Published:  02:04 AM, 12 October 2019

Democracy is damaged when people are afraid to speak out: Amartya Sen

Democracy is damaged when people are afraid to speak out: Amartya Sen

Charmy Harikrishnan (CH): The world has changed a lot since your book Collective Choice and Social Welfare came out in 1970. How do you look at the age of Donald Trump?Amartya Sen (AS): In terms of what my book is concerned with, particularly the issue of arriving at social assessments and social policies on the basis of the views, concerns and judgments of the people, perhaps the most worrying aspect of the changes going on right now is the decline in the quality and reach of public reasoning.

Public reasoning can be both about factual matters, about getting the information right, and about judgmental matters, clearing one's mind by comparing the assessments of different people and putting these assessments through critical scrutiny.

Factual information has suffered a lot through the championing of what has come to be called 'alternative facts'. Clarity of discussion has also often gone down. Some of the things on which Trump fought the elections, including the alleged dire state of the US economy and worsening unemployment, were not true.

There were systematic distortions that many people came to believe. Something similar also happened in Britain at the time of the referendum on Brexit. In India, too, a lot of non-truths have been cultivated. That worries me. But I am also worried that people are feeling less free and less confident to express their points of view. That decline has been quite prominent in India.

CH: How do you make sense of demonetisation?AS: It is very difficult to make sense of demonetisation as it doesn't have much sense anyway. You take away 86 per cent of the currency and expect that to yield dividend - it is a very peculiar thought. Initially, the reason given was managing corruption, which seemed a particularly weak argument since only about 6- 7 per cent of black money is held in cash. On top of that, those who deal regularly with the shadowy part of the economy were best placed to convert defunct money to new money.

People who were more affected were those who did not have black money, for instance traders selling vegetables or fish or cereals. When it became clear that demonetisation was not working effectively against corruption, the justifying reason was recharacterised to say that this was done to jump rapidly to a cashless economy.

Cashless economy is not necessarily a grand thing anyway. But even if it were unequivocally good, you can't get there with the suddenness with which the change was being attempted.

A large proportion of towns and villages don't even have any banks. Also, electronic transactions require a certain level of skill, which is particularly difficult in a country with a quarter of the population still illiterate. In terms of reasoning - to stop corruption or to create a cashless economy - it is not easy to justify the steps that were taken. People often talk about the cost of demonetisation in terms of the percentage of GDP lost.

That is one of the concerns. But actually the suffering is much more than that because that decline in GDP comes very often through the decline in the income of the poorer people - the small trader, the housewife with a little savings: they are the ones who are hit most. So the GDP decline underestimates the hardships that were created for the poor.

CH: Is the liberal voice getting stifled?AS: The category 'liberal' is so undefined that I try not to use that expression. But no voice - liberal or conservative - should be shut down by fiat. Stifling expressions of private concern and public interest is very problematic for any kind of political participation, and it is particularly bad for the practice of democracy.

There is a new climate of fear in India - about speaking freely on some subjects. Universities are imposing prohibitory rules on teachers and students so that they can't express themselves on some subjects. If they make their points, or even if they invite someone to present a point of view, they may be in danger of losing their job.

CH: I was coming to the Jai Narain Vyas University of Jodhpur suspending an assistant professor for inviting Nivedita Menon of JNU to a seminar. On the one hand this is happening, and on the other the government says it wants to create world-class universities?AS: There is a confusion there.

World-class universities have emerged in Europe and America through the use of academic autonomy and freedom. Even though governments have typically funded the educational expenses, they have not tried to dictate how the universities and colleges should be run.

Autonomy has been central to the emergence of great educational institutions. To announce that the government is about to set up a certain number of 'world-class universities' reflects an inability to understand how such institutions emerge.

Academic autonomy was violated by India's earlier governments as well. But certainly the interference in the operation of universities has dramatically increased. I can say from my own experience in Nalanda. The government tends to take the view, 'we pay the money therefore we can call the tune'.

My successor in Nalanda, former Singapore foreign minister George Yeo, who was an outstanding chancellor, was working hard to make it a wonde rAcademic autonomy was violated by India's earlier governments as well. But certainly the interference in the operation of universities has dramatically increased.

I can say from my own experience in Nalanda. The government tends to take the view, 'we pay the money therefore we can call the tune'. My successor in Nalanda, former Singapore foreign minister George Yeo, who was an outstanding chancellor, was working hard to make it a wonderfully successful university.

But when he wanted to do something which the government didn't want, there was an immediate clash, and of course the government made sure that it won. Since the Nalanda board was in favour of Yeo's proposal, one morning the entire board was dismissed. Then the chancellor - the great George Yeo - had to go.

Some people are concerned that with the dismissal of the Nalanda board, I was removed from it. But this is not the issue at all. I had already announced to the board that I would not continue on it, because I had done what I could, and there are many other things that I still want to finish.

However, there were great members of the board who were willing to continue and who had great expertise on Nalanda's history and tradition apart from being outstanding academics, like Wang Gungwu, Sugata Bose, Meghnad Desai, Tansen Sen and others.

CH: What was the last straw for you in Nalanda?AS: You mean when I decided to stand down from being chancellor? It was a natural decision when it became clear that if I stayed on as chancellor, Nalanda would have difficulty in getting support from the government - there would be constant hostility.

But one reason for my stepping down without losing sleep was that it was agreed that George Yeo would become chancellor if I left. I had proposed his name and the government had agreed at that time. But they wanted to have somebody else more to their liking - more connected with the Hindutva school. Well, they have got one now.

CH: Welfare economics has got a bad rap in India.AS: Indeed, it never had a good rap from policy makers in India. People taking governmental decisions never took much interest in welfare economics, but things are more extreme now with the government putting far less emphasis on the importance of removing inequality, particularly in education and healthcare.

CH: How do you react to criticism that you are anti-growth?AS: The same way I would react if someone told me that my name is not Amartya Sen. But it is only two or three people who like saying that I am anti-growth. As people who know my work know well, I have written a lot on economic growth and its importance. In fact, my second book was called Growth Economics. However, while economic growth is very helpful, it is not adequate on its own. It is not a success in itself.

Ultimately, for growth to be successful, we have to see how growth is used to improve human life. One can be strongly pro-growth and also pro-public services such as public education and public healthcare. China has combined the two pursuits brilliantly - so have many East Asian countries, from Japan to Singapore - and they do complement each other.

CH: In 2008, at the inaugural Hiren Mukherjee memorial lecture in Parliament, you spoke about what should keep us awake at night. Almost 10 years on, what do you think should keep us awake at night?AS: At that time I was particularly concerned that the poor in India did not get decent primary healthcare and decent primary education. They had no social safety net either.

To that I will now add the fact that public discussion of unorthodox views has been recently hugely discouraged by the cultivation of a climate of fear, including the fear of being beaten up if some political activists think that you are 'anti-national'. This is a severe diminution of the very thing in which India had its limited success, namely democracy. Democracy requires open public discussion, and it is damaged when people are afraid to speak out. Fear to speak is debilitating for many different reasons, but it is particularly harmful for the practice of democracy.

CH: Is the Indian still argumentative?AS: Of course, we are still argumentative, but I wish we could argue with each other without any fear. It is becoming harder to argue freely if you have to look out to check if you are being called an 'anti-national', or if people with sticks are trying to break up your lecture, or if you are being charged with sedition, or if a fake video is being constructed aiming to show that you said things that you didn't say. Even the most argumentative people may have reasons to worry about such intrusion. But my advice is to take it on. Together we are more powerful than our tormentors think.

Courtesy: The Economic Times

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