R&D Bulletin: Arjun Sengupta Remembrance Issue (CDHR Bulletin)


NCEUS photoMaking the Case for a Rights-based Approach

Economic & Political Weekly, October 16, 2010

By Ravi Srivastava 

Arjun Sengupta passed away in Delhi on 26 September 2010. He never spoke about his illness and not even his closest associates were aware that the end was so near.

At the time of his death, Arjun Sengupta was a member of the Rajya Sabha, elected from West Bengal in 2005 as an independent with support of the Congress and the left parties. He was chairman of the Institute of Economic Growth (IEG), the Research and Information System (RIS), and the Centre for the Development and Human Rights (CDHR). He was also chairperson of the Inter-Governmental Working Group (IGWG) of the Human Rights Council on the Right to Development, a position to which he was elected in 2007 with support from all countries.

A Long Career in Public Policy

After graduating from Calcutta University, Arjun Sengupta did his PhD from MIT and then taught as lecturer in the London School of Economics. He returned to India and joined as a Reader in the Delhi School of Economics (1969-71), where he met his economist wife, Jayshree.

D-1883He subsequently joined the government and became economic advisor to the M ministry of Commerce (1974-77) and the Minister (Economic) in the Indian High Commission in London. He served as Economic Advisor to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi from 1981 to 1984. He subsequently became executive director for India, Bangladesh and Bhutan in the International Monetary Fund (IMF) (1985-88) and special advisor to the IMF Managing Director during 1988-90. In 1990, he became India’s ambassador to the European Union, and then went on to serve as member-secretary of Planning Commission from 1993-98.

Between 1998 and 2002, he served as Professor of International Economic Organisation in the School of International Studies in Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). During 1998-99, he was also a member of the Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council. From 1999 to 2004, he served as the Independent Expert for the Right to Development for the Human Rights Commission, Geneva, and then its Independent Expert for Human Rights and Extreme Poverty (2004-08). He was also Adjunct Professor of Development and Human Rights, Harvard School of Public Health, and chairman of the Legal Commission of the Poor.

During his career in public policy, Arjun Sengupta remained partisan to the Congress-Left and to a Left-of-Congress ideology. He was a member of the party’s economic cell and a member of its manifesto committee in the run-up to the 2004 and 2009 elections. Even after the Congress-Left alliance broke up in 2009, he wrote an article in the Asian Age making a case for it.

While he was committed to reforms (both national and international) he also remained deeply committed to the role planning and public policy in developing countries, including India. He chaired two influential committees, the Committee on the Role of the Public Enterprises, 1984, and the Committee on Petroleum Products Pricing, for the Government of India, 1998. He wrote on a very wide variety of subjects. Leaving aside his writings in the last decade, many of his earlier major contributions were on the themes on international financial cooperation; north-south dialogue; reform of the IMF; and the problems of highly indebted countries. (Several papers were published in this journal).

Since 1999, his major contribution and writings were on themes related to a rights-based approach to development, and this remained his dominant concern and passion till the time of his death.

Right to Development

DELHI 2007 105Arjun Sengupta became the Independent Expert on the Right to Development (RTD) in 1999 for the UN Commission on Human Rights and contributed six reports on RTD between 1999 and 2004. These reports elaborated on the “Declaration on the Right to Development” adopted overwhelmingly by the member states on the UN in 1986 (with the US casting the lone dissenting vote). He also wrote a number of academic papers on the subject and with the support of Harvard University on the Right to Development carried out two large projects in south Asia and India, respectively. These projects were the beginning of his re-engagement with India and Indian academics which increased when he later became chairman of the National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganised Sector. I came into contact with Arjun Da first in 2000 when he asked me to write the country paper on the right to education for the RTD project.

Arjun Sengupta’s contributions to the right to development constitute, in my view, a very significant contribution to the ongoing debate in India on the rights-based approach which could be profitably studied by the community of scholars and activists engaged with rights. His reports and papers provide a formidable basis for arguing that positive rights and collective rights were possible. He argued that the enforceability of collective rights and implementation of programmes was possible even without their being converted into legal rights (introducing justiciability did remain a superior course wherever possible). The right to development was linked to a path of development in which national governments were obliged to ensure that the human rights were progressively realized and this approached added value to existing approaches to development.

His rights-based approach to development ensured a large and definite role for public policy. In a paper published in this journal he argued that:

When development is seen as a human right, it obligates the authorities, both nationally and internationally, to fulfil their duties in delivering (or in human rights language, promoting, securing, and protecting) that right in a country. The adoption of appropriate policies follows from that obligation. Nationally, the government must do everything, or must be seen as doing everything to fulfil the claims of a human right. If the right to food, education, and health are regarded as components of a human right to development, the state has to accept the primary responsibility of delivering the right either on its own or in collaboration with others. It has to adopt the appropriate policies and provide for the required resources to facilitate such delivery because meeting the obligation of human rights would have a primary claim on all its resources – physical, financial, or institutional – that it can command (Sengupta 2001:2531).

In the same paper, he argued that the right to development approach implied certain key elements, including participation, equality of opportunity, and equity in outcomes.

In his subsequent role as independent expert on human rights and extreme poverty, he again wrote as many as six reports (including a mission report on extreme poverty in the United States), defining extreme poverty as a violation of human rights and elaborating on the role of the state and the international community. Two papers on this theme were published in this journal in 2007 and 2010, respectively.


Arjun Sengupta became chairman of the National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganised/Informal Sector (NCEUS) set up by the United Progressive Alliance government as per its commitment in its Common Minimum Programme (later the term “informal” was dropped from the title of the commission).

The NCEUS was to act as an advisory body and watchdog for the informal sector and recommend measures considered necessary for increasing employment and bringing about improvement in the productivity and competitiveness of these enterprises. The nine-point terms of reference of the commission were focused on unorganised enterprises although they also included labour and employment-related issues. That the government did not consider the welfare of labour as the centrepiece of the commission’s work was clearly demonstrated by low representation of workers’ organisations of its advisory body.

Initially, assisted by one full-time member (K Jayashankar, an MP from Andhra Pradesh), he was joined in March 2005 by another full-time member (K P Kannan of the Centre for Development Studies). There was a six-month interregnum in 2005 when Arjun Sengupta first resigned as chairman (due to the controversy over offices of profit) and rejoined in December 2005. By then, he had been diagnosed and operated for prostate cancer. Soon afterwards, I replaced Jayashankar when the latter resigned from the commission to take up the cause of Telangana state which was closer to his heart.

When I joined the NCEUS, its report on social security was in the final stages of preparation and there was pressure to meet deadlines. Yet, Arjun-da would insist on going back to the drawing board, question each and every statement, evidence and conclusion in the draft. If was impossible to satisfy his appetite for questions, and to simultaneously meet his deadlines (as a former bureaucrat his loved to impose impossible deadlines). In every piece of work that the commission did, he would always play the role of the devil’s advocate, helping the others sharpen arguments (there were long, lengthy and sharp but very warm discussions within

the commission), and also throw away whatever emerged as being weak or indefensible. He was always both provocative and willing to be provoked, and full of wit, and gave his colleagues full freedom to develop their own ideas. Later, when his daughter, Madhura (Mitu), a political scientist based in Canada told me of the freedom and the relationship that she enjoyed with him, I could easily recognize the same traits in his working relationship with us.

He believed in the role of markets but equally strongly that they did not work for the poor. He argued that public policy and intervention were needed for focused interventions to support the informal economy and the poor. Institutions such as the Planning Commission, he thought, spent an inordinate share of their time in supporting interventions and markets for the organised segment of the economy, for whom, in any case, markets worked best.

He was not a critic of economic reforms per se, but the analysis of consumption patterns and trends, which he carried out jointly with K P Kannan and G S Raveendran provided a devastating critique of increasing inequality under reforms and the inordinately slow trickle down of the rate of aggregate growth. The analysis of growing consumption inequality and persistence of high poverty and vulnerability was not very methodologically sophisticated, but it convincingly showed the highly unequal distribution of benefits of post-reform growth and the high band of the “poor and vulnerable” in India. Undoubtedly, the most quoted finding of the NCEUS was its description of 77% of Indians (called poor and vulnerable) living on an average of less than Rs. 20 per day per capita. The government’s unease with these findings probably increased in tandem with their being cited by the oppositional political spectrum and by civil society but the “official” rebuttal (using a methodology different from that of the NCEUS) came in the Economic Survey of 2008-09 which stated that in 2004-05 “for the country as a whole the per capita consumption expenditure of 60.5% of population was less than Rs. 20 per day” and a cruder rebuttal of the commission’s findings as well as his own government’s came from P Chidambaram, who, upon being questioned on the NCEUS findings in a lecture on Naxalism in JNU, reportedly told a student: “how can India have 60 crore mobile phones? This is a simple parameter to negate the report. I am sure I can help you being a better economist.”

Unfinished Agenda

The need to focus policy and intervention on the growing numbers of the “poor and vulnerable” (and hence use a targeted approach) was to be complemented, in his thinking, by a universalist rights-based approach. He drew heavily on the rights discourse from his own work for the UN and saw no contradiction between the universal language of rights and his own emphasis on the focused and targeted approach for the poor. His passion, in the last days of the NCEUS, and indeed his own last days, was to persuade his colleagues to work on the right to employment, by which he meant working on the contours of a rights-based policy regime which would ensure work with dignity for all Indians. This was also the theme of his presidential lecture to the Indian Society of Labour Economics in December 2009, delivered in absentia. The last report of the NCEUS (“The Challenge of Employment: An Informal Economy Perspective”) provided a huge empirical and analytical edifice on which he felt further work could take place.

The report and the other contributions of the commission were discussed in an international conference organised by the International Labour Organisation and the Institute of Human Development in April 2010, where he both decried government apathy with regard to the key recommendations and identified the future agenda. Arjun-da started to lose his struggle with his disease within weeks of this conference, but still rallied occasionally to discuss future workplans with us. When he finally succumbed, he left behind a monumental legacy of work on improving, with dignity, the lives and livelihoods of India’s working poor, which no regime can hope to sidestep.

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