Insights on India from Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen

Witty Bindra with Amartya Sen

Witty Bindra with Amartya Sen

By Dan Mayur

HOUSTON: The first day’s highlight was undoubtedly the brilliant speech by Amartya Sen–Rebuilding India for a More Assured Future.

Prof. Amartya Sen is a Thomas W. Lamont University Professor, and Professor of Economics and Philosophy at Harvard University which he joined in 2004 after years of teaching and research at Cambridge, Jadavpur University in Calcutta, the Delhi School of Economics and the London School of Economics and Oxford University. Among the innumerable awards he has received are the “Bharat Ratna” and the 1998 Nobel Prize in Economics.

In a spell-binding speech of almost 45 minutes, this sprightly eighty year old intellectual giant wowed the audience with his erudition, incredible recall of facts and figures and incisive analysis of the current situation in India and his prescription for what needs to be done going forward for a more assured future. He is supportive of free enterprise, recognizes the benefits of globalization but firmly believes that the government has a major role to play in the building and progress of a nation. He compared India with its neighbors Pakistan, Bangladesh and China particularly in the areas of healthcare and education and emphasized the absolute importance of these in a country’s development.

Despite India’s avowed commitment to socialism, Sen feels that compared to its neighboring governments, the Indian government is doing the least in these two key areas for its people. India has the most number of malnourished children in the world despite ample food production. Fifty percent of the population does not have toilets or any sanitation facilities to speak of. Infant mortality is the highest in India. Bangladesh has attained an almost 100 percent immunization rate, much higher than India.

India spends just 1.5 percent of its GDP on health care, compared to 3 percent for China and 17 percent for the US. What is so striking is that the government portion of that meager healthcare spending in socialist India is only 29 percent compared to about 70 percent for the European countries and around 50 percent for the US. While the number of schools and colleges seem to be increasing in India, the quality of education remains a serious issue in great contrast to Asian countries like China, Singapore, Hong Kong, S. Korea and  Japan which are all well ahead of  even Europe and America in recent global rankings of education quality.

Among the Indian states, Professor Sen feels that Gujarat is hyped up. While it has developed its roads and infrastructures well, its Human Development Index that includes education and health care is not particularly impressive. In this regards he likes the Kerala model for its approach to healthcare and education. He also thinks Himachal Pradesh and Tamil Nadu have done well. Overall, the Indian governments can and needs to do a lot more for uplifting the quality of life for the masses was his message, loud and clear.

Dan Mayur is an engineer, financial planner and author of four books. He is a graduate of the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, and has a PhD in chemical engineering from the William Marsh Rice University in Houston.