In the backdrop of the ongoing economic crisis in Sri Lanka, several social media users have shared an image of Nobel laureate Dr Amartya Sen along with the following statements: “Sri Lanka is ahead of India in Happiness Index, Sri Lanka is doing far better than India in Hunger Index, Sri Lanka has done better than India in GDP Index too.” Due to the nature of the graphic, viewers can misinterpret these statements as quotes by Sen.

Alt News has received multiple requests on our WhatsApp helpline (76000 11160) to verify the authenticity of this claim.

It must be noted that the timeline of the alleged statements is not clear. Several users claim that Dr Sen’s statements date back to one year (1, 2), while several others claim two years (1,2,3,4). Twitter user @AreyBangdu shared a graphic in question and claimed that these statements were made two years ago.

A screenshot of @AreyBangdu’s tweet has been widely shared on social media. Facebook page Kashmiri Pundit posted the screenshot and garnered over 1000 likes and 345 shares. Another page called Pradhanmantri Meme Yojana posted this screenshot and garnered 1500 likes and almost 300 shares.

Some tweets have also cited Dr Sen’s 2013 book ‘An Uncertain Glory: India and its Contradictions’ which he had co-authored with welfare economist Dr Jean Drèze. (Archived link)

The earliest tweet claiming this information is dated July 11, 2022.

The Sri Lankan Economic Crisis

According to a BBC report, many experts blamed the current crisis on former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his failed attempt at providing for the domestic markets. At the end of its civil war in 2009, Sri Lanka imported more and exported less, which led to an increase in import bills while the exports remained low. Consequently, Sri Lanka ran out of foreign currency. Mr Rajapaksa was also criticized for introducing tax cuts, which led to a massive decline in government revenue.

On the other hand, the government blames major events like the 2019 bombings and the COVID-19 pandemic for the decline in tourism trade- one of Sri Lanka’s biggest foreign earners.

Rajapaksa fled the country on July 13 as his presidency was met with huge protests. Ranil Wickremesinghe has been sworn in as acting president.

Analyzing the indices mentioned in the viral claim

An index is a sign or a measure that something else can be judged by. The viral claims involve three indices, namely – the Happiness Index, the Hunger Index, and the GDP Index.

The happiness index or the World Happiness Index is based on The World Happiness Report which is a publication of the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network. Nations are ranked according to happiness which is also correlated with various life factors. According to the World Happiness Reports, India ranked higher than Sri Lanka in 2013 and 2015, while Sri Lanka took the lead in the subsequent years of 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020 and 2021.

The official index related to hunger is the Global Hunger Index which tracks hunger globally, nationally and regionally. It is prepared by European NGOs of Concern Worldwide and Welthungerhilfe. India has ranked lower than Sri Lanka over nine consecutive years from 2013 to 2021.

The first two indices mentioned in the viral claims turn out to be true. Both World Happiness Index and Global Hunger Index have put Sri Lanka ahead of India for many years, including the latest reports (2021).

As for the GDP Index, there are various ways of comparing the GDPs of two countries and Alt News could not ascertain which index had been used in the claim. We reached out to welfare economist, Dr Jean Drèze for a clarification, wherein he said, “This is a red herring. I don’t even know what the term GDP Index intends to refer to in these alleged statements. What matters is GDP or GDP per capita, depending on the context.” It must be noted that neither GDP nor GDP per capita is clearly mentioned in the viral claims.

Fact-check

We did a Google keyword search but could not find a single credible report on Dr Sen’s alleged comparative statements on Sri Lanka and India’s rank in terms of the World Happiness Index, Global Hunger Index, or the GDP Index.

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Analyzing ‘An Uncertain Glory: India and its Contradictions’ in context of viral claims

Dr Sen has not made any detailed comparisons between Sri Lanka and India recently. Some of the viral tweets cited the 2013 book An Uncertain Glory: India and its Contradictions, co-authored by Dr Sen and Dr Jean Dreze as the source of the claims. In this section, we have highlighted some of the comparisons made in the book.

Alt News searched the book for relevant keywords. The book analyses India’s attempt at addressing the post-independence challenges faced in the areas of healthcare, education, and rising inequality, among many others. It draws several comparisons between the countries in the Indian subcontinent looking at various social indicators.

Excerpt from An Uncertain Glory: India and its Contradictions

It must also be noted that on page 47, the authors do make comparisons in terms of per capita GDP. Although not a direct measure of GDP, the per capita GDP breaks down a country’s economic output per person.

On pages 48-49 of the book, the authors compare education in Sri Lanka and India. They state that, in comparison to the increasing interest in private education in India, private schools in Sri Lanka (which is much ahead of India in terms of social indicators) have been prohibited since the 1960s. They also compare the two countries’ planning in terms of access to immediate healthcare.

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The authors also rank the South Asian and East Asian countries in terms of Adult Literacy Rate and Youth Female Literacy Rate.

Page 87

The authors then highlight India’s abysmally low expenditure on public health as a percentage of GDP compared to Sri Lanka, China, and Brazil at the time.

Page 110

The authors have also listed the growth rates of the Gross Domestic Product and State Domestic Product of several countries including India and Sri Lanka. Contrary to the viral claims, India had higher growth rates than Sri Lanka during 1980-81 to 1990-91 (Sri Lanka- 2.4 and India-3.1), and from 2000-01 to 2010-11 (Sri Lanka- 4.5 and India-5.9). The two countries had the same value (3.9) during 1990-91 to 2000-01.

Page 210

Sen and Drèze also published a paper named Putting Growth in its Place in 2011. The paper contains the same comment on India’s performance in terms of social indicators among South Asia’s six major countries (including Sri Lanka) as the aforementioned book.

Commenting on the viral claims, Dr Drèze says, “It is a well-established fact that Sri Lanka has done better than India on a range of social indicators for a long time. The last time we commented on this was in 2013, in our joint book An Uncertain Glory: India and Its Contradictions. The fact that Sri Lanka is going through an economic crisis in 2022 does not contradict anything we wrote at that time. Whether we look at Sri Lanka or China or Kerala, we must always learn from both failures and successes.”
Thus, as is evident, the authors have not drawn any direct comparisons between Sri Lanka and India in terms of the World Happiness Index or Global Hunger Index or the “GDP Index”. The authors have compared the per capita GDP and growth rates of the per capita GDP of the two countries, neither of which is a direct measure of GDP.

Analyzing comments made at the 2018 book launch

In 2018, at the launch of ‘Bharat Aur Uske Virodhabhas’, the Hindi edition of his 2013 book, Sen reportedly said that 20 years ago among India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bhutan, India was the second best after Sri Lanka in terms of various social indicators. Times Of India quoted Sen, “Now, it is the second worst. Pakistan has managed to shield us from being the worst.” The comments made by Sen during the event can be viewed at the 25:00 mark on the YouTube channel Rajkamal Books. Barring this, he made no other comparison between India and Sri Lanka.

Within a week of Dr Sen’s comments at the launch, NITI Aayog Vice Chairman Rajiv Kumar told PTI, “I wish Professor Amartya Sen would spend some time within India and actually look at conditions on the ground. And at least review all work that has been done in the last four years by the Modi government before making such statements,” Kumar told PTI in an interview.

Amartya Sen on viral claims

Alt News reached out to Sen via email along with the screenshot of Twitter user @AreyBangdu. He responded, “Thank you for your letter, I have not made any comparative statement between Sri Lanka and India for many decades (not to mention two years), and I can only conclude that Mr Bangdu, whom you quote, likes propagating false statements. It is interesting that some alleged loudspeakers prefer lying rather than looking for truthful statements!”

Hence, it is quite evident that Dr Amartya Sen has not made any comparative comment between Sri Lanka and India based on their respective World Happiness Index, Global Hunger Index and “GDP Index”. In his book, ‘An Uncertain Glory: India and its Contradictions’, Sen, along with co-author Drèze, compared the per capita GDP and the growth rates of the per capita GDP of the two countries (which are not direct measures of the GDP). Contrary to the viral claims, the book states that the growth rate of the per capita GDP of India is, in fact, higher than that of Sri Lanka. Thus the quotes that are being attributed to Dr Sen are false.

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About the Author

Student of Economics at Presidency University. Interested in misinformation.