Economist Abhijit Sen passed away on the night of 29 August, 2022. He was 72. For a long time he has been regarded as one of India’s leading agricultural economists who made a very important contribution to government policy, particularly in the context of public distribution system.
India’s structure of food security has been created to a considerable extent on a system of procurement food crops at a higher price from farmers and supplying at a lower, subsidized price to consumers. It is ideas and scholarship such as those of Prof. Abhijit Sen which contributed much to this. He emerged as a firm advocate of universal public distribution.
Those who were doubtful about this said that it will be difficult to go on for long with these subsidies. Sen countered this criticism by arguing that it is certainly possible at a fiscal level to accommodate a genuinely fair procurement price for farmers with an affordable price for consumers.
This brought him closer to the food rights movement in India and just as he was offering high level advice to the government as well as several United Nations agencies, he was able to find the time for helping food rights activists as well and in being generous to help younger colleagues in taking forward similar ideas and research.
Abhijit Sen obtained his doctorate from Cambridge University. After this he taught at Sussex, Oxford, Cambridge and Essex , 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. An important justice-based idea he advocated, and which has found a lot of support, is that while calculating the costs of farmers, the contribution made by family work should also be included. He also helped some state planning boards, in particular the boards of W.Bengal and Tripura.
Perhaps his even more important policy role was in the Planning Commission which he joined in 2004 and where he continued to contribute till this most important national planning organization was abolished very quickly in 2014 by the newly installed NDA government as one of its priorities.
However even the new government continued to value his advice as he now headed a task force on long term food grain policy.
He was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 2010.
He is survived by his wife Jayati Ghosh, an eminent economist, and daughter Jahnavi Sen, a journalist who is Deputy Editor of The Wire.
Abhijit Sen has left us when there is a yearning for implementing his ideas among a large and increasing number of people. There is increasing appreciation now of the need for ensuring a fair price to farmers, particularly to small and medium farmers and some of the biggest struggles of farmers have centered around this issue. Although there is growing concern for other important issues as well such as eco-friendly farming and sustainability aspects of farming, the issue of fair price for farmers remains a common one in all systems including organic and natural faming systems. Similarly while there has been concern lately regarding the dominance of rice and wheat in public distribution system and the need for bringing in millets and pulses in particular has been emphasized, there is wide agreement that the basic structure of public distribution system reaching out even to very remote parts of the country should be protected and improved. What is more, there is increasing interest of several other countries of the global south in such systems and their improved versions. The National Food Security Act of India in particular has attracted a lot of attention when food security arrangements in various countries of the global south have been discussed. In this context it is well to remember here that the scholarly work of Prof. Abhijit Sen had contributed to this as well as other important and well-regarded initiatives of India to reduce hunger.
In such efforts the sage advice of Prof. Abhijit Sen will be certainly missed in future but then there is the invaluable treasure of his scholarly work which will continue to remain a source of help and guidance.
Bharat Dogra is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now.