A Professor and a planner

Print edition : June 08, 2002
Dr. I.S. Gulati, 1924-2002.

LIKE thousands of people displaced from their homes in Pakistan during Partition, Iqbal Singh Gulati was a refugee in New Delhi in the late 1940s. He was born on March 15, 1924 at Bannur in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) as the eldest of nine children of Prabhdayal Singh and Gulab. Partition was a traumatic experience for this family of traditional flower merchants. Gulati was a clerk in the Army in Rawalpindi when the last of the refugee trains were leaving for India in 1947. He took the train to Delhi and his family members undertook a dangerous journey separately from Bannur. His uncle was shot dead by assailants in the train. Most of the family members reached refugee camps in and around Delhi and the family reunited.

BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

One day in 1950, Gulati, a post-graduate in economics from Punjab University, walked into the office of economist Dr. K.N. Raj at the Planning Commission. Dr. Raj says: "A modest young man came to me at the Planning Commission with the request that he wanted a job. He said he was a refugee from the NWFP staying at the camp in Purana Quila (old fort in Delhi). I was amazed later to learn that the family had used a tarpaulin tent to convert a portion of the dilapidated fort into a home. It was a time when nobody knew much about economic planning or were dismissive about it. The Planning Commission itself was in its fledgling days and, fortunately for him, we were looking for people who could help us, especially on matters of Centre-State finances. He said he had studied economics and I said I will give you a job (as a research assistant) because we needed somebody to make an economic classification of the budget - to classify various items and put it into a form in which it could be analysed by economists without difficulty."

Gulati impressed Dr. Raj and others at the Planning Commission. "Though it is a routine task now, it was not so then, and we were doing it for the first time. He was very good at it. He understood what was involved. It was not such an easy task. It required a knowledge of economics to be able to classify, to see whether something is a transfer item, an expenditure item or a unilateral transfer item and so on. He knew it very well or in a short time he read it up and I was very impressed," Dr. Raj said.

Dr. Raj had suggested that Gulati be appointed a senior investigator at the Planning Commission but the recommendation got entangled in rules and objections. Gulati was once again at Dr. Raj's office with the request that he be sent abroad. Dr. Raj helped Gulati to enroll himself as a research student at the London School of Economics (LSE) and obtain a scholarship. Gulati obtained his Ph.D. in Economics from London University in 1955, where he also served as tutor during 1954-55.

Gulati's thesis on 'Taxation of capital' had attracted some attention. When the Government of India sought in 1956 the advice of Nicholas Kaldor, a Professor at the LSE, on taxation, Kaldor specifically wanted Gulati's assistance as he himself did not know much about India. Gulati served as an 'Assistant to Prof. Kaldor' at the Indian Statistical Institute. In August 1956, he joined M.S. University, Baroda, as Reader in Economics. A year later he married Leela, an economics student from Karnataka, who became a well-known social scientist later. Gulati served as Professor at the university until July 1968.

Another turning point in Gulati's career came when, one day in 1957, another man walked into Dr. Raj's office at the Planning Commission: E.M.S. Namboodiripad, Kerala's first Chief Minister. According to Dr. Raj, Namboodiripad urgently required an expert to help his Ministry prepare its first Budget. Gulati was the natural choice for the post of Economic Adviser.

His visit to Kerala in 1957 was the beginning of a long relationship - emotionally, with the people of the State and ideologically, with the Left movement. In 1972, Chief Minister C. Achutha Menon invited Dr. Raj to establish the Centre for Development Studies (CDS) in Thiruvananthapuram. Gulati joined the Centre as Professor and played an important role in its growth as a premier research institution in the country. Leela Gulati also joined CDS as a Fellow.

"From then on, he became practically a Malayalee. He could understand Malayalam very well and knew more about Kerala than any Malayalee did," Dr. Raj said.

Even as he guided students at CDS, he conducted several studies on Kerala - its tax structure, the effects of the Gulf boom on its economy and the public distribution system. The Gulati Commission Report on Sales Tax is a guiding document on the subject. He soon became well-known as an expert in public finance and a leading exponent of the idea of decentralisation, especially of devolving powers from the Centre to the States and from the State government to the local bodies.

In 1987, when the Left Democratic Front (LDF) came to power in Kerala, Gulati was appointed Vice-Chairman of the State Planning Board. The seeds of decentralised planning in Kerala were sown during his tenure. Says Thomas Isaac, MLA and former Member of the State Planning Board: "In Kerala, Gulati is not just a name. It is a synonym for 'decentralisation'. In 1987, it was Gulati who suggested that the newly-formed District Councils, which marked the first major attempt at decentralisation in the State, should be given a role in the formulation of the Eighth Five Year Plan. He also prepared an action plan for this purpose. But unfortunately his plans did not materialise because it envisaged a major role for the bureaucracy in it. However, it was because of Gulati's efforts that the District Councils were allotted Rs.200 crores during the first year of the Eighth Plan. Unfortunately, however, the Councils were dissolved by the UDF (United Democratic Front) government."

In 1996, when the LDF came back to power with an election promise of more powers to the local bodies, Gulati was again the choice for the vice-chairmanship of the State Planning Board. Under him, the Board played a key role in the formulation and implementation of the People's Plan Campaign for the Ninth Plan. According to Isaac, Gulati was given complete freedom to choose the Board members. Gulati believed that its members should be chosen not on the basis of their academic talents alone but also their organisational skills and democratic credentials. "The Board that he led formulated the plan for the biggest people's movement for development Kerala had ever seen. There were a lot of hurdles in the way of a government department becoming so pro-active. But at every stage Gulati displayed unusual confidence and administrative capability to overcome the hurdles."

In 1995, soon after the three-tier panchayat system came into existence in the State, Gulati, despite his poor health, carried out an energetic campaign for Kerala's development. He travelled the length and breadth of the State along with the younger colleagues in the Planning Board and conducted workshops and awareness campaigns for newly-elected people's representatives and government officials on the importance of making the decentralisation campaign a success. He also wrote prolifically, cautioning the people of Kerala about the fate that befell the District Council experiment and reminding them about the possibilities offered by the new panchayati raj system in the State.

According to Dr. P.K. Michael Tharakan, his student and now an Associate Fellow at CDS, such optimism about Kerala was second nature to Gulati. "He was always optimistic about Kerala. He used to tell us that Keralites were quite diffident in promoting their own State and point out areas that were being neglected," he said.

Recently, when eight States, including Kerala, made a joint move against the award of the Eleventh Finance Commission, which had lowered their share under the criteria of equity and efficiency, Gulati was the unseen force behind them. He had been critical of the Centre's encroachment on the limited financial and other powers of the State. It was his firm view that the States had to be involved in the process by which the Finance Commission was established, the annual awards were examined and a final decision was taken. According to Tharakan, Gulati's main contribution is in the field of Centre-State financial relations.

Gulati was a member of the Sixth Finance Commission and author of several works on Centre-State financial relations. He also served as economic adviser to the West Bengal government.

In August 1968, Gulati joined the United Nations as the Regional Economic Adviser for the Caribbean and as Adviser for the Economic Commission for Latin America, a position which he held till the end of 1971. For a brief period in early 1972, he was Tax Policy Adviser at the International Monetary Fund.

Says Isaac: "Ideologically, Prof. Gulati was not a Marxist. He was never a member of any party either. But his commitment to the Left movement in the country was unshakable. Naturally, on many issues, he had an opinion of his own. But he took care not to express them openly and create controversies."

Dr. Raj said: "I remember Gulati as a very modest person, very soft-spoken. He was not a flamboyant person. Initially, it took some time for me in conversations to understand that in fact he knew quite a bit." Dr. Raj's observation about his colleague for over 50 years is not surprising to those who knew Gulati well.

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