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Amartya Sen: India must focus on its women

Economist discusses country's flawed development model and how it can be improved to lower poverty.

Last Modified: 08 Aug 2013 12:44
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Sen notes that in many social indicators, Bangladesh is now ahead of India [Getty Images]

India should learn from neighbouring Bangladesh about how to tap the energy of women in its efforts to spur development, according to Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen.

China also provides a valuable model of how the state - long held in low esteem by free-market philosophers - can play a key role in building a successful market economy, the Harvard professor argues.

Despite India's rapid economic growth rates over the last three decades, other areas of Indian society have been ignored, he asserts in his latest book.

"In most of the social indicators, Bangladesh has gone ahead of India," said Sen. "The lesson here is about focusing on women and gender: led not just by state policy but also by the NGOs which are so important in Bangladesh: they have consistently focused on women's agency in particular."

In a wide-ranging interview, the economist discusses where India has gone wrong in the past, and what it can do to overcome its current challenges.

Sen is the Thomas W Lamont University Professor, a professor of economics and philosophy at Harvard University, and in 1998 won the Nobel Prize for economics for his work on development.

Much of his scholarship has focused on poverty, particularly how to measure poverty to enable more effective social programmes, as well as developing new methods to predict and fight famines.

His books include Development as Freedom, Rationality and Freedom, The Argumentative Indian, Identity and Violence, and The Idea of Justice.

In his latest work with fellow economist Jean Dreze, An Uncertain Glory, the economist examines shortcomings in India's development model.

The economists argue that despite the push for growth in India, insufficient attention has been paid to the needs of the Indian people, millions of whom remain undernourished and living in extreme poverty.

Bangladesh and China

Women can play a key role in efforts to change the focus of policy, Sen believes, pointing to the model of Bangladesh, which has surpassed India on most social indicators in part because of an official focus on women.

"As a result, a much higher proportion of workers, like schoolteachers, family planning workers, health carers, immunisation workers, and even factory workers are women in Bangladesh than in India. This latent energy of women is something that hasn't yet been tapped so much in India, " he says.

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"But some of Bangladesh's achievements have come from independent thinking, and its pride in being both Muslim and Bengali in its culture. This has been very favourable to mobilising the power of women."

India can also learn important lessons from China, he argues, with the latter demonstrating the potent role that the state continues to play in growth. "The two countries that India can learn most from right now are Bangladesh and China," Sen says.

"The Chinese development strategy seems to have been this: If you want to make a successful market economy, you need to let the state play its part by expanding human capability, through education and healthcare in particular.

"The Chinese did that. Even though immediately after the economic reforms in 1979, for a while they privatised medical insurance, later, after two decades, they realised that they had made a mistake. So by 2004 they were going full-scale back again, and the Chinese economy was producing the miraculous growth rates we are all familiar with. The state has to be a partner with the market in expanding human capability."

Capacity building

Sen points out that his new book looks at India's attempt at development, which although successful in some respects, has huge deficiencies in other regards.

The country could have learned from the experience of what he calls "Asian economic development", beginning with Japan after the Meiji Restoration in the 1860s.

Japan's attempt to boost economic growth was closely linked with its focus on human development: education and public health care were key to creating a healthy and educated labour force.

"The main difference [in India] has been its lack of focus on the expansion of human capability," says Sen. "Particularly the need of the economy to have a healthier and more educated labour force. The lack of education and healthcare has been a terrible dampener on human progress.

"Despite high economic growth for a period, and specialised production led by a small group of highly skilled people, and producing a limited range of products (like IT, pharmaceuticals, specialised auto parts), India has not cultivated the kind of productive ability and flexibility that we could have expected had there been widespread skill formation based on good schooling and good health care."

Asked why the much-touted statistic that India has 350 million poor people receives so little attention, he points to how poverty is understood in its many forms - a central theme of his work.

"The important figure to look at here is not the 350 million below some arbitrarily defined poverty line," says Sen. "What demands our immediate attention is that over half of Indian children are undernourished; 50 percent of the people do not have access to toilets; most Indians have little guarantee of decent medical care.

"There is some barbarity in the fact that people in India have to suffer in these conditions. Then there is the fact that a massive proportion of the population is still formally illiterate. One-third of the women still are, and one-quarter of the men still are also. Those who have education are often badly educated. On a recent testing it was found that of the children with four years of schooling, nearly half of them could not carry out basic long divisions in arithmetic.

"That is really terrible. So these are the real issues of poverty in India on which we have good reason to focus."

Democracy in action

So has democracy worked - or failed - to address these issues in the country?

"I think democracy has a couple of very distinct features," says Sen. "One of them is that when there is a serious grievance or injustice, it can get attention, if people are ready to rise up. The elimination of famines in democratic India is a much-talked-about example of this.

"Similarly, the threat of India becoming the biggest centre of the AIDS epidemic generated much public concern, and the policy responses seem to have dealt with that threat with much success.

Fighting India's infant mortality rates

"Democracy can be helpful in protecting minority rights as well. This happened when a part of the sectarian Hindu political movement seemed to be violating Muslim rights, for example in Gujarat. In response, there was a huge amount of protests, particularly in the rest of India, against these rights violations.

"Democracy makes that possible and electorally effective. The newspapers also carried stories about the barbarity of targeting minorities in a way that many non-democratic countries overlook. That is a very positive thing."

But Indian democracy clearly has shortcomings, the economist says, pointing again to how it is failing to serve the poorest sectors of society.

"It has not received as much engagement as it should have in giving adequate voice to the suffering of the poorest part of the Indian economy: those without a school, a hospital, a toilet in their home, or - shockingly - sometimes even without the benefit of full immunisation. There is a need for more public discussion on these issues of inequality and injustice."

One way of helping to plug some of these democratic shortcomings is through information, and Sen has argued that India's Right to Information Act, which can be used to demand information from government, has led to radical changes - not least the ability to tackle corruption.

"This is the end of the old practice in India, of stalling enquiries, with a reply like, 'your request is receiving attention'," he says. "That doesn't work in this case. The government has to deliver."

The use of the act has only recently begun, but already more than a million times each year the act is invoked. It has the potential of becoming a powerful tool in dealing with corruption, accountability, even inequality.

"Information, and enlightenment are really central to good economic performance, social equity, and a good life for people.

"I think the right to information will be a major ally in bringing about change in India."      

Follow John Paul O'Malley on Twitter: @johnpaulomallez

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