Charaiveti: Journey From India To The Two Cambridges And Berkeley And Beyond, Part 33

by Pranab Bardhan

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

After my several visits to Kerala, I wrote up an article, “On Life and Death Questions in India” for EPW, where I highlighted the welfare and demographic achievements of Kerala, the most advanced region in India in terms of many indicators of social democracy. Soon Raj and his colleagues (including my friend, T.N.Krishnan) produced a large, quantitative report for the United Nations Development Program, which brought to international attention the so-called Kerala model of development.

Back to Delhi, I was soon after invited to two conferences which were somewhat different from the usual specialized technical conferences I was used to. One was a conference organized jointly by the World Bank and the Institute of Development Studies at Sussex on the general theme of how to achieve fair distribution and economic equality without sacrificing economic growth in developing countries. The emphasis was not so much on paper presentation with specialized research but more on thinking aloud on big issues. The conference was held in the grand surroundings of Villa Serbelloni, the conference center at Bellagio on a hill facing the beautiful blue Lake Como in Italy (the Villa’s history goes back a few centuries: it is claimed that Leonardo da Vinci was a guest there).

At this conference I met a number of important development economists, who became long-term friends; these included Albert Fishlow and Irma Adelman (both of whom were later my colleagues at Berkeley) and Lance Taylor (later at New School of Social Research), apart from Montek Ahluwalia (later a top economic-bureaucrat in Delhi) and Clive Bell (later a professor at Heidelberg), who were among the conference organizers and the editors of a subsequent volume titled Redistribution with Growth (for which they commissioned me to write a short section).

Montek, Clive and others wrote up a few policy papers drawing upon the conversations at Bellagio, which were then discussed at a follow-up conference at Sussex in September 1973. I particularly remember the date because on September 11 during a morning session at this conference the news broke that there had been a military coup in Chile, that violently deposed the democratically-elected socialist government, criminally aided and abetted by the Nixon-Kissinger administration. The Latin American participants at the conference (which included Alejandro Foxley, who later became a Finance Minister in Chile after the end of the military rule) became visibly too disturbed to carry on normally in the rest of the conference. (September 11, which happens to be my birthday, is associated with two tragic historical events, once in 1973 in Chile and then in 2001 in US; recently, looking at my ID and birthdate, a shop assistant in US was expressing unnecessary sympathy for me, but I told her to look at the positive side: this way my loved ones will not easily forget my birthday!)

The Sussex conference also brought me friendship with senior development economists like Gus Ranis (of Yale) and Erik Thorbecke (of Cornell); I also got to know two famed bureaucrat-economists, Mahbub ul Haq (from Pakistan) and Lal Jayawardena (from Sri Lanka).

The other non-specialist conference around that time, where the emphasis again was on brain-storming on big issues was organized in India jointly by J.P.Naik, the energetic member-secretary of the Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR), and Kalpana (who was then working at ICSSR). It got many of the major thinkers on Indian political economy together at Lonavala (near Pune), a hill station surrounded by green valleys. During summer it rains there almost non-stop the whole day, so we were trapped at the residential conference center, and had no alternative but to keep on talking and thrashing out many issues that usually did not get fully discussed on other occasions. I also got an opportunity to know two stalwart senior Indian economists there, V.M.Dandekar and M.L.Dantwala. Dandekar was a statistician-turned-economist, a sharp-minded maverick, with leading contributions to measurement of poverty, and designing of crop insurance schemes for farmers and rural employment guarantee programs for the landless. Dantwala was a foremost agricultural economist, who in his politics combined his belief in Gandhian decentralization with ideas forged in his earlier association with the Congress Socialist Party. After dusk in Lonavala, it was quite an experience to listen in to the polemical discussion between these two old friends, one sharp-tongued, and the other soft-spoken but spirited, both animated by shots of whiskey.

Around this time I had got an offer from Delhi School of Economics to fill the chair recently vacated by Amartya Sen. TN was not happy, but after some cogitation I decided to take it, primarily because I was missing a proper university campus with lots of students around, and also because DSE was near our apartment complex, saving me the long trip to New Delhi every day.

At DSE even though I continued my large empirical research projects, more of my time went into teaching. I have always been invigorated by teaching students; even apart from teaching, the general presence and company of so many young minds around refresh you. At DSE my Masters students included Bhaskar Datta (one of the best economic theorists DSE has produced) and Rahul Khullar (one of the ablest administrators DSE has produced). At his graduation, Rahul told me that his own inclination was to do academic research with me, but he had to defer to his parents’ strong desire for him to be an administrator. My Ph.D. students included Sudipto Mundle, later a major policy economist. (Toward the end of my stay at DSE another student, fresh-arrived from UK and seemingly quite radical in his political inclinations at that time, came to see me and expressed his desire to do research with me, but as I was soon to leave, I asked him to look for some other supervisor: this was Prannoy Roy, later a star TV personality and psephologist, and a co-founder of NDTV).

In the DSE faculty, apart from Mrinal, Dharma Kumar, and André Beteille, I was also close to Raj Krishna, a colorful personality and a famed agricultural economist. It is unfortunate that since his untimely death in the 1980’s people seem to remember his describing the first 3 decades of India’s slow growth by the term ‘Hindu rate of growth’ (a term devoid of its contextual irony becomes rather inane) more than his solid empirical and policy work. There were other distinguished names in the faculty like Sukamoy Chakravarty (by the time I joined DSE he was mostly busy at the Planning Commission), Prasanta Pattanaik (a soft-spoken social-choice theorist), A.L. Nagar (a guru to many of his students in econometric theory), K.L.Krishna (popular with the students for his indefatigable devotion to teaching and supervision in applied econometrics), and the sociologist Veena Das.

Veena used to mockingly describe economists as mere useful ‘handymen’ for particular policy jobs, presumably otherwise not very deep or respectable as social thinkers. I was recently reminded of this when I found my friend Esther Duflo (the youngest Nobel Laureate ever in Economics) describing the economist’s role as that of a ‘plumber’, useful in fixing things. Keynes had also wanted economists to be “humble, competent people, on a level with dentists”, but it is worth noting that he himself went far beyond that level, gave himself the grand role of saving capitalism!