- Arjun Gupta
- April 28th, 2010
Amartya Kumar Sen CH (Bengali : অমর্ত্য কুমার সেন, Ômorto Kumar Shen) (born 3 November 1933) received the 1998 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences for his work on welfare economics. He is currently the Thomas W. Lamont University Professor and Professor of Economics and Philosophy at Harvard University. He is also a fellow of Trinity College at the University of Cambridge, where from 1998 to 2004 he was Master, the first Indian academic to head an Oxbridge college.
He is known as “the Mother Teresa of Economics” for his work on famine, human development theory, welfare economics, the underlying mechanisms of poverty, gender inequality, and political liberalism.
Amartya Sen’s books have been translated into more than thirty languages. He is a trustee of Economists for Peace and Security. He has received over 80 honorary doctorates.
Sen hails from a distinguished family from East Bengal (present-day Bangladesh). His maternal grandfather Kshitimohan Sen was a renowned scholar of medieval Indian literature, an authority on the philosophy of Hinduism. He was a close associate of Rabindranath Tagore in Santiniketan and became the second vice chancellor of Visva-Bharati University. His maternal grandfather was an uncle of the first Chief Election Commissioner of India, Sukumar Sen and the Law Minister of India, Ashoke Kumar Sen. Sen’s father was Ashutosh Sen and his mother was Amita Sen, who were born at Manikganj, Dhaka. His father taught chemistry at Dhaka University and became Chairman of the West Bengal Public Services Commission. Sen’s first wife was Nabaneeta Dev Sen, an Indian writer and scholar, with whom he had two children: Antara, a journalist and publisher, and Nandana, a Bollywood actor. Their marriage broke up shortly after they moved to London in 1971. In 1973, he married his second wife, Eva Colorni, who died from stomach cancer quite suddenly in 1985. They had two children, Indrani, a journalist in New York, and Kabir, who teaches music at Shady Hill School. His present wife, Emma Georgina Rothschild, is an economic historian, an expert on Adam Smith and Fellow of King’s College, Cambridge.
Sen usually spends winter holidays at his home in Santiniketan in West Bengal, India, where he likes to go on long bike rides, and maintains a house in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he and Emma spend the spring and long vacations. Asked how he relaxes, he replies: “I read a lot and like arguing with people.”
Education and career
Sen was born in Santiniketan, West Bengal, the University town established by the poet Rabindranath Tagore, another Indian Nobel Prize winner. His ancestral home was in Wari, Dhaka in modern-day Bangladesh. Rabindranath Tagore is said to have given Amartya Sen his name (“Amartya” meaning “immortal”).
Sen began his high-school education at St Gregory’s School in Dhaka in 1941, in modern-day Bangladesh. His family migrated to India following partition in 1947. Sen studied in India at the Visva-Bharati University school and Presidency College, Kolkata before moving to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he earned a First Class (Congratulatory First) BA (Honours) in 1956 and then a Ph.D. in 1959. To Sen, then Cambridge was like a battlefield. There were major debates between supporters of Keynesian economics and the diverse contributions of Keynes’ followers, on the one hand, and the “neo-classical” economists skeptical of Keynes, on the other. Sen was lucky to have close relations with economists on both sides of the divide. Meanwhile, thanks to its good “practice” of democratic and tolerant social choice, Sen’s own college, Trinity College, was an oasis very much removed from the discord. However, because of a lack of enthusiasm for social choice theory whether in Trinity or Cambridge, Sen had to choose a quite different subject for his Ph.D. thesis, after completing his B.A. He submitted his thesis on “the choice of techniques” in 1959 under the supervision of the brilliant but vigorously intolerant Joan Robinson. During his time at Cambridge, and according to Quentin Skinner, Sen was a member of the secret society “The Apostles”.
While an undergraduate student of Trinity College he met Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis in Cambridge. Mahalanobis, after returning to Calcutta, recommended Sen to Triguna Sen, then the Education Minister of West Bengal. When Sen arrived in India on a two year leave from Cambridge during his second year of doctoral research,Triguna Sen appointed him as Professor and Head of Department of Economics at Jadavpur University, Calcutta, his very first appointment, at the age of 23. Between 1960–1961, he taught at Massachusetts Institute of Technology as a visiting professor.. He has also been a visiting professor at Stanford, Berkeley, and Cornell.
During his tenure at Jadavpur University, he had the good fortune of having economic methodologist, A. K. Dasgupta, who was then teaching in Benares, as his supervisor. Subsequently, Sen won a Prize Fellowship at Trinity College, which gave him four years of freedom to do anything he liked, during which he took the radical decision of studying philosophy. That proved to be of immense help to his later research. Sen related the importance of studying philosophy thus: “The broadening of my studies into philosophy was important for me not just because some of my main areas of interest in economics relate quite closely to philosophical disciplines (for example, social choice theory makes intense use of mathematical logic and also draws on moral philosophy, and so does the study of inequality and deprivation), but also because I found philosophical studies very rewarding on their own.”
He has taught economics at the University of Calcutta, Jadavpur University, and at the Delhi School of Economics (where he completed his magnum opus Collective Choice and Social Welfare in 1970), Oxford (where he was first a Professor of Economics at Nuffield College and then the Drummond Professor of Political Economy and a Fellow of All Souls College), London School of Economics, Harvard and was Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, between 1998 and 2004. In January 2004 Sen returned to Harvard. He is also a contributor to the Eva Colorni Trust at the former London Guildhall University.
In May 2007, he was appointed as chairman of Nalanda Mentor Group to steer the execution of Nalanda University Project, which seeks to revive the ancient seat of learning at Nalanda, Bihar, India into an international university.
Sen’s papers in the late 1960s and early 1970s helped develop the theory of social choice, which first came to prominence in the work by the American economist Kenneth Arrow, who, while working at the RAND Corporation, famously proved that all voting rules, be they majority rule or two thirds-majority or status quo, must inevitably conflict with some basic democratic norm. Sen’s contribution to the literature was to show under what conditions Arrow’s impossibility theorem would indeed come to pass as well as to extend and enrich the theory of social choice, informed by his interests in history of economic thought and philosophy.
In 1981, Sen published Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation (1981), a book in which he demonstrated that famine occurs not only from a lack of food, but from inequalities built into mechanisms for distributing food. Sen’s interest in famine stemmed from personal experience. As a nine-year-old boy, he witnessed the Bengal famine of 1943, in which three million people perished. This staggering loss of life was unnecessary, Sen later concluded. He presents data that there was an adequate food supply in Bengal at the time, but particular groups of people including rural landless labourers and urban service providers like haircutters did not have the monetary means to acquire food as its price rose rapidly due to factors that include British military acquisition, panic buying, hoarding, and price gouging, all connected to the war in the region. In Poverty and Famines, Sen revealed that in many cases of famine, food supplies were not significantly reduced. In Bengal, for example, food production, while down on the previous year, was higher than in previous non-famine years. Thus, Sen points to a number of social and economic factors, such as declining wages, unemployment, rising food prices, and poor food-distribution systems. These issues led to starvation among certain groups in society. His capabilities approach focuses on positive freedom, a person’s actual ability to be or do something, rather than on negative freedom approaches, which are common in economics and simply focuses on non-interference. In the Bengal famine, rural laborers’ negative freedom to buy food was not affected. However, they still starved because they were not positively free to do anything, they did not have the functioning of nourishment, nor the capability to escape morbidity.
In addition to his important work on the causes of famines, Sen’s work in the field of development economics has had considerable influence in the formulation of the Human Development Report, published by the United Nations Development Programme. This annual publication that ranks countries on a variety of economic and social indicators owes much to the contributions by Sen among other social choice theorists in the area of economic measurement of poverty and inequality.
Sen’s revolutionary contribution to development economics and social indicators is the concept of ‘capability’ developed in his article “Equality of What.” He argues that governments should be measured against the concrete capabilities of their citizens. This is because top-down development will always trump human rights as long as the definition of terms remains in doubt (is a ‘right’ something that must be provided or something that simply cannot be taken away?). For instance, in the United States citizens have a hypothetical “right” to vote. To Sen, this concept is fairly empty. In order for citizens to have a capacity to vote, they first must have “functionings.” These “functionings” can range from the very broad, such as the availability of education, to the very specific, such as transportation to the polls. Only when such barriers are removed can the citizen truly be said to act out of personal choice. It is up to the individual society to make the list of minimum capabilities guaranteed by that society. For an example of the “capabilities approach” in practice, see Martha Nussbaum’s Women and Human Development.
He wrote a controversial article in The New York Review of Books entitled “More Than 100 Million Women Are Missing” (see Missing women of Asia), analyzing the mortality impact of unequal rights between the genders in the developing world, particularly Asia. Other studies, such as one by Emily Oster, have argued that this is an overestimation, though Oster has recanted some of her conclusions.
Sen was seen as a ground-breaker among late twentieth-century economists for his insistence on discussing issues seen as marginal by most economists. He mounted one of the few major challenges to the economic model that posited self-interest as the prime motivating factor of human activity. While his line of thinking remains peripheral, there is no question that his work helped to re-prioritize a significant sector of economists and development workers, even the policies of the United Nations.
Welfare economics seeks to evaluate economic policies in terms of their effects on the well-being of the community. Sen, who devoted his career to such issues, was called the “conscience of his profession.” His influential monograph Collective Choice and Social Welfare (1970), which addressed problems related to individual rights (including formulation of the liberal paradox), justice and equity, majority rule, and the availability of information about individual conditions, inspired researchers to turn their attention to issues of basic welfare. Sen devised methods of measuring poverty that yielded useful information for improving economic conditions for the poor. For instance, his theoretical work on inequality provided an explanation for why there are fewer women than men in India and China despite the fact that in the West and in poor but medically unbiased countries, women have lower mortality rates at all ages, live longer, and make a slight majority of the population. Sen claimed that this skewed ratio results from the better health treatment and childhood opportunities afforded boys in those countries, as well as sex-specific abortion.
Governments and international organizations handling food crises were influenced by Sen’s work. His views encouraged policy makers to pay attention not only to alleviating immediate suffering but also to finding ways to replace the lost income of the poor, as, for example, through public-works projects, and to maintain stable prices for food. A vigorous defender of political freedom, Sen believed that famines do not occur in functioning democracies because their leaders must be more responsive to the demands of the citizens. In order for economic growth to be achieved, he argued, social reforms, such as improvements in education and public health, must precede economic reform.
Although Sen is a self-proclaimed atheist, he claims that this can be associated with Hinduism as a political entity.