It’s untrue, it’s untrue,” exclaimed Arundhati, who is promoting her collection of essays, Broken Republic, during her tour of Britain. “You go and have a look at what’s going on there — there’s an insurrection in the country.”

“Parts of the country,” Paxman pointed out.

“Well, in vast parts of the country which is out of control of the government now,” responded Arundhati. “They are deploying para-military forces in central India. The government can’t even go into big territories and now that’s spilling outside the forests as well because this growth rate is built on taking land from the poor.”

She has been propagating the same message in all her meetings — and finding takers among young people at university.

It was not just about extracting bauxite from tribal lands, she said, but about building dams and infrastructure — “it’s displacing millions of people”.

And the minerals were being sold to corporations for a pittance and the profits repatriated out of India.

She projected herself as the conscience of the world: “This is a profound question — this does not concern just India. It concerns the entire question of what we think of as civilisation. And the reason I ask this is because everyone knows the planet is in a crisis right now. So you have in India, a community of close to 100 million Adivasi or indigenous people. I am not suggesting that everybody goes back to living in loin cloths and bows and arrows. However, we have to redefine the idea of modernity, to redefine the idea of happiness.”

She told Paxman: “I do reject the idea of the nation state. I do say the most successful secessionist struggle in India has been the secession of the middle and upper classes to outer space from where they look down at the indigenous people (and) at the poor and say, ‘What’s our bauxite doing in your mountains? What’s our water doing in your rivers?’”

She was withering in condemning the Indian authorities. “There are vast parts of India where there is a different imagination, where there is the possibility of a different kind of modernity and which is what the government seeks to annihilate. Now they are actually planning to deploy the army to fight the poorest people in this country — and we call it a democracy!”

Paxman interjected: “But that’s because there has been an insurgency going on there for 50 years?”

Arundhati replied: “But that insurgency consists of Adivasi people, indigenous people, who have been marginalised. If you look at Indian constitution, if you ask me on the show what should the government do, I should say the government should honour its own constitution. It is the government that vandalises its own constitution against constitutional law to take away land from indigenous people and it is the rebels, from Maoists to the Gandhians, who are fighting to have the constitution implemented.”

She claimed: “I have been told quite straight by foreign correspondents of big international newspapers they have had instructions from the editor, ‘No negative stories about India,’ because it is the preferred financial destination.”

And she had been targeted because of what she had said about Kashmir. “One of the things I said was that India needs azadi, as in freedom, from Kashmir more than Kashmir needs azadi from India. The war that the government of India is waging is on a majority of its people.”