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Of poverty trap and economists

In the war over ‘social indicators’ and the poverty debate, India has produced ample thinkers and tinkerers, but only some deserve the ringside view from start to finish (even if that’s never going to happen).

The intellectual wrangling between Amartya Sen and Jagdish Bhagwati, the two doyens of modern Indian economics, ocuupying the firmly opposite camps, is, nevertheless, as entertaining as it is edifying. Sen and Bhagwati, have, almost always, found themselves in rival factions of economic policies, from Sen’s much-lauded welfare economics and underlining rights and entitlement as stepping stones to achieve redistribution of public wealth, to Bhagwati’s emphasis on growth first, so as to pull the downtrodden from the so-called ‘poverty trap.’

It is beyond a fraction of doubt that both economists have their own prescriptions for what they strongly believe to be the same end, yet, their ideological battle seems to have re-intensified over the past few months, especially after Sen’s throwing his weight around the UPA’s flagship Food Security bill. Sen is of the opinion that right to food and health is a fundamental right of everyone, and unless a legal entitlement to minimum food and nutrition is in place, malnutrition would get the better of India’s massive workforce.

Moreover, Sen’s model of capability building includes addressing the needs and wants of laboring people, particularly the lower middle and the poorer classes, who, as the economist asserts, are routinely pushed out of the growth story. Sen advocates a growth graph that has room for the have-nots, in fact pulling them out of the vicious poverty trap by understanding how the economics of poverty actually works, without making a virtue of the situation. In this context, it is worth-noting that while Bhagwati extols the virtues of the Gujarat model of development, Sen points out that the golden state has in fact fallen short of standards when it comes to redistribution of revenues and inclusive development.

Although, Sen’s favourite Kerala model of development has now visible chinks in its armour, and his recent endorsement of the Nitish Kumar-led Bihar model of development also isn’t without its detractors, nevertheless, the debate has humongous implications when it comes to re-engineering our economic policies to address gaps in wealth creation and redistribution.
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