Relevance of Amartya Sen’s Philosophy in Today’s India 

Amartya Sen has vouched for public provisioning for unemployment insurance, public health care and public education.

Published02 Nov 2019, 02:10 PM IST
Opinion
4 min read

Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen is both an eminent economist and a philosopher. But he is no armchair scholar. He has been a public intellectual and activist all his life. He has debated issues of public interest since the age of 23, first in the pages of the Economic Weekly, and then in numerous scholarly journals, newspapers and public speeches.

Indeed, he had joined demonstrations as a student of Presidency College. He is a great believer in public reasoning and has never shied away from controversies. Any student of his last magnum opus, which many people consider to be his most important work, namely, The Idea of Justice, has acknowledgements to more than a hundred persons scattered all across the world, some of whom have differed sharply with him on many issues.

If I have to specify one single focus of his work, it would be quest for freedom of all human beings.

His concept of freedom is multi-dimensional, it includes their freedom to act as free agents, ignoring authoritarian dicta, it includes their ability to both access and use that freedom by being properly nourished, their becoming educated enough to be able to make reasoned choices, their becoming free from fear – of violence, of suddenly becoming unemployed and being unable to find alternative means of subsistence, of becoming old or decrepit in a way that they cannot sustain themselves.

Sen on Famine and Women

Sen has wanted public provisioning for all the latter contingencies — unemployment insurance, public health care, public education and old age and disability pensions. His consciousness of the systemic deprivation of women of their entitlements that led to his extensive work on women’s welfare writing papers on missing women in India and China.

He pointed that neglect of the nutrition of girl children and female foeticide (if not infanticide) often with the help of modern technology has led to extremely adverse sex ratios in India and China.

It is the quest for economic freedom in a poor country like India and similarly situated countries that motivated his early work on the choice of techniques, on the extensions of the Mahalanobis model that he carried out jointly with KN Raj. It is the same quest that led to his work on poverty famines, where he broadened the old idea that people often die in famines not because there is no supply of food but because they do not have enough purchasing power, to include the notion of entitlements.

This might mean that in case of famine, women and children are forced to give up their entitlements in favour of adult males, or that ordinary people are rationed out of food, in favour of cadres of the ruling party.

Sen was one of the early critics of Indian education policy under which, with the exception of Kerala, the primary education system received much less funding and political attention than secondary education and university education favoured by the middle and upper classes.

By the end of the 1980s, Sen had explored all major aspects of human development and it was his work that inspired Mahbub ul Haque to begin publishing the human development reports under the auspices of United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) from 1990.

Sen’s Work in Philosophy

Now I turn to his revolutionary work in philosophy. He discarded the approach of utility maximisation, which is still the favoured paradigm for two reasons. First of all, it takes a narrow view of a person’s welfare – it includes not only his own consumption of the usual consumer goods, but the music of a Tanjina Toma, Bhimsen Joshi, the majesty of the Gangotri glacier, or of the Victoria Falls.

More fundamentally, it treats human beings as ‘rational fools, who do not care about the health of a close friend or that of a national icon such as Rabindranath Tagore or Subbulakshmi.

To quote Sen, “Ultimately, the focus has to be on what life we lead and what we can or cannot do, can or cannot be. I have elsewhere called the various living conditions we can or cannot achieve, our ‘functioning’, and our ability to achieve them, our ‘capabilities’.”

A sane society should be able to ensure that practically everybody should be able to attain their capabilities.

From the above account it will be obvious that Sen’s work still remains extremely relevant in India which is till riven by divisions of caste, class, community and gender. Sex ratios are extremely adverse in states like Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan and indeed in most other states, barring Kerala. India ranks even below some of the poorest Sub-Saharan countries.

India has the largest illiterate mass of people. The central government, instead of addressing these issues has squeezed expenditures on public health care and education, has been oblivious of mounting unemployment among all sections of people.

That the public space for discussion has been greatly narrowed will be obvious from one of many instances: When some eminent filmmakers and artists like Shyam Benegal and Girish Karnad protested against the ill-treatment of Kashmiris, an FIR was filed against them.

(Amiya Kumar Bagchi is a political economist with contributions in the fields of economic history, economics of industrialisation and de-industrialisation, and development studies.

This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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