Calcutta Notebook


The trickle-down theory, according to which we should all help the rich grow richer, because the benefits will, in time, trickle down to the poorest, can be laid to eternal rest.

Pro-reform economist Panagarhiya claimed the country's annual growth rate to be 7.2% over the 20 years ending 2011-12. Subodh Verma used National Sample Survey reports up to 2013 to find that, over the last 12 years, the bottom 90% of Indians encountered an annual growth rate just over 3% if they lived in villages and just over 4% if they were town-dwellers. No trickle-down in 12 years from the growth enjoyed by the top 10%? But a Kolkata newspaper wasted no time in putting up the caption ‘‘Income divide between rich and poor growing rapidly’’.

The Bangali may be (why may be? is) an idle weaver of half-baked generalisations at best and the world's worst shirker at worst, but you must hand it to him, he is pesky. Average height 5 ft 5½ in, average span around the chest a little over 25 in, these small men and women are curiously allergic to show of brawn, money wise or muscle-wise. Now, Amartya Sen has escaped most of the ethnic stigmata (who would call him idle? or small?), but just as we were getting reconciled to a vision of him as a Conscience of the Right, ethnic peskiness releases the histamine, enough is enough, and he delivers a straight left to Modi's jaw. No prevarication, bang on. What Modi and his followers perpetrated on the minority in Gujarat, and how they did it, show corporate–like acumen. On the one hand, there were inhuman crimes: burning houses and people, cutting people open, exulting over dead women and dead children, testifying as if to extreme provocation and justified wrath. On the other hand, hidden carefully, was a core for planning and the appointment of executioners. All this, and a blueprint of immunity and protection from the law for the real heads at the top, are part of the terrifying revelations still coming out from the courts.

And, now, comes Modi emanating an almost avuncular unctuousness, a Santa Claus who will transform the economy and the country with a magic wand, Gujarat model. He wants your vote, and, Amartya Sen tells us he, at least, is not going to vote for Modi. He does not want a fearful minority. He wants all the people of the country to feel that everyone has an equal stake in its future.

The smiling Modi (as an actor he will put Jack Nicholson to shame) and his sponsors among the leaders of the BJP and the RSS are not talking at all about the holocaust. No admissions. No apologies. Their plank is Gujarat's growth. Growth having been anointed as India's new sacred cow, this strategy disarms the Congress and the parliamentary left, and, in fact, everybody who subscribes to the First Commandment: Growth is Good, the only good. Why not? Had Hitler won the war, the anti-Semitic Holocaust would have been dismissed as another paranoid lament of the Jews, and post-war growth would have silenced everybody, perpetrator, victim and the "I saw nothing" hedonist.

The thesis of Singapore Lee that growth justifies authoritarian or sectarian governance, is raising again its dangerous head. In any case, though Gujarat has seen 8.4% annual growth in the 20 years ending 2011-12, the majority of people have little to spend. Other states are overtaking it on this count. Monthly per capita expenditure figures between 1999-2000 and 2011-12 show a retreat in the state-wise position of Gujarat : from 4th to 8th among rural households and 7th to 9th for urban households. Amartya Sen has criticized the Gujarat government for its failure to provide a desirable level of education and health facilities for its people, making the point that growth must not only be, but be balanced.

The philosophy of Sen's (development–) economics may be summarized as the removal of unfreedoms and the ways and means thereof. Put in this way and carrying the rider that it is wrong to confine the matter to one-factor dominance like utility or income inequality, it seems a political philosophy rather than a philosophy of economics. But the ways and means turn out to be mainly economic, a delicate calculus involving capability, endowment and entitlement. It is an interactive theory of self-expanding justice, even the formal removal of an unfreedom is supposed to empower people to expand that and other freedoms. The leftist would, to start with, raise two objections: the objection of inertia or too little motive force, that is, the series might peter out much before there is substantial change in endowment, and the objection of the existence of real, irreconcilable endowment preserving or enlarging interest groups (the reality of "classes"),  –that is, the sum of all endowments being finite at a given epoch, if a substantial group of people with high endowment anticipate reduction and actively oppose the changes, the expected Smithian solution would be botched.

It is an interesting philosophy in scarcity driven societies, with some exciting possibilities, but Sen has not confronted society and the state (beyond the academic circles) with his full conclusions, as a result of which his insistence on facilitizing education and healthcare has seemed eclectic and ineffectual.

But, Modi-time seems one time when he has progressed to a public stance which is much closer to the burden of his song. He speaks of his concerns about the nature of growth through Adam Smith : "essentially the importance of growth to human capability; to make a real difference to not only the life you lead but to your ability to be a productive part of society". We wait for Sen's fight for his full programme: "make a real difference ....not only to the life you lead but to your greater effective participation in economic and political activities" (and decision-making—you're right, Sen has implied this bit in italics, but never articulated it). But, don't we all know that once the people themselves and not some so-called representatives with criminal cases against them, move into the meeting of the Gram Sabha/Sansad, India will never be the same.

Meanwhile, in 2012, according to the NSSO (and courtesy Subodh Verma), the poorest in a village spent less than Rs 20 per person per day, while the richest spent almost Rs 150. Coming to the towns, this expenditure rose to an amount less than Rs 25 for the poorest, and almost Rs 350 for the richest. On medical expenses, the poorest 30% in a village spent a maximum of Rs 43 per person per month in villages and Rs 59 in towns. The richest 5% spent more than 10 times this amount in each case. Education saw the poorest 30% spending a maximum of Rs 20 per person per month in villages and Rs 54 in towns. The richest 5% spent more than 10 times the amount for the poorest in villages, and almost 20 times the corresponding amount in towns. Some unbalanced growth, this!

Vol. 46, No. 6, Aug 18-24, 2013

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