Worldwide Locations

Worldwide Locations

Amartya Sen: A More Human Theory of Development

(Elya/Wikipedia)

(Elya/Wikipedia)

You have noted how India has not suffered famine-related hunger since decolonization—given its vibrant democracy and free press—but has, on the other hand, not fared as well in dealing with endemic hunger, widespread mal/undernourishment, and high levels of illiteracy. How would you account for this? Do you believe there are structural impediments to reform, either nationally or globally? Is the existing form of liberal democracy—however informed in terms of participation, periodic elections and so on—sufficient to guarantee change?

Again, an excellent question. No institution is ever adequate on its own; everything depends on what use we make of these institutions. There is no substitute for political and social engagement. The success of India in preventing famines is an easy success, because famines are extremely easy to politicize: all you have to do is to print a picture of an emaciated mother and a dying child on the front page and that in itself is a stinging editorial. It does not require much reflection. But in order to bring quiet but widespread hunger to public attention, in order to publicize the debilitating effects of lack of schooling and illiteracy, and similarly the long-term deprivations of not having land reform, you need a great deal more engagement and use of imagination.

The Indian practice of democracy in this respect has been relatively modest, and success has been relatively moderate. Though I would say here again that things are changing; for example, issues of women's inequality received almost no attention in the media and in the political process until recently. This has changed now. It would have been very hard to think even 20-30 years ago that one of the serious concerns in the Indian parliament would be the ways and means of making sure that at least one-third of the members of parliament are women. This kind of issue had not come up earlier at all. So I think it is a question of what we can make of the institutions of democracy. When you need more democracy by practising it more, to say that democracy is at fault and let us have less democracy is to move exactly in the wrong direction.

There is a paper of mine that recently [2004] appeared in The New York Review of Books on India and China. I address this issue there. I also point out why I think that China is now suffering a certain amount from not having a democratic, multi-party system. That is, the Chinese made major progress early on because of a visionary political leadership after the Revolution. In terms of social change and progress in school education and health, they did much better than India even though they had a gigantic famine (they kept on making mistakes of that kind), but the basic commitment to universal school education and health care and employment for women served China extremely well. Much better than India's more hesitant process of democracy did.

On the other hand, if you look at the results today, despite the fact that since the economic reforms of 1979, Chinese economic growth has been much faster than India's, life expectancy in India has grown about three times as fast as that in China. To a great extent, it is connected with the avenues of public discussion and criticism that a democratic system provides to the health services. We know how terrible the Indian health services are, but the fact that we know it and the newspapers are constantly discussing it, makes it hard for those things to continue in the way they could in a system which does not encourage public criticism. In 1979, Chinese life expectancy was 14 years longer than India's; today it is seven years longer. Some parts of the country, like Kerala, are now four years ahead of China in terms of life expectancy. Another comparison to look at: in 1979, China and Kerala both had exactly the same infant mortality rates—37 per 1,000. By now, while the Chinese have cut that down from 37 to 30, in Kerala the infant mortality rate has come down from 37 to 10—a third of the Chinese number. Kerala has the advantage here of combining, on the one hand, the kind of radicalism that helped the Chinese make immediate progress in the early years after their revolution, and on the other, the benefits of a multi-party democratic system.

The main point to appreciate is that what we make of democracy depends to a great extent on how much we are ready to put into it. One of the really big issues for me in India is that the intellectuals who could play a big role in the democratic political system tend, by and large, not to go into politics. They often regard that as a shady affair. To some extent that is changing, but it requires a much more dramatic change and much greater engagement to make a fuller success of democracy in India. There is also a strong need for the politics of the underdogs—involving the poorer sections and the lower castes - to be less divisive and more united in confronting old inequalities that still survive. This is one of the tasks, along with many others, that democratic practice has to address.