PUCL Bulletin,

December 1998

Amartya Sen's on the role of basic education

The whole country, from the President downwards has suddenly discovered a genius in Professor Amartya Sen after he got the Nobel Prize in Economics.

The country is proud of Amartya Sen that he has brought glory to the country. Bengalis have hailed him as a great and "quintessential Bengali intellectual", yet others have written about his marxism and his view about market economy, globalisation, and so on. A few have written about his concern for victims of famines and his theory that famines are caused not by shortage of food grains. The Bengal famine in 1943 - one of the significant works of Amartya Sen is on this famine - in which more than three million people died without raising a finger by way of protest, was caused by hoarding of food grains. The government failed to handle this great calamity.

All these are, no doubt, important aspects of Amartya Sen's studies and contributions.

Regrettably, the most important contribution of Sen has hardly been noticed by commentators including academics and political leaders. This relates to the role and importance of basic education in economic development, which is immediately and directly relevant for India. It is on account of non-implementation of Article 45 of our Constitution laying down that the state is "to endeavour to provide within a period of ten years from the commencement of the Constitution, for free and compulsory education until they complete the age of 14". The Supreme Court is a judgement in 1993 made it a fundamental right.

This law has been treated contemptuously by all successive governments including the present one. (It may be mentioned in passing that this journal has been the only one in this country which has highlighted this contribution of Amartya Sen which he first elaborated in India in a lecture in early 1995 - the Bulletin published a summary of his lecture in the April 1995 issue. Since then we have drawn attention to this aspect of human rights violation - deprivation of basic education - a number of times).

Professor Sen's theory, which recognised by the Nobel Prize Committee, is that without compulsory universal education, no economic development is possible. He writes: "The remarkable neglect of elementary education in India is all the more striking given the widespread recognition, in the contemporary world, of the importance of basic education for economic development. Somehow the educational aspects of economic development have continued to be out of the main focus" in our country.

Sen has offered convincing reasons for the wilful and criminal neglect of basic education: "The traditionally elitist tendencies of the ruling cultural and religious traditions in India may have added to the political problem. Both Hinduism and Islam have, in different ways, had considerable inclination towards religious elitism, with reliance respectively on Brahmin priests and on powerful Mullahs….. The elitist hold is quite strong in both these religions [even today]. This contrasts with the more egalitarian tradition of Buddhism". He adds that in our country both ancient and modern biases shape our policies reflecting prejudices of class divisions as well as traditional cultures, and that even left-wing political parties as well as traditional cultures, and that even left-wing political parties are not interested in combating inequalities in our country.

Another significant thing to which Sen has drawn attention is that the contrast between importance given to higher education and neglect of basic education is "intolerably large", and this inequality helps to sustain social disparities. And, as we all know, social disparity gives rise to human rights violation.

R.M.Pal 2 Nov'98

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