Charaiveti: Journey From India To The Two Cambridges And Berkeley And Beyond, Part 27

by Pranab Bardhan

All of the articles in this series can be found here.

At ISI one day the American economist Daniel Thorner walked into my office and engaged me in a lively conversation, with his dancing eyebrows and unbounded enthusiasm. I had, of course, read his many substantive papers in EW on Indian agriculture and economic history. I also knew how in the early 1950’s, in the McCarthy era, he had lost his job at University of Pennsylvania for refusing to give information on his leftist friends, and then went on to live in India, with his wife Alice (a fellow India-scholar) for 10 years, before taking up a position in Paris. Now when he came to see me he had just read my EPW paper showing on the basis of NSS data that poverty had increased over the 1960’s in rural India. He asked me not to put so much trust on NSS data (he jokingly said that increasing poverty estimates by NSS data might be a reflection more of the increasing sense of misery on the part of the underpaid NSS workers), and to accompany him in his next trip to Punjab villages where he promised to introduce me to beer-drinking tractor-driving women farmers, the harbingers of the future of agricultural capitalism in India. Much of what he said was, of course, tongue-in-cheek, and we became good friends. But this friendship was to be a ‘brief candle’, as cancer soon cut his life short.

There were two ways Daniel had unwittingly nudged me in a direction that I was already contemplating for my next line of research with data analysis. One was to probe deeper into the quality of survey data in India (particularly NSS data); and the other was to attempt collecting my own data on many interesting questions that NSS data did not cover.

On the first, TN was a great guide, as throughout his professional career he had repeatedly probed Indian data quality issues, more at depth than most other Indian economists. (In 2019, after TN passed away, when I was invited by the India Policy Forum in Delhi to give the first Annual Lecture in his memory, I chose Indian data quality as my theme). At ISI both of us found some problems with NSS data, but on the whole we remained impressed by the survey-design as originally envisaged by Mahalanobis. I remember the statistician Nikhilesh Bhattacharyya, in response to the usual charge that field-investigators were now lazy and indisciplined, and prone to data manipulation, told me that NSS data-manipulation was not impossible, but Mahalanobis had built-in so many checks and cross-checks in the survey-design that to be an effective data-manipulator the field-investigator had to be a Ph.D. in statistics! (In recent years the bureaucratization of the NSS organization and running the surveys with casual insufficiently-trained workers and paltry resources have significantly diminished its quality, leave alone the indecent attempts at discrediting and suppression by the current Government of survey results that were not to its liking).

In 1974 (incidentally, the year of Daniel’s death) TN and I co-edited a volume of essays by several researchers on Poverty and Income Distribution in India, in which some essays, including mine, probed the quality of NSS data. (At Abhijit Banerjee’s initiative, a new edition of the book with some additional essays came out in 2017). C.R. Rao, the great statistician and the-then Director of ISI, decided to celebrate the original volume’s publication by inviting Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to formally release the book.

I had strongly objected, saying that I was in general against politicians releasing academic books, and I was particularly against this specific politician (already there was a country-wide resistance movement led by the widely-respected J.P. Narayan against her leadership, which would culminate in her declaring an emergency the next year and suppressing all political opposition and dissent). C.R. Rao blithely ignored me, went ahead and on the day of the event ordered 4 chairs to be on the dais in front of a large and distinguished gathering. I refused to be on the dais with the Prime Minister and stood at the back of the gathering. I knew I had put TN in some trouble; I think he understood the nature of my objection, but he also had unflinching loyalty to Rao, his guru. Before the Prime Minister arrived Rao sent TN to me on a last attempt at persuasion, but I still refused. So at the last minute my chair was removed from the dais.

On the second direction where Daniel had nudged me, toward going beyond NSS data and collecting my own, my major guide and collaborator was another senior statistician-economist but at the Kolkata office of ISI, Ashok Rudra. I had met Rudra before but we really hit it off in one long train journey from Delhi to Kolkata when we found ourselves, unplanned, on the same train. Rudra was an unorthodox Marxist, with a doctorate in statistics, a prolific writer, both in English and Bengali, on diverse subjects (history, economic planning, radical politics, literature), fluent in French (separated from a French wife), a Tagore scholar, a biographer of Mahalanobis, and a top public intellectual of Bengal.

In that train journey when we started talking we found out, with the increasing exhilaration of discovery, that on many cultural and political matters we had similar views. For example, even though he was a Marxist and I was not (though I was intensely interested in the questions Marx raised), our criticisms of orthodox Marxist dogma and of the Marxists in Bengal turned out to be remarkably similar. After a point he proposed that we should write up a joint article spelling out these criticisms, and I agreed. It was already late night and other passengers were preparing to sleep, but we kept on talking, and discussing the structure and arguments to be developed in that paper. We decided that the week after I’d write the first draft. This was the first of our many future joint papers. In a few weeks it was published in EPW with the tell-tale title, “Totems and Taboos in Left Mythology”. Needless to say, the article brought forth severe criticism, even vitriol, in Left circles, but at least it was spared the label of being ‘reactionary’ with which leftists usually branded most criticisms, since Rudra’s Marxist credentials were difficult to doubt.

As the train was hurtling through the night we kept on talking. At one point I told him that I was keenly interested in what Marxists call ‘relations of production’ and the nature of inter-relationships in villages between landlords and tenants, employers and employees, lenders and borrowers, but the data, including surveys like NSS, hardly scratched the surface. So we needed to carry out some detailed surveys of those inter-relationships on a large enough scale so that we could reliably generalize about whole regions. This required new forms of sample-designing. He as a statistician and a Marxist got excited, and we planned to pursue this. This was the origin of the many village surveys we carried out over the next decade and many articles we published both in India and abroad. Such large-scale data-intensive granular work on agrarian relations was at that time quite rare in development economics, so we were in somewhat uncharted territory. But it sure was exciting.