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The World of Sen

The world’s eminent social scientists pay homage to Nobel laureate Amartya Sen on his 75th birthday in this important collection.

Srivatsa Krishna | Print Edition: March 22, 2009

Pages: 1,312 (combined), Price: Rs 3,500 (for the set)
Volumes I & II, Publisher: OUP
Recently, during a conversation, one of India’s intellectuals giants who is also a distinguished member of the present Cabinet, very correctly and kindly corrected my wrong usage of the term “I’m good”, when he asked me how I was doing. He paraphrased Amartya Sen by saying something like this: “I am, aware that modern usage has drowned the distinction between ‘being good’ as a moral quality and ‘being well’ as a comment on a person’s health and I have long ceased worrying about the apparent immodesty of those of my American friends who, when asked about how they are, reply with manifest self-praise, ‘I am very good’.”

From things as small yet meaningful as the above to deepening our knowledge sweeping the domains of economics, politics, philosophy, ethics and logic, Amartya Sen stands far apart from the subcontinental academic pack, as a visionary of our times. These two volumes are a tribute by his students and peers on his 75th birthday. Kaushik Basu, who to my mind is India’s big hope for the Nobel once he puts on some grey hair, and Ravi Kanbur of Cornell, pack together an excellent collection of essays, spread over 1,300 pages, each of which contributes to furthering our understanding of the subject matter at hand and does so most importantly by connecting the past to the present and the future.

The first volume deals with matters of ethics and moral philosophy, which form the roots of modern day social choice and welfare theory. Essays in this volume go into exploring Amartya’s famous capabilities approach to social evaluation, matters of evaluative measurement and social choice theorem. John Broome tries to add to Amartya’s favourite subject regarding the importance of ethics in economics, something which is hotly contested both for and against, by equally persuasive arguments in mainstream economics today. Broome argues that a large part of economics is a branch of ethics alluding to the practical parts of economics, which seeks ways to improve the economic performance of systems and policies. He argues persuasively that since this branch of economics deals with how things ought to be done and involves mediating in conflicts between people, normative claims become ethical as well. So, for example, should interest rates go up or down (which will lead to a conflict of interest between lenders and borrowers) is an issue where economics and ethics unite, according to Broome.

This book fields essays by a host of academic luminaries, including Joseph E. Stiglitz, Sunil Khilnani, Ashutosh Varshney and Francois Bourguignon.

The second volume deals with institutions, society and development. Sunil Khilnani argues that democracy ensures that politics replaces the sovereignty of reasoning and the test of its endurance lies in its ability to deal with the claims of the irrational and the self-interested. Montek Ahluwalia lucidly presents the key conundrum facing policymakers in India: India’s rapid growth has come at the expense of distribution, yet without high growth, distribution objectives cannot be met.

In other notable essays, Ashutosh Varshney builds brilliantly on Sen’s theory of entitlements by examining the link between poverty and famines, while Rehman Sobhan’s paper focusses on the various interventions currently on to democratise development in South Asia and the challenges faced therein. These books reveal the work of some of the best minds in social sciences today. They are must-buys for every serious student of economics as well as policy makers.

— The author is an IAS officer. Views are personal

 
Bookmarks

India’s Unfree Workforce
Edited by Breman, Guérin and Prakash
Oxford University Press
Pages: 399
Price: Rs 895
Targeted at policymakers, NGOs and students of social sciences, this volume presents the plight of bonded labourers who are an inextricable part of India’s growth story. The book also sheds light on the historical, political and legal aspects of labour bondage in India.

The Battle Against Hunger
by Devi Sridhar
Oxford University Press
Pages: 229
Price: Rs 695
Why have strategies to combat hunger in India failed so badly, where half the country’s preschool population is undernourished? Using a case study of a World Bank nutrition project, this book looks at the structures that perpetuate undernutrition.

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