Amartya Sen was born on November 3, 1933 at Santiniketan, in West Bengal, India. He completed his BA from Presidency College, Calcutta in 1953. He then went on to do his second BA from Trinity College, Cambridge from where he also received his PhD in 1959. He was the recipient of a number of awards both from Cambridge University and from Trinity College. These include: Adam Smith Prize, 1954; Wrenbury Scholarship 1955; and Stevenson Prize, 1956 given by the University and the following from Trinity College: Senior Scholarship, 1954; Research Scholarship, 1955; and Prize Fellowship, 1957.
His professional elections and awards include the following:
-Fellow of the British Academy
-Fellow of the Econometric Society
-Honorary Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge
-Foreign Honorary Member, American Academy of Arts and Sciences
-Member of the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei
-Member of the American Philosophical Association
-President, The Econometric Society, 1984
-President, The International Economic Association, 1986-89
-President, The Indian Economic Association, 1989
-President, The American Economic Association, 1994.
He was the Master at Trinity College from 1998-2004 whereupon he will return to Harvard University.
He has taught at the University of Oxford, the London School of Economics, the Delhi School of Economics and Jadavpur University, Calcutta.
In 1998, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics for his 'contribution to welfare economics'.
His work has focussed chiefly on famines and hunger and he began by looking at the Bengal famine of the 1940s. He showed how hunger and famine is a man made phenomenon. Part of his explanation of the 1974 Bangladesh famine is that flooding throughout the country significantly raised food prices, while work opportunities for agricultural workers declined. Due to these factors, the real incomes of agricultural workers declined so much that they were disproportionately stricken by starvation. His work undertakes hard economic analysis and broader questions about the best ways to determine whether poverty is increasing or decreasing. The Nobel Committee announced that Sen "has restored an ethical dimension to the discussion of vital economic problems".
He has overcome serious health problems as well. At the age of 18, he was diagnosed with cancer of the mouth. At this point, the severe dose of radiation that he received in a primitive Calcutta hospital cured the cancer but also killed off the bones in his hard palate. A recurrence of the cancer in 1971 was successfully operated upon.
I include below the banquet speech that he gave on December 10, 1998 at the Nobel award ceremony in Stockholm.
Your Majesties, Your Royal Highness, Ladies and Gentlemen,
More than two millennia ago, the poet Horace said, "It is lovely to be silly at the right moment." Well, I plead silliness in taking this to be the right moment.
Here is my first silly thought. Disciplinary boundaries can generate giddy suspicions. Physicists can receive post-modern criticism. Biologists took a long time to shake off the creationists. Economists and social scientists are, of course, especially suspect. W.H. Auden gave eloquent expression to this scepticism:
Thou shall not sit
With statisticians nor commit
A social science.
Well, we are reconciled to going on "committing" social science, sitting in our lonely corner, but it is nice to be able to see what the others are up to, on an occasion like this remarkable celebration of science and culture.
In fact, I am privileged to have known, as a child, the great Bengali poet, Rabindranath Tagore, who received the Nobel Prize in literature in 1913, and whose achievements include, among many other things, the authorship of the national anthems of two different countries - India and Bangladesh. Tagore had set up an unusual school in Santiniketan, where my grandfather was teaching; I was born on the school grounds. The school aimed at offering education that was at once local and global. As Tagore put it: "Whatever we understand and enjoy in human products instantly becomes ours, wherever they might have their origin." His universalist, tolerant and rationalist ideals were a strong influence on my thinking, and I often recollect them in these divisive times.
I believe that Chandrashekhar, the astrophysicist, who also originated in India, when he received his Nobel Prize in Physics, quoted a poem of Tagore, in praise of freedom of the mind: "where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit." Let me praise Chandrashekhar's praising of Tagore's praising the freedom of the mind.
Now a seriously silly thought. From this focus on open-minded reasoning, there is much that economists too can learn. The subject stands to lose a lot from dogmatic beliefs of one kind or another (for example, we are constantly asked: "Are you against or in favour of the market? Against or in favour of state action? Just answer the question - no qualifications, no 'ifs' and 'buts,' please!"). This is an invitation to replace analysis by slogans - to be guided by grand dogma, either of one kind, or of another. We do need "the clear stream of reason." What Tagore, the poet, and Chandrashekhar, the physicist, demanded, we need in economics too - for much the same reason. That is the last silly thought I inflict on you tonight.