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Amaresh Bagchi: A Tribute

A personal tribute by a friend of over half a century to the well-known public finance economist and federalist who passed away on February 20.

COMMENTARY

Amaresh Bagchi: A Tribute

D N Ghosh

A personal tribute by a friend of over half a century to the wellknown public finance economist and federalist who passed away on February 20.

D N Ghosh (dnghosh1@dataone.in) is chairman of ICRA and managing trustee of Sameeksha Trust.

Economic & Political Weekly

EPW
march 1, 2008

D
ecades ago, in the late 1940s, Amaresh and I were contemporaries in Presidency College, Kolkata, and residents of the adjacent Eden Hindu Hostel. He was a gentleman to the core and very easy to get along with. Our common intellectual interest was economic theory, but in those tumultuous times we could not but get involved in intense debate and discussion on politics and personalities. That bug never left us.

We drifted apart after postgraduation. Amaresh joined the Indian Revenue Service and I joined another stream. For several years we were working in different places, though we kept in touch with each other through common acquaintances. He worked on different field assignments for nearly 15 years, earning a name for himself as an upright and careful assessment officer. I have known many of his colleagues who would speak highly of his tax assessment orders, drafted with meticulous care and built on the foundation of impeccable logic.

An episode from his income tax days would give a measure of the person he was – tough, tenacious and uncompromising behind the façade of a soft-spoken and self-effacing individual. Once I happened to ask him: “What is the most memorable episode you recall from your income tax days?”. I had to prod him, shy and reticent as he always was. It concerned a very powerful political personality, who later became chief minister of

a state. He had set up a very large trust, whose source of funds raised eyebrows in the tax department. Amaresh was handpicked for this sensitive investigation. Travelling incognito in the state, he interviewed hundreds of persons in several small towns and villages – all those who were shown to have made substantial contributions to the trust. They were persons of very small means, many were non-existent; the few that could be traced had no ghost of an idea of what a trust was. Word got around, and one after another, many obstacles started coming in the way. Getting accommodation became a problem; for nights on end, he had to sleep on makeshift beds on tables in the verandahs of inspection bungalows. It was the generosity of the watchmen that helped him somehow manage and survive. Never giving up, he would go to the farthest limit to trace the trail of any lead; the investigation carried out under these trying circumstances was flawless. He was, however, sceptical if the case would ever be pursued to its logical end. Several years later, when we were colleagues in the banking department, he was overjoyed when he broke the news that the Supreme Court had upheld the validity of his findings.

COMMENTARY

Right from the beginning in public service, his involvement in tax administration went much beyond what was expected of him as an assessing and investigating officer. With his perennially questioning mind – a quality of his we used to admire in our college days – he would delve deep into the rationale and relevance of important tax provisions, in particular their efficiency and equity implications at the macro level. He was looking for a break in the academic world.

In the Academic World

Thanks to his contemporaries in Presidency College, he was appointed (though at a considerable sacrifice of monetary emoluments) to teach the subject of fiscal policy for several semesters, but more important to fruitfully interact with the members of the renowned faculty those days. This was the initial self-schooling of the outstanding fiscal economist and fiscal policy adviser that we knew him to be in his later years. With his intimate grasp of ground realities and his knowledge of recent innovations in fiscal theory and practice, he came to be highly regarded as a committed crusader for fiscal reforms. It was a tribute to his integrity of thinking and unbiased approach to sensitive public policy issues that he was constantly sought out for advice by different governments, cutting across the political spectrum. His role as a member of the Eleventh Finance Commission and the Commission on Centre-State Relations (he was a member of the latter till he passed away) received wide acclaim.

Amaresh was listened to with great respect by professional tax administrators as well as by fiscal policy experts and analysts. I can think of no committee or commission on anything related to tax reforms since the early 1970s that had not associated Amaresh, directly or indirectly, in its deliberations. His absence will be greatly missed by his admirers within the academic community and among policy-makers.

With his feet firmly on the ground, he believed that fiscal reform would have no visible impact unless it was simultaneously and effectively underpinned by transparency in policy formulation and accountability in implementation. He was deeply concerned about the quality of governance that seems to have created apathy and indifference, sometimes even active resistance, towards the reform our country genuinely needs.

We would often get into animated discussions on this, mostly in the mornings when we would be normally browsing through the daily newspapers. Some news item that disturbed us would provoke a long telephonic adda. Our conversation would, somehow inevitably come to veer towards West Bengal. A week before his passing away, his outburst of righteous indignation rings in my ears. His nononsense punch ran something like this: Is it not shameful that a Left government elected to serve the poor has failed to provide the minimum to the poor in education and healthcare? What is the core reason? Not lack of resources or any discriminatory central policy, he would argue; the central issue is the quality of governance.

It was a great privilege for me not only to have known him, but also to have struck a deep friendship that lasted a lifetime and gave me the benefit of invigorating intellectual companionship. In recent years, life seemed to have come a full circle. It was back to days similar to what we enjoyed in our college campus.

With very few friends left, I wonder how I can come to terms with the aching void after Amaresh’s passing.

[Amaresh Bagchi was a regular contributor over very many years to the EPW. He wrote under his name and as ‘AB’ and also contributed to many of the journal’s editorials on public finance and centre-state relations.]

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March 1, 2008

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