This essay was originally published in The Caravan.
In 2002, a year after Amartya Sen’s well-known essay on hunger, “Old Torments and New Blunders,” was first published, I travelled through parts of northwest Madhya Pradesh and adjacent areas of Rajasthan, which are home to Sahariya tribals, to report on hunger-related deaths in the community. I learnt for myself the truth of Sen’s observation that a free media serves as a vital check on the government, but that it is much better at highlighting famine than under-nourishment. A handful of starvation deaths were enough to ensure that the state machinery reacted speedily to prevent further casualties. But, over the years, I found that the persistent malnutrition in the Sahariya belt never made for a story that would interest editors and readers in Delhi.
The essays in The Country of First Boys, which include “Old Torments and New Blunders,” are by far the most accessible introduction to the work of Sen the public intellectual, if not Sen the academic. They range across a number of topics—Indian calendar systems, education, media, hunger, justice and development—that have been of concern to this philosopher and economist over his six-decade career. Sen provides a concise description of what holds the pieces together, pointing out in the introduction that they “all share an interest in India seen in a non-sectarian perspective, and reflect a concern with equity and justice, in different areas of human life—social, political, economic, cultural and intellectual.”
The collection’s essay on calendars is representative, drawing attention to the non-sectarian nature of our daily lives while also suggesting a number of ways in which a reader can approach the book. Sen, with tongue firmly in cheek, refers to the volume as one in which he indulges his intellectual eccentricity, and his delving into the offbeat subject of calendars is just one example of him doing so. But beyond the quirkiness, this essay, like several others gathered here, also connects with the larger body of Sen’s work. The same text finds a place in his 2005 book The Argumentative Indian, where it serves, very convincingly, as a counter to the assertion that India should be seen, culturally, as essentially a “Hindu” country. Sen tells us that the traditional calendar defining the dates of Bengali Hindu religious ceremonies is attuned to commemorations of the prophet Mohammed’s journey from Mecca to Medina.
Similarly, “Justice—What Should Keep Us Awake at Night” serves as an excellent introduction to ideas that Sen elaborated in his 2009 book, The Idea of Justice. He writes,
the idea of justice links closely with the enhancement of human lives and improving the actual world in which we live, rather than taking the form, as in the most mainstream theories of justice today, of some transcendental search for ideal institutions.
The distinction between niti, the policies of justice, and nyaya, the actual delivery of justice, is characteristic of Sen’s approach. He draws from theory to consider what actually takes place in the world. He is, if you will, a scholar of the possible, rather than the ideal.
All the essays in this collection were previously published in The Little Magazine, except for two—one, a flight of fancy titled “A Wish a Day for a Week,” is originally a speech delivered at the Jaipur Literature Festival in 2014, while the other, “What Difference Can Tagore Make?,” draws upon Sen’s own interests and influences. In the latter essay, Sen is eloquent about Rabindranath Tagore’s unmatched contribution to the Bengali language, but his real concern is with the neglect of Tagore the thinker, whose organising principles were “open-minded reasoning and the celebration of human freedom.” Here, Sen may as well be talking about himself.
His concern with the possible, combined with these staunchly humanist values, is very much on display throughout the collection. His essay on hunger epitomises this approach; its conclusion still rings true a dozen years after it first appeared.
Not only are there persistent recurrences of severe hunger in particular regions (the fact that they don’t grow into full-fledged famines does not arrest their local brutality), but there is also a gigantic prevalence of endemic hunger across much of India. Indeed, India does much worse in this respect than even sub-Saharan Africa.
This conclusion has continued to bother many proponents of unalloyed growth, who now hold sway over economic policy in the Narendra Modi administration. The economist Jagdish Bhagwati, who has publicly sparred with Sen on this and other subjects, and his long-time associate Arvind Panagariya, now vice-chairman of the Niti Aayog, have argued in their recent book, India’s Tryst With Destiny, that the comparison with sub-Saharan Africa is flawed, and that the stunting of Indian children is not an issue of nutrition but of genetics. But recent research has shown that first-borns in India do not suffer from the same degree of stunting as their younger siblings. Sen’s persistent focus on deprivation, whether of food or education, and his emphasis on freedom as a goal in itself and one that must figure in any assessment of what we mean by development, is especially relevant today.
Sen’s approach, however, is at times overly optimistic, leading him to understate the problems we are facing. This is evident in “The Smallness Thrust upon Us,” his essay on the disparate identities that define each of us. At a time when the worldview of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh has made such inroads into our public life, and led to the hardening of cultural identities, Sen’s arguments against any emphasis on a primary identity, especially one designed around a shared sense of community, are worth repeating.
Concerns of this kind—in this case related to a shared history and a putative sense of community—are among the most powerful ideas that move people in the contemporary world.
However, focusing on one’s community can also be a very limited and limiting perspective. This is not only because a community can be defined in many different ways … but also because—no matter how defined—it has the effect of privileging one specific sense of identity over others, which too can be important.
But this view assumes that the focus on one’s community is a thought-out choice between a certain set of options exercised under a certain set of constraints. It is obvious, though, that by the time we acquire the capacity to question our identities, family, school and the larger community have already worked in tandem to bind us to them. In the case of India, there are even more insidious forces at play. Sen is well aware of such objections, and devotes much space in The Argumentative Indian to countering the kinds of claims made by proponents of Hindutva, and also their stress on the primacy of religious identity. But the climate created by their words and acts is also ensuring that their claim becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy for those they target.
Sen is, if you will, a scholar of the possible, rather than the ideal.
I grew up a liberal and an atheist, but in 1984, at the age of 17, I realised that most people around me were unconcerned about what I believed in. They took it for granted that being a Sikh defined me, just as the mobs who attacked Sikhs that year were unconcerned about the diverse identities of their victims. The Sikh identity has acquired significance for many people despite themselves, because it has been imposed on them. For someone growing up as a Muslim in India, the problem is likely to be more extreme. Sen seems to ignore the irrationality that drives the ascribing of identity, an irrationality which makes the conscious embrace of diverse identities a far more difficult business than he allows for.
A similar optimism is on display in the essay “Why Media Is Important for Economic Development.” In it, Sen marshals four major arguments. First, in a section titled “Intrinsic Value of Freedom,” he writes, “Freedom of speech … does not have to be justified by its indirect effects, but can be seen to be part and parcel of what we value and have reason to value. It must, therefore, figure directly in any accounting of development.” Second, under “Informational Role of The Press”: “This function relates not only to specialized reporting … but also to keeping people generally informed on what is going on where. Furthermore, investigative journalism can also unearth information that would have otherwise gone unnoticed or even unknown.” Third, under “Confrontation and Security”: “The rulers have the incentive to listen to what people want if they have to face criticism and seek their support in elections. It is, thus, not at all astonishing that no substantial famine has ever occurred in any independent country with a democratic form of government and a relatively free press.” And finally, in the section “Constructive Role and Value Formation”: “Informed and unregimented formation of our values requires openness of communications and arguments, and the freedom of the press cannot but be crucial to this process.”
Sen is quite aware, however, that all this sounds utopian in the Indian context, and there may be
limitations of practice that can make the press less effective and sometimes even less benign in its social functioning … the private ownership of newspapers has often been seen, with reason, to be a source of concern, and there have been suspicions, which too can be reasonable, about the selective influence of advertisers.
The solution Sen offers is borrowed from John Kenneth Galbraith, who recommended the countervailing power “of competition and confrontation to overcome the problem of bias.” This power could take many forms, Sen suggests, including the ownership of media by various private entities, cooperatives, independent bodies and statutory boards, as well as the “presence of media other than newspapers, including radio, television, and the Internet.”
This isn’t much of a solution because it fails to take into account the practical experience of what has unfolded around us. It is not clear why Sen believes that ownership of media organisations by different entities from the business world would not lead to a sameness of view, as in practice it does. It is also difficult to understand how we will ever go about setting up models of cooperative ownership, or of ownership by independent bodies and statutory boards. Where will the funding come from? How will these organisations be sustainable? His faith that the power of competition and confrontation will overcome the problem seems to be exactly that, an article of faith not borne out by practice.
This gap between the possible, which Sen addresses in some detail, and the practical, which he prefers to avoid, is not restricted to the essay on the media. When he talks of nyaya, the point is well taken but is of little help in understanding how it can be achieved when an existing system of justice, such as ours, largely fails to deliver. One almost wishes that Sen had drawn upon the interconnections that are clearly visible in the essays. The title of the book, The Country of First Boys, is taken from the title of his essay on education, where he discusses the combined effects of the inefficiency and inequity in the Indian system.
The system makes sure that some young people, out of a huge pool of the young, manage to get privileged education. The picking is done not through any organized attempt to keep anyone out (indeed far from it), but through differentiations that are driven by economic and social inequality related to class, gender, location, and social privilege. … Meanwhile, the last boys, and particularly the last girls, can’t even read, not having had the opportunity of going to a decent school—or any school at all … The question that then has to be asked, however, is how unequal can the educational hierarchy be, without being not only terribly unjust to the people who are neglected and left out, but also how extraordinarily inefficient when it is judged as a general social system. It is in that structural perspective, combining considerations of efficiency with equity, that we can best understand how—and how much—the country loses through its extraordinary concentration on first boys.
This lens is applicable not just to the system of education in our country, but to any number of areas. In his essay on hunger, Sen points out that the government’s food procurement policy, which started as a means of ensuring food security in the country, has ended up creating a farmers’ lobby. This lobby has ensured that the state continues to fix artificially high procurement prices for foodgrains such as rice and wheat. As a result, money that could have gone into subsidising food prices goes into maintaining food stocks that have no purpose other than to sit and rot. As Sen writes,
Sometimes the very institutions that have been designed to overcome old barriers have tended to act as reactionary influences in adding to inequity and unequal deprivation. The terrible combination that we have in India of immense food mountains on the one hand and the largest conglomeration of undernourished population in the world is one example of this.
It is not difficult to see who the “first” and “last” boys are in this instance. And this model applies to the Indian media as well, which is dominated by the English-language media—largely the province of first boys, catering mostly to a readership of first boys. A similar exclusivity with regards to area and language is replicated in the regional medias. These echo chambers of narrow concerns make it almost impossible to routinely report on issues that lie outside the daily lives of specific audiences, unless these issues are spectacular. Hunger deaths make the cut, but people wasting away over a period of time through malnutrition do not.
The metaphor that Sen uses has old roots. There was a time when we might have replaced “first boys” with the term Brahmins. They eventually ceded ground to a Persianised elite, who gave way to a colonial class, who were superseded by the anglicised elite of today. This privileged category lives in a bubble that is all-encompassing. The news it consumes, the schools and universities it attends, the hospitals it turns to, all exclude the vast majority of the country. The proponents of growth argue, above all, that this privileged class is expanding, and that people from outside this category can break into it. This may be true, but what they forget is that the proportion of people who remain outside it is growing at an even faster rate. And puzzlingly, in a democracy, where numbers should count, the large, dispossessed majority ends up preserving the interests of the privileged minority. It seems that the phenomenon of first boys is a telling manifestation of the democracy we have constructed for ourselves, and we aren’t sure how to negate the advantage the privileged few enjoy.
But even if Sen does not give us a way out of this fundamental dilemma, he persistently reminds us of what lies outside our bubble. Of course he, this writer, and perhaps every prospective reader of his book, all belong to the category of “first boys,” but he shows us that it is possible to open our eyes to what exists beyond. This collection of essays is a good beginning for those who have not read much of his work, and it will hopefully compel a few to go beyond, and to engage more avidly with his writing. Today, more than ever, we need reminding of how much “the country loses through its extraordinary concentration on first boys.”
This article is part of a collaboration between Public Books and The Caravan.