If one were to forget for a moment the ridiculous debate on what price could one have a full meal in Delhi and Mumbai, and also cut through the fog of arguments and counter-arguments by statisticians and economists on the latest poverty figures put out by the Planning Commission, one could accept the larger point that the number of poor people has reduced in the last 10 years.
While we receive the news of poverty reduction, we are also presented with the evidence of general economic slowdown.
In such a scenario, what we need is a wide-ranging debate on how to help the economy to recover.
The media has reduced the entire debate to the personalities of two academic stalwarts — Amartya Sen and Jagdish Bhagwati — whose intellectual positions, we are asked to believe, have been defined by their political inclinations and professional rivalry based on, among others, only one among the duo having got the Nobel.
As Vinod Mehta wrote in Outlook, ‘Played across three continents, it has all the gravitas of a Katrina Kaif-Priyanka Chopra Bollywood tiff’.
This begs two questions: First, have we really understood the positions of Sen and Bhagwati, and second, are the solutions to the problems of the Indian economy to be found only in these two polar positions?
Let us take the first. Arvind Panagariya, an economist and professor at Columbia University, has argued in The Economic Times: ‘Two extreme characterisations of the positions of the two sides have emerged.
The first has it that the differences between them are minimal with each side expressing the same ideas in a different language.
The second depicts Bhagwati as advocating solely growth and Sen solely social spending. Both characterisations are plain wrong’. Panagariya has delineated the points of convergence and departure in both positions, and has created immense scope for a nuanced debate. However, without attempting to explore any other possibility, we have simplified it into a growth vs development debate and given readers a binary menu to choose from.
In the second point, our opinion is against middle-of-the-road solution seeking. Take the mid-day meal and the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS).
For every horror story from Bihar or Bloomberg report about a company commissioned to supply food under the ICDS in UP serving rations unfit for consumption, there is Tamil Nadu, where successive chief ministers have competed to increase the number of eggs in mid-day meals; and Madhya Pradesh, which ranks at the top of the best performing states in kitchen construction and procurement in the last six years.
On a recent visit to Ajmer in Rajasthan it was understood that enrolment had gone up from 30 to 293 students in the last two years due to community involvement in preparing and serving hot meals mostly to banjara or gypsy children as a part of the mid-day meal scheme.
It is time we rise above petty point-scoring and create a common pool of ideas shared between states where the success of one can be replicated by the other without bias. Why should Delhi shy away from learning about the wonder that Ahmedabad has done at its river front?
And why should Mumbai shirk Delhi’s example of running a metro?
In any case, economy is too important a topic to be left solely to economists. In a country as large and diverse as India, relying on just data can often be numbing.
In our culture, lessons are best learnt when stories are told. We need to rekindle a culture where the best stories and examples are held forth. We need modern parables, writers who will revive ancient wisdom in a spanking new context. We need laws, the application of laws and stories that explain the magic of that dharma to us.
Today demography is on our side. A young India has seen a country very different from what the older generations experienced. We had a great opportunity to present them a future characterised by hope and positive restlessness. But in the clamour for scoring television screaming points, aren’t we losing out an opportunity to get history on our side?
Prodyut Bora is national executive member, BJP and Hindol Sengupta is the author of The Liberals
The views expressed by the authors are personal