Democracy is more than the sum of its parts : Amartya Sen

August 15, 2008 ,Indian Express

 In discussing the demands of social justice today, the priority of critical reasoning cannot but be central. But how do we analyse these demands? In probing the idea of social justice, it is important, I would argue, to distinguish between an arrangement-focused view of justice, and a realisation-focused understanding of justice. Sometimes justice is conceptualised in terms of certain organisational arrangements — some institutions, some regulations, some behavioural rules — the active presence of which indicates that justice is being done. The question to ask here is whether the demands of justice must be only about getting the institutions and rules right?

Two distinct words — niti and nyaya —both of which stand for justice in classical Sanskrit, actually help us to differentiate between these two separate concentrations. Among the principal uses of the term niti and organisational propriety and behavioural correctness. In contrast, the term nyaya stands for a more comprehensive concept of realised justice. In that line of vision, the roles of institutions, rules and organisation, important as they are, have to be assessed in the broader and more inclusive perspective of nyaya, which is inescapably linked with the world that actually emerges, not just the institutions or rules we happen to have.

Would it make a real difference whether we pay more attention to actual realisations of societies, rather than sticking to our favourite recipes about rules and institutions, be it free market, state enterprise, or support for or opposition to globalised economic relations? Is there a case for judging our favourite recipes through examining how they would influence the lives of people? And can we make the working of institutions and rules better in terms of their impact on social realizations?

One of the areas that call for urgent attention in India is the efficiency of delivery of public services. Consider the working of state-run elementary schools. Even though a great many primary school teachers are extremely devoted to their work and to their students, we observed a shocking incidence of absenteeism and delayed arrival on the part of many teachers in other schools. The neglect of teaching responsibilities is particularly strong when the students came mostly from underprivileged classes, for example from families of landless labourers and very low earning workers. And this has a profound effect on the schooling of poor and underprivileged children — sometimes first-generation school-goers unsure of their rights and unable to raise their voice. However, the problem cannot be tackled by administrative changes alone.

There is a similar picture of uncertain and disparate functioning in the delivery of primary health care. The reliance of even very poor people in India on private health care providers — some times even medical pretenders who combine quackery with crookery — is caused not only by the lack of enough public health institutions, but also by the poor functioning of existing public institutions for which government financing is actually available. In reforming the culture of work, and in cultivating responsibility and accountability, the unions can have a hugely positive and constructive role.

Perhaps there is too much pessimism — indeed fatalism — in India about the alleged unalterability of the working of established institutions and of behaviour patterns. Despite our lapses, which are large, our ability to respond positively to reasoned appeal and arguments remains strong enough.

I turn, finally, to democracy. We have reason to be proud of our determination to choose democracy before any other poor country in the world, and to guard jealously its survival and continued success over difficult times as well as easy ones. But democracy itself can be seen either just as an institution, with regular ballots and elections and other such organisational requirements, or it can be seen as the way things really happen in the actual world on the basis of public deliberation. Something of the focus of nyaya on the lives that people can actually lead has to rub on to the demands on democracy itself, not leaving it all only to the niti of having right institutional arrangements.

Indeed, the successes and failures of democratic institutions in India can be easily linked to the way these institutions have — or have not — functioned. Take the simplest case of success (by now much discussed), namely the elimination of the large-scale famines that India used to have right up to its independence from British rule. The fact that famines do not tend to

occur in functioning democracies has been widely observed also across the world.

Now take some cases of lesser success — and even failure. In general, Indian democracy has been far less effective in dealing with problems of chronic deprivation and continuing inequity with adequate urgency, compared with the extreme threats of famines and other emergencies. Democratic institutions can help to create opportunities for the opposition to demand — and press for — sufficiently strong policy response even when the problem is chronic and has had a long history, rather than being acute and sudden (as in the case of famines). The weakness of Indian social policies on school education, basic health care, elementary nutrition, essential land reform, and equal treatment of women reflects, at least partly, the deficiencies of politically engaged public reasoning and the reach of political pressure.

It is hard to escape the general conclusion that economic performance, social opportunity, political voice and public reasoning are deeply interrelated. In those fields in which there has recently been a more determined use of political and social voice, there are considerable signs of change. For example, the issue of gender inequality has produced much more political engagement in recent years ( often led by women’s movements in different fields), and while there is still a long way to go, this development has added to a determined political effort at reducing the symmetry between women and men in terms of social and economic opportunities.

There has been more action recently in organised social movements based broadly on demands for human rights, such as the right to respect and fair treatment for members of low castes and the casteless, the right to school education for all, the right to food, the entitlement to basic health care, the right to information, the right of employment guarantee, and greater attention on environmental preservation.

A government in a democratic country has to respond to ongoing priorities in public criticism and political reproach, and to the threats to survival it has to face. If the politically active threats are concentrated only on some specific new issues (no matter how important they may appear), rather than on the terrible general inheritance of India of acute deprivation, deficient schooling, lack of medical attention for the poor, and extraordinary undernourishment, then the pressure on democratic governances acts relentlessly towards giving priority to only those particular issues, rather than to the gigantic persistent deprivations that are at the root of so much inequity and injustice in India. The perspective of realisation of justice and that of an adequately broad nyaya ae central not only for the theory of justice, but also for the practice of democracy.

Excerpted from Amartya Sen’s Hiren Mukherjee lecture in the Lok Sabha, organised by the Speaker

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