Unsung Hero Of Indian Economics

Updated: Jan 25 2003, 05:30am hrs
Professor PR Brahmananda the last of the classical economists in Indiais no more. He passed away on January 23, 2003 at the age of 76 years. A true scholar who rummaged through every page of the writings of every economist of the world right at least up to 1990 was a prolific writer.

I did not study in Bombay University and as such was not his student in the strict sense of the term. But as one who studied David Ricardo under the inspiring Professor Amiya Kumar Dasgupta at Benaras Hindu University in the 1950s, I realised on my joining the University of Bombay in 1965 as Senior Research Fellow of UGC that Professor Brahmananda was one of the few in India who not only read and assimilated the classical literature but tried like David Ricardo to theorise all matters that could have policy content.

No wonder therefore that his writings were essentially in the nature of what I would call, principles of political economy and taxation in the Indian context, the context being dictated by his concern over the mass poverty in India and the growing elitism that scorned at anything that is truly indigenous.

Like Ricardos writings, Brahmanandas output is difficult to read and digest. But unlike Ricardo, he dabbled with every area of economics and learnt the econometric tools the hard way at a very late stage in life. His fields of specialisation, however, were welfare economics, monetary economics, business cycles, central banking and economic systems. If he had not accepted any official position outside the University of Bombay, with which he was associated throughout his life, it was only because he valued his freedom - the freedom to write and articulate his views.

He was one of the earliest writers in the 1950s to write about the inapplicability of Keynesian economics, though very few in India noticed this fact. But it was this particular insight that drove him to work out the development strategy that India should pursue. His alternative to the famous, now infamous Mahalanobis model in the mid-1950, the wage-goods gap and the consumption multiplier, was not borne out of any anti-establishment approach and was not aired the way the Shenoy alternative was articulated.

His views on Indias expanding economy did not carry weight with the Indian economists or with the Indian official thinking of the times, and were as such consigned to the leaves of history. Most Indian economics books do not care even to mention his alternative. But in the process, the Bombay School of thought was truly born.

Yet, surprising as it might appear now, his seniors at Bombay University like Professors Dantwala and Lakdawala were not associated with this thought-stream. But he did not rest his laurels with his alternative: he pursued his welfare orientation to focus on poverty issues in the early 1960s - a fact which was not noticed by many in India - and the gold and the international liquidity issues in the late 1960s.

In the 1970s, his anti-inflation stand was noticed but debunked for the plans he gave under the badly handled acronyms such as semibombla and fullmangal. He was a true nationalist and wanted the country to be self-reliant and opposed the IMFs support under the extended fund facility.

The self-reliance in his view would not be possible unless productivity gains occur along with large enough domestic savings. In his view, the capital stock base of the country is low and domestic savings will have to ensure that the stock accumulates with income growth and incentives such as positive real interest rate defined as nominal interest rate adjusted for expected inflation rate. Who would say that these views are not relevant to contemporary India But why is it that very few understood him

I know that many of his students kept a distance with him despite his informality and ready accessibility. Some thought that Professor Brahmananda was not helpful and selfishly exploited them for collection of data and for other information for writing out articles and books. But let us be fair. Which Professor in India could afford to have independent research assistants for pursuing his or her own research interests Which Professor in India taught research techniques without asking young persons to soil their hands Which Professor in India in the early years of Indias Independence, at least surely up to the end of the 1970s, could undertake research projects without such exploitation of young talent

Unfortunately, very few realise that such invisible hand works ultimately to the best interests of the young persons. He was perhaps the only true scholar who kept in touch with and encouraged mofussil college teachers and teachers from remote institutions in Bimaru and North-eastern States. But this was not appreciated by many who felt that he encouraged the unworthy because he did not want any competitor to be with him in the Indian economic association and had used the Indian Economic Journal as a platform to publish his own writings and writings of his friends and admirers. But the Journal, like most other journals in India, suffered for want of funds and for want of professional support.

There was very little willingness on the part of those who wanted the Journal to be live and kicking, to spend time and energy on it without expecting any material compensation. He had to literally beg financial institutions and banks for funds and often received humiliating rebuffs. He did not befriend persons in authority for getting jobs for his students and assistants. He led a simple life, spent lot of his personal money to send his writings to great many scholars of the world and helped materially poor students and those who sought support to the best of his ability. He simply believed in reading, toying with ideas and writing. He hoped that some one would read his pieces and reflect over the issues that were covered.

His latest work on money, income and prices in the 19th century, interpretative in its own way, was truly a magnum opus on the subject. He was working on the sequel to this story and one hopes that his unfinished writings will be appropriately edited and published by some one who cares for Indian economic and financial developments from the point of view of learning the hard lessons of economic history. In democracy, one needs to hear different voices, and Professor Brahmanandas was almost invariably a voice of dissent. That will be missed and it would be such a tragedy.

He rarely cared for reputations of economists and the story goes that when a young but a brilliant research worker informed him of the fascinating Ramseys piece on optimal saving rate thesis, he was quietly told by Professor Brahmananda that Ramseys work was anticipated by Jevons and that the young man should go through it. The young man to his surprise found out that Professor Brahmananda was after all right. There are many such stories about him but what I know for certain is that he knew that he was not as well recognised and understood as he wished.

(Author is with Reserve Bank of India)