- Superstardom is not the normal lot of a professor of Economics, but soft-spoken Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen is something of a national treasure for India. From free Air India flights to a dessert named after him, the unassuming professor from Bengal has been awarded the Bharat Ratna, India’s highest civilian award. Economics may be an esoteric subject but Sen’s mass appeal lies in the fact that he has spent a lifetime fighting poverty with astute analysis.
Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen is the Lamont University Professor and Professor of Economics and Philosophy at Harvard University.
“Amartya Sen has helped give voice to the world's poor. And, that is no small matter, for the very lives of the world's poor may depend on having their voices heard. In a lifetime of careful scholarship, Sen has repeatedly returned to a basic theme: even impoverished societies can improve the well-being of their least advantaged members,” wrote Jeffrey Sachs, director of The Earth Institute at Columbia University.
Giving Voice to the World’s Poor
The opening lines of Sen’s study on famines startled the world: "Starvation is the characteristic of some people not having enough food to eat. It is not the characteristic of there being not enough food to eat."
Despite spending most of his professional life in America and Britain in the rarified world of academe, Sen has always been interested in the problems of society’s poorest members. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Economic Sciences in 1998 for his fundamental contributions to at least four fields: social choice theory, welfare economics, economic measurement, and development economics. His ideas have had a global impact.
Sen is best known for his work on the causes of famine, which led to the development of practical solutions for preventing the effects of perceived shortages of food. Sen's interest in famine stemmed from personal experience. As a nine-year-old, he witnessed the Bengal famine of 1943, in which three million people perished.
"I was upset by what I saw. My grandfather gave me a small cigarette tin, and said I could fill it with rice and give it to the starving, but only one tinful per family," Sen told “The Guardian”.
“Deadly Famines in Authoritarian Societies”
Sen observed the famine was clearly class-dependent. Only people on the lowest rung of the economic ladder, such as landless rural labourers, were hungry, and the memory stayed with Sen, prompting him decades later to make a famous case study of that famine and the Ethiopian famine in Wollo in 1973, and the Bangladesh famine in 1974.
The opening lines of his study startled the world: "Starvation is the characteristic of some people not having enough food to eat. It is not the characteristic of there being not enough food to eat."
Sen sifted through data and found that overall food output in Bengal in 1943 was not lower than in 1941, when there was no famine. He demonstrated that the wages paid to farm labourers in 1942 had not kept pace with rising food prices caused by inflation in Calcutta so they just starved.
“Sen demonstrated that the Bengal famine was caused by an urban economic boom that raised food prices, thereby causing millions of rural workers to starve to death when their wages did not keep up. And why didn't the government react by dispensing emergency food relief? Sen's answer was enlightening. Because colonial India was not a democracy, he said, the British rulers had little interest in listening to the poor, even in the midst of famine,” wrote Sachs.
“This political observation gave rise to what might be called Sen's Law: shortfalls in food supply do not cause widespread deaths in a democracy because vote-seeking politicians will undertake relief efforts; but even modest food shortfalls can create deadly famines in authoritarian societies.”
Human Well Being at Center of “Development”
Sen’s work provided the intellectual moorings…to promote the idea that human well-being, not wealth accumulation, should sit at the center of discussions of “development.”
In 1990, Pakistani economist Mahbub ul Haq and other economists developed the United Nations' Human Development Index to “shift the focus of development economics from national income accounting to people centered policies." Sen’s work provided the intellectual moorings for them to promote the idea that human well-being, not wealth accumulation, should sit at the center of discussions of “development.”
Arguing that Gross National Product (GNP) wasn’t enough to assess the standard of living, Sen helped to create the Human Development Index, which has become the authoritative source of welfare comparisons between countries.
Among his many contributions to development economics, Sen produced pioneering studies of gender inequality, so he always takes care to write "her" rather than "his" when referring to an abstract person.
Vanguard of Personal Dignity
Sen has taken a stand on emotive issues. In 2006, Sen and author Vikram Seth led a group of activists seeking decriminalization of gay sex between consenting adults. Gay sex was finally decriminalized in India in a landmark judgment in 2009 but anti-homosexual discrimination remains widespread.
Sen also kept the sense of outrage alive over the sedition conviction of doctor and civil rights worker Binayak Sen till he was released on bail in April 2011. The Raipur court had found Binayak Sen, who has helped tribals and others at the margins of society in Chhattisgarh, guilty of sedition for smuggling letters from a jailed Naxal leader out of prison
"After my student days in Cambridge in 1953-56, I guess I have never been away from India for more than six months at a time. This — combined with my remaining exclusively an Indian citizen — gives me, I think, some entitlement to speak on Indian public affairs, and this remains a constant involvement,” Sen said in Les Prix Nobel.
Research for Action
“In a lifetime of careful scholarship, Sen has repeatedly returned to a basic theme: even impoverished societies can improve the well-being of their least advantaged members,” wrote Jeffrey Sachs, director of The Earth Institute at Columbia University.
Sen used his Noble Prize money for starting the Pratichi Trust which is committed to “research for action” in India and Bangladesh. Pratichi combats illiteracy, the lack of affordable basic healthcare, and the disadvantages from which women and young girls suffer.
“When the Nobel award came my way, it also gave me an opportunity to do something immediate and practical about my old obsessions, including literacy, basic health care and gender equity, aimed specifically at India and Bangladesh. The Pratichi Trust, which I have set up with the help of some of the prize money, is, of course, a small effort compared with the magnitude of these problems. But it is nice to re-experience something of the old excitement of running evening schools, more than fifty years ago, in villages near Santiniketan," added Sen.
Sen who is the Lamont University Professor and Professor of Economics and Philosophy at Harvard University, has written over 20 books including “The Argumentative India,” “The Idea of Justice,” “Collective Choice and Social Welfare”, “Inequality Reexamined,” and “Identity and Violence.”
“He has a mind like a searchlight, yet he works at Mozartian speed. His output is staggering in its volume," Robert Cassen, an economist at the London School of Economics, told “The Guardian.”