Bibek Debroy on the late Professor BB Bhattacharya and the many roles he donned

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Published: February 16, 2017 5:36:41 AM

I don’t recall when and where I first met Professor BB Bhattacharya. He was probably with the Institute of Economic Growth (IEG) then, though not yet the director. I had, of course, read his book on macro econometric forecasting.

I don’t recall when and where I first met Professor BB Bhattacharya. He was probably with the Institute of Economic Growth (IEG) then, though not yet the director. I had, of course, read his book on macro econometric forecasting. (I don’t mean the published PhD thesis, but the subsequent book, in the mid-1980s). What brought us together was the 1991 reforms, in a way. There is a publishing house known as BR Publishing. The owner thought the reforms would be a good trigger to bring out a few quickies. If you recall, in the first flush of 1991, it was about the external sector, apart from industrial delicensing. I don’t remember any books on industrial delicensing. Perhaps, the publisher didn’t find any academic foolhardy enough to dash off a quickie. BB and I obliged. His was more on BoP (balance of payments), mine more on trade. They were companion books, slim ones, with short shelf-lives. They didn’t deserve to be reviewed. But one business paper did a combined review of both and rightly trashed them. This was 1992. There were few TV channels and few TV panelist prepared to shoot their mouths off on reforms. Thus, BB and I often found ourselves on the same panel on DD. Down the years, we continued to find ourselves on DD panels around the Union budget time.

BB’s professional career was in Delhi and his PhD was from Delhi School of Economics. However, despite his work being respected, he always remained a bit of an outsider in the economics fraternity/sorority. That’s because of his schooling in Silchar and his pre-PhD degrees from Allahabad. Even if you have worked for domestic and international organisations, and received awards from abroad, you aren’t part of usual networks and social circuits. But that root in greater Assam, not to speak of BR Publishing, seemed to strike a chord and allowed me liberties that he wouldn’t completely approve of. I was like a younger brother who constantly pulled his leg. I am sure BB never liked it, but didn’t know how to discourage it. The modelling kind of work he did lost relevance gradually. Nevertheless, BB could have done much more work. He was among the few academics who wrote for the popular press. Perhaps, that got in the way. Perhaps, administrative duties as IEG Director and VC of JNU got in the way. (He wasn’t happy as VC, JNU. Being VC of JNU is not the easiest of tasks. But I don’t think JNU was very happy with him either). I think his best work was the mid-year reviews he did for IIC.

While he was VC, JNU, we met often, not in JNU, but outside. We lived in Vasant Kunj and many faculty/staff from JNU live in Vasant Kunj. At community-events, Durga Puja being one, the JNU VC would invariably be the chief guest. That gave me another opportunity to rib him about the garlands, the chair and the ornamental role. After his term as VC of JNU was over, we only met a couple of times. By then, he had joined IIM, Lucknow (the Noida campus actually). I never understood why he needed to do that. Post-retirement, one does need some engagement. He could have written a few books, or perhaps his memoirs. Why teach, since even as an academic, that’s not quite what he had done all his life? He ducked the question. Soon after, I learnt he wasn’t particularly well and had quit IIM, opting to live with his daughter in the US. Beyond a certain age, you never know when death beckons. Despite his ill health, I hadn’t expected it to be this soon

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