Book Review | An Uncertain Glory: India and its Contradictions4 min read . Updated: 25 Jul 2013, 11:13 PM IST
Jean Drze and Amartya Sen on economic growth and redistribution
Perhaps the most hidden penalty of a greater reliance on private schools is that it tends to take away from state schools the children of precisely those parents who are likely to contribute most to the critiques and demands that could make state schools more responsible and accountable…"
And yet, today those who find themselves in a position to argue for the interests of the underprivileged are more often than not products of private education or teach/have taught in private educational institutions. In fact, many of them are products of elite western universities including, unsurprisingly, the authors of the book under review.
Uncertain, unequal glory indeed.
At the heart of Sen and Dreze’s An Uncertain Glory: India and its Contradictions is the argument that economic growth is meaningless without redistribution of its benefits to the underprivileged. Instead, in their eyes, there is a strong case for public expenditure on education, healthcare and employment leading to better capabilities and opportunities. This, they claim, will accelerate economic growth. The writers argue that private intervention, as it is driven by profit, cannot prove effective in areas like education and health because a single-minded focus on profit can be at variance with the interests of the public. Especially the interests of those who do not have the power to even ask for their rights, let alone sway policy. The result: India is performing terribly on most social indicators.
This is at best a partial truth and the story of poverty and deprivation in India has been one of reduction even if its pace leaves much to be desired.
The book also makes recurring references to the media’s under reporting of development issues and the greater focus on “fashion, gastronomy, Bollywood and cricket". And yet, there is a steady stream of articles, editorials, books (like the present one) and magazines focusing singularly on development and the shortcomings of our imperfect society. When the authors can quote “social commentators as diverse as Harsh Mander and Shobhaa De" to point out the deep apathy of the so-called Indian elite, this criticism seems ill-founded.
Coming back to poverty, two recent examples sketch a picture that is at considerable variance with what Sen and Dreze claim. The latest report from the UN on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) shows that between 1990 and 2010, the reduction in worldwide poverty has been the result of economic growth. By the latter year, less than a quarter of the developing world’s population lived in extreme poverty, a remarkable reduction since 1990 when that figure was more than 40%. India has not been immune to these changes. Recently, the Planning Commission released estimates that showed less than a quarter of India’s 1.2 billion population living below the poverty line in 2011-12.
These are not figures that convey joy as even those above the so-called poverty line are not, in many cases, examples of contentment. But that is not what is in dispute. There has been a steady decline in poverty since 1990 which can clearly be attributed to economic liberalization and not the inherent benevolence of those in power. To argue for stronger public intervention is essentially asking to go back to pre-1991 policies, when the state provided essential services in the name of alleviating poverty. This is the great weakness of An Uncertain Glory. Why should India turn back the clock and revert to an economic system that actually swelled the number of poor between 1950 and 1990? The variance between on-the-ground changes in recent years and what the authors claim is too great to be ignored.
So what explains this great divergence? It is instructive to take a step back from the book and look, in general, at a wider species—the volumes penned by economists after they have won the Nobel Prize. Three examples come to mind: Paul Krugman (winner of the 2008 prize), Joseph Stiglitz (2001) and Amartya Sen (1998). Each produced a justly famous collection of books and papers that led the author to the pinnacle of academic glory. The dissonance between their early academic work and later pamphleteering is striking. Perhaps this is too harsh. But how else does one describe the gap between theorems that demonstrated informational asymmetries in markets and Freefall: America, Free Markets and the Sinking of the World Economy (2010) (Stiglitz) and new trade theory and End this Depression now! (2013) (Krugman).
In Sen’s case, an added factor is at work: the sheer longevity and productivity of a career stretching more than five decades. 2016 will mark the 60th anniversary of his first academic appointment. That makes the gulf separating Collective Choice and Social Welfare (1970) and An Uncertain Glory (2013) glaring. Of the three, it is perhaps Sen who is the most accomplished and who has generated the greatest disappointment.
It is an open question in the sociology of economic writing as to why the quality of work of an economist declines after the award of a Nobel Prize. These are great scholars and the disappointments they generate are equally great. It is in this more diffuse light that An Uncertain Glory must be evaluated, apart from its questionable assumptions.
Gayatri Chandrasekaran is a copy editor at Mint.