|Politicians & Literature|
Oommen Chandy | 69 | Kerala
Chief Minister, Congress
WHEN I HEARD Nobel laureate Amartya Sen is an admirer of Kerala’s development experience, I was keen to know about his views. This is how I chanced upon his book Development as Freedom. The book is based on a series of lectures that Sen delivered at the World Bank.
As a politician, I’m always concerned with how to serve the people of my state better. When I got the book, I first looked for what Sen had to say about Kerala. He shows that, thanks to public provisioning and despite the low levels of income, the people of Kerala, China and Sri Lanka enjoy enormously higher levels of life expectancy than those in much richer countries such as Brazil, South Africa and Namibia. Apart from public provisioning, I feel history also has much to do with Kerala’s achievements in human development.
Sen further observes that while Kerala has impressive indices in low fertility, high life expectancy and high literacy, we still have to address why Kerala has not been able to build on its success in human development to raise its income levels as well — an achievement that would have made its success more complete. This has been worrying me for quite some time and my government has undertaken various measures to address this riddle.
I found Sen most courageous and unconventional when he argued that our understanding of development through conventional indicators like per capita income, growth of national income and growth in manufacturing are, at best, partial. To him, development can be a process of expanding the real freedoms that people enjoy. But freedoms depend on other factors such as social and economic arrangements (education and healthcare) as well as political and civil rights (liberty to participate in public discussion and scrutiny).
If freedom is what development advances, then the focus of policy and action should be on the overarching objective of advancing freedoms or doing away with constraints, rather than on some particular means or some specially chosen list of instruments.
The whole book, in a sense, deals with the interconnections between freedoms, including economic opportunities, political freedom, social facilities, transparency guarantees and protective security.
As a politician, I was keen on understanding Sen’s views on the connections between political freedoms and economic needs. Sen argues against the view held in the Vienna conference of 1993 that removing poverty should be the top priority, rather than guaranteeing political liberty and civil rights for the poor.
Sen shows incontrovertibly that there is an extensive interconnection between political freedoms and economic needs. He argues that a government’s response to the suffering of people often depends on the pressure put on it, and this is where the exercise of political rights — voting, criticism, protests and so on — can make a real difference.
The opportunities in democracies have to be grabbed to achieve the desired effect. Thus viewed, political freedoms are permissive advantages. Their effectiveness depends on how they are exercised.
This made me think further. Political freedoms and liberties, as articulated by Sen, are amply provided in Kerala. But, how many citizens effectively use these freedoms?
I feel that though we have a vibrant democracy, we’re a long way from providing true political freedoms to people, especially the marginalised.
I don’t want to give the impression that I’m an indefatigable reader who has spent a lot of time with books. I wrote this short essay to show the effect a book can have on a reader, how readers engage with books.
I always consider books as triggers for new ideas, directions, to serve as guides to new paths. Reading Sen opened my mind to certain ideas, confirmed certain principles, and this is why politicians need to read — to learn how to serve the people who rely on us, better.