Amartya Sen flays failure to address social ills (Lead)

August 11th, 2008 - 11:01 pm ICT by IANS  

A file-photo of Manmohan Singh

New Delhi, Aug 11 (IANS) Nobel laureate Amartya Sen Monday implicitly criticised the Left and the country’s trade unions for failing to adequately address social injustices such as severe deprivation, child hunger, lack of educational opportunities and healthcare for the poor. Delivering the inaugural Prof Hiren Mukherjee Memorial Parliamentary Lecture in the central hall of parliament, Sen said: “There is a lot of immediate agitation to express discontent on new issues such as price rise or the agreement with a foreign country on nuclear issues, but there is little political murmur about the actual living conditions of Indians.”

Addressing both houses of parliament, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh began the proceedings by praising the political ethics and principles of the late Hiren Mukherjee, a former parliamentarian and a communist.

“Although a severe critic of bourgeois democracy, Prof Mukherjee still upheld the highest traditions of parliamentary democracy during his presence in parliament,” Singh said.

Sen began by saying he admires the late parliamentarian because of three qualities that he had apart from his fearlessness in speaking his mind and taking a principled stand. These facets were “Hirenda’s overwhelming sympathy for the downtrodden, his reliance on critical analysis and reason based on available information, and his passion for Sanskrit,” he said.

Sen said instead of searching for perfect justice, the need now was to focus on how to remove injustices such as child hunger in India - which is even more than sub-Saharan Africa - lack of medical care for the poorest, and comprehensive absence of opportunities for basic education, besides widespread poverty and deprivation.

He felt there were two areas that needed focusing on while addressing these social injustices.

First, the country’s trade unions had to play a constructive participatory role to ensure social justice, and second, it had to be assessed how democracy could contribute.

Trade unions, Sen said, focus only on their own interests and disregard the impact their activities have on the entire population. “What is needed is that there should be a constructive partnership between trade unions and the people as a whole to ensure social justice.”

He said democracy is not just a matter of votes but also the way people - through public reasoning and the media - can bring pressure on the governments of the day, be it at the centre or the states, to address social injustice.

The Noble Laureate ended by concluding that with respect to both, there is reason for hope in India.

His Pratichi Trust has been able to establish far-reaching dialogue with teachers’ unions in West Bengal, resulting in an increase in the share of children enrolling in schools from 51 percent in 2001 to 80 percent in 2008, Sen said.

Similarly, there were signs that public debate and pressure created by the media did force governments to ensure greater social justice.

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