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Web Exclusive/Web Special | Jun 27, 2011 | 7500 views

Suresh Tendulkar: The Judge Amongst Economists

The economist Suresh Tendulkar will be remembered for his integrity as a scholar and his belief in letting the data lead him, even to the point of contradicting himself

As an Economist
Perhaps the best way to characterise him is as an empiricist. He was like a jurist who would only go with the evidence he found, shorn of any subjectivity in his arguments even if that meant his contradicting his earlier stand. A good example of this came when he chaired the committee to estimate the poverty level in the country in 2005. 

India has had a long history finding an absolute measure of poverty, called the Poverty Line, unlike the rest of the world. Since independence, it was clear that Indian policy makers wanted to have some tangible parameter to gauge policy effectiveness when faced with a huge percentage of population that was deprived on the one hand and a severe resource constraint on the other. Over the years, India became a pioneer in such an exercise and even the World Bank estimation methodology burrowed heavily from the Indian formula. Barring the first such effort in 1962, Tendulkar had been part of all such poverty estimation exercises in the past. The last one was in 1993.

But up until the latest report in 2009, chaired by Tendulkar, all previous poverty estimates in India only looked at poverty from the limited view of money required for the stipulated minimum calorie intake.

However, Tendulkar knew that poverty is a relative concept and even an absolute measure must reflect the change in the surroundings. Post liberalisation in 1991, there was increasing evidence that the poor were spending more and more on health and education, areas which were increasingly in the private sector domain. In the pre-liberalisation paradigm, the state was supposed to have provided these services cheaply but that model had clearly broken down. The data from the first ever National Family Health Survey in 1993 showed the alarming rates of malnutrition and infant mortality in the country, hitherto ignored by poverty estimates.

As a result, Tendulkar, along with his team, radically overhauled the pre-existing poverty estimation methodology by incorporating health and education expenditure while calculating poverty levels. Not surprisingly, the final results showed that while India’s poverty had declined over the years yet, all along, India had under-estimated its poverty levels.

At the end of it, Tendulkar was very happy that he got an opportunity to correct his own method but the government, unwilling to accept the report, dithered for a while, and only accepted it almost two years after it was completed.

As a scholar, Tendulkar was very thorough and unforgiving, as any one, who ever debated with him would confirm. You had to convince him or get convinced and he would exploit even the smallest chink in someone’s argument.

Once, during a debate with two of his closest friends, trade theorist T.N. Srinivasan and Mrinal Datta Chaudhuri, Tendulkar remained unconvinced despite their best efforts prompting Chaudhuri to tell him that he had “ typical Maharashtrian brahminical masculine rigidities…” in exasperation !

“Even as a student he had a sharp empirical sense. As a teacher too his courses were data intensive,” says K.L. Krishna, Chairman of Centre for Economic and Social Studies. Krishna taught 53 batches of Delhi School, Tendulkar was his student in the very second batch he taught. Later, of course, Krishna and Tendulkar worked as colleagues.

Ironically, it was Tendulkar’s trust in data that actually led him to change his stand as an economist to a considerable degree. He started out, like many others of his time, believing in the planning-led, centralised, economy model. Yet, by early 1980s his research found many unintended consequences of this approach that were not only stifling growth but also holding back employment and poverty eradication. For example, he was an out-and-out supporter of labour law reforms, arguing against the labour unions that the existing laws favoured only a miniscule proportion of the work force.

In fact, neutral observers, like N.R. Bhanumurthy, professor at National Institute of Public Finance and Policy, point out that the one view that differentiated Delhi School from Jawaharlal Nehru University was the pro-reforms stance of Delhi School, led primarily by Tendulkar.

This resulted in many observers to accuse Tendulkar of being an extreme rightist over the last two decades. But the truth was that even his so-called ideological opponents held him in high regard.

Himanshu, professor and product of JNU, says he was apprehensive when he first approached Tendulkar more than three years back to point out a mistake in one of Tendulkar’s research paper. Tendulkar heard his point patiently, corrected the mistake and acknowledged Himanshu’s contribution.

“He was in a league of his own. Even at this late stage of his career, he used to personally work on the data, unlike many who simply pontificate on issues without doing any real research,” says Himanshu.

“For him, liberalisation was not an ideology. He saw it as a strategy to bring development. He realised that higher growth would provide more resources to the government for developmental work.”

Over the years, Tendulkar served on numerous panels and commissions that were set up to reform various aspects of India’s economy. In particular, he has served as the Chairman of the National Commission of Statistics, Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council, National Sample Survey Organisation, and Committee on National Accounts. He has also been a member in the Fifth Pay Commission, the Disinvestment Commission (1996).

He had also published numerous papers, mostly in the Economic and Political Weekly, so that they improve the debate at home instead of publishing them in some, more prestigious, foreign journals.

Among his many books, Understanding Reforms is one of the best characterisation of India’s reform process and provided the political economic framework for the reasons that led to it.

In the end, much like the two people he held in great regard, Mahatma Gandhi and his own elder brother, Vijay Tendulkar, the celebrated marathi playwright, Suresh Tendulkar will be remembered as much for the significance of what he achieved as for the simplicity and integrity of who he was.

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Comments (2)
Sanju Vargeese Jul 23, 2011
Thank you for that beautiful obituary, to this truly great man.....
Lipika Dasgupta Jul 6, 2011
Very well written and researched article.
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