Mythili Bhusnurmath, Indian Express,
Posted online: Sunday, March 26, 2006 at 0126 hours IST
New Delhi, March 25: When Amartya Sen speaks, the rest of the world listens. So when the Nobel laureate spoke at the India International Centre in New Delhi at the launch of Capabilities, Freedom and Equality – Amartya Sen’s Work from a Gender Perspective, edited by Bina Agarwal, Jane Humphries and Ingrid Robeyns, the jam-packed auditorium heard him in pin drop silence, broken only by the occasional laugh in response to the Sen’s ready wit.
A self -confessed ‘feminine economist’, who in the 60s was regarded as a bit of an eccentric, according to Sen himself, his hour-long conversation with Martha Nussbaum of the University of Chicago was the highlight of the book launch. And in typical Sen style, sparkled with wit and insight. The fact that his first name ends in an ‘a’ led many Westerners in the early days to assume he was a woman and that made it easier for them to understand his interest in gender economics, he chuckled.
Talking of how women in India are conditioned not to think about themselves, he said unlike in the West where women would answer with a ‘fine, thank you’, or words to that effect, in response to a ‘how are you’, most women in India would respond with ‘the family is fine, thank you’, instead.
Of all inequalities, gender inequalities are the hardest to address, he admitted. While Sen, a strong votary of freedom, argued against any kind of restraint, Prof Nussbaum was equally firm in her call to restrain freedom in certain areas, saying some freedoms are more important than others. The state, she said, would have a role to play in the case of say, domestic violence against women
Sen was more skeptical, not because he was any less a defender of women’s rights, but because the state, he felt, was notoriously inefficient in discharging its duties. Till the reform of the 90s, India called itself a ‘socialist’ state, but did the state ensure even basic healthcare and education, he asked. The debate was not conclusive – such debates never are – but for the many who heard him, including the large number of women, there was no doubt where Sen’s heart lay – with the women.