"They should have called the session the Prophet Meets the Goddess," quipped a wag at the Kolkata Literary Meet. It was called instead What moves India, What Stops it - Amartya Sen in conversation with Sharmila Tagore. When the inevitable question about freedom of speech in the wake of l'affaire Rushdie came up from the audience, Sen said with a wry smile, "I know enough about newspaper coverage to know that if I answer your question extensively, anything else I have said today would not be reported."
He did make points about the perils of limiting the argumentative Indian and how Rushdie was just a way to distract attention from the real problems affecting Muslims but the Nobel laureate indeed had a lot else to talk about.
India is NOT even Bangladesh
First the good news. India is NOT becoming China. Despite the welcome mat being pulled out from under Rushdie's feet and the wrangle over Vishwaroopam, Sen said we still have a system where "freedom of speech protected in a way that if there is a violation, there is a way to protest against it." It's not that criticism is completely unheard of in China but "comparing with China is a mistake India will come out looking better. But that does not make it adequately good."
Next the bad news. India is NOT becoming China. "There is much to be learned from China in terms of economic growth," said Sen. He was impressed by the way they had raised living standards. "The percentage of homes without toilets is 1 percent in China," pointed out Sen. 48 percent of Indian households don't have proper toilets. Instead India is "much more engrossed in space travel and missiles." "It's a denial of personal liberty," he added.
Here's the worse news for Indian jingoists. India is not even Bangladesh. Only 9 to 10 percent of Bangladesh is without toilets. Immunisation rates in Bangladesh are at 96 percent. India is far behind. "Bangladesh comprehensively overtakes India in most human development categories except per capita income," said Sen. "I think women's agency made a big difference in Bangladesh," he said. "It should be an important realisation for us. Women got involved in family planning, immunisation, health care early."
What it all boils down to is this: "I think (India) has remained an oddly backward country in a way that we don't recognise."
Not your father's aam aadmi
Sen's antidote for this was "an engagement" that he said still eludes us in India.
That sounds a little strange coming on the heels of the waves of anti-rape protests that themselves came on the heels of the anti-corruption protests. The aam aadmi is so visible these days, he has even been lent his name to a political party.
But Sen said he thought the definition of aam aadmi itself was being re-jiggered.
He told the audience that when newspapers hollered last year that 600 million Indians "were plunged into darkness" they omitted to mention that 200 million out of them never had any power. "So they were not specifically plunged that night, they are plunged into darkness every night."When the aam aadmi is up in arms about the rise in cooking gas prices, most of us don't realise that most Indians don't have the instrument to use that cooking gas.
"There has been a redefinition of ordinary people," said Sen. "It is the relatively poorer of the privileged group in India."
And then he cited an example. The revenue that was foregone from having no import duty on gold and diamonds is twice what was being asked for by the additional programmes for food security according to Sen. In the 2011 budget the government tried to put in "a modest import tax on gold and diamond imports." There was such a hue and cry the government eventually backed away. "Because that's an organised group. Undernourished children are not."
What's up, Doc?
One of the biggest issues Sen saw looming in India's near future was health care. India spends only 1.2 percent of its GDP on public health. Sen remembered that when Jamshedji Tata set up Jamshedpur he provided free healthcare to everyone not just the employees of the company. While the US for a long time was the one outlier among developed countries when it came to public health care, even it was making baby steps in that direction with the so-called Obama care.
But "India is the only country that is trying to have a health transition on the basis of a private health care that does not exist," warned Sen. "We have an out-of-pocket system supplemented by government hospitals." That was bucking the trend in the rest of the world.
"Privatisation is doing an extraordinary amount of harm in health care," cautioned Sen. In 1946 a committee said India's economy was affected by terrible health care. While he admitted India has achieved "much economic growth" he lamented that as a country we have "an extremely foggy idea" about what economic growth is. India's per capita income has gone up but its position in living standards has gone down. It was the second best in South Asia after Sri Lanka, said Sen. Now "we are the second worst, ahead only of Pakistan."
"It is isn't about whether opposing the US-India nuclear deal was right or wrong, that's a minor thing compared with what you are providing for the people. And I don't expect that to come from a Hindutva-oriented party. I expect it somewhat more from the Congress but also much more from the Left."
But Sen said he was dismayed that even the Left parties were "going after cooking gas, electricity prices and aam aadmi issues rather than the larger picture."
Virtuous circles (and Tagore)
All, however is not lost. Sen looked at the corruption protests and said mindsets can change if there is "a virtuous circle." When we recognise that something "may be common but it's not standard and it's bad" that is the first step towards creating a "groundswell." It happened with footbinding in China and is happening with female genital mutilation in Senegal. And he saw it happen in Italy when he advised its anti-Mafia commission. Until then the Mafia had just been regarded as unavoidable because everyone did it and you would be at a competitive disadvantage not to do it.
That change in mindset could happen here as well if we are open to looking outside for some answers instead of hiding behind lack of "political will" which he dismissed as "a non-answer". India can learn about introducing universal health care from Mexico. It can learn democracy and public unions from Brazil. And women's agency from Bangladesh.
"Rabindranath Tagore was telling us to break out of the limited universe," Sen reminded his audience. (Yes, of course Tagore came up. Sharmila was on stage. Sen had gone to Shantiniketan. And this was Kolkata). "That breaking is not complete yet."
"The most terrible thing that happened in the world were because of ignorance," said Sen. "The moral obligation to be informed is very important. The cupidity and villainy of human beings is over emphasised. Ignorance is under emphasised."
And the opposite of ignorance is sometimes also the wisdom to know what you don't know. When a questioner asked him a complicated question about changes in university admission procedures in Kolkata, the Nobel winning economist grinned and said "I am always flattered when people think I know more than I do. I have absolutely no idea what you are talking about."
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