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Amartya Sen said no democracy, with a free press, has ever had major famines

In ‘How To Read Amartya Sen’, Lawrence Hamilton writes on the economist’s thrust on free press and public reasoning as the centre of a democracy.

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Amartya Sen is very clear that one of the central features of democracies which advance public reasoning in the world is support for a free and independent press. Unrestrained and healthy media are, he argues, important for five main reasons, the first four of which are:

1. The most elementary connection concerns the ‘direct contribution of free speech in general and of press freedom in particular to the quality of lives’. Media freedom is critically important for us to have the capability to do something we have reason to want: ‘to communicate with each other and to understand better the world in which we live’. Without free media, the quality of human life drops or is reduced, ‘even if the authoritarian country that imposes such suppression happens to be very rich in terms of gross national product’ (IJ: 335–6). 

2.  The press has a major informational role in disseminating knowledge and allowing critical scrutiny. This is true of both investigative journalism and more everyday journalism. The former is vital in unearthing information that otherwise might not have been revealed. The latter – everyday journalism – is also crucial as more ‘mundane’ matters and information also play an important role in keeping the citizenry generally informed.

3.  Relatedly, the media provides an important ‘protective function in giving voice to the neglected and disadvantaged, which can greatly contribute to human security’; the media forces rulers to face the misery of common people, however insulated the former would like to remain. 

4. ‘Informed and unregimented formation of values requires openness of communication and argument’; in other words, the freedom of the press, and the fact that it helps spread new norms and priorities, is vital for the interactive process of value formation. In this instance, Sen makes particular reference to the role of the press as regards tolerance and how important that value is in the protection of minority rights within majority rule (IJ: 335–7).

As will be clear, these four functions of the media help us identify the four main component parts of public reason: unhindered communication; critical scrutiny; human security; and value formation. Then, in sum, Sen points out the fifth main function of a free and independent press in enabling democracy as public reasoning: ‘a well-functioning media can play a critically important role in facilitating public reasoning in general … [that is] the evaluation needed for the assessment of justice is not just a solitary exercise but one that is inescapably discursive’ (IJ: 337).

Also read: Proved by science: Winston Churchill, not nature, caused 1943 Bengal famine

It is therefore clear that for Sen the pursuit of democracy and justice are deeply interlinked and that democracy understood as public reasoning, especially by means of media that are safeguarded from censorship, regulation, suppression of dissent, banning of oppositional voices and the incarceration (or worse) of dissidents, is a sine qua non of justice.

This then brings us to the second point noted above: why no democracy understood in terms of these elements of public reasoning has ever succumbed to famine. In part, Sen’s emphasis on democracy as public reasoning emerges from his earlier work on famines, and what is crystal clear is that this is one of the empirical realities of human misery that Sen convincingly suggests best supports his claims as regards democracy. He focuses a great deal of attention on the Bengal famine of 1943, which he witnessed as a child, and argues that it was

made viable not only by the lack of democracy in colonial India, but also by severe restrictions on reporting and criticism imposed on the Indian press and the voluntary practice of ‘silence’ on the famine that the British-owned media chose to follow (as part of the alleged ‘war effort’, for fear of aiding the Japanese military that were at the door of India, in Burma). (IJ: 339) 

Governmental policy exacerbated the famine: even more damning than the lack of any official famine relief over the many months in which thousands were dying every week, the famine was aggravated by the fact that the British India Government in New Delhi had suspended the trade in rice and food grains between the Indian provinces. This meant that, despite the much higher price of food in Bengal, food could not move through legitimate channels of private trade to reach Bengal. In other words, had this intervention not occurred, the demand in Bengal (represented via higher prices) would have been better met. Moreover, rather than trying to get more food into Bengal, the official policy was to look to get food exports out of Bengal in that period. Finally, the government bought food at high prices from rural Bengal to run a selective rationing system at controlled prices, specifically for the resident population of Calcutta, part of the war effort ‘intended to lessen urban discontent’. This then further exacerbated exploding food prices in Bengal, leaving the rural population, with their low and stationary incomes, unable to purchase food.

All of these measures would not have occurred, Sen argues, in a situation of a democracy constituted by the various components of public reasoning noted above. None of these empirical problems on the ground and the terrible responses to them came into parliamentary discussion in any substantive way during the period of news and editorial blackout. ‘A democratic system with public criticism and parliamentary pressure would not have allowed the officials … to think the way they did’ (IJ: 339–41).

Also read: Amartya Sen has a message for Mamata: Don’t define Bengalis narrowly like BJP does

Sen argues that this is a simple but important illustration of the most ‘elementary aspect of the protective power of political liberty’ expressed best, he claims, if we view democracy as public reasoning in which we not only have periodic election but a free and independent press. To drive home this point, he makes two important comparisons. The first is the fact that, despite many other failings and imperfections, Indian democracy since independence has ‘been adequate to eliminate major famines’. The Bengal famine was the last substantial famine in India, and it occurred only four years before the Empire ended; famines, which had been a persistent feature of the British Indian Empire, ended abruptly with the establishment of democracy after independence.

The second is that independence – or self-government – is not in itself sufficient to avoid famines; Sen’s point is to emphasize the causal significance of democracy in the avoidance of famine and so he compares democratic India with China. Despite China’s greater success than India’s in many economic fields, China had the largest famine in recorded history in 1958–61, with a mortality rate estimated at close to 30 million. Although this famine in China raged for three years, the government was not pressed to change its disastrous policies: ‘there was, in China, no parliament open for critical dissent, no opposition parties and no free press’ (IJ: 342). Sen’s major critical point is that the history of famines more generally has had a peculiarly close connection with authoritarian rule.

In fact, Sen’s point here is twofold. First, although the rulers never starve, when a government is accountable to the public, particularly by means of a free press and uncensored public criticism, then the government too has an ‘excellent incentive to do its best to eradicate famines’. Famines normally affect much less than 10 per cent of the population. So, if democracy was only a numbers game at election time, and assuming that the remnants of any famine-ravaged group would then vote against the existing government, this would not, on its own, be a strong incentive to avoid or eradicate famine. The point is that a famine becomes a political disaster for a ruling government due to the reach of public reasoning, ‘which moves and energizes a very large proportion of the general public to protest and shout about the “uncaring” government and to try to bring it down’.

The second point is the informational role played by democracy. As one of the tragic consequences of China’s ‘Great Leap Forward’, the famine of 1958–61, shows, in situations where there is little public knowledge of the consequences of government policy, government can easily be misled. The vast number of communes and cooperatives which had failed to produce enough grain were, of course, aware of their own problem, but this information never reached Beijing; in fact, due to a variety of reasons, Chinese authorities mistakenly believed that they had 100 million more metric tons of grain than they actually had – the reasons include the fact that no collective farm wanted to acknowledge that it had failed; failures were kept a closely guarded secret by local party officials competing for credit in Beijing; rosy reports; and simply a lack of knowledge (IJ: 343–4).

Also read: Amartya Sen & Jean Drèze are Left heroes but it would be wrong to call them simple statists

As Sen reminds us, even Chairman Mao – much too late – recognized that, without the right kind of democracy, you are ‘unable to collect sufficient opinions from all sides; there can be no communication between top and bottom’ (Tse-tung 1974: 277–8). As Sen notes, Mao’s view of democracy is clearly one-sided here, as he is only concerned with the informational side. The reality is a little more complex. Despite the fact that China was committed to eliminating hunger, it did not substantially revise its disastrous policies due to lack both of information and incentive to do so, and this was due mainly to not enabling democracy as public reasoning.

Sen also provides support for his view of democracy as public reasoning with regard to at least three further important imperatives: development; human security; and minority rights.

This excerpt from How To Read Amartya Sen by Lawrence Hamilton has been published with permission from Penguin Random House India.

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