Author : Nilanjan Ghosh

Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Apr 17, 2020
Critiquing Amartya Sen's contention of post-lockdown society

Amartya Sen, with his inimitable lucidity, deep reading of history, common sensical logic, providential insights, and indomitable faith in the democratic designs, has recently placed a very interesting working hypothesis in public domain. The hypothesis reads best in the title of the essay: A better society can emerge from the lockdowns (Financial Times, April 15, 2020).  Sen quotes historical evidence to put across his hypothesis of hope: “The second world war, for example, made people better realise the importance of international co-operation. The United Nations, the IMF and the World Bank were born in 1944-45, not long after Vera Lynn sang about meeting again”.  He reiterates the need for equity and the distribution aspects of development by quoting the example of how life expectancy at birth in England and Wales increased during the war decades. “The positive lessons from pursuing equity and paying greater attention to the disadvantaged helped in the emergence of what came to be known as the welfare state”.

A point of departure arises here. The bigger concern is that while Britain progressed in its development indicators during the war period, it was largely at the cost of its colonies. India paid a huge price. Rather it turned out to be a zero-sum game with Indian losses being Britain’s gains. Between 1940 and 1947, the Indian economy revealed a largely negative growth figure of around -3.2%, while the British economy recorded a positive growth. The commodity markets and their adjunct derivatives markets were closed down in the names of inflation. This had severe impacts on distribution. While in Britain, the prices increased barely by 15-20%, the prices in India during the 1940s rose by around 300-350% due to the supply bottlenecks created through commodity trade diversion to Britain.

Sen, himself, and scholars like Paul Greenough, Mark Tauger, and Madhushree Mukerjee (author of Churchill’s Secret War published in 2011) have shown how the colonial ruler’s decisions of production and distribution to meet the war priorities led to supply-side bottlenecks, and eventually the Bengal Famine of 1943. In that sense, this famine was “manufactured” and could be construed as the strategically designed outcome of the broader deindustrialisation and economic destabilisation processes that the colonial rulers planned for India for the benefits of their mainland. After the World War II, the Indian economy was in shambles. It was rendered so weak that in 1950, the newly independent but weak Union government's treasury reported annual revenue of £334 million, half of the fortune of the Nizam of Hyderabad.

So, when the British left India, they created all forms of economic and social chaos for the nation. Hence, the concern of equity that Sen largely reports about the British economy during World War II was confined to the island itself, and came at the cost of the colonies. The big question here is: Whom does Sen call “disadvantaged” here in his essay? The colonial rulers? Or the residents of the colonies who were hurled into a world of hunger, poverty, food riots, and social strifes, despite representing and fighting for the British army during the War? This is the assumption that needs to be seriously questioned: inequity has been an integral component of the desperate times!

Now comes Sen’s second hypothesis in this essay. Sen talks of global cooperation to remove the existing stigma of the world being “unequal”. Indeed, as Sen rightly states, the World War II made humanity realise the importance of international cooperation, and led to the emergence of global institutions.  In fact, waves of globalisation and free trade philosophies were dominant till the first decade of this millennium. However, things began changing with the emergence of strong leaders, dominance of the nationalistic fervours emerging from a xenophobic discernment of some major nations, and the insulating tendencies of economies that were once the major proponents of free market economies and globalisation. Such insulating tendencies can be witnessed in US’ withdrawal from the TPP, prolonged US-China trade war, Trumpian disregard of the Climate Change crisis and the Brexit. This also brings us to SDG 17 that talks of global partnerships to attain the first 16 sustainable development goals. Many of these goals, namely, poverty, hunger, health, education, and reduced inequality pertain to the equity concerns that Sen has been indicating in his essay.

Sen indicates that the nations will again think of global cooperation just as they did while the economic restructuring during the decolonisation phases after the World War II was in vogue. Covid-19, however, seems to be a different animal altogether. At the very outset, it has already created more insulated economies with closure of borders and international migration. The nationalistic fervours were already leading to this "getting into the shell" phenomenon: Covid-19, as the exogenous global common, has already reinforced this tendency. It has created suspicion among nations, as can be evidenced with US President using the term “Chinese virus”, and China blaming US for the spread. This will definitely come in the way of realising SDG17. International organisations like WHO’s initiatives are also under suspicions.

Even empirical evidence is in favour of this “getting into the shell” phenomenon. There are indicative evidences of a causal relation of the spread of the virus in an economy with the economy’s exposure to China delineated by at least three variables, namely, human capital movement, trade and investment. Prominent examples exist with a> Italy, for whom China was not only the largest cooperative trade partner, but also one of the major destinations of Chinese FDI; b> Iran, which is a favored destination for Chinese trade and investment, as also flow of Chinese human capital; and c> South Korea, whose high export exposure to China often occurs through assembly lines before being re-exported to other nations. This seriously makes trade routes seen with suspicion, and investment in foreign destinations to exploit the global value chains (GVCs) in usual destinations cast with doubts. It is expected that economic insulation will be the order of the world, much against the hope of global cooperation. At least, that is what will be witnessed in the short run. Even regional connectivity plans and plans for trans-national economic corridors will take a back seat.

Despite these two departures from Sen’s contentions, this critique is completely sympathetic with Sen’s prescriptions on creating a better distribution system in the times of the pandemic. This creates an opportunity for democratically elected governments to create the best distribution practices and institutions, and continue with them in the post-pandemic world. Hence, Sen contends “Sure, social distancing restricts the virus’ spread, but it has to be combined with compensatory arrangements — for income, food, access and medical attention — for people devastated by the lockdown. India, like many countries, needs something like an NHS. But no lesson in that direction will probably emerge from the pandemic response, given its huge inequities. Sadly, it is quite possible that when we meet again, we will be no better placed to face the unequal world in which we live”. My sympathetic critique of Sen’s essay will be unjustified if I do not reiterate these lines.

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Nilanjan Ghosh

Nilanjan Ghosh

Dr Nilanjan Ghosh is a Director at the Observer Research Foundation (ORF) in India, where he leads the Centre for New Economic Diplomacy (CNED) and ...

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