Democracy boosts economy: Amartya Sen

August 4, 2003
Singapore Democrats

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Express News Service
31 July 2003
http://www.indianexpress.com/full_story.php?content_id=28719

Would India have fared better had it not been a democracy? No, according to the Nobel laureate Amartya Sen. He debunked the theory that democracy impedes economic growth and stymies development. Instead of becoming China or South Korea, chances were that India’s development trajectory would become more like Pakistan’s, which is “not always democratic”.

In spite of malnutrition and poor health services, India was better equipped to deal with these problems with all its democratic institutions in place.

Instead, he blamed the Opposition in India for not putting enough pressure on the government and “allowing those in power to get away with gross neglect” in achieving the desired goals of basic education, elementary health care, gender equality and land reforms.

“More vigorous pursuit of these goals would have improved the quality of democracy,” Sen said at the inaugural session of a National Seminar organised to translate the ideas of his book Development as Freedom into an action framework. The seminar has been jointly organised by Sri Ram Centre and Ficci.

Sen said the argument put forward that democracy has been a retarder of economic growth was ill-conceived and based comparisons with selective countries which have achieved high growth under authoritarian regimes, like South Korea and China. Equally, there have been countries which were under dictatorships like Pakistan, Afghanistan and Sudan which did not experience high economic growth.

Sen pointed out another possibility that the critics of democracy were missing out on. “In fact the proximate comparison comparison of India with a not-always democratic country must be with Pakistan, and somehow that does not tend to be the focus of the rosy portrayals of the non-democratic alternative that India is supposed to have missed,” he said.

The China famine in 1958-61, the Asian economic crisis and even SARS epidemic were pointers to the holes in the argument that authoritarian governments are better then democratic ones.

“Once the financial crisis led to a general economic recession, the protective power of democracy, was badly missed in these countries.”

Talking of health, he said in terms of mortality rates India was fast catching-up. The gap has now halved (China:70 and India:63). “Since economic reforms, Chinese health care system has abandoned its earlier commitment to social insurance for all…”