by Pranab Bardhan
In 1998 when Amartya Sen got the Nobel Prize it was a big event for us development economists. Even though the Prize was announced primarily for his contributions to social choice theory (in particular, his exploration of the conditions that permit aggregation of individual preferences into collective decisions in a way that is consistent with individual rights), the Prize Committee also referred to his work on famines and the welfare of the poorest people in developing countries. Even this fractional recognition of his work on economic development came after a long neglect of development economics in the mainstream of economics. The only other development economist recipients of the Prize had been Arthur Lewis and Ted Schultz simultaneously decades back.
As development economists we all grew up on the classic 1954 article by Arthur Lewis, which as a combination of economic theory and a sense of rich panoramic history still remains exemplary in the whole of economics. As someone born in the island of St. Lucia in the Caribbean he was the first economist from a developing country to get the Prize. I met him at Princeton shortly after he got it. John Lewis, another professor at Princeton who was a specialist on development aid and on India, whom I had known for some years, took me to have lunch with Arthur Lewis, whom I found to be a simple and charming man. (I still remember him, with his suit and tie, lying down flat on the floor of the faculty lounge to show John a particular exercise that he was advising John to do to cope with his back problem). Shortly afterward I was invited, I think by Carlos and Gus Ranis at Yale to contribute a chapter in a book they were editing in honor of Arthur Lewis. In this chapter I formalized and expanded on an idea on some historical aspects of tropical trade that he had exposited in a set of lectures in 1969 in Sweden.
From Lewis and Schultz there was some continuity to Sen in their development thinking. Sen’s early work followed the structural role of labor in the development process that Lewis envisaged; and Sen’s later work on education and health followed on Schultz’s emphasis on human capital. But in the intervening period both social choice theory and development economics in which Sen specialized had been marginalized, so much so that I remember on the day of the announcement of Sen’s Prize in I998 I met a young well-known American macro-economist who asked me, with genuine puzzle in his voice, “I understand he is an Indian, what kind of economics did he do?” This also indicated to me how absurdly narrow the specialization in different fields in economics had become.
Amartya Sen is, of course, much more well-known among philosophers. When he was at Oxford, the philosophy seminar where Ronald Dworkin, Derek Parfit, Amartya Sen and Jerry Cohen taught, argued and sparred with one another used to be described by students as ‘Star Wars’. (Before he went to Harvard, Berkeley Economics and Philosophy departments made him a joint offer; before the offer could be made, I was appointed the chair of the committee that was in charge of writing a report on his work. The usual procedure in such committees was to do a detailed evaluation of the candidate’s major pieces of research. I noticed that the philosophers in the committee were too impatient about this procedure, considered such an evaluation of Sen’s research redundant, and wanted to get out the offer immediately). Beyond economics and philosophy, Amartya Sen has, of course, been one of the most celebrated public intellectuals in the world.
A Nobel Prize gives the winner, among other things, a mega phone; some use it in the international public-intellectual fora to draw attention to their favorite causes, others do not exercise that option. Among economists I know, I have seen Joe Stiglitz, Paul Krugman and Amartya Sen making good use of this mega phone, but others like George Akerlof have been more diffident in using it.
As a public intellectual Amartya-da is widely known as an untiring champion for the cause of mass education, health care, and women’s autonomy, and for promoting democracy and public reasoning, values that he has explicitly linked in much of his later work, notably in his book, Development as Freedom. In 2006 in a public conversation in San Francisco between him and me that was organized by the California magazine I pointed to him a possible contradiction in his public causes, and his prompt answer was an indicator of his clear thinking on such important issues; it also happened to bring out one strand of commonality between his and my research. So I am taking here the liberty of quoting an excerpt from that conversation, which was published in that magazine.
“PB: Democracy obviously has been a favorite cause of yours. Another favorite cause has been that of mass education, basic health, and women’s rights. When you combine these two sets of causes, one cannot help but notice that there could be a disjuncture, not in the realm of your ideas but in the real world of politics. The conditions of basic health and sanitation and primary and secondary education are simply appalling in India. Yet, the electorate does not penalize politicians when they fail to deliver these services. And the conditions continue to be appalling, election after election.
AS: A very interesting question, Pranab. Let me say three things. First, democracy is basically a permissive system. Some of the issues of deprivation are very easy to seize in terms of media and political opposition. Like famines. Hard to win elections after a famine. It’s hard to prevent newspapers writing editorials, unless you censor them, criticizing the government if famines occur. So these things get immediately politicized. The rest require a lot of effort. In India, the gender issue—when I first started working on it, you were one of the first to be involved in that. You wrote this great paper ‘Life and Death Questions in India’. I think you have had the same experience as I had, the people treating it as your and my amiable eccentricity that we are concerned with the gender issue. But nobody thinks like that today. If the Indian Parliament is debating today as to how to ensure that a third of the parliamentarians are women, something has changed—and changed as a result of politics, particularly the women’s movement…..So my second point is that the democratic critique is still, even in India, making a difference.
My third point is that democracy is primarily, as I see it, not just voting, but public reasoning, government by discussion. To initiate the discussion is a contribution to democracy. You might not have thought that your “Life and Death Questions” was a contribution to Indian democratic practice, but that’s what it was because a lot of people read it and were inspired by it and moved by it.”
I have known Amartya-da well since my student days in Cambridge, and spent many hours chatting with him on various economic, political, cultural, and, of course, personal issues (he has been a mentor for me for many decades), at different international venues, often at his homes in Santiniketan, Delhi, Oxford, London, and the two Cambridges. He is a connoisseur of good food and wine. Once I remember he invited me to his home near Harvard, and when I arrived, he said he had made a reservation for the two of us (his wife Emma was away to England) at a nearby Chinese restaurant (both of us like Chinese food). While walking to the restaurant I was puzzled by seeing him carrying a paper bag with a bottle of choicest wine from his cellar. As soon as we entered the restaurant, the manager did, without any exchange of words, what seemed to me like a familiar routine: he relieved Amartya-da of his paper bag and disappeared into the kitchen. Apparently, the restaurant did not yet have the license to serve alcohol. So a kettle came to our table, from which the waiter kept on filling our little tea cups with superb French wine instead of green tea. I was more than a willing accomplice at this delicious illegality.
After his Nobel Prize it became more difficult to have leisurely chats with him, as the demands on his time from others multiplied manifold. When his Prize was announced, I got an urgent message from Krishna Raj then Editor of Economic and Political Weekly that they were bringing out a special issue on Sen that week for which he needed an article from me by the next day, which I had to fax. This brief article was mostly on his research, but I could not help taking the opportunity to comment on the hoopla in India that I already started hearing about. Maybe I had been jaded by knowing and watching a number of Nobel laureates around me in the US, and the agitation in a Prize-starved country of billion plus was probably understandable. But I thought it was a bit too much when I heard that numerous boys born that week in Kolkata hospitals were named ‘Amartya’ by excited parents. So in that article I quoted a couple of famous lines from Bertolt Brecht’s play Life of Galileo: when a dispirited pupil Andrea on the occasion of Galileo’s fall says, “Unhappy is the land that has no hero”, Galileo replies, “No, Andrea, unhappy is the land that needs a hero”.
This quote had a fallout. When in a couple of weeks after my article came out Amartya-da went to India on a triumphal arrival, he was almost immediately interviewed in Doordarshan (then the main, public, TV station). Within a few minutes of the interview the breathlessly effusive interviewer asked for his reaction to Pranab Bardhan’s criticizing him in the pages of EPW. Amartya-da wanted to know what I had said, and he was told about the quote from Galileo. His answer was, Amartya-da later told me, “Pranab was criticizing not me, but you”.
Later, once in Santiniketan when both of us were on a short visit, he asked me over tea at his home when I’d be taking the train back to Kolkata. When I told him that I was going back by the afternoon Santiniketan Express the next day, he immediately said he too was taking the same train, and proposed that we travelled together so that we could chat on the way. I immediately said, “No way, I am not going to travel in the same compartment with you; you are like a film star, I’d be stampeded by the adoring, autograph- and photo-hunting crowds around you”. (In my mind flashed the scene in Satyajit Ray’s 1966 movie The Hero, where the matinee idol was travelling in a train and at every station where the train stopped the crowds were desperate to have a glimpse of him).
Next afternoon I took my seat in a different compartment in the train, and prepared to get cozy, as I usually did on such journeys, with a Bengali novel or magazine. At one point before the train started, I heard some commotion and saw from my window large numbers on the platform rushing to a compartment a few doors away. But unfortunately in the journey that afternoon I could hardly avoid the Sen phenomenon. My fellow passengers had seen him board the train; soon my whole compartment was agog with loud multilateral conversations about Sen’s various public achievements, speculations about his salary, about his personal life, his mother, his first wife (who was an accomplished Bengali writer) and the circumstances of their divorce, his children (one of these children was a film actress, whom did she resemble, the father or the mother), his various wives and other women in his life, and so on. A large part of it was usual half-truths and imaginary gossip that hover around a celebrity, but it spoiled my reading plans as I could not plug my ears off the very public discussion of somebody whom and whose family members I happened to know reasonably well. Thus I avoided being stampeded but not being bombarded with unnecessary and gratuitous babble.