In Memoriam: What India owes economist Abhijit Sen
He shaped India’s policy responses to hunger, food security, remunerative prices for farmers and affordable prices for poor consumers, the push to universalise PDS, and much more
Prof. Abhijit Sen, who passed away on the night of 19 August at the age of 72, was one of India’s leading agriculture economists and made vital contributions to government policy, particularly relating to the public distribution system (PDS).
India’s food security rests to a large extent on a system of procurement of food crops at a higher price from farmers and supplying food grains at a lower, subsidised price to consumers. Sen’s ideas contributed much to this, and he was a firm advocate of universal public distribution.
Cynics doubted the long-term sustainability of such subsidies, but Sen argued that it was supportable at a fiscal level to accommodate a genuinely fair procurement price for farmers and ensure an affordable price for consumers.
This brought him closer to the food rights movement in India and even as he was advising the government as well as UN agencies, he always found time to help food rights activists and younger colleagues take forward similar ideas and research.
After getting his doctoral degree from Cambridge University, Sen taught at Sussex, Oxford, Cambridge and Essex, before finally joining the Centre for Economic Studies and Planning at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi in 1985.
He headed several important committees. He was chairman of Agricultural Costs and Prices Commission, India. He also helped some state planning boards, including West Bengal and Tripura.
An important justice-based idea he advocated was to include the contributions of a farmer’s family members while calculating the cost of a crop.
Sen was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 2010.
He played an important policy role in the Planning Commission, which he joined in 2004 and continued to serve till 2014, when it was abolished by the newly installed NDA government. Two other contributions by the eminent economist should be mentioned here. One was in the form of a long-term foodgrain policy which is considered important for resolving several vexing issues. Secondly, his contributions to the campaign for eco-friendly farming and agro-ecology should also be remembered. He was a founding member of the Steering Committee for the National Coalition for Natural Farming.
Sen is survived by his wife Jayati Ghosh, an eminent economist, and daughter Jahnavi Sen, a journalist who works as deputy editor of 'The Wire'.
Sen’s ideas have been hugely influential in shaping enlightened responses to the need to ensure fair prices for farmers, particularly small and medium farmers. Although there is growing concern for other important issues as well, such as eco-friendly farming and the sustainability aspects of farming, the issue of fair prices for farmers underpins all systems, including organic and natural farming systems.
Similarly, while the dominance of rice and wheat in the public distribution system has been questioned and the need to include millets and pulses, in particular, emphasised, there is wide agreement that the basic structure of the public distribution system, taking it to the remotest parts of the country, should be protected and improved.
Several countries of the global south have embraced these systems and even improved upon them. The National Food Security Act of India, in particular, has attracted a lot of attention whenever food security arrangements are discussed in countries of the global south. Sen’s contributions to this and other initiatives in India to reduce hunger are a legacy that will surely endure. But even as his scholarly work continues to inspire, his sage advice will be sorely missed.
(Bharat Dogra is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now)