“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.”