Team Anna's reading of corruption is wrong: Amartya Sen


Sagarika Ghose,CNN-IBN
Aug 01, 2012 at 11:48am IST

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Nobel laureate Amartya Sen believes that Team Anna's reading of corruption or what causes corruption or how it can removed is wrong, and that they need to look at how the economic system operates.

In an exclusive interview with CNN-IBN Deputy Editor Sagarika Ghose, Nobel laureate Amartya Sen said that instead of fasting and protesting, one should try and change the systems that provided incentives for corruption.

Below is the transcript of the interview:

Sagarika Ghose: Hello and welcome to a CNN-IBN special. We are with someone who is an acclaimed public intellectual both in India and abroad. He's a Nobel Laureate, he's University Professor at Harvard University at the moment and he's newly appointed Chancellor of the Nalanda University. Amartya Sen, thanks so much indeed for joining us.

Amartya Sen Thank you for asking me.

Sagarika Ghose We're doing this interview in rather troubled times. The credibility of the political class is at its lowest. The economy of India is not living upto expectations. Many say both in India and abroad that the India story is over. Let me begin by asking a slightly political question. You've known Manmohan Singh for many years. Do you believe he could have done much more in his second tenure as Prime Minister than he has? If you had to advice him today on what to do, on how to rescue his image perhaps... what would you say?

Amartya Sen Well you know, how much a Prime Minister can do in a democratic system is of course determined by the forces with which he has to reckon. About Manmohan Singh, what advice I would give... to restore his image, I don't think, having known Manmohan Singh for a very long time, he would be worried about restoring his image. I mean, he's a very fine economist, of course you would like that reputation to remain which has remained. If there's any question it is if he's a great political figure or not.

And I think he has certainly been, if you think about what he has achieved, is enormous amounts, doing many things, if you think about it. Not only the fastest period of...longest period of Indian growth has been under his prime ministership.

I think what we have to look at is not so much his image because I think that's not what he will be mainly concerned with but whether he is doing well for the country and for that yes, there are things to do. You have to mobilise the political system .Because you know, democracy is meant to be government by discussion. Instead we have government by pressure groups.. And the pressure groups are very strong. When Manmohan tries to do something on employment or making food cheaper for very poor, people immediately jump at the idea and say you are fiscally irresponsible.

Sagarika Ghose But he's been called an "underachiever" by TIME magazine.

Amartya Sen But you know, I think I have always been saying this is the Indian colonialism. If one American magazine calls him "underachiever" then all of India is calling him "underachiever". I think we should not attach that much importance to it. I think the question is, I think TIME magazine might not have had a reason to understand what are the constraints under which the Prime Minister would operate. But is no reason why you and I shouldn't be able to understand that. Because it is Indian politics. Can he do something? Yes, he can. And can he do something within the Indian democratic polity? Very much so. That requires a leadership, a lot of statements - which are not day-to-day problems on the whole, which tend to engage him very much - but also the kind of visionary statement of what kind of India do we want? So it's a question of emphasising the partnership that business and politics in India can have, which is we agree on certain basic goals and those basic goals require them not being the largest number of under nourished kids in the country. And Manmohan has to consider doing more: a greater attention and more vocality on the vision that is India.

Sagarika Ghose Five minutes away from where we are at this moment, there is an indefinite fast going on at the Anna Hazare movement. Anna is on fast at Jantar Mantar demanding an SIT on ministers, a Jan Lokpal Bill. What do you make of this anti-corruption movement? Do you see it as a pressure group or a force of change?

Amartya Sen But I believe that their reading of corruption or what causes corruption or how it can removed is wrong there. We have to look at how the economic system operates.

I have a lot of sympathy for him. I am not lacking sympathy for getting absolutely maddeningly angry about the extent of corruption. I think what we have to look at is understanding the system. It gives incentive to corruption. That needs changing but that's not a question of changing a minister or doing a dharna or someone being tied up at a tree for having abused some or gone against some rule. It is a question of changing the system appropriately, looking at the incentive. Could it be someone says ‘I want corruption?" ‘Objective is right!" That's the most innocent statement you can make. There isn't a baby who wants corruption. The question is how to eliminate it. And for that you need to understand causation. So it's not an issue about whether you want corruption. Are you in favour of corruption raise your hand. That is not what the debate is about. It is what causes corruption. What are the systematic errors. What required changing and why do we have so much incentive given for corruption.

Sagarika Ghose About the kind of growth that is being pursued and what needs to be done to actually re-orient perhaps the national priorities towards health and education, as you said. You have said that chasing fast growth rate is "stupid" Stupid in quotes..

Amartya Sen I didn't say that. That was a misquote like so many others. I said chasing too fast growth ALONE is stupid. It's like saying, eating vitamin ALONE is a mistake. But you said eating vitamin is a mistake! I think chasing fast growth alone is a mistake. Growth is for some purpose. We don't, as we say in Bengali, you can't wash it and eat it. I mean, growth is something which is important because it actually does something for us. And if, what we have to do is fast growth, but use the fruits of growth to see that it's not only reaches people but also use the public resources generated by fast growth for remedying the huge problem of educational under- development, under development of elementary health care and bad physical infrastructure for all those we have to deal with. That is what we have to look at. That doesn't make me anti-growth because growth helps, certainly. But a kind of single-minded worship of growth is no way of getting to the things which we really care about namely what is good for the Indian people.

Sagarika Ghose What about the argument that extravant welfarism is ruining India?

Amartya Sen Like feeding kids is fiscally irresponsible! Giving subsidy to diesel fiscally irresponsible even though subsidy to diesel absorbs much more money than feeding kids. That argument that welfare is killing India is one of the extraordinary things. It's one of the wonders of Indian media that Indian media has already decided Indian growth has already slowed down because of food subsidies, because it hasn't even begun! But the fact that people could think that it would be a terrible thing to do and not worry about those things is because the middle classes which control the media: "It doesn't matter, those things could continue! My God, if you could kill welfarism we can have huge rate of growth!"

Sagarika Ghose It's a middle class pathology to be worried about welfarism?

Amartya Sen I don't like using an expression of that kind. But it is certainly middle class bias.

Sagarika Ghose It is middle class bias to...

Amartya Sen Because their kids are not unfed. People sometimes ask, why is it that people cry about inflation, why is it so big a political issue? That is partly because those who are vocal are seeing their income rise along with price rise, they're doing fine. But they don't need to worry. There are housewives whose income hasn't changed, whose allocation of budget for bazaar haven't changed. But the prices of food have gone up. They have to cry but they haven't got the voice.

Sagarika Ghose So you don't share the doom and gloom of the Indian economy?

Amartya Sen But I think if they put it in perspective: India is still the second fastest growing economy in the world... largest economy in the world. Its gap with China is much the same. China has taken the big dip too as India. After the dip, India is still about 6- 6.5 per cent if they're just one quarter, that is 5.3 but overall for the 6.5.. There have been previous quarters where they have been even lower than this number. But some countries like Brazil have gone from 7 or 8 per cent to 0.8 per cent.

Sagarika Ghose Lets come to the other question, economic reforms. The President of the United States himself said he's disappointed at the way India has done economic reforms. There hasn't been foreign investment in Retail, Pension and Insurance, these measure are stalled. Do you believe that reforms are important or that can they wait or there is too much emphasis on them?

Amartya Sen I'm in favour of reforms, I want much more reforms of this kind. But I don't have a particular pre-assigned belief that FDI in every field is that right thing. Nor do I have a belief that's it's a wrong thing. We have to see the result. It will bring investment, that is good. It will cut out jobs for many. Small jobs will be cut out by the large corporations. That is a bad thing. So you have to balance these.

If you convert all these into a slogan (and I'm glad you raised the issue of slogans) then you miss out the thing. In each case, we have to judge. FDI cannot be intrinsically good or bad, we have to see what does it actually do. For that, we need an analysis in each case. Now Obama himself doesn't mean anything. It doesn’t mean he had a right to particularly speak about India in general, and he spoke of an issue in which American business is particularly interested and in an election year it is inducive to give that statement. India is full of good economists. I think what we have to look at is the colours of it, we can exchange views inside the government, outside the government also and see what are the types of solutions. What I am in favour of: much faster reforms. I don't think the growth rate cannot wait. I think, they have a very strong argument for doing it because growth generates not only income for people but public revenue.

Sagarika Ghose Another question, the monsoon has been bad this year and there is a monsoon deficit this year. There is a possibility of a drought. Do you think India is more drought proof now than the 60s? Is drought no longer a serious calamity?

Amartya Sen A drought could be serious but it's nothing like what it used to be. Because the share of food income, production and related income is much smaller in India today than before high growth rate happened. It's also because we have food stocks. General level of consumption allows you to have a reasonable amount of freedom in having a food policy. All these are true but that doesn't mean, we take it for granted. But the fact is, the monsoon season hasn't yet ended.

Sagarika Ghose Let's come to Nalanda. You've just been appointed chancellor of Nalanda University. Tell us about Nalanda and what you're going to be doing there?

Amartya Sen This is an attempt to get co-operation from many quarters and at the East Asia summit which is the ASEAN countries, plus China, Japan, India, Australia, New Zealand have been involved in this project. And we haven’t gotten that much funding yet. But India is helping us. The Bihar government is giving us land. Other countries have given us relatively small but significant amounts. But we are very keen on excellence and given that quality cannot be diluted in the way it has happened in a number of Indian institutes.

Sagarika Ghose I want to ask you exactly that question. Do you think in India, standards of higher education are being very badly diluted?

Amartya SenI think it's a complicated question. Any kind of higher education requires a kind of elitist guardian-ing.

Sagarika Ghose Elitism is a bad word now increasingly.

Amartya SenIf you let me complete that sentence, I will tell you, elitism as such as a quality is a good thing. No matter whether it's a bad word or not. I was Master at Trinity College, Cambridge and without the kind of standard that Newton or Bacon, people doing earliest research in medicine, all those require a standard and elitist guardianship. Basic education system should be very good and solid. So that people from all classes can come and have the opportunity of elitism. But when your school system is very limited, half the people don't even get proper primary education. Four fifths people drop out from good secondary education. Then the opportunity of that elitism which is less nasty becomes much more nasty because it's upper class privileges. So when upper classes mouth slogans for elitism, then you have to see that, yes we do want elitism, provided it's open and that requires a basic education structure to be enormously improved.

Sagarika Ghose Elitism not birth-based privilege?

Amartya Sen You know, elitism in one sense. Second point is, elitism is used in many ways. When a completely rough lot of military takes over government then soon they are called this is an elitist-run country. They are not elite in any sense that I can think of. But the fact is that they are in power. If elitist is equal to being powerful then certainly that must be resisted. But if it has to be shared, I think that given the fact that the term elitism is so polluted, it's probably best not to use it. But there should be no compromise: excellence is important. That is important at a different level. Nalanda is concerned only with higher education. Though we have to continue to agitate. About basic education. The fact is, we need much greater consciousness of the quality of primary education. Any kind of comparison brings Indian primary education as one of the lowest achievers. We have to change that. Now, all these requires a focus on excellence which is missing. And which we have to undo.

Sagarika Ghose You are going to be advising the mentor group on Presidency College in Bengal. What do you make of the one year that the Trinamool Congress has governed Bengal?

Amartya SenI think I won't comment on that. One could make a lot of criticism but to be fair to any government, you have to give it a bit more time than 1 year. To see where it is going. And there were a lot of problems in Presidency College earlier, what we have to judge is to what extent we have been able to remove them? I think they are very well positioned to do things. We have to see how much they have succeeded. There are many different questions. There is also a question of time. But it certainly is too early to begin assessing. I would have said the same for CPM or congress. There are a lot of complaints but there were a lot of complaints even before.

Sagarika Ghose We have a Bengali president, Pranab Mukherjee. Do you feel like a proud Bengali?

Amartya Sen He's a very qualified, a cool thinker, politically skilled, but a skill of the kind which is not low cunning. But a broad liberal vision of what a country should look like. So I think he has many things going for him. And if I am happy which I am, it's for these reasons, not for a shared mother tongue!

Sagarika Ghose You know your name was proposed at one point. Would you like to be president of India one day?

Amartya Sen I would like it as much as a hole in the head!

Sagarika Ghose Amartya sen, thank you very much for joining us. It was a pleasure.

Amartya Sen Thank you.

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