Just before the release of his new book, The Country of First Boys, Nobel laureate Amartya Sen talks exclusively to the Hindustan Times‘ Manjula Narayan about our blindness to poverty, flaws of the Gujarat model, miniaturisation of great ideas by the Hindu right wing and interference in academia.
In your introduction to your new book, you talk about our general bias which makes us blind to the divide (between rich and poor Indians), which is what is at the root of all our problems.
Absolutely. Not just one divide; there is more than one. But the big divide is between the comfortably off, which includes not very rich people and also very comfortably off, and the masses of people who don’t have decent schools, decent health care, and often not immunised. That is a very big divide. And I won’t say the lack of outrage about it but lack of knowledge, almost lack of understanding about it — about how big this division is which is one of the major problems for a democratic country like India. I think, for us, development has to be a kind of comprehensive social engagement and so it’s not just the fault of the government but also the lack of pressure from the public to see the defects in the thinking of governance, to make sure that they are rectified.
Sometimes, I think, perhaps (the divisions in the country) are impossible to overcome.
No, it’s not impossible to overcome. I think we have to address that issue constantly. You see, some issues are very easy to make media friendly, that media take an interest and you know … places are like that … it’s good that they did. Similarly, what’s going on about the other Modi … What’s his name? The one who is fleeing the law of the country? Lalit Modi! I mean these things are very easy to politicise and it’s right that they should be, but it’s not right that issues of varieties of deprivation from which the underprivileged in India massively suffer don’t get that attention. It’s not at the top of the mind; it’s not at the top of the newspaper.
Poverty is not sexy.
You talk of the narrowness of identifying people by a single identity, just religion, following from your ideas on Partition. But increasingly, we are moving towards that again, towards identifying yourself by your religion or your caste.
I’m worried about it too. You see some of these partitions are archaic and not particularly productive ways of thinking about anything. In addition to the problem that any one Partition would never capture the complexity of human beings. But some of these distinction between a Hindu or a Muslim, upper caste or lower caste at the level of understanding who to respect, who to not respect, is really a deluding division. On the other hand, the distinction between rich and poor, between women and men, and even between upper caste and lower caste, if we see it not just in terms of who to respect but who to worry about, then I think the same division can be made to have a more productive role. But when somebody writes in favour of the caste system saying it’s not exploitative, as I think the new head of the Indian Council of Historical Research had said (laughs)… I think the caste division can be made to play an important role in our thinking if we see it as a mechanism of perpetuating inequality in India as opposed to a way of generating a good society, which I think that gentleman was presenting.
A recent report says the number of poor children in India is much higher than many countries in Africa.
Yes, and the undernourishment is enormously worse. The immunisation rate is not worse than Africa but not much better and certainly much worse than Bangladesh, and dramatically less than Southeast Asia.
Why are we still grappling with this after so many years?
I don’t think we have got the seriousness of the issue. I mean when people say that Gujarat was a successful economic model, they overlook the fact that, in terms of undernourishment, illiteracy, lack of immunisation, Gujarat has one of the worst records, and as the Economist magazine points out, under Modi’s chief-ministership, Gujarat’s position slipped down rather than slid up. It was slightly better than Bihar earlier and it became worse than Bihar. In some ways newspapers allow people to get away with this, as if infrastructure is just physical infrastructure; just roads and power. In fact, infrastructure is also education and health care. India is trying to be the first country to become an industrial giant with an illiterate and unhealthy labour force. I don’t think it can be done. To me, it’s one of the biggest problems.
Featured image: Beggar child. (c) Nikhil Gangavane via iStock.