It took Amartya Sen 25 years, a Nobel prize in economics and widespread recognition as a leading public intellectual to write his first book on philosophy. But The Idea of Justice has been every bit worth the wait. By making manifest injustice the war on Iraq, the horror of widespread hunger in India, to take just two of his examplesthe starting point of his inquiry, Sen goes on to give us the outline of a more practical alternative to the prevalent theory of justice, which he says concerns itself mostly with describing a just society, a utopian ideal that were unlikely to ever achieve.
In a wide-ranging interview with ET NOW senior editor Andy Mukherjee, Sen applies concepts of Neeti and Nyaya to discuss the burning issues of today.
In your new book you say youre interested in manifest injustice as a starting point of inquiry and not as an utopian ideal of a just society. What are the consequences of such a departure?
First, we have a pretty strong sense of injustice. Whether untouchability here or slavery and torture elsewhere in the world, our first immediate sentiment is in the most natural sense one of injustice rather than justice. Second, all our policies relate to injustice because none of our policies, even ones like the employment guarantee scheme, will make the world perfectly just. It will only make the world a little less unjust.
The third point is that the mainstream theories of justice deal with perfect justice and start by asking the question what would a perfectly just world look like? We may not all agree what it may look like, some would say equal economic opportunity while someone else may emphasise personal liberty more. We could debate these but we dont need to resolve this debate to decide what needs to be done now. If removing injustice is the goal, then starting with the question what constitutes perfect justice?, like the mainstream theories of justice do, seems to start in the wrong place.
In The Idea of Justice you draw upon Indian philosophy, especially concentrating on Nyaya and Neeti. How are these two terms different and would such a difference matter?
The distinction between neeti and nyaya is not a quintessentially Indian or eastern thought. It figures every where. We have, however, had a most clear headed discussion of it. The distinction neeti is about arrangements and rules, about the right thing to do. Nyaya is about whats happening in the world. So neeti is all about rules and arrangements and institutions and they dont necessarily deliver.
In the context of democracy, the democratic institutions might exist but their utilisation might be quite limited, partly through our own fault because we dont engage enough, partly its about the way the media is organised and its limits or the way the parties are organised. That immediately leads to a clash between the intentions of the neeti and the actual realisations of the neeti.
Human behaviour is something you touch upon in your book as well. You argue that we dont give it enough thought.
People do think about behaviour. But often its made to play a subsidiary role. You set up the right institutions and everything will be fine. Like democracy. You have elections, what more do you want? The fact is that you need a lot more to make a democracy work. You need to engage with it a lot more.
It needs politics, it needs the media, it needs editors to be courageous and innovative. Why is it that we can cover famine very well, but cannot cover the continued under-nourishment of the largest under-nourished population in the world? This is the kind of behaviour lacuna that I am talking about when I say that we do not think enough about human behaviour.
Its not a question of moral education like the Christian Sunday schools but rather about thinking more widely about our role in society. Not forgetting our own concerns but recognising that we live in a society and that there are other people around. It depends ultimately on the importance of reasoning and public reasoning.
You cite widespread hunger as a manifest injustice in this part of the globe. Do you think programs like NREGA have made any headway in tackling these injustices in India?
I have been broadly supportive of the national employment guarantee program and I think it has basically done a lot of good in the country. My frustration has always tended to be when people do one good thing but neglect the other side. Judged on its own, has it been able to reach a lot of people who would have otherwise not been reached? Has it increased the income levels of some and thus provided some level of security and been able to tackle to some extent the problem of undernourishment? Yes, it has. But the problem of undernourishment, which is very widespread and a real blot on Indias record, that you wont be able to remove just on the strength of it.
Therefore, the discussion on the right to food is important. Reaching undernourished people of the world is difficult and in India its challenging and for that we have to attack it on many fronts. Employment guarantee is just one of the fronts.
You blame a lack of politically engaged reasoning and social pressure, including from the political opposition, for the human challenges that we continue to face. Its not fair only to blame the government you say...
In any democracy, what a government does depends not only on its own priorities but also on the priorities of the opposition and what they demand. One of the reasons why I thought the Lefts confrontation with the government on the Indo-US nuclear deal was a mistake was because by making it the central issue of pulling the govt down, it made the government forget everything else in order to survive, and make deals that it may not have otherwise made.
What do you make of the injustices cited by farmers in land acquisition?
There is an issue to be addressed here even if you were to argue its for the greater good. The sets of people benefiting and paying the price are often different. One reason that I think acquisition should be the last resort, is that while it may be justified as a greater good, when it benefits some and costs others, then the question of what you are going to do for those paying the price arises.
The second point to recognise is that in a society where agriculture is the main employer, land is what you rely on. When you are poor, your life is insecure and you dont want to be told that your life will go much better if you give up your land. Its not just a sentimental attachment, but rather its the thought that my god. This is the basis on which I live.
I was very supportive of West Bengals plans of industrialisation but they made two mistakes. More public discussion would have helped alleviate the fear for those for whom there would be some loss involved.
Having said that the basic policy was right. Without industry West Bengal would continue to remain poor, and even if a new government comes in West Bengal, the people who come in will face exactly th e same problem. And having created a situation where the whole industrialisation process is seen with a sense of suspicion then you have to face the question that what are you going to do?
Are you going to face the anger of the people or are you going to leave Bengal to its poverty.