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
God, give us Men! A time like this demands

Strong minds, great hearts, true faith and ready hands;

Men whom the lust of office does not kill;

Men whom the spoils of office cannot buy;

Men who possess opinions and a will;

Men who have honour; men who will not lie;

Men who can stand before a demagogue

And damn his treacherous flatteries without winking!

Tall men, sun-crowned, who live above the fog

In public duty and in private thinking.



-Josiah Gilbert Holland (1819-81)


 

Suresh Dandopanth Tendulkar was one such rare man. Perhaps no other words can better encapsulate what India lost when the 72-year-old ‘Guru’, as many of his students addressed Tendulkar, died of a cardiac arrest on June 21 in Pune.   

Newspapers duly reported the death of a “noted economist.” However, many, who had the privilege to interact with him especially as a fellow researcher or student, saw his demise as a personal tragedy. 

He was born to a traditional Maharashtrian Brahmin family with meagre resources. The loss of his father early in life did not stop Tendulkar, the youngest of six children, from becoming India’s leading authority in the field of Development Economics. He specialised in the field of data estimation and interpretation especially in relation to poverty and unemployment.  

“He told us that while we use data to interpret the world around us, the data itself needs interpretation,” says Abhijit Sen, member of India’s Planning Commission, while summarising Tendulkar’s contribution. 

His last major work, which would also perhaps define his career, was the new method to estimate poverty in India. This method, that was devised by a committee headed by him, resulted in India’s poverty estimates being scaled up, much to chagrin of the present UPA regime. Soon after, Tendulkar was relieved from the position of the chairman of the Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council — possibly the price he paid for the increase in poverty estimates. 

Throughout his 42-year-long illustrious career, he admirably apportioned his time between his own research (bulk of which helped refine India’s economic architecture), his concern for his students and his responsibilities towards his family.  

“I used to call him the ‘Frontier Function’ (a term in economic literature that often charts the maximum attainable value) since he was a role model in all aspects of life,” says T.A. Bhavani, professor of economics at the Institute of Economic Growth, who started her career as a researcher under Tendulkar’s guidance in 1978.

His teachers knew him as a “bright and attentive” student. His colleagues found him to be “a very loyal friend.” His students felt humbled not only by his erudition and simplicity but also by his concern for them. And his relatives vouch for his being a family man to the core who would sit for hours with his finger on his lips pretending to be a student when playing with his granddaughters. 

As a Teacher
Perhaps, this was one role that was like second nature to Tendulkar. His constant urge to probe further and explain his surroundings also reflected in the way he taught or even interacted with the media. He was never found giving quick sound bytes to journalists. He would expect the journalist to read his paper before approaching him with questions, even if that meant his sitting down to explain the whole paper. But, he expected his audience, especially the students, to put in the effort. 

At the Delhi School of Economics, Tendulkar became synonymous with the course called Economic Development and Planning (later changed to ‘Policy’) in India, a course that he developed and taught until 2004. Attending his lectures was a singularly outstanding experience for the students. His narrative would flow across various readings; weaving abstruse economic theory concepts in India’s context and making them come alive.

A peculiar thing in his lectures was the way he used to refer to his own research papers in third person. “A 1992 paper by Tendulkar and Jain has found…,” he might say, without spending even a moment more than usual, unlike many others who might place special emphasis on their own work. A first time student could be forgiven for wondering who the other Tendulkar was!  

But it was characteristic of his humble and simple mannerism. He never owned a car and after a scooter accident in 1992, which left him blind in the left eye, he would always use the DTC bus. Even as the chairman of the Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council he would use the bus for his personal travel.

He was always soft spoken and patient with others, but once in a while his refined sense of humour would come through. Bhavani recounts the time when he walked into his office to find a student sitting in his chair. The petrified student feared the worst, but Tendulkar just said, “Do not bother. I don’t impute much value to chairs!”

On another occasion, when a pompous fellow economist looked at his thin frame and remarked about Tendulkar having lost a lot of weight, he is supposed to have said, “That is okay,  I am not the type who throw his weight around!”

As a teacher, he would never miss a single class to ensure students do not suffer, even when there were calls for a strike by teachers in the university. “He always said, your first priority is what you are paid for,” says Bhavani.  

Tendulkar was driven by his desire to educate Indian students and work in India to bring about development and that was main reason why he returned to the Indian Statistical Institute in Delhi after completing his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1968. Between 1962, when he finished his Masters from Delhi School, to 1978, when he rejoined as a teacher, was a huge period of churn for his alma mater.

By the late 1960s, writes Mrinal Datta Chaudhuri in one of his memoirs, India had fought two wars, Jawaharlal Nehru had died, the country was experiencing a drought and a famine and the planning process was suspended.

To make matters worse, most of the big names that made Delhi School one of the most celebrated schools in the world also started leaving. Amartya Sen went to London School, Jagdish Bhagwati to MIT, Tapan Raychaudhuri to Oxford, K.N. Raj to Trivandrum, Sukhamoy Chakravarty to the Planning Commission and Manmonhan Singh to Commerce Ministry.

Finally in 1978, under the influence of Chaudhuri and Sukhamoy, Tendulkar decided to come back to teach at Delhi School. He genuinely believed in the planning led growth model that India was trying to execute and wanted to be part of that change. Returning alongside him were some emerging scholars like Prasanta Pattanaik, Pranab Bardhan, Raj Krishna and Kaushik Basu. Over the course of the next few years, Delhi School regained its glory days attracting students like Nirvikar Singh, professor of economics at University Of California and Prannoy Roy, chairman, NDTV in its ranks.


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.