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Mainstream, Vol XLV, No 35

Amartya Sen’s False Logic

by Sailendra Nath Ghosh

Saturday 18 August 2007


Nobel laureate Amartya Sen has, in an interview given to The Telegraph, a Kolkata daily, laid emphasis on ten points. These are: (i) that there is need for priority to industry in West Bengal; (ii) that Bengal was, in the past, one of the major industrial centres in the world and that it has to come up as one of the most prosperous areas in the world as an industrial base; (iii) that the need for priority to industry emanated from the fact that the products of industries yield many times the values of agricultural products; (iv) that de-industrialisation of West Bengal was occasioned by irresponsible unionism and the government should, therefore, make up for this by attracting industries; (v) that the logic that industries should not be built on fertile soils is wrong because industries all over the world have been built on fertile soils; (vi) that agriculture in the USA, Australia and Canada are prosperous (implying that in these countries, agriculture is based on sound foundation and that we can emulate their example); (vii) that the condition for rural and agricultural prosperity depends on people being moved out from agriculture to industry; (viii) that industry would be able to absorb more of the unemployed people; (ix) that the industries, naturally, have the right to choose locations according to their advantage; and (x) that the Tatas choice of Singur was not wrong and should not be objected to.

Each of these points is lopsided, hence wrong.
In my boyhood days, I chanced to read the British thinker William Hazlitt’s essay titled “On the Ignorance of the Learned”. I would like to call this case of Amartya Sen one of “tendentious blindness and self-deception of the learned”.

The learned economist has forgotten to enlighten us on the relative weightages that used to be given to agriculture, industry and trade in Bengal’s glorious days; the relation that industry bore to agriculture (whether supportive or disruptive); industry’s relation to local environ-mental resources then; Bengal’s demography and land-man ratio at that time; the scale (size)
of industries that prevailed then; the extent to which they were labour-displacing or labour-absorbing.

He also did not care to compare his findings on the above aspects with the salient aspects of West Bengal Government’s policy on industria-lisation now.

He did not care to enunciate which industries in today’s climatic condition and social milieu are desirable and which are not. For example, recent experiences have shown that chemical industries are most hazardous; a disaster in any of these can cause millions of deaths in a matter of minutes. Hence there are many who feel that the production of only some select chemicals in small quantities should be permitted in the civilian sector—that, too, at a distance from human settlements. Many of us feel that in the days of global warming, greenhouse gas emitting industries like petrol-driven automobile manufacture ought to be ruled out in the interest of life’s survival on this planet. It requires a high degree of insularity to avoid such burning questions.

Prof Sen has said that industries’ products command many times more value than that of agricultural products. Evidently, he is talking of exchange values and avoiding the question of use values. Agricultural products are far more important for life’s sustenance. Poor people can live without large industry’s products. Industrial products are income-elastic; the lower a person in the social stratum, the lower his/her demand for industrial goods. Besides, agriculture produces newer and newer wealth from the bowels of the earth; it is the source of renewable wealth. Industry is just processing for man’s greater comfort. When agricultural land is taken away, the continuing losses in production need to be taken into account.

In today’s context, arable land is being lost to the onslaughts of urbanisation. Even in rural areas, housing demands from burgeoning population are making inroads on arable lands.

From both ends, food security is being threatened as never before. To say at this time that there should be no objection to siting industries on fertile agricultural lands is apathy to the issues of food security.
Prof Sen has said that industries all over the world have been built on fertile soils. I am not aware if statistics about the fertility status of all such lands in their pre-industrial state are available. But there can be no fundamental reason why land fertility has to be a condition for the choice of an industry’s location. May be, in most cases, proximity to river banks or relative inexpensiveness of forest lands had been the determining factors, and therefore only accidentally many industries have swallowed fertile lands. (In temperate climates, nutritive elements reside in forest floors, unlike in the humid tropics.)

The learned Nobel economist has forgotten that most industries in the modern world are capital-intensive and labour-displacing. The Tatas’ automated automobile industry is no exception. To imagine that this enterprise would be able to provide jobs to the displaced farmers and their bargadars and wage labourers is to indulge in self-deception. If the projected Tata Motors’ factory were really to be labour-absorbing, the government and the Tatas would have given estimates of the jobs that would be available category-wise and also about the jobs in their ancillaries, if any. About the Singur project, the Tatas, in the beginning, made some feeble claims about its job potential. Later they stopped making the claim knowing that this would make them vulnerable to charges of false promises.

Prof Sen has defended the right of industry to choose its location. Certainly, an industry has this right. Consideration about facilities for raw material supply and transportation of goods, hygienic prospects and cultural opportunities for the employees, educational facilities for the employees’ children are its prerogatives. But an economic philosopher must not forget that beyond the entrepreneur’s accounting, there has to be a social accounting. The society has to decide whether from the viewpoint of food security or people’s health security, a particular type of industrial project has to be allowed.

PROF SEN has certified that the US agriculture is prosperous but there is abundant literature from the US sources to show that it is now based on a most unstable foundation. True, in the early days of the USA’s development, when agriculture used to be regarded as imbued with an intrinsic social value, the farms were thriving and the farm products were healthful. After “industrial agriculture” was introduced, with its phalanx of industrially produced fertilisers, pesticides, weedicides and herbicides, US agricultural lands have been parched and denuded of soil organic matter. Small farms have been gobbled up. Concentration of farm holdings has reached unprecedented heights, which has no parallel in the world. Illusion about US agriculture can bring disaster to us. Hence mention of the following facts is necessary.

In 1946 the Goldschmisdt Study in California pointed out that the increasing concentration of farms was having negative effects on rural economies. Dan Otto, an economist at the Iowa State University, says that if the ownership of farm-land continues to get concentrated, thousands of small agricultural communities “might become ghost towns”. As for new industries under the currently dominating paradigm bringing new jobs to rural areas, these have been all low-wage jobs.

A research paper in 1990 reported that the industries which were brought to the rural areas “provided only about one-half of the level of wages of the leading losers in employment changes”. A study by Porterfield pointed out that instead of industrial jobs, “more part-time employment was created in the service industries but it did not provide the kind of social benefits for workers that are typical of manufacturing jobs. New job growth may also bring with them other social evils that are common in urban areas, such as crimes.” At Singur, the Tata Motors would have the potential to create some roadside services such as tea shops, auto-repairs and the like. As for social evils, the “mastan raj” is already rampant in “democratic India’s” rural areas. Its grip will be further tightened by this kind of industries. For full employment without crime, another paradigm of development needs to be looked for—not to the industries whose virtues are being sung by Sen.

Prof Sen said that people need to be moved out of agriculture to industry. He has not noticed the effects of such compulsive migration on the cities as well as the rural areas, in the USA. A study by Robert Glover in 1988 in Atlanta found that migration out of agriculture meant “social disorganisation, sinking rural economic bases, declining rural communities and institutions, and the spectre of a permanent underclass in the cities”. A study by Drew Hyman, published in Farm Economics, College of Agriculture, Pennsylvania State University, in 1990, reported that declining attachment to genuine agriculture has meant that “rural America has lower levels of income, education, employment, health, nutrition and community services than urban America”.

Prof Sen, despite (or because of?) his high status, did not have the eyes and ears of the common people. Surendra Pal Singh and Saket Kushwaha, both Indians, on the basis of their experiences in the USA, have noted that “research findings are suggesting that sustainable farming systems require far more farm operators, more farm labour than do the prevailing farm systems.” John Ikerd, a well-known US economist, has been hammering the point that industry, for that matter, “any economic activity, without a local environmental resource foundation may be…… nothing more than a short-lived enterprise based on exploitation of under-valued people, capital, or natural resources.”

At the end, I would like to make two submissions. Number one. Life’s experience has taught me that economics, unless informed by an understanding of Nature’s way of doing things and Nature’s economics, gets reduced to a dismal science, often becoming counter-productive in public policy-making. Prof Sen, in spite of being acclaimed as an economist-philosopher, is yet to show an awareness of the need to link economic thinking to ecosystems’ functioning. If he had been aware of this, he would have known that in humid tropics, agriculture would have to have the primacy and the industry would have to be attuned to farming and rural living in communion with Nature.

Number Two. Integration of polycropping agriculture, horticulture, floriculture, sylviculture, pisciulture, poultry farming and livestock rearing plus Nature-harmonic, ubiquitous, small-scale, life’s-quality-enriching industries based on renewable forms of energy and environmental resources can bring about the desired fusion of agriculture, industry and trade, and achieve full and optimally productive employment. That is possible, only under a separate paradigm.

The author, who in the fifties was the Secretary of the Economic Unit attached to the Central Committee of the undivided Communist Party of India, is one of the country’s earliest environmentalists and a social philosopher.

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