Lawrence Hamilton’s book How To Read Amartya Sen is an insightful and comprehensive guide into the Nobel Laureate economist, Amartya Sen’s works. And, it comes highly recommended by another popular economist and a frequent collaborator of Sen, Jean Dreze, who has written a foreword for it. The book covers several important aspects of Sen’s philosophical vision: choice, capability, freedom, justice, democracy and offers a much-needed introduction to Amartya Sen’s extraordinary variety of ideas, contextualizing them and summarizing the associated debates.

However, more importantly, through this book, the author explains what the readers can take away from Sen’s ideas and writings as we struggle to deal with the present crisis of coronavirus and try to remake our world following it. This book brings out Sen’s main contributions to economics, politics, philosophy, and distils Sen’s groundbreaking framework to show how a new form of political economy is needed during such a time of crisis.

“This political economy would be based on freedom-enhancing capabilities’ analysis and public action focused on specific injustices within revitalized democracies. Sen’s work, and that of his collaborators, especially Jean Drèze, is thus vital for the future of democracy in India (and elsewhere),” argues Hamilton. While democracy has prevailed in India, it is yet to be a ‘substantive democracy’ which represents the kind of achievements in quality of life across the board that would empower all of its residents to take advantage of both its growth in GDP terms and the successful maintenance of formal democracy. The Covid-19 situation in India is a powerful illustration of this lack of empowerment,” points out the author.

In the book, Hamilton states, “In the second edition of Drèze and Sen’s magisterial account of the various things that have plagued public policy for development in India, especially in areas such as health, education, social security, environmental protection, economic redistribution and so on, they argue convincingly that these components of development depend on public action. Effective public action is not possible without significant change to how it is thought about and implemented in India. It depends on high standards of governance both in the determination of where and why extreme deprivations exist and how best to keep corruption at bay and accountability to the fore.

It is an indictment on successive Indian governments over the last two decades or so that, despite high levels of growth, its latest social indicators are still ‘far from flattering’. China may have been less successful at keeping famines at bay, but in terms of social progress – from ending poverty to the provision of decent education and functional toilets – it has been far more successful than India. Moreover, as regards most relevant social indicators, India is still worse off than many of its much poorer south Asian neighbours, such as Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal and Sri Lanka. With the sole exception of Pakistan, India has the lowest life expectancy, the highest child mortality rate and the highest fertility rate. In terms of sanitation and child nutrition, India fares worse than all of its neighbouring countries. Its rates of female literacy are amongst the lowest in the region. And, staggeringly, over 40 per cent of India’s children are underweight, compared to 25 per cent in Sub-Saharan Africa (Drèze and Sen 2020). So, it is a little surprising that Sen has held firm to a view of ‘democracy by discussion’ as a way out of this predicament. It is surprising for two reasons. First, it is not clear how this view of democracy could transform the power relations and associated social, economic and political structures that undergird India’s stubbornly unflattering social indicators. These forms of domination in terms of caste, class and gender need less polite mechanisms of change. Second, it is far from clear that ‘democracy by discussion’ can provide the kinds of incentives and guidance to elites to make judgements in line with the varied – often competing – interests of their populations as a whole. We need to look elsewhere to properly empower the least powerful, those at the bottom of the economic ladder, often without a voice.”

Amartya Sen is rightly famous for his explanation for why famines do not occur in democracies. Even though only a minority in the population may actually face the deprivation of a famine, a listening majority, informed by public discussion and a free press, can make government responsive. More pertinently for India, following political independence, famines, despite threatening on a number of occasions, were firmly kept at bay due to this vital practical benefit provide by democracy. By contrast, famines were a common occurrence under authoritarian British rule.

In the book, Hamilton writes, “Alongside the periodic role that elections play in keeping democratic governments accountable – it is partly because of the need to win votes that political parties have to listen – Sen argues that democracies uniquely generate responsive governments as a result of one of two mechanisms: either through sympathy (when the government cares) or through the antipathy that would be generated by its inaction (when the government remains uncaring). Sen argues that John Stuart Mill’s analysis of democracy as ‘governance by discussion’ helps to identify the ‘saviour of the threatened famine victim’, in particular a free press and unrestrained discussion. In a recent newspaper article, Sen argues that the same kind of mechanism occurs for social calamities such as the COVID-19 crisis: what is needed is ‘participatory governance’ and ‘alert public discussion’. As with famines, the victims of the present crisis may be socially distant from the relatively ‘more affluent public’, but this does not mean that the public discussion will not bring these deprivations to light, and once they do, the entire population, especially the more powerful, affluent group can ensure the government responds quickly and adequately. Unlike the marooned migrant worker or jobless urban poor, the more affluent Mumbai resident, say, may be concerned only about not getting the disease, but democracy with its free press and unrestrained public discussion will ensure that all of these hazards – the dire needs of all sectors of the society – are addressed.”

The excerpts from the book, How To Read Amartya Sen have been with permission from Penguin Publishers.