T.N. Srinivasan: An economist for all seasons

  • Blog Post Date 20 November, 2018
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In a tribute to Prof. T.N. Srinivasan, Niranjan Rajadhyaksha writes that the death of Prof. Srinivasan – the iconoclast who laid the intellectual groundwork for India’s economic reforms – marks the end of an era.

T.N. Srinivasan towered over the field of Indian economics like a colossus. His death in Chennai on Sunday truly marks the end of an era.

Srinivasan, or T.N., as he was widely known, initially trained to be a statistician. He studied at the Indian Statistical Institute (ISI) in Kolkata. An uninspiring stint in Mumbai, doing statistical quality control at the textile mills, led him to write to Tjalling Koopmans at Yale University.

Koopmans, who would later win the 1975 Nobel Prize in economics, took the young Indian under his wing. Under the master, Srinivasan studied operations research and linear programming, skills that were especially important in the age of national planning, when resources were sought to be optimally allocated with minimal recourse to the price system. Srinivasan wrote his doctoral thesis on the choice of techniques. Amartya Sen was grappling with the same issue at the same time at Cambridge University, under the guidance of Joan Robinson.

T.N returned to India to join the ISI in New Delhi in 1962. He also worked with the Planning Commission at a time when the government was brimming with young economics talent, including Srinivasan, Sen, Jagdish Bhagwati, V.K. Ramaswami, Pranab Bardhan, and B.S. Minhas in New Delhi; and Deena Khatkhate, Anand Chandavarkar, V.V. Bhatt, and M. Narasimham in Mumbai.

Srinivasan found himself doing work for the Perspective Planning Division headed by the formidable Pitambar Pant. Its task was to assess the economic needs of the country over the 15 years from 1961 to 1976. One of the products of the division, with Srinivasan playing an active role, was on an issue that has become resonant in our times – basic minimum income for all Indians. Srinivasan and Bardhan would later write in 1974: “The stage has come when we should sharply focus our efforts on providing an assured minimum income to every citizen of the country within a reasonable period of time. Progressively this minimum itself should be raised as development goes apace.”

The next few decades would see Srinivasan write a series of technical papers on statistics, trade theory, economic development, agriculture, and microeconomics. As the economist V.N. Balasubramanyam wrote in an introduction to an interview with Srinivasan, few scholars can list among their publications both a note on “Approximations To Finite Sample Moments Of Estimators Whose Exact Sampling Distribution is Unknown” and “Destitution: A Discourse”. No wonder he was a fellow of both the Econometric Society and the American Philosophical Society.

A four-volume Handbook of Development Economics that Srinivasan edited in collaboration with Hollis Chenery is a landmark. He was also an influential teacher at Yale, what Suman Bery has called his intellectual home, where Reserve Bank of India (RBI) Governor Urjit Patel was one of his doctoral students.

However, his most influential work was in creating the intellectual groundwork for economic reforms. The triumvirate of Bhagwati, Padma Desai, and Srinivasan constituted the intellectual vanguard of the movement that eventually saw India move away from import substitution towards a re-engagement with the world economy. Theirs were lonely voices in the wilderness when they first began to question Indian economic policies.

One of the first salvos was fired by Bhagwati and Desai in their 1970 book, India: Planning for Industrialisation. Srinivasan collaborated with them as well.

Some of their earlier econometric work showed that the sharp devaluation of the rupee in 1966 had indeed helped close the trade gap. Later, Bhagwati and Srinivasan wrote a profound critique of the Indian economic policy. Their book on Indian foreign trade regimes and economic development, for the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) in 1975, is a classic. This book is a masterclass in policy economics.

It is thus no surprise that Srinivasan was a strong supporter of the 1991 economic reforms. His debates with the Marxist economist Ashok Rudra in the pages of the Economic and Political Weekly (EPW) at the time are a lesson in how intellectual debates are to be conducted. It is also no surprise that Manmohan Singh turned to the Bhagwati-Srinivasan duo to do an assessment of the economic reforms for the Union Ministry of Finance in 1993.

Srinivasan was an iconoclast when required. His targets included protectionism, foreign aid, basic needs, and the Human Development Index. I have seen him in action in a few academic seminars in India, where his sharp questions made even senior economists break into a sweat. His bluntness was legendary, as was the loyalty he attracted from his best students.

Srinivasan was among that rare breed of economists who are equally at ease with technical skills, policy debates, and broader philosophical implications. John Maynard Keynes once described the ideal economist: “He must be mathematician, historian, statesman, philosopher—in some degree… He must be purposeful and disinterested in a simultaneous mood; as aloof and incorruptible as an artist, yet sometimes as near to earth as a politician.”

Srinivasan epitomised these qualities.

This article first appeared in Mint newspaper: https://www.livemint.com/Opinion/ay6kw8EZ3r8zuJsiS2tTJJ/Opinion--An-economist-for-all-seasons.html

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