An interactive session with Nobel laureate Amartya Sen was arranged for the students of Patahbhavana on 17th February, 2010. In the course of the interaction a gamut of topics from Amartya Sen’s reminiscence of Patha Bhavana to India’s economical problem came up. In his response to the questions raised by students, we get a glimpse of intricate theories of economics and it’s far reaching effects:
Amartya Sen: Well, someone has a question it seems. Go on.
Student: Where do you live?
Amartya Sen: Ah! This is an interesting but difficult question (laughs). Where do I stay? I stay in different places. At present I am teaching at Harvard University in America. I have a home in Cambridge and in a part of Boston, a city in America. That apart, I stay in England for some part of a year. And here in India I stay at my home Pratichi. Rest of the time I am on tour visiting different places. Are you satisfied with my reply? In fact, I cannot just point out a particular place of my stay. Now the next question…
Student: Please share some of your experiences as a student of Patha Bhavana.
Amartya Sen: I joined Patha Bhavana in 1942, and then got admission in Siksa Bhavana in 1949. The seven years of Patha Bhavana are replete with different memories. It is not possible to share them all with you just now (smiles). We studied Bengali, English, Math, Geography, History and Science and in addition there was arrangement for games. Apart from this, there were different types of assemblies in the evening for example the Sahitya Sabha. Do you still have the Sahitya Sabha these days?
Students: (All together) Yes!
Amartya Sen: Well, in the Sahitya Sabha those good at singing used to sing. I can’t sing at all! I was not good at sports either. However I still played hockey, football and yes, I used to play badminton too… Now, the next question? (Looking at a student) It seems you want to ask a question.
Student: Amartya Da…well, now the world is full of wars and violence; we feel sad about it. How would you have reacted to it at our age?
Amartya Sen: It is true that the present time is like that, but when I was here in Santiniketan, it was the time of the World War. In 1942 before I came to Santiniketan, I was in Burma where my father taught Chemistry. I was only six years old when I had my first experience of war there. But it was when my father shifted to Dhaka and joined St.Xavier’s that we really had to face the consequences of war. My father felt for sure that the Japanese were going to bomb Kolkata and Dhaka…And then Kolkata was bombed in the December of 1942…there were no casualties, however. Still, my father thought of moving to a safer place. Santiniketan was a place that could never be thought of coming under the attack of the Japanese. Furthermore because my grandfather Kshitimohon Sen was already staying in Santiniketan, my father decided to join him here. Anyway, I was in Kolkata when the bomb was dropped. There was a lot of discussion about whether the war would continue or not. At that time a program was broadcasted by the Japanese radio in English and Bengali regularly and in spite of the prohibition many people listened to it. After that the situation changed. The Japanese retreated in 1943 and the war came to an end. In any case, as I grew fond of Santiniketan I did not want to go back to Dhaka for my studies. After finishing Patha Bhavana and Siksa Bhavana I got admitted to the Presidency College in Calcutta in 1958. Back in those days, wars were different than how it is now. The incident of killings in Midnapur cannot be called ‘war’. It is a kind of terrorism. Things were not like this in the past. There was violence by the nationalists but now that has taken a different turn, tilting towards communalism and sectarianism. So, my experience of war is mainly that of the World War.
Student: Namaste, Amartya da, you have studied at Patha Bhavana and are also in the teaching profession. Do you ever feel like teaching in Patha Bhavana?
Amartya Sen: I cannot say I never felt like teaching in Patha Bhavana. When I was a student at Siksa Bhavana I used to feel that if I were a teacher how would I have taught? But when I finally decided to be a teacher then…actually my subject of research can be taught to University students and not to school-students. However, I remember when we studied at Patha Bhavana and Siksa Bhavana, we used to run a school at Balipara. Is that school still running?
Students: (together) Yes! That kind of a school is being run even now.
Amartya Sen: Oh really! Well I got an opportunity to teach in that school. The person who used to help in this matter was very sympathetic and the one who was behind this activity was Lalit Da. He comes here even now but perhaps does not take classes anymore. Lalit Majumdar…My experience of teaching in school was through teaching the Santhal children of Balipara.
Student: If you could give your opinion regarding the present system of education in India…
Amartya Sen: This is a very mature question. I think (pointing to the small kids at the front) these children won’t feel interested in this. Are you really keen on knowing my opinion?
Students: (together) Yes!
Amartya Sen: (smiling) Well…there should be an all round progress and there is wide scope to discuss as to how this will come. Now you want to hear all this but after some time you will feel bored… (Looking at a student) Do you have a question?
Student: The present education system demands huge financial investment. Those who are not capable of spending money fall behind and those who are capable go ahead. What is your opinion about this?
Amartya Sen: Really the division based on financial status is not healthy. All are students but few enjoy good opportunities and others are deprived completely. There are many children in our country who do not even get a chance to go to school. This is a huge disparity. That’s why when I got some money in 1998 through my Nobel Prize I created two trusts with that fund , one in India and the other in Bangladesh. The aim of the trust is to investigate how all children can get education. The name of the trust is Pratichi, named after my house here. To remove the disparity in the field of education is the endeavor of this trust. You (addressing the student who had asked the question) can later discuss this with me. Yes (addressing another student), what is your question?
Student: Namaste, when did you get the Nobel Prize and how did you feel about it?
Amartya Sen: I got the Nobel Prize in 1998. Well, how did I feel? (Smiling) do you know that there is a place called Stockholm in North Europe? The academy there awards the Nobel Prize every year. The Nobel Prize is announced after their meeting at eleven o’ clock in Sweden. I used to teach in England at that time. But the previous night I had gone to America and the difference of time in Sweden and America is of six hours. When they rang me up it was 4:55 am. When the telephone rang, my first reaction was that there had been an accident somewhere. But from the other end of the phone somebody spoke “I am speaking from The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences’’. I felt relieved that it was not the news of any accident.
Student: If money is all that matters and India is poor because of insufficient money, then why not print more money and solve the problem once and for all?
Amartya Sen: This is a question of Economics. Pertaining to this question, three statements can be put forward. Firstly, the necessity of money is the same as that was before; this is the reason why one should not think that money has become important only now. Secondly, India particularly with reference to per capita income can be considered a poor country, but there are poorer people in Africa. Besides, there are many wealthy people in India. Thus, considering India to be a poor country is to simplify the matter. Actually that there are people who are extremely rich whereas there are others who live below poverty line is a very critical situation. This disparity is a very important factor in Economics. Thirdly, what happens if more currency is printed? I do not think that there is always harm in printing more currency. However if we have only more money but less production, and the things which are bought by people such as agricultural products, industrial products are not adequate, then there would be hike in prices and even after paying a high price there is no chance that you would get sufficient things in market. This is not good. Actually money is a very important factor in our lives because with it we can purchase whatever we want. Food, clothing, train tickets and so on. So money is important, of course not essentially for it owns sake, but for its exchange value. Many times there is this misconception that printing more money would solve the problem. You asked a very wise question.
Student: Why did you choose the field of Economics?
Amartya Sen: See, there are people who do not get proper food, there is financial deprivation, and there is poverty and so on. The study of these factors comes under the field of Economics. This was the main reason for my inclination towards Economics. However, when I started first studying in Siksa Bhavana I was not much interested in Economics. Rather, Physics and Mathematics were my main subjects. One more reason…I was interested in politics, which is related to Economics. Also my friend Sukumar Chakravarty who studied Economics at the Presidency College used to come to Santiniketan at times. Through the discussions with him I was drawn to Economics. Afterwards of course I had the opportunity to discuss the principles of Economics with many. Another reason is that I loved Mathematics and in Economics there is application of Mathematics.
Student: Will you kindly explain in simple words your contribution to the field of Economics for which you were awarded Nobel Prize?
Amartya Sen: This is very difficult to answer… (Laughing) I do not know why I got the Nobel Prize… They awarded me the Nobel Prize under Welfare Economics which I have mentioned a while ago…public welfare. What does Economics contribute to public welfare? What is the relation between national income and public welfare or how are the progress and deterioration in the condition of people assessed by the principles of Economics? Whether any change is for better or not — this was more or less the subject of my work. Further explanation will be too much complicated.
Student: Well, you are interested in politics and have seen the Second World War, what difference do you find between Russian communism and the communism in our country?
Amartya Sen: At that time Russia was known as the Soviet Union. Communism had some made significant achievements then. To eliminate the disparity, provide education to all, improvement in medical facilities, were among them. This can be counted as the positive achievement of communism. As far as the negative aspect is considered, their economic arrangement was very complicated, and hence the progress was slow particularly in the field of agriculture and industry. Besides, there was lack of democratic approach. The communism of China is completely different. Till 1979, there was similarity with Russian communism. Their education and health system was good but agriculture and industry suffered. After 1979, they changed their policy with the result that the situation reversed and agriculture flourished but education and health deteriorated. Now they are trying to make all round progress. China has built a strong economy and progressed in the field of education as compared to India. But there is the weakening of democracy. Actually the good and bad are mixed and it is difficult to point out which is better.