Friend of the Poor

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SUNANDA K. DATTA-RAYWhat I like about Amartya Sen, a fellow Bengali and this year's Nobel Prize winner for economics, is his conviction that information is the panacea for the world's ills. Many celebrities seek strategic alliances with journalists; Sen invests journalism with a political purpose, unfashionable in this age of media triumphalism and trivialization, and believes that the craft has significant social and economic responsibilities. Of course, this reflects his perception of his own work: whereas previous Nobel laureates were high priests of markets and monetarism, Sen has given economics a human face.He is convinced that democracies, which famously do not go to war with each other, do not let their poor starve either. It follows that there can be no democracy without a free press. These factors, taken together, make famine impossible. Sen even ropes in Mao Zedong to support his thesis, claiming in a 1994 New Republic article that after the Great Leap Forward collapsed and perhaps 30 million people died, China's leader acknowledged the informational role of democracy and warned Communist Party cadres that without democracy, you have no understanding of what is happening down below.China, though ahead of India in socioeconomic development, was a closed society and thus unable to prevent the famine. This could not have happened in a country that goes to the polls regularly and has an independent press, wrote Sen, blaming the absence of pressure from newspapers, which were controlled, or from opposition parties, which were non-existent. The lack of a free system of news distribution even misled the government itself. It believed its own propaganda and the rosy reports of local party officials competing for credit in Beijing. China's profoundly misinformed rulers thought they had a food surplus of 100 million tons.PAGE 1  |  
Sen's own light on the road to Damascus was the famine of 1943, when 3 million people perished in our native Bengal in then British-ruled India. He was 10 years old when the streets of Calcutta were littered with the dead and dying, their piteous cries filling the air. The harvest had been plentiful, but food was being stockpiled for the Allied troops mobilized to repulse an expected Japanese invasion, and rice was actually being exported from Bombay. Whether or not the tragedy was deliberately engineered to cripple India's independence movement, as novelist Howard Fast alleges, the British parliament was told that the weekly death rate was 1,000 when the real figure averaged 30,000.Sen revived that grim childhood memory in the Times of London 41 years later. He was writing an obituary tribute upon the death of Ian Stephens, who had edited the British-owned Calcutta newspaper The Statesman during the famine. Though himself British, Stephens fought a long and intense battle--with detailed reports and news photographs--to get New Delhi and London to recognize the nature and magnitude of the disaster, Sen recounted. Stephens devoted enormous journalistic energy and talent to rebut official assertions that there existed virtually no food problem in India. Sen believes that this vigorous campaign saved hundreds of thousands of lives and also helped revise public policy toward famine. Sympathy for Stephens was symptomatic of the economist's lifelong study of famine in India, Bangladesh and sub-Saharan Africa, which strengthened his faith in the power of the press and in transparency as the antidote to starvation.Other economists might question Sen's theory that famine is not always caused by food shortage. Champions of Asian values must resent his accusation that they quote Confucius selectively to justify their rule and that authoritarianism is not the sine qua non of growth. Western liberals may not relish being told that individual liberty dates only from Europe's Enlightenment. Wildlife enthusiasts may bristle at his comment that while the Royal Bengal tiger is protected, nothing protects the desperately poor villagers who share the same habitat at the mouth of the Ganges river. But no one can dispute Sen when he notes that the kings and the presidents, the bureaucrats and the bosses, the military leaders and the commanders never starve when famine grips a dictatorial society. Democracy, by contrast, would spread the penalty of famine to the ruling groups and the political leadership.So when a gaunt Sen stalked into my office--once Stephens'--at The Statesman a few years ago to point out an inaccuracy in reporting a speech of his, he was acting not from vanity but out of his high expectation that a leading newspaper would get things right. His concern is not hedge funds, high finance and speculators who shift billions with the click of a computer mouse, but helping the world's poor. And he sees the media as an ally in that noble task. We could do with more such reminders of an almost forgotten mandate.  |  2