From Davos to New Delhi, prime minister Narendra Modi and his government are trying hard to sell the story of India’s revival. But Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen has scarcely been more pessimistic about the state of the nation.
At an evening session of the Kolkata Literary Meet on Jan. 23, the 82-year-old Harvard University professor was asked if and when he had felt the most optimistic in the decades of observing India’s policies on education, the agency of women, and healthcare.
“I don’t think I’ve felt optimistic at any time,” Sen replied chortling, as the audience of a few hundreds chuckled briefly.
His early years during India’s colonial occupation, he explained, were no reason for optimism, although there was much hope that Independence would turn the situation around. “Then came Nehru’s speech at midnight, and we were going to do great things in education and healthcare,” Sen said. “That remained the rhetoric, and is still today the rhetoric.”
“You said that schools have expanded…” Sen said, turning to Harvard University historian and Trinamool Congress member of parliament, Sugata Bose, who was in conversation with the economist on stage. “They have expanded but still there are many schools with one teacher, which is very difficult…”
Bose helpfully recalled the “savage cuts” in primary education under the Modi government. Indeed, in the first full budget presented by finance minister Arun Jaitley last year, the government cut back on the country’s education budget by 16%, with a 10% reduction in planned outlay to the school sector. Alongside, the government’s spending on health dropped by 15%.
“What I didn’t recognise,” Sen continued, “I feared it might be worse (but) I didn’t recognise, what Sugata (Bose) referred to just now, how big and savage the cuts in an already very low budget would have been.”
“China spends 3% of its income on healthcare,” he explained. “We spend less than 1% and most of it goes in a peculiar way like RSBY (Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana), which is totally counterproductive. You subsidise private hospitals with it when you have expensive treatment but you don’t do the basic public services in healthcare…”
“So I never was very optimistic, but am I more pessimistic right now? Ya.”
Another round of muffled laughter followed.
This isn’t the first time that Sen has expressed concern on India’s renewed attempts to push for higher economic growth without first improving its education and healthcare systems. In an interview last November at the London School of Economics, Sen had explained:
India is the only country in the world which is trying to become a global economic power with an uneducated and unhealthy labour force. It’s never been done before, and never will be done in the future either…
…India is trying to be different from America, Europe, Japan, Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, China—all of them. This is not a good way of thinking of economics. So foundationally, the government’s understanding of development underlying their approach is mistaken. Having said that, the previous government was terribly mistaken, too. But one hoped there might be a change, and there has been, but not for the better. All the sins of the past government have been added up.