The writings of Amartya Sen, the Nobel Laureate economist of Bangladeshi origin, are spread over vast areas of economics, often encroaching other academic disciplines, especially ethics and philosophy. Beyond being an academic of highest distinction, he is also a public intellectual and his overriding concern in both these roles is about how to promote public action and influence public opinion towards achieving an equitable and just society, which particularly addresses the needs of the underprivileged and offers human dignity to all. It is no wonder, therefore, that his ideas are of great relevance for developing countries that are striving to achieve economic growth with equity and social progress. This is obviously more so for India, and also for Bangladesh – the two countries that provide the socio-economic settings for much of its empirical works: hence the choice of the subject-matter for this write up, which is also meant to be a tribute to this great economist-philosopher of the contemporary world
Much of Amartya Sen's concerns are not just about the progress in the social development indicators for the average population of a country, but about inequalities in these indicators and what happens to its deprived sections. In this respect, again, Bangladesh's record so far has not been much disappointing, if at all, which is explained by the very factors that have contributed to this progress; but future challenges will be seen to be more akin to Sen's concerns.
The NGO-based interventions in Bangladesh, as well as some government programmes like domiciliary contraceptive services, have largely targeted households or individuals, mostly poor women, instead of using what Sen and Dreze call "the agency of the public", such as by involving local government institutions. As such, the interventions are mostly effective in promoting self-interested behaviour for increasing individual household welfare, even if the benefits accruing to the targeted households have elements of 'public good' (e.g. immunisation, birth control, sanitation, etc.). In the absence of effective local government, the NGOs in Bangladesh work almost at parallel with the centralised public service delivery systems; they have not been much successful in working as community-based organisations so as to enable the poor to claim public services or to sanction service failures. This limitation of the NGOs has also meant that they have been less effective in promoting social capital of the kind that contributes to improving social norms and behaviour. This explains the apparent paradox that in spite of the improvements in social development indicators achieved mostly by using the female agency, Bangladesh performs poorly in such aspects of female welfare as the incidence of child marriage and repression and violence on women. In this respect, Bangladesh's experience contrasts with Sen's discussion of how Kerala had early success in social and human development, which was achieved through effective local governance and local-level political mobilisation. It is true that some societal characteristics were helpful in the case of Bangladesh as well. For example, relatively low social barriers of class, caste or ethnicity compared to many other developing countries including India, along with opening up of certain economic opportunities, has helped in creating aspirations among the poor for upward economic mobility. These opportunities were provided by the very rapid spread of microcredit enabling rural agricultural families to diversify their sources of income into non-farm activities, the increasing phenomenon of labour migration for temporary overseas employment and the rapid expansion of the export-oriented ready-made garment industry providing employment mostly to young women from poor families; the later may partly explain why even the poor families are increasingly sending their children to school. However, these aspects of socio-economic mobility of the poor are very different from the political and social mobilisation in Kerala as described by Dreze and Sen.
Admittedly, further progress in many of the social development indicators in Bangladesh could be achieved through the 'income-mediated' path, as the living standards improve with continued increase in per capita income; but without an increase in the current low levels of public social spending, the gains would come mostly from out-of-pocket expenditure and would therefore likely to be unequally distributed. This is because family spending on health, education and quality food needed for improved nutrition are found to be income-elastic leading to increasing inequality in such spending among income classes with the increase in average income. As Sen observes, even in the case of 'growth-mediated' path of enhancing human development, the role of well-planned public support, especially for basic health and education cannot be denied (as he contrasts the experience of, say, South Korea with what he calls the "unaimed opulence" of Brazil).
The risks of such increasing inequality in the distribution of the health and educational outcomes are already evident from the past trends in the indicators for those outcomes for which out-of-pocket spending of households matters. Although we have seen that during the past decades of rapid progress the poor may have in fact gained more than the non-poor in school enrolment and infant and child mortality, the reverse seems to have happened in some other indicators, most importantly in child malnutrition. This should not, however, be taken to diminish the value of the overall rapid improvement in child malnutrition achieved thus far, in which the poor also have benefited albeit less so than the non-poor. In fact, a recent cross-country study by Headey in 2013 has concluded that in the recent decades Bangladesh had recorded one of the fastest prolonged reductions in child underweight and stunting in recorded history, narrowly behind the more celebrated case of Thailand in the 1980s and ahead of several success stories identified in the nutrition literature, such as Brazil, Mexico, and Honduras. In this context, some authors seem to have been overly concerned about the unequal progress as may have taken place in Bangladesh in some of the indicators.
Famine and food security
One important part of Sen's ideas about extreme deprivation of the underprivileged has to do with the analysis of food deprivation and famine. He has extensively analysed the Great Bengal Famine of 1942-44 as well as the 1974 famine in Bangladesh, the epicentre of both of which was the present Rangpur region in the north-west Bangladesh. Sen's analysis of famines has led him to two well-known propositions: (a) food deprivation of an epochal proportion such as famine does not happen in a well-functioning democracy (Indian famines in the British colonial period and the Chinese famine during 1958-61 being the examples of famines occurring allegedly because of lack of democracy) although such a democracy may suffer from chronic food deprivation (e.g. India), and (b) famine happens not necessarily because of shortage in food supply but because of the loss of "food entitlements" of the poor. Further academic debates and analyses have focused on the aspects of democracy that are conducive to preventing famines, such as the scope of public discussion and media coverage, and also the factors that lead to loss of food entitlement of the poor during food crises.
Sen's analyses of famine and food deprivation largely conform to the experience of Bangladesh where ensuring food security has always been a key element in the government's approach to social protection. Although Bangladesh has been far from a fully-functioning democracy, there has not been any major episodes of food crises since the famine of 1974-75; the underlying reasons of that famine have been analysed by Sen himself and other researchers. Since then, food security has been always a sensitive issue in media coverage and civic activism. It has also been argued that the experience of the famine in the early years of independence in 1974-75 resulted in a public psyche of "never again", thus creating an urgency for the government to ensure food security and the provision of minimum living standards for the poor. Government policies towards boosting food production, stabilising food prices and providing safety nets for the poor have all contributed to promoting food security.
An example of the sensitivity towards food security is provided by the recent initiatives in tackling seasonal hunger in an economically depressed region in northeast Bangladesh: the greater Rangpur region. Rangpur is well-known in the famine literature; it was among the worst-hit districts in the Great Bengal Famine of 1942-44 and was literally the epicentre of the 1974 famine in Bangladesh. The region has not only lagged in poverty reduction behind other regions, but has also remained particularly vulnerable to seasonal hunger (locally known as monga) linked to agricultural crop cycles. Only since the 2000s, the phenomenon has received special attention in the government's poverty reduction and food security programmes. The various recent initiatives undertaken for combating monga in Rangpur includes introduction of new crop technology, provision of public works and other safety nets, facilitation of out-migration, asset transfers to the poor, and introduction of specially designed microcredit programmes in addition to the regular ones. As a result of these initiatives, the most acute forms of food deprivation characterizing monga, such as foregoing meals altogether on some days, have now been almost eliminated.
The initiatives in combating monga in Rangpur have been prompted by widespread public awareness, which in turn has been largely created by media reports and civic activism. The resulting public action against monga is a testimony that political incentives even in a not-so-well-functioning democracy can be created for combating severe incidence of seasonal hunger as well, once the phenomenon catches public attention. However, lack of similar awareness may have resulted in neglect of other regions in Bangladesh that are vulnerable to seasonal distress.
Again, in 2018, Bangladesh faced a potentially severe food crisis in terms of large grain import bills and price volatility in the domestic grain markets. The military-backed caretaker government of the time responded by strengthening the food-based social protection programmes including large-scale open market sales of essential foods at subsidized prices in urban areas. The market supply of food grains was augmented through off-takes from government stocks and by importing large quantities of grains – both in the public sector and through private commercial channels. As a result, the per capita availability of food grains actually increased during the food crisis years of 2007 and 2008, even though the prices of both wheat and rice nearly doubled during this time, keeping pace with prices in the international markets. There was no decline in the real wages of day labourers in agriculture and other informal sectors in spite of this sharp price spike.
Although there were predictions that poverty rates would have been adversely affected by the food price increases, not much evidence of that could be found in the subsequent poverty estimates, with the poverty headcount rates falling more rapidly than ever between 2005 and 2010 from 44 percent to 35 percent.