Sunil was also a strong proponent of active debate and dialogue as essential lubricants of the wheels of a well-functioning democracy, and where differences of opinion were but natural and not to be read as signals of anti-nationalism.
By Ramanan Laxminarayan
In my experience there are journalists who are incisive and thoughtful, but are reluctant to fully communicate their thoughts for fear of offending the establishment. There are others who have no problem in standing up for what they believe in, and are expert at polemic, but lack the analytic rigor or logic to make a compelling case for lasting change.
Sunil Jain, the Managing Editor of the Financial Express who passed away last evening from Covid-related complications possessed that truly rare combination of all of the above – a larger vision, deep rigorous analysis, courage, and the ability to craft a message that would be heard. Although I had only met Sunil briefly prior to the pandemic, our worlds came to intersect closely in March of last year when he approached me to help him think through various editorials he was writing on Covid-19. At his request I also often contributed opinion articles to the Financial Express. We communicated frequently by phone and he would send me his key Twitter messages knowing that I was not on that medium.
Sunil and I shared a common framework of the world of neo-classical economics. So it wasn’t surprising that we tended to agree on many things, whether on the farmers reform bill (we agreed it was a good idea but poorly communicated to the public), on vaccine pricing (we both agreed that price caps were unhelpful, and a differential pricing strategy would help incentivize vaccine manufacturers to vastly increase production capacity which would then be beneficial for everyone), or on underreporting of Covid-19 cases and deaths (we both had challenges with the indiscriminate dependence on rapid antigen tests without RT-PCR verification). It takes a special kind of person to run a paper which is fundamentally about interpreting current events for a business audience, and Sunil’s unique blend of qualities were needed to fully match up to this difficult task.
Like most economists, Sunil was no fan of price caps. In a recent column, Sunil wrote “Basic economics makes it clear that price controls don’t work in even the short run and, in fact, make things worse. And yet, faced with a shortage of vaccines, and more recently remdesivir, the government has imposed price caps. The impact is to restrict supply that imposes high costs on society; in even the short-run, it encourages hoarding and black-marketing which hurt everyone.” (Read full article: That little thing called economics!) In fact, the run on medicines, many of which are not even clinically indicated for the vast majority of patients, has caused significant damage to health by making prices unaffordable. Just as Amartya Sen has described in the context of famines – that they are economic phenomena rather than physical shortages of food, the same could well be said of critical medicines and vaccines for Covid-19.
He was no fan of Atmanirbharta, a concept of self-sufficiency that seems a throwback to the socialist era when we had to wait for months for a phone line or a car rather than to the confident, trade-led, growth-oriented nation we aspired to. In a highly interconnected world, exports are difficult without imports and countries that have done well economically have tended to be open economies. We agreed that openness to trade, and liberalization of the economy, rather than protectionism were the only way forward – the alternatives had cost India dearly until the 1991 economic reforms. Improving local manufacturing, supporting infrastructure investments, and reducing the regulatory costs of business were likely to do far more for the economy than restrictions on imports.
Sunil was also a strong proponent of active debate and dialogue as essential lubricants of the wheels of a well-functioning democracy, and where differences of opinion were but natural and not to be read as signals of anti-nationalism. He wrote in the context of the recent events at Ashoka – “If a University like Ashoka can come under pressure, how can those in government-run universities and colleges hope to remain insulated? Can a Delhi University professor, or one in Bihar, whose salary is paid for by the government, hope to write a stinging critique of, for instance, bank nationalization or the retrospective tax or demonetization and not risk losing out on promotions if the government of the day is impatient with criticism?” (Read full article: Ashoka’s autonomy matters for all of us) Indeed, how can we build a strong society without the ability to take on board all reasonable voices.
His editorials could serve as useful briefing notes to business, leaders, government officials, parliamentarians, and indeed for anyone who paid close attention. It was high-quality advice that armies of staff would be hard pressed to replicate in the short time spans that Sunil was able to churn them out. Sunil and I also bonded over the fact that we were both fundamentally nonpartisan. We didn’t particularly care about the politics of the day, in states or at the centre, but were deeply motivated by how various policies would ultimately affect the country and its people.
Like many people who take the trouble to speak up, Sunil cared deeply about this nation. Many of his editorials deserve to be in a book, and read and re-read. A person of his integrity, heart, wisdom, insight, and ability to articulate, had so much to contribute. Sadly, we lost his exceptional voice and another stellar human being yesterday.
Ramanan Laxminarayan is director of the Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics & Policy, and a senior research scholar at Princeton University.