Abhijit Sen: Lasting legacy

Abhijit Sen (1950-2022) was an economist par excellence and an academic beyond compare.

Published : Sep 08, 2022 11:00 IST

Abhijit Sen.

Abhijit Sen. | Photo Credit: GOPINATHAN K

Abhijit Sen, who passed away on August 29, 2022, was among the finest economists of this country. He combined an acutely analytical mind with robust common sense, familiarity with “high theory” with a passion for applied economics, and a priori economic reasoning with a taste for using statistical and econometric techniques. Above all, he revelled in thinking about problems starting from first principles, relatively unfettered by any theoretical or ideological predilections, which is an extremely rare quality among economists.

The fact that he was not content with being just an academic, but gravitated towards holding public office as an economist, did not surprise anyone. But even as he joined the government, he did not abandon academia. Migration from academia to official positions is common among economists, but Manik (his pet name that everyone used) was unique in straddling the two worlds at the same time. Even when he worked in the government he would come regularly and take lectures in his courses on Saturdays at the JNU. Combining academic with official work is rare among Indian economists, though it is common among British economists, Keynes being a prime example. Manik was an exception in this respect.

Combining academic and official work

He combined the two despite being deeply immersed in government work. He was the Chairman of the Commission on Agricultural Costs and Prices, a member of the Planning Commission under both the UPA-I and UPA-II governments, and a member of the Fourteenth Finance Commission (chaired by Y.V. Reddy). In between he had also been the Chairman of the High-Level Committee of Experts on Long-Term Grain Policy. None of these were light assignments, but while fulfilling them Manik never forgot his academic duty to students.

His early education had been mainly in Delhi, schooling at the Sardar Patel Vidyalaya (where his academic achievement still finds a mention on the school board) and Physics (Honours) at St. Stephen’s College. But at Cambridge where he subsequently went for a Tripos, he shifted from the Natural Sciences to Economics.

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Economics was in his family: his father, Samar Ranjan Sen, was a front-ranking economist of the older generation who taught at the University of Dhaka (when that university had stalwarts like Satyen Bose and Amiya Dasgupta on its faculty), and held important official positions in the Indian government after Independence, including the chairmanship of the Jute Enquiry Commission that had recommended government price support for jute growers; this had become official policy until neoliberalism intervened. His brother Pronab Sen, an outstanding applied macroeconomist, was the Chief Statistician of the country for many years. Manik’s marriage to the well-known economist Jayati Ghosh later was to carry this family engagement with the subject still further.

Teaching and research stints

After his Tripos, Manik began doctoral research at Cambridge, which is when I came to know him (and was, for a while from 1972, his PhD supervisor). But, given his generous nature, he used to be approached by all his friends to help out in their PhD work; he was always so busy helping out that, despite his industriousness, his own PhD got delayed. He finally completed it under the supervision of Suzanne Paine, and after teaching and research stints at several British universities, notably Oxford, Essex, Sussex, and Cambridge itself, came back to India to join the JNU economics faculty in 1985, from where he moved to the government without sundering his relationship with JNU.

Interacting with students during the inauguration of the School of Economics in Hyderabad Central University, a 2012 picture.

Interacting with students during the inauguration of the School of Economics in Hyderabad Central University, a 2012 picture. | Photo Credit: NAGARA GOPAL

Two ideas defined Manik’s approach to economic policy. One was the provision of an assured remuneration to the peasant, and the other was a system of universal public distribution of foodgrains. He felt that the contradiction between these two objectives that are often highlighted in public discourse could be managed through subsidies, the so-called fiscal strain that such subsidies would cause being highly exaggerated. In fact, along with C.P. Chandrasekhar, he estimated what would be a safe and sustainable ratio of the fiscal deficit to the Gross Domestic Product, and this turned out to be well above what the government considered safe.

But while considerable progress was made during his tenure at the Planning Commission towards extending the scope of the public distribution system, the universalisation of public distribution of foodgrains remained an elusive goal. The introduction of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme during UPA-I, however, must have given him considerable satisfaction.

Most significant contribution

Manik’s most significant contribution within the government, ironically, is little known. By the first decade of this century, agriculture had become virtually stagnant and per capita foodgrain availability had declined sharply to levels that had prevailed during the quinquennium 1937 to 1942. This was a reflection inter alia of the class bias of the neoliberal regime that privileged the corporates and multinationals to the exclusion of the peasantry, and petty producers in general. Manik was strongly opposed to this class bias, never for a moment buying the argument that with an open economy a country did not need to produce its own foodgrain requirement. He strove to reverse this declining trend, and the Planning Commission gave him an excellent position for doing so.

The Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana was launched during UPA-I, with Manik taking the initiative, which incentivised State governments to spend a certain minimum proportion of their budgets on agriculture. (I was a witness to his role as part of the Kerala delegation to the National Development Council meeting that was called to discuss the RKVY.) As a result of this concerted effort there was a reversal of the decline owing to neoliberal policies in per capita foodgrain availability, though of course many other factors too contributed to this reversal, including inter-sectoral terms of trade movements at the global level.

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Manik was working in a context that had become suddenly favourable for a thrust to peasant agriculture. The Left had emerged as a sizeable force in the Lok Sabha after the 2004 elections; besides, it ran three State governments. Even within the Congress, die-hard neoliberalism had taken a temporary back seat, which is why many path-breaking laws in favour of the people could be passed during UPA-I with Left support. This situation changed with UPA-II, after the rift between the Left and the Congress, which also explains why Manik’s capacity to intervene also declined.

His work under UPA-I, however, left its impact for a long time. The new government formed after 2014 was keen on pursuing a neoliberal strategy with a vengeance, which made the Planning Commission an incongruous entity. It was eventually abolished altogether and there was a gradual erosion of government support for peasant agriculture; but notwithstanding such erosion, a total withdrawal of such support could not be attempted until the enactment of the three farm laws under the cover of the pandemic, against which kisans launched a year-long and successful agitation. While celebrating this agitation we must not forget Manik’s contribution towards mounting such a resistance even in an earlier period.

Decentralisation of resources

There were two other areas of abiding interest for Manik, apart from agriculture and the food economy. One was the decentralisation of resources and decision-making from the Centre to the States; the Finance Commission of which he was a member raised quite significantly the share of the States in the divisible pool. It is another matter that while accepting the Finance Commission’s recommendations, the Central government cut down on the amounts devolved through the other channels, so that the total devolution from the Centre to the States as a percentage of GDP did not go up. But that is a weakness of our federal arrangement that Manik never had much use for.

With Chairman of the Finance Commission Y. V. Reddy at a meeting of the Fourteenth Finance Commission in Hyderabad on September 12, 2013. 

With Chairman of the Finance Commission Y. V. Reddy at a meeting of the Fourteenth Finance Commission in Hyderabad on September 12, 2013.  | Photo Credit: MOHAMMED YOUSUF

His other area of interest and concern was the growing inequality in society on which he wrote a number of articles with his student (later colleague) Himanshu. They used National Sample Survey (NSS) data to highlight the dire straits to which the lower deciles of the population had been reduced.

To see Manik only as an economist would be unfair to his multifaceted personality. He had an extraordinarily lively mind that dwelt on a diversity of themes. Conversations with him were always highly stimulating, because, no matter what the subject, he always had a “take” on it that was quite uncommon. One area in particular in which he fancied his skills was psephology; he would be enthusiastic not only in analysing past voting behaviour but also in predicting election outcomes, and was most reluctant to admit it if his prediction did not materialise.

Frank and forthright, totally without guile, generous to a fault, and always open to discussion, Manik was a wonderful human being, extremely popular both among students and colleagues. He had absolutely no airs, never showed any consciousness of the importance of the posts he held, and never talked about his contributions either to the academic world or to economic policymaking in the country. Persons like Manik who have deeply held values, but an intellectual openness, are very rare to find; they are rare at all times, but especially rare these days. He will be greatly missed.

Prabhat Patnaik is Professor Emeritus, Centre for Economic Studies and Planning, JNU.

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