The Mother Teresa of economics

Another award for Amartya Sen (right), with West Bengal's Chief Minister BIKAS DAS/AP
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The Independent Online
WHEN NOBEL prize winner Amartya Sen is invested with the Jewel of India at a glittering ceremony before the country's president, prime minister and cabinet, and broadcast live on television, it will complete the apotheosis of the man dubbed the "Mother Teresa of Economics".

From free flights to a dessert named after him, Professor Sen has become India's greatest hero. Since the nation learned in October that he was to be awarded the Nobel Prize for economics, India has given him the full celebrity treatment. The crowning glory came in the presidential announcement last week that Professor Amartya Sen, first foreigner to be Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, is to be awarded India's highest civilian award, the Bharat Ratna, or Jewel of India.

Superstardom is not the normal lot of a professor of economics, not even one as pathbreaking and committed as Amartya Sen; and in India, celebrity on this scale is always tinged with mystical overtones, as Gandhis from the Mahatma to Sonia have been careful to exploit.

But Professor Sen, an unassuming man from Bengal, who has spent most of his professional life in the United States and the UK, is an atheist, as he let slip in an unguarded moment. So it was particularly strange for him when someone thrust a pen in his hand during a walkabout in Shantiniketan, his hometown near Calcutta. "Where is the book?" Sen asked in bewilderment, looking for something to sign. "I do not want your autograph, sir," the man said. "Just touch the pen and bless it, and I am sure my son will pass his exam."

Sen's daughter Antara, found his great homecoming bizarre. "By the time `the human face of economics' arrived at Calcutta," she wrote in the Indian Express, "he had become a god." His new tag, she learned, was "the Mother Teresa of Economics". As people crowded round to absorb his aura or gain his blessing, "his smile grew steadily goofier. His effort at retaining his natural humility made him look like Uriah Heep. This down-to-earth academic was slowly, publicly being mutated into an extra- terrestrial".

Unsuccessful countries are possessive about their great achievers, but even so Amartya Sen's treatment in India was over the top. Air India and Indian Railways gave him free lifetime passes. For travelling back home to Bengal, a special saloon coach was hitched to the train. In Calcutta, even before the Nobel, Sen was the epitome of how the city likes to see itself: cultured, brilliant, loquacious, homespun, a true heir of the 18th-century Bengal Renaissance.

When the news about the Nobel came through, an illuminated float depicting the professor receiving his prize was commissioned for the city's big religious festival. A new dessert made from lentils was named Nobel Amartya in his honour. At a huge ceremony in the indoor stadium where Mother Teresa's funeral was held, West Bengal's octogenarian communist chief minister, Jyoti Basu, pronounced the professor's views to be perfectly in accordance with his own. It was not true, but Sen was nice enough to overlook that.

Although Amartya Sen has lived abroad for many years, the subject of his work has always been the poverty of India and other Third World countries, and how to overcome it. His fundamental contribution, according to an Indian colleague, is that "he brought the element of ethics into mainstream economics ... His basic thesis is that an economic system must be sensitive to society as a whole, especially the poor".

Professor Sen is a philosopher of economics in the heroic mould of Adam Smith, Marx and Keynes, a scholar who, like them, has taken as his subject the entire condition of man and society. The seed of his life work was sown when as a child he witnessed the catastrophic Bengal famine of 1943. Neither he nor any of his middle-class friends or relatives suffered in the disaster, but hundreds of thousands of rural labourers died. Many years later, in Poverty and Famines (1981), he wrestled with the paradox that famine can occur even when there is no absolute shortage of food.

Sen has always kept aloof from politics, and has been scathingly critical of India's failure to eradicate illiteracy and provide basic health care. "What you do not sow, you do not reap" is his broad verdict on India's chronic failure to extricate itself from the quagmire of mass poverty.

He has been banging the drum about the vital importance of basic education for more than 30 years, and while many in India have paid lip service to his ideas, in practice they have largely ignored them. The honour accorded this prophet in his native land has been mainly symbolic.

It is tempting to see the slightly frantic lionisation of Amartya Sen in this period as more of the same, an attempt to compensate for the failure to take his ideas seriously by loading his person with honour and esteem. But Sen is not gloomy. "The neglect of literacy has cost the country so much," he said this week in Cambridge. "It's appalling to see how it's been neglected decade after decade, and the policies today are roughly the same as they were in the Sixties. But the fact that more people were willing to listen this time was a great source of satisfaction. I was very encouraged that some state governments paid attention. There was lots of interest."

He is setting up a trust fund with some of the Nobel prize money to help to get some of his pet initiatives in India and Bangladesh off the ground.