Economist and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen’s latest book, The Country of First Boys, is a collection of essays on an array of topics, ranging from development, justice, and education, to calendars, Rabindranath Tagore, and the importance of play. In an interview with The HinduProf. Sen spoke candidly about the need to prioritise human security and not just national security, the controversy that has dogged the Nalanda University, and, drawing inspiration from Adam Smith, the need for an intelligent response to rampant capitalism. Excerpts:

In your book, you speak of the different priorities of human security and national security. Don’t you think national security often becomes an alibi for not spending enough on human security?

Well, there are three things. Firstly, security ultimately is a matter in which the leading concern should be around human life. So if we are speaking of security, it has to be human security. Since this also means security from external threats and violence, what we call national security is only one of the constituent factors in human security.

Secondly, it is true that in the name of national security, resources are often not allocated to things on which human security depends, such as education, health care, and a social safety net. And sometimes, national security in the political context seems like a barrier rather than a component to fostering human security. But at the same time, when we consider reducing the budget for national security, we also have to think of the other implications. There’s no reason why there should be a conflict between the two.

Thirdly, the neglect of education, health care, and social safety net has been so foundational in India, so deeply rooted in the class structure of the society, that to blame it all on national security would be a mistake.

Your work has helped shift the focus of development from economic growth to concerns about the quality of human life. Is it time now for another shift — from human development to social justice, as the true measure of a nation’s progress towards being a more developed society?

When we came up with the Human Development Index (HDI), the idea was to have a simple index that would capture something better than the GDP figures. If you look at the very first Human Development Report (HDR) of 1990, we invoked the idea of justice in a number of cases. I think as human development grows as a discipline, justice will increasingly become a bigger component of it.

How do you respond to critics of development economics such as Arturo Escobar and Majid Rahnema, who argue that the very discourse of development perpetrates a regime of powerlessness and ‘unfreedom’ among those identified as ‘underdeveloped’, who are then coerced to follow the Western model of industrialisation and market-led development?

I respond with a great deal of scepticism to this line of reasoning. Adam Smith [whose major work, The Wealth of Nations, was published in 1776] was constantly concerned about human life, about distribution, the divide between the rich and the poor, the role of the market in the efficient production of commodities and the government’s role in providing education, health care, and social safety nets. I think this lesson remains relevant. To call it a ‘Western model’ undersells it. The market economy was not purely an invention of the West — there was trade between Egypt and Babylon, and you find trade seals in Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro.

But there was no capitalism at that point.

That’s true, but capitalism is a very peculiar term. The way the interests of the poor are consistently neglected — if you call this capitalism, then I would object to this kind of system. In this sense, Smith was in many ways an anti-capitalist. While he was in favour of private ownership of capital, he also thought that whenever rich men got together, they conspired on how to defraud the poor. He never used the word ‘capitalism’, but he was against the excessive power of capital; so am I; and in many ways, so was Karl Marx.

Coming to the subject of Nalanda, people have criticised Dr. Gopa Sabharwal’s appointment as vice-chancellor of the university. They point out that she neither has any background in Buddhist studies nor does she fit the UGC criteria for vice-chancellorship — at least 10 years as a professor in a university set-up.

She is a very good vice-chancellor. It’s not surprising that given the Indian caste system, caste-like issues have cropped up, with people saying that for a vice-chancellorship, the candidate’s caste has to be that of a professor and not a reader, and certainly not a lecturer. In such a regime, the great American universities would not have flourished.

Secondly, Nalanda is not a Buddhist university, nor was the old Nalanda. So, had we looked for a monk to run the university, it would have been a mistake — that was not what we were seeking.

There’s a new chancellor now, George Yeo from Singapore. Chancellor Yeo has made a public statement saying that Dr. Sabharwal is a very suitable vice-chancellor and he would like her to continue. The propaganda against Dr. Sabharwal was quite orchestrated.

In your book you poke fun at the Indian Left for its “antiquated understanding of imperialism” and its obsession with “American imperialism”. The U.S. has 900 military bases in 130 countries — you think there is no such thing as American imperialism?

It is certainly unbalanced that America has so many bases across the world, and to worry about it is legitimate. But to be able not to think of anything else is a mistake. I was thinking particularly of the time when the Left decided to pull the government down over India’s nuclear deal with the U.S.

Is there such a thing as American imperialism? In some ways there is. But there is some Indian imperialism as well. There’s also some Chinese imperialism, and some French and British too. American imperialism is much more important than these, that’s true. But I am against a situation where the Left cannot think independently because of their obsession with one thing.

Now the party is under a new leadership with Sitaram Yechury, and one hopes that there will be more intelligent thinking. I am in favour of humanity, equity and justice, but also in favour of intelligence.