“I had been out for a walk and got caught in the rain,” says Sen, smiling as he walks in to greet us. His knees do not permit him to pedal around Santiniketan as he once did. He is in a pleasant mood, in spite of the controversy surrounding his ouster from Nalanda University and his latest book, The Country of First Boys: And Other Essays, out next month.
The din he created on being forced to step down as chancellor of the university ensured that George Yeo, member of the Nalanda University governing board and former Singapore foreign minister, was chosen as his successor, instead of a “hindutva” person. The furore, however, cost Sen precious time to work on his next book, an expanded edition of Collective Choice and Social Welfare.
A strong critic of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Sen has accused the government of clamping down on academic freedom and imposing hindutva ideology on institutions that should otherwise be autonomous. Under Modi, says Sen, government intervention “is much more extensive, politically organised and connected with the hindutva movement.”
Sen’s stint in India is coming to an end; it is time to return to Harvard. But he will be back soon—he visits India five times a year, and spends a couple of months at Santiniketan. “It is my favoured place for everything—walking, talking, writing, listening to music… everything,” he says, smiling. Excerpts from the interview:
You have talked about the need for good education and primary health care. The Modi government has slashed spending for both.
It is not just this government, even the last government was terrible. The neglect of the need for the state to get everyone schooled and literate, and getting everyone some kind of health cover began much earlier during the time of [Jawaharlal] Nehru. If you look at the Five-Year Plan, there were statements that education and health were top priorities, but not much was done. The entire tradition of Indian planning, of ignoring education and health care, continued through Indira Gandhi’s time, the Janata Party government and, later, through the BJP government and UPA I and II. Now, with Modi, it has got worse, because the government has made further cuts.
You have spoken about how Kerala has achieved success in terms of literacy and public health care, compared with states such as Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh.
You can deliver education and health care to all, even with a very poor economy, because a poor economy is also a low-wage economy, and education and health care are labour-intensive. So, first, it is affordable; and second, it will immediately have an impact on quality of life, infant mortality, etc. And, if you push money towards complete immunisation, it would lead to a better standard of living. Third, it would also improve the productivity of labour, because you can’t become an industrial giant with an unhealthy, uneducated labour force. Ultimately, improvement in the quality of labour has an effect on economic growth.
Do you feel that the current government has repackaged old UPA schemes?
That is a political way of putting it, which, perhaps, Rahul Gandhi should say (laughs). I would say the Modi government has not brought about any change. It has spent far too little on education and health care, and hardly any time on organisation of schooling and health care. They have done very little for immunisation; India ranks one of the lowest in the world [in vaccination coverage]. Furthermore, Gujarat is one of the worst performers; in fact, way below Bihar, which shows that the BJP thinking, which is very Gujarat-dominated, has not gone in the direction of immunisation, unlike Bangladesh, which has gone for total immunisation.
The BJP is led by the hindutva view, but it also supports business. The business community is dependent on trained, educated and healthy labour force. They [the business community] could have easily made that into a big issue; which, with a greater imagination, the PM himself could have done.
Modi’s imagination doesn’t quite go in that direction. He has been quite imaginative in diplomacy. He has rebuilt relations with other countries, including China. On the other hand, they [BJP leaders] are too tied up with the Gujarat model, which is physical capital and easy business, while ignoring human capital and capability, and gender inequality.
The Modi government has started programmes such as ‘Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao’, Swachh Bharat, insurance for poor, etc.
These are slogans. How much money and effort has Modi spent on the programmes? He has also said that every house should have a toilet. What has happened to that? One has to distinguish between slogan and action.
Even industry isn’t quite as euphoric as before.
I do believe that India needs more economic reforms. Business is still very hard to do. When I was in charge of Nalanda [University], any change there needed the approval of six different ministries.
You have said that government interference in academia is a worrying sign.
There has to be a distinction between a public institution, which is autonomous but accountable, and an institution ‘owned’ by the government. In the first case, the government, on behalf of the state, can support certain institutions and make sure that the criterion of accountability is being met. In the second instance, the government actually owns public institutions and can command it, and that is a very different idea.
Earlier governments, too, confused one model with the other. I believe they did it sporadically, and there was a kind of transgression. That is not new. What is new is that this [interference] has become much more extensive, much more politically organised and connected with the hindutva movement; and it is at a scale that dwarfs previous history.
A version of this article first appeared on The Week. An extract is reprinted here by permission.
Featured image: Delhi road. CC0 via Pixabay.