Few scholars have left more of a mark in the field of development economics than Amartya Sen. Awarded the 1998 Nobel prize in economic science, Sen’s work reoriented mainstream economic thought and diagnosis on issues such as collective decision-making, welfare economics, measuring poverty, gender inequality and social justice.
Amongst his more popular works, Sen is well-regarded for the work on famines and for explaining what causes them. Just as we associate Adam Smith with the phrase 'invisible hand' and Joseph Schumpeter with 'creative destruction', Sen is famous for his assertation that "famines do not occur in democracies".
“No famine has ever taken place in the history of the world in a functioning democracy,” he argued in his book ‘Development as Freedom’. Sen grounded this explanation in the fact that because well-functioning democratic governments “have to win elections and face public criticism, they have a strong incentive to undertake measures to avert famines and other catastrophes".
What is happening in India at the moment — the wrath of a second Covid-19 storm — may push us hard to reflect on Sen’s assertions. This isn’t a famine but is surely India’s worst catastrophe since Independence — measurable in countless deaths.
Images of people running from pillar to post to find a hospital bed for their loved ones, several dying helplessly outside hospitals, dead bodies being cremated in parking lots, hospitals facing oxygen shortage across states... all of this reflects a systemic breakdown of India’s health and governance machinery.
Grief often looks for a victim to blame and a cause to relate to its effect. In the current scenario, India’s democratic backsliding over the last few years — as observed in the autocratic rise of majoritarianism under Modi-Shah’s BJP; a callous disregard for people’s welfare which is evident from lesser public investments; loss of autonomy for public institutions and the weakening of media; a submissive judiciary and a dysfunctional political Opposition — has contributed to the current colossal disaster.
It may well be compared with ‘The Great Chinese Famine’ under Mao’s rule between 1958-1961, when tens of millions died. It took years after Mao’s rule ended to unearth the ‘truth’ behind the famine (till this date, we don’t know the exact number of deaths caused by the state-administered famine). In India, the Great Bengal Famine of 1943 claimed 30 lakh lives. The actual number of deaths from Covid-19 in India is likely to surpass that figure. Like The Great Chinese Famine, we may just not know the 'truth’ ever.
The question of how we got here, with a year’s time in hand for preparing our medical system across states for a second wave, isn’t divorced from the issue of liberties, of the independence of media and ultimately of democracy. Yes, India has seen deaths from malnutrition, chronic hunger and starvation even in the decades after Independence, but never at such a scale. Also, the situation did not become so bad that a government in power ceased to care about protecting the lives of its own citizens.
India under Modi-Shah leadership is more invested in redesigning Parliament (The Central Vista Project), arresting a 22-year-old environmental activist on sedition charges, rendering an entire state to become a Union-controlled-Territory by the stroke of a pen, and railroading bills without political consensus. Some might even argue that all of this was seen long coming, especially if one bothered to understand Modi’s leadership style from his time as the chief minister of Gujarat.
Modi won the 2014 general election on the promise of scaling the ‘Gujarat Model’ to the entire of India. He has done just that. Gujarat had one of the lowest shares of public spending on the provisioning of basic healthcare for the entirety of Modi’s term as chief minister. Jammu and Kashmir as a state did far better than Gujarat in terms of access to basic social opportunities (healthcare, education). Gujarat is now one of the worst-performing states in terms of Covid-19 infections, hospitalisation and deaths. Back then, no one within the system could question Modi during his tenure as chief minister, as public institutions became subservient alongside a confused and ineffective political opposition. All of the above is happening on a pan-India level now, not just in Gujarat.
At a time when the surge in infections was peaking, the prime minister and his party were busy organising mass rallies in Bengal, appealing to people to come out in "large numbers to vote", facilitating a Kumbh in one of its own states, and showing absolute disregard and ignorance for following Covid-appropriate behaviour. The mainstream media did nothing to highlight either of these follies at the time of a public health emergency. It was, instead, absorbed in reporting mass rallies in its typical propagandist tone, as if the pandemic was long over. A toothless Opposition remained more active on the social media than on the ground protesting against the government’s inaction and callousness. The Opposition remains more visibly ‘absent’ even now.
"Developing and strengthening a democratic system is an essential component of the process of development… Among the great variety of developments that have occurred in the twentieth century, the most preeminent development of the period is the rise of democracy," Sen said. India’s case, according to him, despite being an “ungainly, unlikely, inelegant combination of differences, nonetheless, survived and functioned remarkably well as a political unit with a democratic system”.
This remarkable story of a ‘chaotic nation’ championing democratic conduct in political propriety appears like a legend of the past. Our country’s political core now resembles an autocratic China, where discourse isn’t shaped by public participation or in the interest of safeguarding civil liberties, fundamental rights, but is rather built around a story of lies, propagandistic rhetoric, fed and further (re)enforced by the oppressive hands of a supreme commander.
(The writer is an Associate Professor of Economics and Director, Centre for New Economics Studies, Jindal School of Liberal Arts and Humanities, O P Jindal Global University)