Amartya sen's development perspective: a vew from kerala author: M. Kunhaman abstract

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ABSTRACT---This essay focuses on the development thinking of Amartya Sen which has a particular relevance to the life of women. It is an examination of the difference between growth and development. Development is greater than growth.Growth, though potentially can lead to development, has not really done so in all the cases. This is particularly true in the case of Kerala with regard to growth, though its development record is enviable and has attracted worldwide attention.


       Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen is undoubtedly a very distinguished economist, scholar and thinker. Many nobel laureates were less or not known before getting the coveted prize. But in Sen’s case, it was different. He was widely known and universally accepted for his scholarship and the economics fraternity was wondering why the prize was so long in coming to him. Naturally, when it finally came to him, no eyebrows were raised, notwithstanding some economists contesting some of his views.

        What distinguishes Sen is, first and foremost, the fact that he is not just an ‘economist’ in the conventional, straitjacketed sense of the term. In other words, he is not an ‘expert’. The multi-dimensional character of his concerns and interests is amazing as well as enviable. It would be presumptuous to attempt to encapsulate those dimensions within the compass of a single article. Hence, the present paper aims just at taking a critical look at some of the major strands of Sen’s development thinking in the context of his observations on Kerala.

       We, in the context of the present paper, do not think it essential to lay any great emphasis on Sen’s ideas relating to ‘Growth Economics’; our focus is, rather exclusively, on his development thinking. In other words, we make, contextually, a difference between growth and development. For one thing, growth is smaller than development. Secondly, growth, though potentially can lead to development, has not really done so hitherto in all cases. In the case of Kerala, with regard to growth, there is not much to write home about, whereas its development record is enviable and has attracted worldwide attention.

        In his development thinking, Sen’s attention is riveted on ‘human development’. In fact, it is pertinent to note here that development is an evolving concept. It defies a definitive character. In the context of the evolution of economic thought, we may trace this evolution from ‘economic growth’ till the Second World War, ‘development economics’ since World War II, ‘New Political Economy of Development’ since the 1980s and Human Development since 1990. Sen has played, along with economists like the late Mahbub Ul Haq, a crucial role in bringing into prominence in development discourse, the concept of human development.

        While thinking about Sen’s development perspective, one is, indeed, impressed by the emphasis he places on the basic elements and values in human life. The focus gets shifted from the growth of GNP/GDP to the development of the human being. Development, according to this formulation, should result in enhancing human capabilities. These capabilities, in their turn, are enhanced through entitlements. The current accent on empowerment can be considered as a derivative of these, for there can be no empowerment without entitlement.

       However, the radical left has not been very much impressed by the entitlement that Sen speaks of, for it “does not entail any basic change in the existing property relations; at best, it extends up to the bourgeois democratic programme of land reforms. The empowerment he advocates does not recognise a transfer of political power from the existing to the exploited classes”. (Sen, Arindam, 1998).

        Sen’s basic notions about development find their full fruition and culmination in his 1999 book entitled Development as Freedom (Sen, Amartya 1999). Here, the logical and functional connections come into sharp focus. Freedom--more specifically, freedom from hunger, illiteracy and disease--is regarded as the prerequisite for development. Conversely, development should lead to a widening of the scope of freedom. This line of reasoning is plain and persuasive and is a refreshing departure from the unfortunate situation where much of the development debate is “jargon-ridden and takes place among the select few” (Harrison, Paul.xx). It also tends to explain the paradoxical coexistence of the extremes of prosperity and poverty, which “hamper each other” (Harrison, xv). Economic growth factor does not lead to reduction or removal of illiteracy or disease.

        There is, presently, an efflorescence of development literature of this genre whose centrepiece is the emphasis on human rights. Ignacy Sachs, for instance, asserts that “the path to development leads us beyond markets and jobs to manifold forms of individual and collective realization of the fundamental human right to search for convenient means of subsistence (livelihood), a basic component of the right to development”. (Sachs, 2000, 126). Market led, profit-driven growth, where employment and income distribution are treated as residual and environmental problems overlooked, is the very negation of the fundamental human rights (Sachs, Ibid, 127). Also, it is emphasised that economic growth is a necessary but by no means a sufficient condition for development predicated on the twin ethical imperatives of synchronic and diachronic solidarity with the present and the future (Sachs, Ibid, 1).

        In the above sense, market-centred or market-gendered freedom for the masses is a contradiction in terms. A state-mediated process becomes imperative for ensuring all-round freedom. One may even go further and argue that state is also not the appropriate agency for fostering development. State is an embodiment of power. In a class society, it is an instrument of oppression. If market excludes the poor and the marginalized, state oppresses them. Neither is an ideal instrument for the pursuit and furtherance of freedom. In this sense, market, state, religion, and family are alike; all of them disentitle many, restrict freedom and hence development.

        Sen’s contention that conceding people’s right to participate in the market is in itself a recognition of their freedom as incontrovertible. However, any attempt, explicit or implicit, at treating market synonymously with freedom bristles with danger. Market, according to Adam Smith, the father of the dismal science, emerged spontaneously -- contrast this with the dirigiste market of the Washington Consensus genre -- and expanded naturally. Smith maintained that market, like all other economic institutions such as money and division of labour which naturally/spontaneously emerge, is, by promoting growth, beneficial for society. Marx and Engel also conceded the central role of market in the expansion of the productive forces. In this perspective, market is undoubtedly one of the most revolutionising institutions in the history of humanity.

        None-the-less, market, energised by the ‘animal spirit’, is antithetical to efficiency and equity. Market, once it emerged, had the tendency to become oligopolistic and monopolistic. A perfectly competitive market with equal strength for the participants never existed for any continuous stretch of time in human history. While the market enriches a few, it impoverishes many. This is a fact, which Sen must know better. However, he places a high social premium on the market to the total neglect of its tendencies for centralisation of wealth and concentration of economic power. Incidentally, in the single-track development discourse that is the intellectual fashion today, it is conveniently forgotten that while the state could exist without the market in the case of one-half of humanity for as many as 70 years, the market could not exist without the state even for a single day. Sen, as a master synthesizer, seems to forget this, for a state, subordinated to the market, is his ideal system.

       Two serious limitations of Sen’s development paradigms are worth mentioning. His paradigm is (i) ahistorical and (ii) class neutral. For Sen, the market-determined, state-supported system seems to be the only as well as the most desirable system. In advocating and glorifying such a system, Sen seems to be rudderless in his intellectual navigations, for he exhibits the influence of all schools of thought in economics, but an abiding commitment to none. Sen is not untouched by the Marxian philosophy/ideology.

       However, he uses it “not for a proletarian revolution but for a humanist reform of the capitalist system”. (Sen, Amarindam, ibid). Obviously, the objective is “to ensure that the gin of communism does not get out of the bottle again” (Ibid). Will it be uncharitable to maintain that this consideration might have weighed with the Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences in selecting Amartya Sen for the prize in 1998?

       Sen is quintessentially a neoclassical economist, predominantly conditioned, at the same time, by Smithian ethical considerations. One must be fair to Sen and concede that he makes an earnest attempt at resuscitating the discipline of economics from its positivist, Procrustean bed, giving it the pristine, once-hallowed normative orientation by restoring its ethical underpinnings. In undertaking this commendable task, he draws heavily on Adam Smith, whose economic ideas, incidentally, still remain the most charming as well as the most wide-ranging.

        However, one cannot help stating that the claim that Sen gave economics a human face is wide of the mark. Economics, as it originated and as it evolved into an independent discipline, is an ignoble science of wealth and not a noble science of society. It is a rationalisation of the market economy whose driving force is the, animal spirit’ rather than the ‘social spirit’. Trying to give a human face to an ignoble science can amount to the greatest disservice to humanity.

        The prime mover in Sen’s development paradigm is ‘public action’. As Sen rightly maintains, “the public is not a homogeneous entity, and there are divisions related to class, ownership, occupation, and also gender, community and culture”. (Dreze and Sen, 1993, 17). He rightly recognises the need for the deprived sections of society such as women, scheduled castes and scheduled tribes organising and articulating their problems like illiteracy and poverty. This postmodernist approach definitely has its functional relevance and significance. However, considering ‘public action’ as a substitute for class struggle amounts to rationalising and sanctifying the iniquitous capitalist economic order, which is responsible for the illiteracy, poverty and marginalization of various such groups.

        Sen has abiding concerns for the poor and the marginalized. Basic problems such as illiteracy, poverty and gender inequality are adduced as reasons for lack of development. The foundations that he set up with the Nobel Prize money viz, the Pratichi India Trust and the Pratichi Bangdadesh Trust are testimony to this. “Both are aimed at the specific deprivations of illiteracy, lack of basic health care, and gender inequality -- especially at the level of children”. In an interview granted to Akash Kapur, a Rhodes Scholar at Nuffield College, Oxford, and a contributing editor of Transition, an international review of politics, culture and ethnicity, he made clear that “the present plan is that Pratichi India Trust will tend to concentrate more on the illiteracy issue whereas the Pratichi Bangladesh Trust will concentrate more on the gender inequality issue”. Referring to the “many different problems that affect Indian education”, he observes that “perhaps the most important one 1 have been writing for over forty years now is the official neglect of primary education. For every university educated person in China, India has six; but as far as the level of illiteracy is concerned, China is quite close to complete literacy, especially among the young”, while in India, half the population is illiterate. (Atlantic Unbound, December 15, 1999).

        Sen started writing about the role of women in development early in the 1960s “quite a while before it became fashionable to do so”. “It seemed to me that the gender inequalities were manifest in every respect. When 1 was looking at the pattern of hunger or of schooling and at such matters as the allocation of resources within a family, the inequalities seemed so apparent that I was surprised that people didn’t talk about it”. Only fiction writers had dealt with such matters. “But in social sciences, among economists, and in political circles, I was surprised at the resistance I got”. There was resistance from the left, which thought that any dilution of the class issue would be a mistake, would have the effect of weakening the class war. I think that was a shallow analysis -- class is a big divider, but it is not the only one. And on top of that, when you have general dividers, when there is an accumulation of disadvantages, women in lower class families, possibly from the lower castes and possibly from a backward region, you get a dreadful situation. Quite often, the left opposition did not do justice to the leftwing position which is to understand all the root causes of deprivation, rather than just concentrate on one” (Ibid).

        The concerns for the subaltern, however, do not prompt Sen to advocate a revolutionary reconstruction of society. He is post-modernist in his approach. He wants the subaltern groups themselves to articulate and undertake their cause. Solution for problems such as illiteracy, poverty, lack of health care and gender inequalities is sought within the market-dominated, capitalist framework. Perhaps, it is hard to find a better advocate of liberalisation and structural adjustment for developing countries. The organised demands of a well-educated public. The vigilance of the public has also been essential to ensure the adequate functioning of public services such as health centres and primary schools in Kerala” (Dreze and Sen 1997: 54).

        Besides, the type of public action in Kerala is also emphasised. It is “the political organisation of the deprived sections of society” that makes Kerala distinct (Ibid). “Informed political activism” attacked inequalities based on caste, gender and class. Here, however, Sen and his co-author do not go the full hog in explaining the Kerala situation. In fact, political activism and anti caste mobilisation can be seen in almost all parts of India. What makes Kerala unique is the radical nature of the politicisation process. It is not just an abstract anticaste war that Kerala waged. It was a comprehensive land reforms programme that addressed the caste, class and gender questions simultaneously, synergising the various social groups for progressive social engineering. There are certain cultural and historical factors that made this kind of a comprehensive programme in Kerala and in the absence of such factors, the replicability of the Kerala experience is rather limited. While under the IMF-World Bank-WTO fatwa, the rest of the world is switching over from the government-controlled to the marketdriven regime; Kerala is switching over to a people’s paradigm. However, paradoxically enough, this paradigm uneasily co-exists with growing consumerism. The state is a “collection of markets” (Naisbitt, 1996: 39). It has been observed by many an observer that unless consumerism, which is antithetical to growth, is conquered, people’s planning may not attain its proclaimed goal of promoting economic growth. Kerala’s development through redistribution, unlike the growth-first strategy pursued elsewhere, has led to a high level of human development. While recognising this, Sen does not forget to mention, Kerala’s record includes some failures as well. Kerala’s performance in generating economic growth has been very moderate indeed. In fact, there has been virtually no growth of the domestic economy in Kerala during the eighties. While the social opportunities of living long, healthy, and literate lives have been radically enhanced in an exemplary manner, the opportunities that depend on economic success have been more stagnant (1997: 197).

        The state presents an interesting paradox. “Kerala has been very successful in developing the several opportunities related to widespread education, health care, land reforms, social security, etc. that constitute the centrally important social conditions for having participatory economic growth. And yet Kerala has had, little participatory growth at home. The failure in this case has arisen not from any lack of participation but from low growth of Kerala’s domestic economy. There has to be growth for it to be participatory. The roots of this failure include the continuation of over-regulated economic governance that has blighted the prospects of economic expansion all over India for many decades, the removal of which has met more resistance in Kerala than in most other Indian states” (Ibid 197-198).

       This diffusion of social opportunities sans participatory growth, usually expressed in the so-called Kerala paradox, viz, high levels of social progress with low economic growth, has been the focal point of analysis for many a Kerala watcher. However, in a society characterised by state and social intervention, the former always responding to the latter, this needs to be hardly treated as an intractable paradox. There are, indeed, other types of riddles that have scarcely received serious analytical attention despite the recognition of their strategic importance in the fast-changing economic milieu.

        In this age of knowledge economy, why Kerala has not succeeded in making a quantum jump on the economic front, capitalising on its strategy of human resource development? Similarly, despite the fact that the state is capitalstarved, industrially backward and labour-surplus, there is immigration of labour from and out migration of capital to the neighbouring states. The usual explanations like the one Sen offers viz, “the continuation of over-regulated economic governance “(Dreze and Sen, Ibid), or labour militancy that is more widely cited amount to question begging.

        Kerala is a highly globalized regional economy. Whereas officially declared policy of globalisation of the country as a whole commenced only in the early 1990s, Kerala has been integrated with the world economy for centuries so much so that all the convulsions and vicissitudes of the major centres of the world economy and polity invariably had their repercussions and resonance in the state. In a state where “public action ... has been particularly important in orienting the priorities of the state, Sen’s stress on “the continuation of the overregulated economic governance” is inconsistent and warped. In view of the worldwide attention that the state attracts and also, as Sen repeatedly refers to it on several occasions and in different contexts, one would wish the Nobel Laureate had analysed Kerala more systematically, independently and objectively. Such an exercise, rather than disproving his core developmental vision, would have, in fact, restructured and further strengthened it, in addition to helping Kerala to get out of the anti-growth mode.

        The recent history of the state is one of the inexorable transitions from political radicalism to political careerism, a process that has been completed with the advent of democratic decentralisation and people’s planning. Definitely, there have been deepening of the roots and widening of the scope of democracy in the state. Alongside this process, however, there has also been a swelling of the cadre of career politicians resorting to cut throat competition. A competitive polity rather than a competitive economy has taken over Kerala’s social psyche.

On the Health Sector in Kerala : Setting the Record Straight

       The mainstay of Kerala’s exceedingly high social progress comprises health and education, especially literacy. In the case of the health scenario in the state, a clarification Sen makes to set the record straight is worth mentioning.

       While analysing the health status of Kerala, some perceptive and discerning analysts had expressed concern about the “high morbidity rates” in the state (Panikkar and Soman, 1984: 10). This concern prompted many people to cast doubt about the resilience of the “Kerala model”. In Hunger and Social Action, which Sen co-authored with Jean Dreze, this doubt is sought to be dispelled through the statement that, “as far as high morbidity rates in Kerala are concerned, these are based on self-reported illnesses and it is not easy to determine the extent to which they reflect a greater level of articulation of a population that is enormously more literate and health-conscious than people anywhere else in India. It has been argued, in fact, that they are extremely misleading in the context of interpersonal comparisons of well-being” (Dreze and Sen, 1993: 221).

        The alarm raised about the high morbidity rates is rendered further innocuous with the observation that “while self reported morbidity rates in India are the highest in Kerala and lowest in Uttar Pradesh where the expectation of life is about 25 years shorter than in Kerala, they are even higher in the United States and within the United States they are the highest in the higher income groups” (222).

Plight of the Subaltern Groups

Systematic marginalization of the subaltern sections has been a blot on the Kerala model. In the implementation of land reforms, the fundamental programme for which Kerala is well known, the legitimate claim of the dalits, the tradtional tillers of the soil,to cultivable land was never recognised. The adivasis, on the other hand,have been deprived of their land-base by the marauding nontribal immigrants with the help of the state. Both these sections have been considered only as eligible for charity and welfare. They have never been recognised as active players in development. Their contributions to the development of the state are seldom recognised.

        Lacking a resource-base, the only hope for the scheduled categories is education. However, their access to it is limited by many imponderables. (See Kunhaman , 2000)

       . It has been observed that there is high wastage in education in Kerala and that such wastage is the highest-among the scheduled categories. Out of the 100 students who get enrolled in standard one, 9 get enrolled as degree students for the total population. The figures for the scheduled categories are 7 -- Scheduled Castes and 3 -- Scheduled Tribes. Again, the pass rate for SC students in the SSLC examination has been lower than the general pass rate. For instance, in 1999, it was only 33 per cent as against the total 54 per cent. In research programme (Ph.D./M.Phil.), the share of the scheduled categories is deplorably low -- SC, 3.56 per cent and ST, 0.32 per cent during 1999-2000.

        The invisibility of the scheduled categories at the higher levels of learning and research is a matter of serious concern. Their chances to participate in the non-agricultural sectors of the economy are rather bleak. This fact must be reckoned in conjunction with their lack of a material resource base. In fact, in the intellectual marginalisation of the dalits and adivasis, Kerala seems to have outperformed the other Indian states.

       The immiseration of the tribals through their loss of land has rendered them the social group with the lowest literacy level, the highest female work participation rate, excessive dependence on the primary sector as agricultural labourers subject to all the pre-capitalist forms of exploitation and, consequently, the highest incidence of poverty. In this process, the state has taken a proexploiter, anti-tribal stance. It is true that compared to many other states, the scheduled categories have got some access to education. But what is immediately pertinent in the context of the state is that the state has never made any serious attempt at an equitable distribution of quality education which is ‘reserved’ for the affluent 5 percent of the state population (George and Ajith 1999), and consequently, the Scheduled categories do not practically have any access to such education. While they have got some access to general higher education, they are terribly under-represented in professional and technical education. The centres of excellence are inaccessible to them. For them, these are ‘centres of exclusion’. Feudal attitudes towards them continue to exist, though in diffferent forms. There are no dalits/adivasis among top ranking, journalists, scientists, technologists or university Vice-Chancellors. Thus, social discrimination and intellectual untouchability are very strong, perhaps stronger than in many other states in India. Hence, unless they mobilise themselves, they getting social justice.

        As in the case of the scheduled categories, women also form a marginalised group. In literacy, there is not much male-female cleavage. Similarly, in general higher education, girls form 59 percent of the student population, and 47 percent of the teachers are women. However, their share in professional and technical education is less than proportionate. Few women are found in visible positions. Women’s work participation -- 16 per cent -- in Kerala is much less than the national average. Their share in organised sector employment is just one third. The hold of patriarchy on Kerala society is still strong. Hence, women themselves should take the initiative to resist their peripheralisation and demand their due share in the system.

       The deprived and despondent social groups are restive now. Amartya Sen is absolutely correct in holding that such groups should mobilise themselves on the basis of the problems specific to them. After all, in the absence of a revolution, such group specific actions are the only means of improving their conditions. In this respect, the works of Amartya Sen merit meticulous and critical study , notwithstanding the fact that the centrepiece of these studies is the market economy which is, by its very nature, inequitous. As far as the subaltern sections are concerned, though Sen does not enunciate or envision a radical restructuring of the socio-economic order,his studies, nonetheless, contain the building blocks which can be used by those who are convinced that such a restructuring is inescapable.

        There are certain issues that are specific to the subaltern groups and which the mainstream political parties do not take up and resolve. For instance, the prevention of alienation of tribal land, and restoration of land alienated to the tribals with effect from January 1, 1960 as per the 1975 Act, the phenomenon of unwed tribal mothers -- lately child-mothers, ie, tribal school girls becoming pregnant -- landlessness of the dalits -- they are demanding another land reforms programme encompassing the plantations also and aiming at distributing cultivable land to the traditional tillers of the soil; segregation of dalit/adivasi students in college hostels, and reservation for the scheduled categories in the appointment of teaching and non-teaching staff in educational institutions which are publicly funded but privately managed -- 80 per cent of the colleges in the state belong to this category. The upwardly mobile dalits and adivasis experience obstructions at every stage. Consequently, they are politically organising and forming their own political parties. Sen’s thesis on group-specific mobilisation based on basic issues stands vindicated.

Bardhan, Pranab. “Reflections on Amartya Sen’s Prize”, Economic and Political Weekly, 7 November 1998.

Harrison,Paul. Inside the Third World. London: Pelican, 1991.

Kapur, Akash. “Interview with Amartya Sen”, Atlantic Unbound, 1999.

Kunhaman, M. “Higher Education in Kerala: Access of Poor and Marginalised ”, paper presented at the fifth workshop on        Higher Education at Ernakulam on 15 October 2000 organised as part of the workshop series on Education in Kerala’s        Development Towards a New Agenda by the Institute of Social Sciences, Delhi and the Centre for Socio-Economic &  Environmental Studies, Kochi, 2000.

Panikkar, R.G.K. and Soman C.R. Health Status of Kerala: The Paradox of Economic Backwardness and Health  Development. Thiruvanathapuram: Centre for Development Studies, 1984.

Sachs, Ignacy. Understanding Developement: People, Market and State in Mixed Economies. London: Oxford University  Press, 2000.

Sen, Amarindam. “Nobel for Amartya Sen: Contextualising Welfare Economics”,Liberation, Central Organ of CPI (ML)  December, 1998.

Sen, Amartya and Jean Dreze. Hunger and Political Action. London Oxford University Press, 1989.

---. Economic Developement and Social Opportunity.London Oxford University Press, 1989.

Sen, Amartya. Development as Freedom.London: Knoff, 1993.

Is Professor of Economics at the University of Kerala and Member, University Grants Commission. Is an eminent economist and has a number of published works to his credit.


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