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Special Report:
 Professor Amartya Sen
1998 Nobel Prize Winner for Economics

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Source # Title:  Click to visit article
The Statesman 1 Amartya Sen gets Nobel The Statesman, Calcutta dated October 15, 1998; front page.
The Telegraph 2 Nobel for Amartya Sen The Telegraph, Calcutta dated October 15, 1998; front page.
The Statesman 3 'Honour for welfare economics' ;Excerpts from The Statesman, Calcutta October 15, 1998; front page.
The Statesman 4 'A friend from the days of the struggle' Excerpts from The Statesman dated October 16, 1998; page 3.
The Telegraph 5 'Calcutta renews patent on prize' ;Excerpts from The Telegraph dated October 15, 1998; page 6.
The Telegraph 6 'Cambridge beams' ;Excerpts from The Telegraph dated October 15, 1998; page 6.
The Statesman 7 'Globalization a force for good: Sen' ;Excerpts from The Statesman dated October 16, 1998; front page.
The Statesman 8 'Bangladesh proud of Sen' ;Excerpts from The Statesman dated October 17, 1998; page 3.
The Statesman 9 Food prices and the size of the Plan: Pointers to future policy' by Amartya Sen, first appeared in The Statesman on Tuesday 25 August 1964, and reprinted in 'Perspective' dated October 18, 1998; page 9.
The Statesman 10 Issues of development :Left Front's successes and failures by Amartya Sen, first appeared in The Statesman on 1 January 1988, and reprinted in 'Perspective'dated October 23, 1998; page 7.
Assessing West Bengal's Left Front government on the occasion of its completing 10 years in office, Amartya Sen noted that the regime had neither followed a 'growth path' as in South Korea or Taiwan, nor a 'public provisioning path' as in China and Cuba. The result, he said, was stunted development despite the early promise.
. 11 Links to Amartya Sen's work
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Preamble:
Today, especially in Bengal, things are going terribly wrong. Many people believe it is because of the moribund bureaucracy - government, institutional, private ... whatever - that is responsible for this unacceptable state of affairs.

The objective of 'Stop'n Look!' is to throw the searchlight on the problems created by those people who are thriving in an obsolete bureacratic system - at our expense. In this 'Special Report', we quietly celebrate the award of the Nobel Prize in Economics to Prof Amartya Sen, a 'Friend of Bengal'.

Viva la vox populi!

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Special Report: Professor Amartya Sen
1998 Nobel Prize Winner for Economics
1. Amartya Sen gets Nobel; The Statesman, Calcutta dated October 15, 1998; front page.
Professor Amartya Sen in New York on Wednesday (October 14, 1998)

STOCKHOLM, Oct. 14. - Amartya Sen today won the the Nobel Economics Prize.

Professor Sen (64) who is Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, has been awarded the prestigious prize for his contributions to "welfare economics", which have helped in the understanding of the economic mechanisms underlying famines and poverty, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said in its citation.

He is the sixth Indian to get a Nobel, and the first Asian winner of the Economics prize. He is also the first solo winner of the prize for Economics since 1995.

Prof. Sen is in New York to attend a memorial meeting for his friend and former Pakistani Finance Minister, Mahbub-ul-Haq, who died a few weeks ago. He thought there was an emergency when the phone rang in his hotel room at 4 a.m. (local time): it was the Royal Swedish Academy calling to say that he had won the Nobel.

"Normally one does not expect good news at such hours but I prepared for bad news also ... Happily, it turned out to be good news," he told Star TV from New York.

He told PTI that welfare economics touches the lives of people. Many economists have worked on the subject and "it is a tragedy we can't all share the award".

The Royal Swedish Academy citation said:

    "Prof. Sen's contribution to welfare economics ... (and) applications of his theoretical approach have enhanced our understanding of the economic mechanisms underlying famines. He has made a number of noteworthy contributions to central fields of economic science and opened up new fields of study for subsequent generations of researchers.
    "By combining tools from economics and philosophy, he has restored an ethical dimension to the discussion of vital economic problems. Prof. Sen treated problems such as majority rule, individual rights and the availability of information about individual welfare.
    "Almost all of Prof. Sen's work deals with development economics, as they are often devoted to the welfare of the poorest people in society. He has also studied actual famines. In his best known work, Poverty and Famines: an essay on entitlement and deprivation, he challenges the common view that a shortage of food is the most important (sometimes the only) explanation for famine.
    "On the basis of careful study of a number of catastrophes ... he argues that famines have occurred even when the supply of food was not significantly lower than during previous years (without famines), or that famine-stricken areas have sometime exported food."
The Economics prize was the fifth of the six Nobels to be given this year, and the last one announced in Stockholm. The Peace Prize, the last in this year's series, will be announced tomorrow in Oslo, Norway. Each prize is worth 7.6 million kronor. The prizes will be presented on 10 December.
Road to Nobel
  • Born 3 November 1933 to Dr Asutosh and Amita Sen
  • Education: Santiniketan, Presidency College, Calcutta University and Cambridge
  • Professor of Economics:
    • Jadavpur University :1956-58
    • Delhi University : 1963-71
    • London School of Economics : 1971-77
    • Oxford : 1977-80
  • Hon D. Litt. Saskatchewan, 1980
  • Fellow, All Souls College, Oxford, 1980-88
  • Agnelli Internet Prize, 1990
  • Alam Shawn Feinstein World Hunger Award, 1990
  • Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, since 1997
  • Nobel Prize in Economics, 1998
A few of his Books:
  • Choice of Techniques, 1960
  • Growth Economics, 1970
  • On Economic Inequality, 1973
  • Poverty and Famine: An essay on entitlement and Deprivation, 1981
  • Choice, Welfare and Measurement, 1982
  • On Ethics and Economics, 1987
  • The Political Economy of Hunger, 1990-91
  • India: Economic Development and Social Opportunity, 1995
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2. Nobel for Amartya Sen; The Telegraph, Calcutta dated October 15, 1998; front page.
By our Special Correspondent
Amartya Sen: 'You cannot evaluate what's happening without looking at the people who are on the downside'
Picture by Pradip Sanyal

Calcutta, Oct. 14:A Bengali and an Indian, Amartya Sen, has won the Nobel, putting poverty back on the global economic agenda.

Sen became the second Bengali after Tagore and the fourth Indian to win the world's most prestigious honor ...

His poverty-stricken hometown, Calcutta, was delighted, but not surprised. Every year over the past decade they have been expecting him to win it and every year the Swedish Academy has denied them the joy.

"It had become a joke in the family," said Sen's 87-year old mother, who lives in Santiniketan, on the belated recognition.

... In the preface to a recent work on liberalizing India (India: Economic Development and Social Opportunity) co-authored with Jean Dreze, Sen writes: 

    "So much energy and wrath have been spent on attacking or defending liberalization and deregulation that the monumental neglect of social inequalities and deprivations in public policy has received astonishingly little attention in these debates."
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3. 'Honour for welfare economics'; Excerpts from a news report published in The Statesman October 15, 1998; front page.
Associated Press

NEW YORK, Oct. 14. - Professor Amartya Sen said today that he was thrilled to win the Novel Prize for Economics mainly because the subject he explores, welfare economics, deserves more recognition.

Prof Sen says his work in "social choice" explores how common economic indices of a nation or group's well-being "like gross national product exclude minorities and the poor". 

Prof Sen was nine years old when the Great Bengal Famine of 1942-43 killed millions. And haunted by the deaths, he embarked on the study of famines. Some famines have less to do with food supply than with simple economics, he said. "Famines can occur even when the food supply is high but people can't buy the food because they don't have the money."

"There has never been a famine in a democratic country, because leaders of those nations are spurred into action by politics an a free media," he said. "In undemocratic countries, the rulers are unaffected by famine, and there's no one to hold them accountable, even when millions die."

Prof Sen taught economics and philosophy at Harvard for 11 years before shifting to Britain. He said he hopes to spend the part of the $963,000 Nobel Prize money that won't be paid in taxes "on something good". Though he downplayed his Nobel achievement, saying there were many others who deserved the prize and he wished he could share it with them, those who know him well said it couldn't have happened to a nicer person.

"He is the most wondrous man anyone would ever want to meet," said Ms Anna Marie Svedrofsky, his secretary at Harvard for 10 years. "He's just joyous. That's really the only word to describe him."

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4. 'A friend from the days of the struggle'; Excerpts from a news report published in The Statesman October 16, 1998; page 3.
Statesman News Service
Nabanita Deb Sen at her home in the city on Thursday (October 15, 1998)

CALCUTTA, Oct. 15. - A cranky generator and a soundless TV set: these two brought the news of Prof Amartya Sen's Nobel Prize award to his former wife, Ms Nabanita Deb Sen. She was at a village unconnected with electricity near Gadiara in Howrah yesterday. And the TV had been switched on only to test the condition of the generator. And surprise! On the screen was a beaming Mrs Amita Sen, Ms Deb Sen's former mother-in-law; with a picture of Prof Sen as inset. And there was no sound on the idiot box.! 

But that flickering image was enough to tell her what "we" had wanted to hear for years: that the man, whom she now describes as her "good friend" had won the world's most prestigious prize.

Her last conversation with Prof Sen was on 27 September, when he asked her to go to Santiniketan; his brother-in-law had had a cerebral attack.

Does she remember their first conversation? It was probably at Jadavpur University, where he was head of the economics department. She had just joined the comparative literature department at the University after graduating from Presidency College, where Prof Sen too had studied. That was where she had first heard about him. " He had graduated before I joined college - he was five years my senior - but he was already a legend at Presidency. I used to hear about him quite often."

Debating brought them closer. "He was the president of a debating society, and I was a pretty good debater myself." Their friendship grew through 1957 and 1958, and blossomed into love the following year.

"It was he who proposed," she said, a tinge of pride in her voice. "All his students, including the girls, used to swoon over their professor - him in white dhoti, punjabi and slippers - and he swooned over me. That was the way it was." They were married in 1960.

Prof Sen's "talent and discipline" are what his former wife likes best about him, but she finds his tendency to "work so hard a bit too much to take" - he might work through the night  and then take the morning flight across the Atlantic. ... She keeps abreast of her former husband's culinary tastes: "A little bit of oil and some mashed vegetables in a microwave. That's cooking for the Nobel laureate."

Will all this figure in the autobiography she plans to write? "My husband was not a Nobel laureate; but my daughters have a Nobel laureate father. "For me, Amartya was a struggling scholar. I shall write about that."

On the table stands a photograph of Amartya Sen as a six-month-old.
Amita Sen, mother of Amartya Sen, at her Santiniketan home on Thursday, reading newspaper reports of her son's achievement.
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5. 'Calcutta renews patent on prize'; Excerpts from a news report published in The Telegraph dated October 15, 1998; page 6.
Amartya Sen with daughter Indrani and son Kabir at a New York Hotel after winning the Economics Nobel Prize.
By Soumya Bhattacharya

Calcutta, Oct. 14. - Four out of four; a strike rate of 100%. Poor, little, rich Calcutta seems to have the patent on producing Indian Nobel Laureates.

Amartya Sen is the latest ... Rabindranath Tagore, C V Raman and Mother Teresa preceded him. Hargobind Khorana and Subramaniam Chandrasekhar - two other Indian born persons to have received the prize - were not citizens of this country.

... Tagore and his Geetanjali sparked Calcutta's romance with the Nobel in 1913 ... C V Raman's award for Physics in 1930 and Mother Teresa's Peace Prize in 1979. 

Raman, who once called his Calcutta years the "golden period" of his career, arrived in the city in 1907, researched at the Association for the cultivation of Sciences and won the prize for his study on the scattering of light ...

Embodying the last crumbling remains of the Bengal renaissance, Sen may not be the first of homespun heroes, but he might just be the last for some time to come. The heady feeling in the slipstream of the award also begs the question: After Sen, who?

No one, it appears. Apart from being the first Asian to win the Nobel for economics, Sen may well be the last in the long line of Bengali icons. The aging Bengal tiger Jyoti Basu seems to be the only one who basks comfortably in the glow of international arc lights.

Inevitably, tempering the exultation of a city that Sen - "proud to be a bengali and an Indian" - always looks upon as home, is the realization that this may be the beginning of the end. Not many are willing to to say that in so many words. Film maker Mrinal Sen, for long a chronicler on celluloid, said: "I feel immensely proud being a Calcuttan and an Indian. I do not see any other Bengali on the horizon right now, but who knows?"

Litterateur Annada Shankar Roy, a close family friend of Sen's refused to go crystal gazing. "I cannot say if this is the end of the line. There are many bright young men and women from Bengal working in this country and abroad, of whom we do not know much," he said. 

Ignorance may be bliss. At least it helps foster the hope of glory. The city has produced a Nobel laureate about once every 25 years. A quarter of a century is time enough to dream.

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6. 'Cambridge beams'; Excerpts from a news report published in The Telegraph dated October 15, 1998; page 6.
Before the Swedish Academy announced the Nobel, a poll on the Internet by E-JOE, the European Job Openings for Economists had picked the winner (as indicated by the poll figures on the right in this picture; Amartya Sen with 72 votes, followed by Hans-Herman Hoppe with 58, then Vernon Smith, Clive W J with 28 ...)

London, Oct. 14.(PTI): The Nobel Prize for Amartya Sen adds "luster and breadth of study of economics at Cambridge," said a beaming Professor Sir Alec Broers, Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University, where Sen now teaches.

The news that Sen, the first Indian to don the mantle of Master of Trinity College, bagged the Nobel crated a flurry of excitement at the famous academic center today.

"We are delighted to hear that Prof Amartya Sen has been awarded the prestigious prize. His work here has contributes a tremendous amount to society as well as to economic theory, a subject of great importance to the world," Sir Broers said.

Sen's colleague, Prof Ajit Singh, a senior fellow at Queen's College said: "It is thoroughly well deserved and was long expected."

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7. 'Globalization a force for good: Sen'; Excerpts from a news report published in The Statesman dated October 16, 1998; front page.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

NEW YORK, Oct. 15. - Countries need "social nets" to profit from globalization and protect the vulnerable from competition, Nobel laureate Amartya Sen says.

"I take the view that globalization is ultimately a major force for good, and indeed if adequately backed by national policies, it can be a major force of prosperity in the world.," Prof Sen told a press conference here today.

But problems arise when societies are pushed into a "highly competitive situation" by economic integration. "Even with the best scenario there will be sudden changes".

Countries where social security nets do not exist are the ones most threatened by globalization, Prof Sen feels.

He said it was "fashionable" to attribute the financial success of South Korea, China and Taiwan to the greater openness of their economies than those of India or Pakistan.

That's true, but its also true that Pakistan and India had neglected education, and health care and land reform in a truly regrettable way. So when the situation opened up, there were a lot of people who were not ready to compete in the global world.," Prof Sen said.

IANS adds: Prof Sen, whose work on famines finds mention in the Royal Swedish Academy citation, recalled the effect that the 1942 Bengal famine ha d on him as a nine-year old.

"It touched me personally ... it's a very shaking experience about society," he said. "It made me think about the politics of human society, specifically about what causes famines."

He recalled that the 1943 famine was a "boom famine" when India was experiencing economic expansion and inflation while in areas where money wages remained constant, people were unable to buy food. There was no food shortage and yet people were dying, he had written in the school journal.

Famines can be prevented, and they really happen in democracies where leaders fear losing popularity and social power, he said.

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8. 'Bangladesh proud of Sen'; Excerpts from a news report published in The Statesman dated October 17, 1998; page 3.
ERSHADUL HUQ
INDIA ABROAD NEWS SERVICE

DHAKA, Oct. 16 - Bangladesh is proud of Nobel laureate Amartya Sen. He was born in Manikganjear Dhaka, which was then part of undivided India.

The media, economists and politicians are gloating over the fact that yet another Bengali closely associated with the nation had won the Nobel. Bangladesh's national anthem is penned by India's first Nobel laureate, Rabindranath Tagore.

The Daily Star newspaper wrote in its editorial the the Economics Nobel was long due to Sen. The announcement of his winning the prize sent waves of joy around the subcontinent ... but the celebrations paled in comparison to the pride and sense of achievement that had swept across West Bengal and Bangladesh, the paper noted.

The paper noted the close association between the two Bengali Nobel laureates - Tagore and Sen. Sen's maternal grandfather Kashitimohan Sen Shastri lived in Sonarang village, which falls under the Dhaka administrative region. Shastri's daughter Amita married Engineer A T Sen of Calcutta, who was taken by Tagore to look after Santiniketan, the town the poet had founded.

A son was born to Amita and A T Sen in 1933. He was christened by Tagore as Amartya, wrote the paper. Amartya spent the the first 12 years in Sonarang, Dhaka. The Sen family moved to West Bengal in 1945 - two years before partition.

The editorial: 'He has done us proud', said after Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels - the founders of Communist thinking - Sen is the first in a century-and-a-quarter to give economics a human face.

The Bangladesh Observer said Sen was rightly chosen for the coveted prize for his concept of welfare economics. The editorial - "Bengal is proud of Amartya Sen" - said: Coming at a time when the world is teetering on the brink of financial collapse, the choice of Sen's philosophy for the Nobel would hopefully give some confidence to those who still consider helping the poor a priority.

"The message that comes across is that we must 'humanize" development and discourage gambling and greed in the form of global financial enterprises and speculators who think nothing of slaughtering the world's poor and dispossessed." it said.

The Financial Express carried a salutary piece on its front page under the title: "A Triumph of Developmental Economics".

The Bangladesh Government too expressed happiness that a Bengali had won the Nobel. The foreign minister, Mr. Abdus Samad Azad said: "We are feeling proud that an economist of the region has won the Nobel Prize."

Md. Masum, who teaches Economics at the Jahangir Nagar University, said anyone who came in touch with Sen will always remember him as a fascinating personality - warm, hospitable and easily approachable. "I fondly remember a few occasions of meeting and sharing views with him at his office at the Institute of Economics and Statistics and at Queen Elizabeth House where I worked," he said.

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9. 'Food prices and the size of the Plan: Pointers to future policy', by Amartya Sen; first appeared in The Statesman on Tuesday 25 August 1964, and reprinted in 'Perspective' dated October 18, 1998; page 9.
The clamor for a fundamental change in the approach to planning is perhaps not altogether unexpected at this stage of our economic development. We  have just completed 13 not very lucky years of planned growth and, while we have undoubtedly covered some ground, we have clearly not traveled as far as expected.

Discussion on the shape of the fourth Five Year Plan starts in this sobering setting. Our rate of growth per year over this period has barely averaged three and a half percent and, with the population rising at close to two and a half percent per year, this does not leave a great deal of room for any improvement in the standards of living. Our performance in the last couple of years has been particularly depressing, and those who have been prophesying doom seem elated as their predictions come true - at least for these two years.

The recent rise in prices, couple with the inability of the government to do much to ease the situation, has added considerably to the feeling of failure and helplessness that seems to pervade a sizable section of public opinion in India. This has led to a considerable strengthening of the demand for reappraising our whole approach, and indeed commitment, to planning.

Two choices
Two questions in particular have been raised persistently in recent discussions. First, should we continue to accelerate our rate of investment, or go slower? the second question, not unrelated to the first, disputes the emphasis placed on physical capital investment., as opposed to what is now called "human capital", especially the development of knowledge, education and skills.

Suggestions about toning down investment efforts seems to arise from two different attitudes that are poles apart. For some it arises from defeatism about our ability to grow fast without causing serious inflation (and the avoidance of inflation is obviously given top priority by this section in the scale of values). For others it arises from bouncing optimism about our ability to grow even in the absence of huge physical investments. This miracle is to be performed by human resources, with physical capital given only a minor role. The latter view reflects the doubts raised by the second question, to which we might turn first.

There are certain mystifying features about inflation in India. Its rate has not been very fast if judged in terms of international comparison. Many Latin American countries have a larger rise in prices each year than we have had in a whole decade, but at the same time the suffering arising from this seems more acute in India.

This cannot be dismissed as propaganda by the groups in opposition: there seem some genuine factors to consider. First, the Indian wage structure seems to be such that there is no redress for the rise in prices as has been evolved in latin American countries. This is partly connected with the weak bargaining power of labor. Also the low salaried employees in the Indian urban community are in a poorer position to keep up with the inflationary pressure. Besides, few Indians have a margin over subsistence.

Given all this, inflation succeeds in affecting India more sharply than in Latin America. It should be remembered, however, that it is only a small group of "essential commodities" that are crucial.

Negative Policy
The avoidance of inflation is, however, a negative kind of policy, and at its worst amounts to no more than keeping prices low for those who can afford to pay more, by denying to others sufficient income for certain essential goods. Take the case of food prices. Given the supply of food, which will not be raised by cutting down the size of investment, the only way a "small plan" as opposed to a big one can keep prices down is through preventing many people from having the necessary purchasing power  to demand more food that they might otherwise buy. The people concerned are the poor, because it is their capacity to buy food that is most sensitive to changes in their incomes, since the rich succeed in any case in buying as much food as they want, There are, so to speak, two methods of keeping food prices down. One is to keep the supply up, for which a big rather than a small plan seems to be required. Another is to keep demand down, which a small plan achieves by the brutal method of denying a huge section of the population the purchasing power to buy more food.

The second method is a purely redistributive one, and the redistribution of the food supply it achieves is not always particularly laudable. The fear of inflation and the hardship that is caused by it is only a symptom of a much bigger problem - that a great many people in our country live on the border line of subsistence and eat a great deal less than they would like to.

A small conservative plan will hardly contribute to the solution of this basic problem. The methods of keeping prices down by denying the people the ability to buy more food by keeping their income down may seem sound economics to some, but it is not as civilized a method as some of its champions seem to think.

I do not wish to enter  into a full-scale discussion on the right size of the fourth Five Year Plan. That discussion is proceeding at the moment as it did for the the second and third Five Year Plans. I would like however to point out that the "anything-but-inflation" argument for a small plan is rather less convincing than it looks on the surface.

The problem also concerns the ability of the government to execute an effective system for repressing inflation through rationing, control and other means. We are facing today much the same crisis that Britain faced after World War II, and there is every reason for us to consider whether we should not, like Britain, repress inflation through rationing in a big way, if inflation is the inevitable result of the required rate of investment.

We have been arguing so far from the premise that a big plan must mean inflation, open or repressed. This need not necessarily be the case, but much will depend on the performance of the agricultural sector. This question of agriculture is integrally related to education and human capital, though champions of human capital seem to concentrate on rather different areas of the Indian economy.

Studies in USA
The current interest in the role of human capital in the process of economic growth originates in a number of studies that have recently been completed in the USA suggesting that accumulation of education and knowledge have played a much bigger part in the US economic growth than the accumulation of physical capital.

The works of Edward Denison, for example, are often quoted in this context. It is however, dangerous to draw any lessons about India from these studies. First of all, they are specifically related to the US economic situation, and do not pretend to say anything about the rest of the world. Secondly, even about the USA, there are wide gaps of analysis.

There is also a more fundamental drawback. These studies systematically underestimate the contribution of physical capital because they overlook that new technical knowledge has to be embodied in new machines, and new knowledge requires fresh investment to be effective. Also, the progress of knowledge and of skill depends not only on formal education, but also on actual industrial experience.

Indications are that "learning by doing" is at least as important as learning from schools. And in providing this opportunity for learning by doing, a big plan must be credited with a reasonable role. The importance attached to human capital in recent years is a very welcome change, but one should not take too light a view of the accumulation of knowledge and skill. The process of economic development can be regarded as much a process of learning as it may be viewed as a process of capital accumulation. But the two processes are integrally related to each other. 

It has been shown in a number of economic calculations that, if physical capital were the only bottleneck, an economy could raise its income many times in a very short time. The reason why this does not work is the relatively slow process of accumulation of human skills compared with that of physical capital.

When all the skills are present, and only physical capital is lacking, as in war-destroyed Japan and German economies, growth can indeed be very fast. When, however, skills have to be bred, growth resulting from capital accumulation is tempered by the more sluggish accumulation of skills.

The same machine when transferred from an advanced to a backward country becomes much less efficient. To surmount this obstacle is perhaps the most difficult step in economic development, and it depends crucially on education. But the education that is needed here, as should be clear from the nature of the problem, is not of a general kind alone. What is needed most is working experience, and this depends on rates of investment.

The massive physical investments that were undertaken in economies like those of Russia and Japan to break down the barrier of under-development contributed perhaps as much through their indirect effects on skill formation as through their direct effects on physical capacities. It is reasonable to argue that the big hurdle to cross in the process of economic development is skill formation rather than capital accumulation, but, since the former depends on the latter, this does not amount to arguing for a small and conservative plan of physical investment.

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10. 'Issues of development: Left Front's successes and failures', by Amartya Sen; first appeared in The Statesman on 1 January 1988, and reprinted in 'Perspective' dated October 23, 1998; page 7.
The success of 10 years of left front government in West Bengal can be seen in such achievements as vigorous implementation of land reforms (including redistribution of land and providing security of tenure to sharecroppers) and more generally in the democratization of the power structure of the state's rural economy, including the development of an active panchayat system serving, inter alia, as a powerful base against the traditional forces of inequality and exploitation.

The system of providing employment in lean seasons to the traditionally deprived, the achievement of enhanced rural wages, reducing disparities in the wage structure, and, to a limited extent, the expansion of cottage-industry-based- employment and incomes can also be counted among the successes realized by the activist and committed Left Front government. On the other hand, the overall rate of expansion of rural incomes in the state has been slow - considerably slower than that in the rest of India on an average, not to mention the comparative picture with the faster growing states, such as Punjab, Haryana, Andhra Pradsh and Tamil Nadu.
 

Living Standard
Given the fact that the room for enhancing the living standards of the rural population of est Bengal through greater land redistribution is severely limited by the landlords (that is, of course, to some extent a reflection of the successes already achieved in redistributing land), the importance of increasing overall economic growth in rural West Bengal is especially perspicuous.

The cases of remarkably rapid enhancement of living standard and poverty reduction in the world seem to fall into two distinct categories. Some countries have achieved this primarily through a fast expansion of national income and national employment. The "growth path" is exemplified by the recent experiences of South Korea, Taiwan and the tiny capitalist economies of Hong Kong and Singapore and more importantly Japan in the earlier part of this century, and by West Europe in the preceding centuries (though these earlier experiences of growth-based prosperity were relatively moderate in speed, in modern terms).

The other class of cases in which rapid eradication of poverty and speedy enhancement of living conditions have taken place involves active state intervention in living conditions exemplified by the experiences of Communist party led countries like China, Cuba and Vietnam in recent decades, and the achievements of the Soviet Union earlier on in the century. While such state-intervention-based successes have been achieved also by some non-communist countries, such as Sri Lanka, Costa Rica and others, it is an experience that is particularly associated with communist-inspired economic development, typically involving an enormous concentration on public health measures and rapid expansion of public education. Any international comparison brings out the extent to which Communist party-led countries stand out in rapidly achieving higher living standards through public provisioning.

In the case of China the expectation of life at birth increased from not much higher than 40 years at the time of the revolution to close to 70 years by the 1970s. Since then, China has shifted its economic policy allowing a greater play of profit incentives and traditional free market inducements and has thus come more in line with the "growth path" described earlier. It may be remarked in this context that the recent Chinese reforms have been vastly more successful in expanding production and real income (agricultural output nearly doubled between 1978 and 1986) than in maintaining the expansion of living standards (the mortality rate has risen and life expectancy declined somewhat, rather than increasing, between 1978 and 1986). The latter failure is almost certainly related to the reduction of state support and public intervention in the fields of health and social security.

Be that as it may, the "growth path" and the "public provisioning path" are to some extent  two rival ways of trying to achieve rapid enhancement of living conditions, even though the contrast is more sharp in some cases than in others.

Given the constitutional and real political division of power between the Center and the states in India there are obvious limits to what the state government of West Bengal can do in pursuit of its political and economic objectives. But it is possible to take too pessimistic a view of the scope for economic and social achievements, and to fall unduly for the temptation of blaming the restraints imposed by the Center, or to place the responsibility of failures on the neglect and niggardly treatment of West Bengal by the Center. Despite the germs of truth that no doubt exist in these diagnoses of restraints and neglects, which no doubt do prevent any thorough-going and economic transformation, there is still scope for achieving more at the state level on the basis of astute and committed public policy.

Two Paths
If the West Bengal government is to be criticized for some failures (without denying the undoubted succeses achieved in many respects), the two immediate issues concern the failure to follow effectively either the "growth path" or the "public provisioning path". The slow progress on the growth path, especially in agricultural production and rural incomes is not, in fact, unusual in comparison with the experiences of most Communist party-led governments, including East Europe, Cuba and even China, as recent reassessments of the economic achievements of pre-reform China have brought out.

On the other hand, the failures in West Bengal in this repect cannot have any real similarity with the experience of Communist party-led countries, since the mode of production in West Bengal is distinctly non-socialist and since the emphasis of the Left Front Government has been on developing an agricultural system based on peasant cultivation and secured tenancy, in addition to the employment of hired labour at protected wages.

Indeed, the success of land reforms (including land redistribution and tenancy rights) in West Bengal should have, in terms of standard textbook economics analysis, much enhanced the incentive structure for greater production in the state; and there is thus a failure of a different kind from that which is seen in East Europe or Cuba or pre-reform China.

In enhancing economic growth and overall economic expansion, there are a great many issues to be discussed, including the influence of demand factors on production, the incentives for use of modern technology (particularly greater use of high-yielding varieties for the aman crop), the economic inducements and opportunities for greater use of tube-wells and other forms of irrigation (perhaps made particularly difficult by land subdivision and parcelled plots), and the need for enhancing the economic opportunites for expansion of non-agricultural rural occupations (including expanding the integration with urban markets and increasing the scope for mutual exchange within rural areas).

What is also important to recognize is that pre-reform China and many other socialist countries (including Vietnam and Cuba) have had remarkable success in raising living standards through radical public provisioning, including public health measures and educational expansion, and in any comparison of such measures as longevity, mortality, etc. these countries stand out as great achievers - way above what may be expected on the basis of GNP per head.

In this respect, the relatively slow pace of educational expansion (especially that of literacy) and of the enlargement of the public health network has been a particularly dissapointing aspect of the performance of the Left Front government over the last decade. While the growth of education and health services in West Bengal has not been any slower than that for India as a whole, India's performance in this respect is remarkably poor.

Public Provisioning
Given the political committments and the social objectives of the Left Front government (not to mention the powerful implications of main-stream Marxist philosophy), much more may have been expected in these fields than has been achieved. Indeed, even attempts in this direction seem to have been extraordinarily limited, not only in comparison with socialist countries but also with mixed economies following the "public-provisioning path" (and even in comparison with Kerala). One can argue that there is certainly need for rethinking on this aspect of public policy and planning.

The political committments of the West Bengal government and its open-minded willingness to listen to critical discussion are of course major assets. So is the extent of public support that the government enjoys, especially in the rural areas, based both on appreciation of past achievements and on the expectation of helpful and efficient programs in the future. The possibility of rising to the seriousness of the challenges faced is undoubtedly made easier by these assets. But a clear analysis of the problems and the imperatives is an important prerequisite to planned action. Ultimately, the question is how much more can a state government like the Left Front in West Bengal achieve in a country like India?

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11. Links to Professor Amartya Sen's writings.
These are links to Prof Amartya Sen's writings reproduced in other pages of Sankalpa:

'Education and economic growth': The three Rs as levers of change'; first appeared in The Statesman on Wednesday, 26 August 1964, and reprinted in 'Perspective' dated October 19, 1998; page 9.

'Education is the cradle of economic success': Excerpts from an interview during a recent visit to Calcutta, published in The Telegraph on 15th October, 1998; front page.

'Undue sacrifice of primary education ': First appeared in The Statesman on Wednesday, 19 April 1967, and reprinted in 'Perspective' dated October 21, 1998; page 9.

Note from Essem: If you have other links to the works of Prof. Amartya Sen, please send them to us for inclusion in this page. Your efforts will be gratefully acknowledged. Thank you.

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