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KN Raj inspired others to think big

By Pranab Bardhan
February 22, 2010 16:25 IST
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The late economist inspired a generation to think big and to aim at understanding the larger political economy of India, says Pranab Bardhan.

At the recent passing away of KN Raj, who had been inactive and of failing health for many years, most young economists today may not realise how influential he had been to my generation of economists.

I'd even make the personal claim that he has influenced my own work more than any of the more famous Indian economists whom I have had the good fortune to come in contact with.

Around the late 60s, Raj was the main person who induced me to leave my new teaching job at MIT to go to Delhi.

This gave me the opportunity to immerse myself in Indian data and empirical work, helped by the tradition of painstaking empirical work in the Indian Statistical Institute where I first went. I did not take up his invitation to join the Delhi School of Economics until a few years later, but we lived near his university quarters, and frequently interacted.

Many early mornings he'd wake me up at the end of his morning walk across the Ridge near the university. Raj was as usual excitable and passionate about many of the economic and political happenings of the day, and his refreshing company quickly washed away the mild irritation of a habitual late-riser like me.

I had, of course, read some of his by then well-known publications, but it was the few chapters of his (I believe) never-published monograph on "Accumulation in an Agrarian Economy" which he gave me to read that really inspired me.

It was an unfinished draft, rough and unsatisfactory in many ways, but never before had I seen an economist trying to get the big picture about the fundamentals of the Indian economy and put it in a coherent institutional framework while grappling with the demands of development theory.

Looking back, I can see how some of my own subsequent theoretical and empirical work on agrarian relations has been shaped by ideas imbibed in reading and interacting with Raj.

Among Indian economists, no one had a larger vision of the structure of the Indian economy, combined with a grasp of the micro features of its diverse aspects (from land relations to planning and comparative development, from agricultural taxation to savings and monetary policy, from industrial growth and unemployment to the economics of the sacred cow).

One of my major journal articles published in Econometrica was a mathematical formalisation of an idea first exposited by Raj (jointly with Amartya Sen) on the optimum allocation of foreign exchange in a multi-sector Mahalanobis model.

Of course, I did not always agree with him. I sometimes found his penchant for political correctness and reflexive economic nationalism a bit jarring for my taste. But he encouraged differences in opinion and provided vigorous intellectual challenges to a whole generation of younger scholars.

He contributed so much to the development of the Delhi School of Economics, India's premier academic institution in economics, acting as a magnet for superior scholars and keeping its relative autonomy from the political processes of the kind that later frustrated him in his short tenure of vice-chancellorship at Delhi University.

Discussing those frustrations with him gave me some insights into the cesspool that the politics of higher education in India represents to this day. He told me at that time that he decided to go back to Kerala not just out of frustration in Delhi, but he thought that Indian academics should try to build institutions at local levels.

He did build one - Centre for Development Studies (CDS) - at Thiruvananthapuram with a great deal of enthusiasm and energy. He tried to lure me (and my wife) to join CDS, and even offered to get me land on which he'd persuade his friend Laurie Baker to build us a low-cost, energy-efficient beautiful house (like his own).

In CDS, he did not merely provide intellectual leadership, he was the pater familias in the group, solving all kinds of their non-academic problems as well. After a whole day of teaching and seminars, in the evening he'd visit his colleagues' homes, try to solve their multifarious problems, including matters of family tension, while his wife,

Sarsamma, will minister to their sundry medical needs. Once driving me from CDS to the airport, when I was all praise for the young institution and the community he was in the process of building, he asked me if I had any word of criticism. I told him it was too much of a "Hindu undivided family" for my taste. Raj corrected me and said it was not "Hindu" - he did not seem to mind the "undivided family" part.

While I did not join CDS, though visited it a few times, Raj did twist my arm to take up the only work I ever did for a government - he got me to chair a commission of enquiry into Kerala's plantations appointed by the CPI government of Achutha Menon, a friend of Raj. (I and Suresh Tendulkar, a co-member, did write a report, which by now insects must have chewed up in some ministry dungeon in Thiruvananthapuram, but this gave me an opportunity to have a closer look at Kerala's remarkable society and economy, and the beautiful landscape, which I cherish to this day.)

After a visit to CDS in 1974, I wrote up a short article, "On Life and Death Questions in India", for the Economic and Political Weekly, where in the first part I highlighted the welfare and demographic achievements of Kerala.

When Raj saw the article in EPW, he called me and said that a more detailed and authentic version of what had impressed me would soon be available in a report he and his colleagues were preparing for UNDP - this report heralded the so-called Kerala model of development, later brought to world attention in the writings of Amartya Sen.

At a time when economists all over the world, including in India, are getting extremely narrowly specialised, often not seeing the wood for the trees, I mourn the passing away of a towering figure, who inspired my generation to think big and to aim at understanding the larger political economy of India.

The author is professor of economics at the University of California, Berkeley.

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