Georgetown University’s India Initiative and the Association for India’s Development (AID) co-hosted a panel featuring economist Amartya Sen, Bengali filmmaker Suman Ghosh, and former economist at the World Bank Kaushik Basu, in the ICC Auditorium. The Oct. 19 event screened Ghosh’s The Argumentative Indian, a documentary about the life of Sen and his contributions to development economics, and was followed by a question-and-answer session.
The Argumentative Indian was shot over the span of approximately 15 years, the first part in the early 2000s and the latter part in 2017, showing the impact of Sen’s life and career on his views about social justice and the role of economists in improving community welfare.
It depicted Sen’s early childhood as one full of a wide range of influences. Sen enrolled in a secondary school that prided itself on its progressive values. Later in college, at Presidency University in Kolkata, he began exploring intellectual reasoning while officially studying economics and mathematics, acquiring a reputation as one who would find answers for himself because of experts’ inability to sufficiently do so. Sen later used his fellowship at Trinity College to study philosophy.
The first part of the film also explored Sen’s reflections on his ideological views and experiences working with government institutions. It employed the viewpoints of his contemporaries, such as Kenneth Arrow and Paul Samuelson, both Nobel Laureates in economic sciences. Samuelson commented that Sen’s ideas leaned more to the political left; Sen’s nontraditional ideas fostered his reservations about the World Bank as an institution. In the film, Sen says, “The World Bank and I had a peculiar relation in the sense that, basically, I never liked that organization very much.”
Sen is widely known for his capabilities approach, which expands the interpretation of poverty and operationally transforms the measurement of poverty from a unidimensional to a multidimensional approach. It is embodied in the Human Development Index, which is used by the World Bank today to measure poverty.
The latter part of the film paid respect to Sen for his contributions to development economics through the interview of Sen conducted by his former student, Kaushik Basu. In the interview, Basu and Sen symbolically journey back to the past by walking through Sen’s earlier schools while speaking to a gathering of young children, suggesting his impact on improving their futures.
Questions from the audience focused on various topics, such as China’s economic policies and development, asymmetry of information, and the perception of poverty as being a part of Indian national identity.
Basu offered his optimism regarding the rise of religious intolerance in India. “My own view of this is that this is something of great concern and one of the things that, since you’re asking this in the context of India, something that I felt very proudly of India, was precisely that space of tolerance of religion, religious practices, and…of secular rules…and there is this rise of intolerance which is very, very unfortunate. I am optimistic enough, I feel that a lot of ordinary Indians feel the same way today,” Basu said.
Along the same lines, Sen said, “The tolerance of difference has been a feature of Indian culture and to deny [these words]is a great disrespect to the culture.”
Another audience member inquired about progress in development and asked if a “general framework” to approaching development exists. Basu responded with the insight that the approach should differ since new factors will affect growth in the future.
“Typically, when we think about development we think in terms of ‘more of the same,’ — more cars, more homes, more clothes. The way we have to think about development if it is to be sustainable. What constitutes growth is going to be totally different, and we should help that. For instance, health could be improved dramatically. Life expectancy could be improved dramatically. We don’t value those things because [those issues]are not amongst us. So, the nature of goods is going to change completely. So when you get growth and you get growth incomes of value but not in terms of more goods — of the kinds that get consumed easily, this is not feasible and you have to put your mind towards that new kind of growth.”
The event concluded with a reiteration of respect and appreciation for Sen’s contributions by Irfan Nooruddin, director of the Georgetown University India Initiative.