An economist with a cause

Print edition : July 07, 2001
Dr. Arun Kumar Ghosh, 1923-2001.

THE dominant intellectual passion in the life of Dr. Arun Kumar Ghosh, the renowned economist who passed away on June 22, was what I would call anti-imperialism. This was the common thread that ran through all the different phases of his life, and bound together all the apparently different roles which he played with such great distinction in his eventful career: an academic researcher, a civil servant, a passionate advocate of decentralised planning, and a fighter against the neo-liberal economic policies being imposed on our country. Of course the anti-imperialism underlying these roles came almost 'naturally' to his generation; what was remarkable about him is that he remained steadfast in his anti-imperialism till the end, unlike many of his contemporaries who 'adjusted' themselves to the changing times.


Born in 1923 to Bengali parents located in the then United Provinces, Arun Ghosh studied for his B.A. and M.A. degrees in Economics at Allahabad University which at that time was an outstanding academic institution, its faculty nourished by the spill-over of talent from Calcutta. (One of his contemporaries and hostel-mates at the university was Dr. Satish Chandra, the eminent historian.) He went to the London School of Economics (LSE) for his doctoral work, which was completed under the supervision of R.G.D. Allen, well-known to every student of economics as the co-originator (with Sir John Hicks) of the "Indifference Curve Analysis", and as the author of several standard works introducing mathematics and statistics to economists. The dissertation, a study of the long-term price movement in colonial India, was published much later. It remains a classic, an obligatory work of reference, not only because of the value of its quantitative constructions but also because of its bold argument, empirically supported, that the peasantry did not benefit from output jumps owing to counteracting price falls. This argument has found an echo in a good deal of subsequent writing, including that of Nicholas Kaldor.

The academic interest in the quantitative analysis of macro-aggregates developed in his youth was to remain with Arun Ghosh all his life. He was an acknowledged authority on the analysis of national income accounts, and a founder member of, as well as the moving spirit behind, the Indian Association for Research into National Income and Wealth. One of his last acts in civil service was to help prepare the report on the reasons behind the jump in the observed savings and investment ratios in the Indian economy after the late 1970s (Professor K.N. Raj was the chairman of the committee).

ARUN GHOSH'S LSE years coincided with the heady days of Indian planning. Professor Mahalanobis would go all over the world picking up brilliant young Indian economists completing their studies in major foreign universities, for recruitment into the Indian Statistical Institute (ISI) which was then associated with much of the technical work behind the Plan exercise. At R.G.D. Allen's recommendation, Mahalanobis recruited Arun Ghosh to the ISI. From the ISI Ghosh moved to the Government of India where he served, till his retirement, in various capacities: Economic Adviser to the Ministry of Commerce and Industry, Special Secretary Industrial Development, Special Secretary Company Affairs, and Chairman, Bureau of Industrial Costs and Prices.

He was for some time posted in Washington, representing India as the Alternate Executive Director at the International Monetary Fund (IMF); this would be considered a 'prize appointment' in official circles, but he voluntarily relinquished that post to return to India. When he expressed his desire to return, there was general disbelief; a hint was thrown that if only he stayed on a bit longer he would be made the Executive Director representing India. But Ghosh was adamant: his daughters had reached the age where their subsequent education, he felt, needed to be in India. An executive directorship at the IMF was not going to deter him from fulfilling his parental duties. When most Indian middle-class parents would wish to move to the U.S. in order to be able to educate their children there, Ghosh was doing the very opposite, and that too by walking out of a 'plum post'. That says something about the man.

Arun Ghosh was not a civil servant in the usual sense. The depth of his thinking made it difficult for him to reconcile himself to the mundane and the banal; and he was too committed in his beliefs to merge into the crowd of faceless climbers that, barring a few honourable exceptions, constitutes much of the contemporary civil service. A product of the Nehru era, he believed that India mattered; planning and industrialisation under the aegis of the public sector were the means for the realisation of the 'India project'. To be sure, somewhere along the line he became acutely aware of the basic contradiction, the fact that notwithstanding all our planning, the project of 'making India' was not getting very far. A part of the answer, he did not doubt for a moment, lay in the entrenched property relations, as the Left kept asserting. But this he felt was not all; there was the additional question of the appropriate regime for development. The scholar in him pondered over the matter and drew his own, very remarkable, conclusions: it is not that planning has to be abandoned in favour of the free market (as 'neo-liberalism' was asserting), but that we need a very different kind of planning, decentralised planning, where the people can directly intervene in matters affecting their economic lives. I remember an occasion when, long before Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms had come a cropper, Arun Ghosh had predicted that they would: glasnost and perestroika, he felt, had not addressed the basic issue of decentralisation.

UPON retiring from government service, he headed, at Chief Minister Jyoti Basu's request, the West Bengal State Planning Board, as its Vice-Chairman. This gave him an opportunity to practise decentralised planning first hand. The West Bengal government at that time was nourished by a galaxy of outstanding economic thinkers: Satyabrata Sen, Arun Ghosh and Ashok Mitra. With help from several younger colleagues, and with encouragement from the political leadership, they created the basic design for the rural transformation that was to follow and that has not only stood the Left Front in good stead but has provided a beacon for the country as a whole. Arun Ghosh was truly one of the architects of decentralised planning in West Bengal. In the course of his work in West Bengal he travelled extensively in the countryside; a fascinating book was to result from the experiences acquired in the course of these travels.

Shortly after Arun Ghosh returned to Delhi from his stint in West Bengal, the Janata Dal government under Vishwanath Pratap Singh assumed office. He was requested to join the Planning Commission, and he threw himself with enthusiasm into the task of putting his ideas on planning into practice on a national scale. Unfortunately, the V.P. Singh government did not last long. The Plan that Ghosh and his colleagues were working on did not see the light of day, not even as a document. A series of articles in the Economic and Political Weekly by Arun Ghosh summarising its provisions are all that we have of this Plan that might have been.

With his resignation from the Planning Commission Arun Ghosh returned once again to full-time academic work, as a Fellow of the Nehru Memorial Musuem and Library. The NMML, headed at the time by Ravinder Kumar (who passed away in April), had an intellectually vigorous atmosphere, and Arun Ghosh threw himself into it with his customary zeal.

But pursuing quiet research in library corners until one gently fades into oblivion was not Arun Ghosh's fate. With the adoption of neo-liberal economic policies by the Narasimha Rao government, while a large chunk of the economics profession vacillated or capitulated, Arun Ghosh joined the struggle in right earnest. This phase of his life, in my view, revealed Arun Ghosh at his magnificent best. It must have been painful for him to watch many of his old friends and colleagues abandon their long-held and mutually-shared beliefs and jump on to the 'globalisation' bandwagon. But putting aside all personal pain he plunged into the role of an activist with an energy that would have done a person even a third of his age proud. He went about exposing the harmful consequences of 'liberalisation' in gatherings all over the country. He met not only political party leaders and Members of Parliament but trade union and non-governmental organisation (NGO) activists, intellectuals, scientists, engineers, mediapersons and students; he wrote learned articles, pamphlets and manifestos; he joined a group of younger colleagues to bring out an Alternative Economic Survey; he even appeared on late night television programmes to be quizzed by persons a fraction of his age and with minuscule knowledge of economics. Arun Ghosh took all this in his stride. He combined his expertise in economics with his experience as a civil servant (and the 'inside' knowledge this had given him) to fight what he rightly perceived as a recolonisation of the Indian economy. Despite holding no formal position, he gradually acquired the status of a 'tribune of the people'.

And yet in the midst of all this work he found time for a variety of other activities. He was entrusted, together with some colleagues, with the task of evaluating the progress achieved under the Total Literacy Movement. They travelled over large tracts of the country and produced a report which contributed to a major restructuring of the Total Literacy Campaign.

Of special significance was his fight against the amendment of the Indian Patents Act to make it 'TRIPS-compatible'. As a member of the National Working Group he fought till the very end. When it appeared that nothing would deter the government from ensuring 'TRIPS-compatibility', he even modified his tactics to argue that 'TRIPS-compatibility' did not have one unambiguous meaning, and that we should follow the examples of China and Brazil and defend the national interest by exploiting whatever 'loopholes' were available within the fine print of the TRIPS (Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights) agreement itself. Although nothing tangible came of this struggle, I have no doubt that a future generation of Indians will remember with gratitude the efforts of Arun Ghosh and his colleagues on the National Working Group.

Being engaged in the struggle against neo-liberal economic policies did not make Arun Ghosh impervious to the other danger that faced the country during the 1990s, the danger of communal-fascism. To be sure, on specific anti-imperialist issues such as patents he wanted a broader platform, where anyone willing to make common cause should be welcome. But he was acutely sensitive to the overall threat from communal-fascism to the unity of the country and hence to the anti-imperialist cause itself. One recollects both his participation at the Convention Against Communalism organised by the Left parties in New Delhi, and the fluent speech he made in Hindi (reflecting his Uttar Pradesh origins) that took many people by surprise.

If Arun Ghosh's integrity and commitment to the national cause was absolute, then so was the goodness of his heart. Ashok Mitra, a close friend, once described him as 'God's own good man'. His simplicity, his total freedom from any affectations, his extreme generosity and his straightforwardness were quite remarkable; as a person combining all these qualities he was quite unmatched. But what was really unique about Arun Ghosh was that despite being 'good', he was also a fighter. There was an unshakable core to him. Neither would his generosity shake this core, nor would the unshakability of this core take away an iota from his generosity. Precisely because this combination, of 'goodness' with the willingness to fight relentlessly in the interests of the people, is so rare, Arun Ghosh's passing away will leave a void in our national life.

And for friends the loss would be enormous. His joie de vivre, his infectious enthusiasm, which even made him try his hand at writing humorous verses, his enthusiasm for bridge, his passion for cricket, and his deep interest in soccer (which made him stay up nights watching World Cup matches) would be missed by all those who were fortunate enough to have been close to him.

Prabhat Patnaik is Professor of Economics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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