Book Review: Jean Dreze & Amartya Sen’s “An uncertain glory”

The ‘debate’

In the recent past two renowned economists who are generally all but unknown to the ‘aam aadmi’ rose to prominence in the main stream media. One of them was Dr Amartya Sen and the other was Dr. Jagdish Bhagwati. The issue was economic policy and its focus. Sen is widely seen as advocating a left of centre, welfare oriented state that provides basic social services like education, health etc. Whereas Bhagwati is seen as a right winger advocating “growth first” policy. Given the political divide in India, that too in the context of the 2014 Parliament elections, they were seen as favoring either Modi (Bhagwati) or Rahul Gandhi (Sen). Sen openly stated he doesn’t want to see Narendra Modi as ‘his’ PM. On the other hand Bhagwati has been described as ‘unabashedly pro Modi’

I did not follow that debate closely but recently came across a book written by Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen titled “An Uncertain Glory: India and its Contradictions“. This article is about this book.

Interestingly one of the authors is a foreigner who lives in India and has been living here for decades and the other is an Indian who spent bulk of his career abroad.

The Book and its case

The essential takeaway from the book is that the authors are not ideologically dogmatic or incorrigibly biased and it is stupid to see them as communist economists and hence dismiss their entire argument.

Personally I find a lot of the goals and objectives espoused by Sen and Dreze quite sensible and essential. After all, can you argue with the logic of “expansion of human freedom and capability” as the key goal of a nation’s government? And economic growth as a means to achieve that goal?

One can also hardly find fault with the strong arguments in favor of universal access to basic healthcare, primary education and facilities like water, sewage treatment and toilets. Although the authors cite copious statistics and references to show how backward India is on these (and other) primary amenities, they are somewhat unnecessary to anyone that has even visited India briefly.  One has to barely get on a taxi and move out of the airport to see slums, people urinating (or worse) on the airport compound wall or darkness in the streets and markets because of ‘load shedding’.

Thanks to the statistics and facts highlighted by the authors we also learn that India was relatively prosperous before the British landed and economic growth during the colonial era was close to zero. For example, GDP growth from 1901-1947 was barely 0.9% per year! It will be music to the ears of nationalistic Indians to hear that Adam Smith had, in his 1776 book ‘Wealth of Nations’, described India as prosperous.  Nalanda University which had students from all over Asia, was 600 years older than Europe’s oldest, Bologna. Of course, in the same breath the authors could not help taking a sarcastic swipe at Indians going back to their mythical past to look for golden era. That plus repeated condescending references to people dreaming of India as ‘economic superpower’ make clear the ideological as well as political leanings of the authors.

BJP and its friends who are not great fans of Jawaharlal Nehru will also find it interesting to read that there was no decline in rural poverty after 3 decades of planned growth (1951-81). They also blame him for neglecting universal primary education. They are also open minded enough to acknowledge and appreciate the sensible advise given to Nehru by American economist Milton Friedman (a free market advocate) to invest in human capital, advise which fell on deaf ears. This is where India’s early years of state planning was different from the approach taken by communist states, although people often describe India of 50s and 60s as following the Soviet model.  .

The authors are also not great fans of Indira Gandhi and her years of socialism. They quote Dr. Bimal Jalan – “politics was driving Indira Gandhi’s economics”. They are happy to acknowledge the constructive role that markets can play even as they advocate a strong constructive role by the state something India has failed to do. They also question many subsidies such as fertilizer and electricity where they are poorly targeted or simply wasteful. This again should please readers who are sympathetic to the ‘other’ camp.

In fact folks that see them as commie economists will be shocked to read the authors negative remarks about high teachers salaries that have come in the way of universal primary education. They even argue high salaries turn teaching into a plum position that attracts people who see it as a job, not interested in teaching! The authors lament about wage increases given by successive Pay commissions, which as they rightly point out, are by babus that benefit from their own recommendations, and are also not bothered about financial implications and funding requirements of their recommendations.

Given their well known political leanings, they also defend programs like MNREGA which have attracted a lot of negative publicity recently for being bottomless pits. They also defend amounts spent on food security comparing that with revenue forgone on “gold and diamonds”, repeatedly citing that example to buttress their arguments. The often heard conflict between development and environment is also argued as unnecessary if one were to take a wider view of the meaning of development. The blue eyed boy of all left wing and liberal economists, renewable energy also finds support. In all of these, we find the authors’ sentiments and objectives are hard to fault though one may question some of their examples and conclusions.

Although some right wing commentators and media may see Dr. Sen as a typical left wing liberal biased against Modi & Co, this book itself has remarkably stayed clear of any overt political propaganda. Copious praise is reserved for states like Tamil Nadu, (primary healthcare, mid day meals etc) which was never ruled by Congress or communists for decades. Even BJP ruled states come in for praise when they do things the authors see as positive. Raman Singh’s Chhattisgarh is one. If the communist ruled states like Kerala are praise at all, it is for specific achievements backed up by facts.

This brings us to the next point..

If I were Prime Minister Narendra Modi

If one were to completely ignore the acrimonious debates and entrenched right versus left arguments and look at India’s problems, prospects and potential with an open mind, there are numerous bullet points that one can take away from this excellent book. We would argue this is precisely what PM Modi or anyone in a public position of influence should do.

  1. Investment in primary education and healthcare can have enormous positive implications for long term growth. This is by no means waste of money or populist splurging of tax money.
  2. India has made impressive progress but lacks basic stuff that even other poor countries take for granted – water, electricity, sewage, clean cities etc. Government has to take a lead role in these. This is a huge failing that needs urgent correction.
  3. Environment protection can go hand in hand with development and should not be seen as zero sum game. We are lucky that solar, wind and other renewable sources that are getting cheaper by the day, provide excellent alternatives that can be pursued today.

In many ways, the new NDA government is on the right track although admirers of Dr. Sen invariably would question this.





Author: Agent Yellow

A highly trained propaganda agent! Yellow is my favorite color!