Amartya Sen, Nobel Laureate 1998

Born on November 3, 1933 at Rabindranath Tagore’s (India’s first Nobel Laureate in literature, 1913) Santiniketan, West Bengal, Sen was named “Amartya” [“Not of this World”] by the poet himself. He was admitted to a convent school at Mandalay, Burma (now Myanmar) where his father Ashutosh Sen, a professor of soil chemistry, relocated in 1938.  Subsequently his family moved to Dhaka where he read at another missionary school until 1942 when the young Bablu (Amartya’s nickname) was sent to Pathbhavan school in Santiniketan.  Here in the eclectic and cosmopolitan environment of Tagore’s institution, Sen made his maiden acquaintance with world cultures.

Two tragic events of the 1940s–the Bengal Famine of 1943 and the communal riots between the Hindus and the Muslims later in the decade–left an abiding impression on the teenager.  He was deeply disturbed by the triumph of narrow communal and sectarian identity over the larger human identity of the Indians.  He was also struck by the doleful effect of “economic unfreedom” that made people victims of communal violence as well as economic disaster.

Sen matriculated from Pathbhavan, the high school at Santiniketan, with distinction in 1949, won first place in the Intermediate in Science examination of Calcutta University in 1951 as a student of Santiniketan’s undergraduate college Shiksabhavan, and came to the Presidency College, Calcutta to study economics.  He was placed first in B.A. Honors in Economics in 1953 and removed to Trinity College, Cambridge where he once again secured his wonted first in Economics Tripos and six years later, in 1959, obtained the Ph.D. under the supervision of Maurice Dobb.

At the Presidency College, Sen was influenced by his teachers like Bhabatosh Datta, Tapas Majumdar, and Dhiresh Bhattacharya as well as by his brilliant cohorts such as Sukhamoy Chakravarty, Mrinal Datta Chaudhuri (economists), Barun De, and Partha Gupta (historians), just to name a select few.  At Cambridge, he found himself in the midst of a brilliant academic battle between Keynesians such as Richard Kahn, Nicholas Kaldor, and Joan Robinson (who would later be Sen’s thesis supervisor) and the “neo-classical” economists like Dennis Robertson, Harry Johnson, Peter Bauer, and Michael Farrell.  In between these two sharply divided camps there stood the gentle but colossal figure of the Marxist economist Maurice Dobb, who took welfare economics seriously.  Trinity, Sen’s alma mater in the West, boasted of three economists, particularly, Dobb, Robertson, and Piero Sraffa, all of whom profoundly influenced the young scholar from India.   

Sen’s research is characterized by versatility and comprehensiveness.  He combines technical virtuosity and analytical rigor with a deep understanding of human psychology and ethics. He has written not only on economics but also on philosophy.  Within economics, his contributions range from the theory of social choice to the development of welfare and poverty indicators, as well as empirical studies of famine.  His early works laid the theoretical foundations for development economics.  Subsequently he studied capital theory and growth, moving onto social choice, where, contradicting the influential dictum of Vilfredo Pareto, he exposed the “paradox of the Paretian liberal” by demonstrating how the Pareto principle clashed with respect for personal liberty. 

However, he grounded the nature of choice not exclusively on rational motivations but also on human emotions and feelings such as sympathy or commitment.  During the 1970s he studied income inequality and constructed a new measure of poverty line--the so-called “Sen index”–which demonstrated how to measure the extent to which an individual drops below that line.  His seminal works on poverty and famines showed why and how famines are caused by a collapse of economic entitlement rather than a decline in the supply of food.  His philosophical writings have explored issues of justice, morality, liberty, rationality, inequality, and objectivity.  He provided a universal definition of human poverty as the absence of people’s capabilities.  According to this definition, the poor are poor because their set of capabilities is small–not because of what they do not possess but because of what they cannot do. From a theory of human capability Sen moved to a dynamic definition of human freedom and development–choice over a larger set of capabilities. Human development is the Sen paradigm par excellence.

In general, Sen’s work is squarely opposed to market fundamentalism, though he does not debunk the role of the market as an indicator of signals.  According to him, market forces or growth alone can never eradicate poverty and deprivation which must be tackled by purposeful public action.  He thus advocates state intervention in such areas as nutrition, health, education, and social insurance, which are linked to the outcomes of economic processes empowering people to become economic agents themselves.

Sen has been a global scholar and teacher, having earned twenty-eight honorary doctorate degrees from around the world and taught in three Indian, three British, and seven American universities.  Between 1956-1998 Sen was professor of Economics at various universities in India (Jadavpur University, 1956-58, Delhi School of Economics, 1963-71) and abroad (Fellow of Trinity College, 1957-63, Professor, London School of Economics, 1971-77, Professor, Oxford University, 1977-80, Drummond Professor, Oxford and Fellow, All Souls College, 1980-88, Lamont University Professor, Harvard University, 1988-98, and since January 1998 Master, Trinity College).  During 1960-84, Sen also held visiting professorships at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard, Stanford, Berkeley, and Cornell universities.

Despite his enormous international travel, teaching, and recognition, Sen remains an Indian citizen.  He has in fact donated his Nobel Prize money for setting up two foundations–one in India (Pratichi India Trust) for dealing with the problem of illiteracy especially the problems of primary education and the other in Bangladesh (Pratichi Bangladesh Trust) for tackling the problems of gender inequality. Strongly believing in Sen’s theory, India Development Service has supported, over the past twenty-five years, more than hundred small scale people’s participatory developmental projects, thus empowering the disenfranchised to become self- reliant.  

His global reputations notwithstanding, Professor Sen has been criticized as an unrealistic economist whose work in the field of poverty alleviation, though commendable, could, nevertheless, have very little impact in acutely problematic countries like India or those in sub-Saharan Africa.  It has been further argued that voluntary exchange occurring in the marketplace may be more moral than expropriation under the sponsorship of the state.  Thus, the best way to empower the poor would be to allow free operation of the market which provides the widest range of options for the poor.                        

In 1998, Sen’s reputation as a scholar came under fire from a group of economists.  His work on welfare economics was severely attacked by an Oxford researcher as “unoriginal” at best and “fraudulent” and even “dangerous” at worst.  Even after having become the Noble Laureate in October of that year as the sixth Indian and first Indian (and Asian) economist to achieve this honor, Professor Sen was dubbed by the Wall Street Journal as “the wrong economist” to win the prize.  A few others, at Cambridge and in India, raised issues with Sen’s works in welfare economics and famine.  Nevertheless, for many, Sen’s philosophical critique of the conceptual foundations of economics and his humanitarian approach to the discipline not only earned him such sobriquets as an “economist’s humanist” and “conscience of the profession” but also ranked him with such giants in the field as Adam Smith, David Ricardo, Karl Marx, John Maynard Keynes, and Michael Kalecki.

Sen and his first wife Nabaneeta Deb (m. 1960 and separated in 1971) have two daughters (Antara and Nandana).  He and his second wife Eva Colorni (m 1973 d. 1985) have a son (Kabir) and a daughter (Indrani).  Sen’s third and current wife is Emma Rothschild. Despite his long academic and professional association with the West, Sen remains an Indian citizen.  As a scholar and as an individual Professor Amartya Sen is a cosmopolitan–inheritor to the eclectic heritage of Rabindranath’s Santiniketan.



  • Sen, Amartya, Choice, Welfare and Measurement (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1982).
  • Sen, Amartya, Collective Choice and Social Welfare (San Francisco: Holden Day, 1970).
  • Sen, Amartya, Development as Freedom (New York: Knopf, 1999).
  • Sen, Amartya, On Economic Inequality (Extended edition and annexe with James Foster. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997).
  • Sen, Amartya, Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981).
  • Sen, Amartya and Jean Dreze, The Political Economy of Hunger, 3 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990-91).
  • Sen, Amartya and Martha Nussbaum, eds. The Quality of Life (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993).
  • Sen, Amartya, Commodities and Capabilities (Amsterdam: North-Holland, 1985).


  • Gasper, Des and John Cameron, “Introduction: Assessing and Extending the Work of Amartya Sen,” Journal of International Development, vol. 12, 2000. Report on the discussion of Sen’s Development as Freedom (1999) by Gasper, Cameron, and Ananta Giri. A critical analysis of Sen’s economics of inequality and theory of human development.
  • Das, Ujjvalkumar, Nobeljayi Amartya Sen [ Amartya Sen the Nobel Laureate]. Kolkata: P.N. Pustakalay, 1998. An interesting collection of reminiscences in Bengali by Sen’s family members and friends and associates. Helpful biographical material.
  • Desai, Meghnad, “Portrait: Amartya Sen,” Prospect (July 2000). A most astute analysis and assessment by an eminent British economist of Indian origin.
  • McPherson, Michael, “Amartya Sen” in Warren J. Samuels, ed. New Horizons in Economic Thought. Aldershot, UK: Edward Elgar Publishing Company, 1992. An analytical study of Sen’s economic writings.
  • Mitra, Barun, “Going Beyond Good Intentions: A Look at Amartya Sen,” Critique of Sen’s welfare economics.
  • Osmani, Siddiq, “The Entitlement Approach to Famine: Assessment” in K. Basu et al., eds. Choice, Welfare, and Development: A Festchrift in Honour of Amartya Kumar Sen. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995. Analysis of Sen’s studies of famine.
  • Ray, Bisvanath, ed. Welfare, Choice, and Development: Essays in Honour of Professor Amartya Sen. New Delhi: Kanishka Publishers, 2001. Anthology of scholarly articles on Sen’s economics.

This biographical account has been adapted from my essay the Nobel Prize Winners project 2001 of Salem Press, Pasadena, CA 91101. Following the 911 mishap of that year, the project was abandoned, the contracted authors paid their fees, but their contributions remained unpublished.


More by :  Dr. Narasingha Sil

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