Arjun Sengupta

Arjun Sengupta at his NCEUS office, New Delhi, 2008

(June 10, 1937 – September 26, 2010) Arjun Sengupta was the Founding Chairman of CDHR.

He was born in Kolkata in 1937. He received his undergraduate and master’s degrees from the Presidency College, Calcutta, and a doctorate in Economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), USA. His career included eminent posts such as Special Secretary to the Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi (1981–1984), Executive Director and Special Adviser to the Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund (1985–1990), India’s Ambassador to the European Union (1990–1993), Member Secretary of the Planning Commission (1993–1998), and Member of Parliament, Rajya Sabha (2005 until his death).

His academic career included teaching at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi School of Economics, London School of Economics and Harvard University. Arjun Sengupta served as the UN’s Independent Expert on the Right to Development and the UN’s Independent Expert on Human Rights and Extreme Poverty. He was a member of the United Nations Development Program’s Commission on Legal Empowerment of the Poor.

Work on the Rights-Based Approach to Development

In 1999, Arjun Sengupta became the Independent Expert on the Right to Development (RTD) for the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. He produced six reports on the Right to development between 1999 and 2004. These reports elaborated on the ‘Declaration of the Right to Development’ adopted by the UN in 1986 (the United States cast the lone dissenting vote). He also wrote several academic papers on the subject, and with the support of Harvard University, implemented two large projects in South Asia. In his subsequent role as the UN’s Independent Expert on Human Rights and Extreme Poverty, he wrote as many as six reports, including a mission report on extreme poverty in the United States.

According to Ravi Srivastava, Professor of Economics and Jawaharlal Nehru University, “Sengupta’s contributions to the right to development constitute… a very significant contribution to the ongoing debate in India on the rights-based approach” (Ravi Srivastava, “Making the Case for a Rights-Based Approach,” Economic and Political Weekly, October 16, 2010). Srivastava says that Sengupta’s reports provide a “formidable basis” for arguing that positive rights and collective rights are possible. Indeed, Sengupta argued that the enforceability of collective rights via the implementation of development programs was possible even without their being converted into legal rights (though he recognized that justiciability did remain a superior course of action).

The right to development was linked to a path of development in which national governments were obliged to ensure that human rights were progressively realized. But international organizations were also seen as having an important role. In a seminal article published in 2001, Sengupta 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, 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 the resources – physical, financial and institutional – that it can command” (Arjun Sengupta, “Right to Development as a Human Right,” Economic and Political Weekly, July 7, 2001 ).

Work as Chairman of the National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganized Sector

Upon his passing, various published tributes to Dr. Arjun Sengupta indicated that his most significant contribution was the final report he produced as the head of the National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganized Sector (NCEUS), a cabinet-rank position that he held from 2005-2009. This report, released in April 2009, revealed that, despite many years of economic growth, 77 percent of India’s population continues to live on less than Rs. 20 per day, and that as much as 86 percent of India’s workforce is in the unorganized sector. The report also revealed that the vast majority of India’s ‘Poor and Vulnerable’ are from groups that face social discrimination, such as lower castes and Muslims. According to the report: “These groups emerge as a sort of a coalition of socially discriminated, educationally deprived and economically destitute” while “less than one fourth” of India’s population is enjoying the fruits of high economic growth. Under Sengupta’s Chairmanship, the NCEUS produced a total of ten reports in addition to submitting a number of proposals and working papers on selected issues, such as the global economic crisis, the informal economy, Special Economic Zones, and street vendors. Critical of existing government policy, the NCEUS pointed out that although enormous funds had been allocated and spent on social development programs, the benefits largely bypassed the poorest of the poor. It suggested designing special schemes for the vulnerable sections of Indian society through better targeting and social engineering. The commission’s recommendations on social security resulted in the enactment of the Unorganized Workers Social Security Act, 2008.

Government and Politics

Arjun Sengupta with his daughter, Mitu, Lausanne (2010)
Arjun Sengupta with his daughter, Mitu, Lausanne (2010)

Arjun Sengupta joined the Government of India in the early 1970s, assisting eminent policymakers such as P.N. Dhar and Sukhomoy Chakravarty to build an alliance with the nascent state of Bangladesh. Later in the 1970s, he worked in Commerce Ministry under then Commerce Minister, Pranab Mukherjee. During his stint at the Prime Minister’s Office in the early 1980s, Sengupta was reportedly unhappy about India’s 1982 loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and wanted more to be done for agriculture and small farmers. At this time, he also steered two important groups: the Narsimham Committee, which created the architecture of disbanding quantitative controls and replacing them with tariff and fiscal steps, and also the Sengupta Committee on public sector reform. Sengupta was a proponent of the need for an arms-length relationship with the political authority in public sector units (PSUs). However, while Sengupta was a market reformer, his vision was different than what was in currency at the time in the international financial institutions. Yoginder Alagh, a former Union Minister and Sengupta’s long-time colleague and friend, said that the reforms championed by Sengupta at the time “were our own, not big bang IMF/World Bank reform initiatives” (Yoginder Alagh, “The Humane Economist,” The Indian Express, September 28, 2010).

Upon his return to India in 1993 (from the US, where he was with the IMF, and Brussels, where he was posted as India’s Ambassador to the EC), Sengupta was appointed as the Member Secretary of the Planning Commission (India), under then Deputy Chairman, Pranab Mukherjee. Following a five year hiatus from the government, Sengupta returned as the Chairman of the NCEUS in 2004, and was elected to the Rajya Sabha in 2005.


Leave a Reply