Fri, Jul 19, 2013 - Page 9 News List

Amartya Sen spotlights India’s ‘defective development’ in new book

Half of Indians have no toilet, while 50 percent of children are undernourished, and much poorer countries like Bangladesh and Sri Lanka are light-years ahead in development. These are just some of many gigantic failures that have prompted the Nobel Prize-winning academic to write a devastating critique of India’s economic boom

By Madeleine Bunting  /  The Guardian, LONDON

Influential he has certainly been, but he acknowledges he still has not won the argument. To his dismay, there are plenty of examples where people seem set on ignoring the kind of evidence he stacks up.

In passing, he asks: “How can anyone believe austerity with high levels of unemployment is intelligent policy for the UK?”

He laughingly comments that colleagues say his thinking has not evolved much, but he dismisses the idea of being frustrated. All he will concede is the astonishing admission that he wishes someone else had written this book on India.

“There are a number of problems in philosophy which I would have preferred to tackle, such as problems with objectivity, but this book had to be written. I want these issues heard,” he said.

He said that the Nobel prize and the National Medal from US President Barack Obama may be “overrated,” but they give him a platform and he unashamedly uses it, giving time to media interviews and traveling all over the world to deliver speeches. That has led to compromises on the intellectual projects he would have liked to pursue, but life has been full of compromises ever since he narrowly survived cancer as an 18-year-old — there are all kinds of food he cannot eat as a result.

He is an extraordinary academic by any account — a member of both the philosophy and the economics faculties at Harvard — and is helping to develop a new course on maths while supervising doctorates in law and public health. He has plans for several more books and no plans to slow down. Mastery of multiple academic disciplines is rare enough, but it is the dogged ethical preoccupation threading through all his work that is really remarkable. None of the erudition is used to intimidate, he is always the teacher.

Some say that Sen is the last heir to a distinguished Bengali intellectual tradition that owed as much to poets as it did to scientists, politicians and philosophers. Sen is the true inheritor of Rabindranath Tagore, the great poet and thinker of the early decades of the 20th century. A family friend, he named Sen as a baby — the only photograph in Sen’s Cambridge study is that of the striking Tagore with his flowing white beard.

Yet on one issue Sen admits he now parts company with Tagore and instead he quotes Kazi Nazrul Islam, Bengal’s other great poet who became an iconic figure for the nation of Bangladesh. Tagore was too patient; Nazrul was the rebel, urging action.

Sen repeats a quote he uses in the book: “Patience is a minor form of despair, disguised as a virtue.”

He wants change and that means he is about to embark on a demanding tour of Indian cities to promote the book. The doctors have told him that if he slows down it will be irrevocable, so he has decided not to.

Retirement is not an option.

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