I have never been against liberalization. Ask Manmohan: Amartya Sen Amartya Sen is angry, and clearly getting impatient . Having urged Indian policymakers over decades to do more to combat poverty, hunger and illiteracy , the economist is now taking direct aim at what he feels is our continuing apathy as a nation towards the underprivileged. But in his own way â€” less the firebrand rhetorician and more the gentle but firm academic don that he is. Sen, who is in the country to launch his new book 'An Uncertain Glory: India And Its Contradictions' (co-authored with Jean Dreze ), sat down for a chat with Sunday Times to discuss India's growth story and the spate of controversies that he's been embroiled in. Full interview: Are we obsessed with growth? To the point of having turned it into a fetish? We now tend to regard it as the only true measure of national self-worth? It's important to point out despite all our successes, some of which are not celebrated, there still remain big issues to address. The fact is that India is in a dreadful state in many ways. Inequality is the primary aspect of it. So I think there are two things about growth. First, to the extent that growth is interesting and important the problem isn't that we're making it only a fetish. The way the Indian dialogue has developed, there seems to be a basic lack of involvement about how growth happens and the fact that there has never been a fast sustained rate of economic growth in any country in the world which has not done a lot more than India has in having an educated and healthy labour force. This seems to have missed India by. The way the debate has come, it's now just, "we now have growth so we have to make it inclusive". Now these aren't two distinct things. If growth happens it depends on how it is happening. If it happens because you have an educated and healthy labour force then a lot of people are better placed to earn more income. So I think this demand for inclusive growth is in some ways actually an admission of defeat -- not thinking adequately and clearly about what growth is about and how that happens. There is, on top of that, the point that even if you did succeed in having huge economic growth that would not be enough because you have to see what you do with the fruits of economic growth. You could even not end up using those fruits and not do for example what has been done by Brazilians, Mexicans, Thais and of course, much more famously, by Singapore, Taiwan, Korea and China - which is for the state to begin with education and healthcare right away without waiting for you to become rich, and then on top of that, strengthen these investments further by later ploughing in the resources that rapid growth generates. Now this is not so new an idea. Adam Smith actually discusses it back in 1776 in The Wealth of Nations. Actually, he first brings up some of these ideas in 1759, in his Theory of Moral Sentiments - essentially the importance of growth to human capability; to make a real difference to not only the life you lead but to your ability to be a part of productive society. You also suggest there's an 'Asian way' (and an old one at that too) we appear to be overlooking. Yes, I think it's quite remarkable that the clearest articulation of this Smithian position in the practical policy context comes in Japan; the importance of education particularly, which was pushed by Takayoshi, one of the leaders of the Meiji Restoration (in the 1860s), who appears to have been unaware of Smith, though, because he doesn't cite him. What they were basically saying is that we (Japanese) are no different from Europeans or Americans but the reason we achieve less is because we are comparatively less educated. So that in my view began an enormous Asian adaptation of this viewpoint in the late nineteenth century. Besides, Europeans in fact were doing that very well across the continent, adding to their strengths as global powers. Oddly, I must point out that (Otto von) Bismarck, of all people, comes back to that question - that states have these vital responsibilities to undertake - even though he was hardly a leftist you know. Then in the last century we saw all those Asian countries, including China, pursue growth by first addressing and taking up these responsibilities with regard to human capability. So, historically speaking there is a kind of world ancestry for this view. Sadly, the country that's comprehensively missed this is us, especially in universal education. And there it's not just so much a Left-Right debate, as it often becomes here about education. Part of this goes right back to the greatest Indian of the contemporary age, Mahatma Gandhi, who was quite sceptical of formal education and prescribed that a number of other things be taught instead. Like handicrafts, spinning and the like - things that make up what Gandhiji called 'a practical religion of self-help'. Yes, in fact there's the point that Tagore made when he was having a debate with Gandhiji on the value of the charkha. He told the Mahatma, "You say this is spiritually uplifting but it (the charkha) consists of endless repetition at the wheel of an antiquated machine with the demanding of a minimum of imagination and a maximum of boredom." I think such perspective really coloured our first plans after Independence with regard to elementary education, and we never really got over that in succeeding decades. I have been writing about this for a long time now, since the late 1950s in fact. And I must tell you, after I got the Nobel Prize many of these essays were republished, and at a party for me in Kolkata, Jyoti Basu, then West Bengal chief minister, told me that my ideas hadn't evolved, that I was still saying almost exactly the same thing as I was saying in the 50s. So I said, "Look, the only thing I plead in my defence is that the problems haven't changed. If you had solved them I'd have stopped saying these things too!" On your evolving views, or the lack thereof, some serious charges have been flung at you in the recent past. Your old friend JagdishBhagwati has been leading the charge. I've known Jagdish for many years, and even in this latest article in which he attacks me this week he begins by saying, 'my good friend...' So I do give him the benefit of the doubt and I would like to have him as a friend, so I'm not going to make any comments about Jagdish. But, however, in that context, to say that I've been in fact against globalization and liberalization, or supported the License Raj, is just not true. Manmohan (Singh) can bring that out because I had several discussions with him over that in the early 1990s. Bear in mind that back then quite a few people were not keen on that change and Manmohan was a visionary leader. And when he raised that question of reforms I argued that I do support it but you must look to do two things, since we've missed the boat again and again on education and healthcare. And if we do so once again we'd be in some difficulty. My point was that yes, restrict the counterproductive activities of the state but also look to replace it by constructive activities in education and healthcare, like we saw in other Asian countries. In the event, he couldn't do it. And why do you think that turned out to be the case? Three reasons probably. One, he probably thought he couldn't carry it through politically. Or he intended to carry through with it in a second stage, to do it sequentially, later. And three is that it's possible that he didn't get clearance from Narasimha Rao. I don't know. I was always assailed at lectures over whether I was in favour of liberalisation or not. Yes, initially, I took the stand that it was a mistake, and I'm not going to go into that now, but when it became clearer that these issues were being discussed I vouched for liberalization but wanted the governments to do more there. Indeed, when Manmohan became PM in 2004, he said in his first two speeches that in addition to reforms we're going to expand schooling and invest in healthcare. There's been some movement on education. In fact some of the hullabaloo about poverty numbers coming down is reflected in educational indicators improving too. But we must also take into account the political realities of the last few years. I mean Manmohan is not a politician, and he's surrounded by coalition partners in government and I've often wondered, since he's such an old and close friend, how I would have behaved if I was surrounded by people whose support is essential to my survival in office. So, on one side everyone's criticizing you for not doing enough and you've become an object of vilification. And on the other you try to carry on. And I must say, now that I've become such a big object of vilification (with my comments about Narendra Modi) in just one week, for Manmohan to have gone eight years with so much more must have been rather trying indeed. You're also referring to public discourse here, aren't you? Your latest book (with Jean Dreze) criticizes most public discussion for adressing issues to do with the real 'aamadmi' in a most cursory fashion. Yes, when we you look at the Indian media today it is a worry. For example, there's a huge amount to learn for other states from the great examples of Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Himachal Pradesh but the media doesn't cover their remarkable successes in the social sector, many recent. And why is the energy of the media so invested in presenting one side only? Or focusing on just one aspect of an issue. I'm concerned about just how much so many people, especially in the media, are willing to overlook when seized by a political agenda. This is not a capability limitation. Our media has people of the highest calibre. But I think journalists should be more short of time than they are. They need to be reading up on, researching and investigating their areas and stories much more than they perhaps do now. Because nothing is easy when looking at complex issues. So that requires me to protest when there is nothing being done about, say, other vital issues like cutting regressive subsidies. I've been portrayed as pro-subsidies but much of this book, and a fair bit of my other work, is about cutting subsidies. I'm also often accused of all kinds of things. Like the Right to Food Bill, which has been linked to you... Yes, that is a paternity suit I'm contesting, that I'm not the father of that Bill - as I've said before. It's not the best way to go about things and we could do better, but it represents some movement on a vital issue. Jean and I have written about the bill and its implementation. Yet regressive subsides are a hard habit to break for the Indian state? There are those who say that if you cut down NREGA and food security you could spend more on say, health, but you also cut down on what Jean Dreze persuades me is great value coming out of it. Then why don't we also ask the question about cutting down the subsidization implicit in electricity, which absorbs 2% of GDP. Why don't you talk about cutting down fertilizer, diesel and cooking gas subsidies too? And putting duties on the import of gold? Now these are alternatives. If the media questions them we'd get more relevant debate, relevant to most Indians. We have to ask more probing questions there. I've been a great supporter of the Indian press. It's very active, very lively, but appears to be more dominated by issues that only concern the privileged classes. See, I don't begrudge the privileged class their comforts. I'm part of it myself. But we do need to look beyond and act. You're clearly arguing for a certain amount of impatience. This new book even ends with a chapter on the need for it. I think the need for impatience is an important one now, to address the contradictions in India today. There's a need for impatience for the government, the opposition, for the political system, for parliament, for the media and for all of us Indian citizens, especially the underprivileged, to demand more That sounds like a call to arms. Amartya Sen as seditionist perhaps, after a fashion? In the national cause, of course. (Laughs) Ah, the national cause. See, it's very difficult to judge how the book comes through to others. Or sometimes statements. But yes, as an Indian citizen I am worried that we're not doing enough on many things in public discourse, we're not raising the right viewpoints on issues. This also came up in some of the TV interviews I've been doing over the last few days and the issue kept being brought up about why I made that statement about Narendra Modi. Well, I felt that as a member of the majority community in India it is my duty, not merely my right, to speak up about the concerns of the minority. We often forget that as members of the majority. Despite the fact that there are many things that Modi has done as CM which are interesting and important - and I've talked about them even though when held up as a model I don't think it makes for a very good one - there's still that scare, that sense of fear. There's this great statement of John Stuart Mill that the security of minority rights really depends on the majority. And it is my duty as a member of the privileged class and the majority to point that out. I live in America too, but as a part of the minority, and you see how concerned they are there with minority rights and issues. How debates there go on at great length on safeguarding rights. Here, I have to exercise my duty as part of the majority and bring up my concerns. About what Modi represents? Especially in our carefully constructed liberal democratic tradition? Look, I am not apologizing for the statement on Modi. In that context, yes, democracy, like liberty, must be defended. I do believe that eternal vigilance is the price you pay for liberty, just as eternal vigilance is also the price you pay for equity. The cultivation of democracy really depends on that. We must learn from what comes from all kinds of different directions. Argument and reasoning is essential to the liberal tradition. Look at what's coming from different directions. Jean (Dreze) and I have pointed out that an early foreign critic who said back in the '50s that India was neglecting education and healthcare and going too much for physical capital was in fact Milton Friedman. Personally, all my life I've benefited from mixing with people who have had very different views from mine. I'd like to tell you about a great teacher and friend of mine, Peter Bauer, who was very right-wing and in fact later became the principal economic adviser to Margaret Thatcher. You know, I had such marvelous arguments with him over the years. He'd tell me why I was wrong and I'd tell him why he was mistaken; but as a venerable teacher he never dismissed what I had to say. That's important, to listen. And I say this as someone who's seen my fair share of the Stalinist haughtiness of the Left and the Mussolinite ways of the Right. Is there something tragically unique about aspects of inequality in India? Some irony too. If you compare India with other BRIC countries and a few emerging economies the differences are glaring, even as it does present some difficulties. Take China, it may have more inequality if you use the Gini coefficient - only moderately - but you don't have a situation there where lots of children don't have a good school to go to, where people don't have a decent place to go for healthcare, who don't have a toilet in or near their homes, or have rural children who are greatly undernourished. China doesn't have that. We do. Brazil has universal healthcare; Jean and I in fact used it as an example earlier to illustrate how public action combated hunger. It began in the '90s under Cardoso; it's not just a Lula thing. And they are unrecognizably different leaders. Mexico has good universal healthcare, as does Thailand. Russia of course benefited from the huge Communist commitment to education and the fair degree of universal healthcare that still remains. So I think we are unique in that respect, unfortunately. It's very sad. This is India and its contradictions. And caste? It lends a huge additional dimension to such inequality in India. Many economists keep circling the issue rather carefully. Yes it does, and there are two things here. It continues to be a big influence and to look at, say, one of the statements that Desmond Tutu made in South Africa, that we're not going to penalize anyone who practised Apartheid, for what they did, because we're not going to go into historical rectification. On the other hand the effects are still present, so they need to slowly deal with that. As far as caste is concerned there's little question of historical rectification here but those effects are clearly present, unfortunately. Jean and I give a lot of startling statistics in our latest book, most of it his work, which I endorse even though earlier I admit I didn't recognize just how strong caste is even today. The second point is not understanding, since most of us engaged in this discourse come from relatively privileged classes and castes, we don't really recognize how much our comfort depends on the advantages of our caste base. It just doesn't click in our minds what it means for someone to come from a low and disadvantaged caste, where there's usually low income, uncertain employment, discrimination and if you're a woman, even personal insecurity. It's a terrible thing. Caste is a big part, but not the only part. I've spent decades arguing with my left wing colleagues - I've always been left of centre, and yet never been able to join a Left party, partly because I don't like party discipline and because I'm too much of a believer in individual liberty for that - that their thinking on this issue isn't right. I think Left thinking on democracy was to underestimate the term 'bourgeois democracy' - it's in fact a dreadful term. Besides, if you look at the leadership of our Left parties, it's still greatly caste-based. Historically - and I have admiration for many Left leaders - most were from upper castes. That's still the case. But the fact that I don't know the answer doesn't prevent me from raising the question, because I would like to know the answer. There's enough evidence here to indicate that caste makes a difference. Precisely how it works I'd very much like to read. I hope I live long enough to read some good analysis of the situation. I have never been against liberalization. Ask Manmohan: Amartya Sen - The Times of India *********************** So, he has much to say in his defence. Has he been unnerved because he fears his Bharat Ratna will be taken away because Chandan Mitra said so? Or is it because, as an economist and a respected figure of all India, he feels that he has ruined his image as he should not have given any political comments on the next election that has sullies his reputation as an independent thinker beyond the call of political ideology?