The roses are blooming at the window in the immaculately kept gardens of Trinity College, Cambridge, and Amartya Sen is comfortably ensconced in a cream armchair facing shelves of his neatly catalogued writings. There are plenty of reasons for satisfaction as he approaches his 80th birthday. Few intellectuals have combined academic respect and comparable influence on global policy and few have garnered quite such an extensive harvest of accolades: In addition to his Nobel Prize and more than 100 honorary degrees, last year, he became the first non-US citizen to be awarded the National Medal for the Humanities.
However, Sen does not do satisfaction. He does outrage expressed in the most reasonable possible terms. What he wants to know is where more than 600 million Indians go to defecate.
“Half of all Indians have no toilet. In Delhi when you build a new condominium there are lots of planning requirements, but none relating to the servants having toilets. It is a combination of class, caste and gender discrimination. It’s absolutely shocking. Poor people have to use their ingenuity and for women that can mean only being able to relieve themselves after dark with all the safety issues that entails,” Sen said.
“Bangladesh is much poorer than India and yet only 8 percent do not have access to a toilet. This is India’s defective development,” he added.
Despite all the comfort and prestige of his status in the UK and the US — where he teaches at Harvard — he has not forgotten the urgency of the plight of India’s poor, which he first witnessed as a small child in the midst of the Bengal famine of 1943. His new book, An Uncertain Glory, co-written with his long-time colleague Jean Dreze, is a quietly excoriating critique of India’s boom.
It is the 50 percent figure which shockingly keeps recurring: Fifty percent of children are stunted, the vast majority due to undernourishment; 50 percent of women have anemia for the same reason. In one survey, there was no evidence of any teaching activity in 50 percent of schools in seven big northern states which explains terrible academic underachievement.
Despite considerable economic growth and increasing self-confidence as a major global player, modern India is a disaster zone in which millions of lives are wrecked by hunger and by pitiable investment in health and education services. Sen and Dreze have summed it up as pockets of California amid sub-Saharan Africa.
The details are outrageous, but the outlines of this story are familiar and Sen and Dreze, who have collaborated on several previous books, are losing patience. Their last chapter is entitled The Need for Impatience. They want attention, particularly from the vast swath of the Indian middle classes who seem indifferent to the wretched lives of their neighbors. So they have aimed their critique at India’s national amour-propre by drawing unfavorable comparisons, firstly with the great rival China, but even more embarrassingly with a string of south Asian neighbors.
“There are reasons for India to hang its head in shame. Alongside the success, there have been gigantic failures,” Sen said.
He is making this critique loud and clear in the media on both sides of the Atlantic ahead of the book’s launch in India this week.
“India will prick up its ears when comparisons with China are made, but the comparison is not just tactical. China invested in massive expansion of education and healthcare in the 70s so that by 1979 life expectancy was 68 while in India it was only 54,” he said.