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Suresh Tendulkar and His Delhi School Family

 who are now in academia and the government tell me that they benefited a lot from his lectures at D-school. He used to tell me,


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Suresh Tendulkar and His Delhi School Family Rohini Somanathan even for those who branched into other disciplines and careers. Our D-School loyalties are hard to explain in simple terms. We were too old to be nurtured, we shared no well-formulated ideology, and most of our professional skills were fully developed after we left and entered

n 21 June, taken aback by the news of the passing away of Suresh Tendulkar in Pune, I called Mrinal Datta Chaudhuri, hoping to find out more. He was out walking by himself, mourning the loss of a younger brother. The next day, Sundaram, a colleague and long-time collaborator, wrote that he had lost an older brother. Although I could not as easily find my particular branch in the tree, I shared the mixture of loss and gratitude widely felt by the Delhi School family.

Suresh Tendulkar and his contemporaries made enormous contributions to the Delhi School and our experience of it. Many who studied there returned, permanently or periodically, and remained deeply attached in spite of long phases of crumbling infrastructure and empty faculty offices. It remained a special place

august 6, 2011

graduate school. Yet, this period was a milestone in many of our personal and intellectual lives.

The undergraduate colleges of Delhi University, like the rest of the Delhi society, were informally ordered, with the most favoured also being extremely elitist. On entering the Delhi School, I felt, for the first time as a student, that excellence rather than either appearance or prior achievement mattered. We also learned, without quite

vol xlvI no 32

Economic & Political Weekly


realising it at the time, that there were many legitimate ways of posing economic problems and that historical and institutional perspectives were crucial if advances in economic methods were to improve our understanding of society. The faculty, diverse in research and in temperament, shared a commitment to India and to each other. It was a happy place.

Obsession with Data

Suresh Tendulkar was among the most committed to using economic analysis to create sensible policy. He also recognised that this required understanding how institutions influenced the operation of markets. In his first published paper during his doctoral study, he emphasised that in poor partially monetised economies, estimating demand and supply functions was especially problematic because households jointly decided on the choices of purchased goods and their sales of home production. This could result in higher supplies of home-produced goods, accompanying a fall in their prices, as households struggled to earn an income sufficient to bring them the goods they needed to purchase.

His mild temperament did not prevent him from condemning in categorical terms the inadequacy of the models used in the five-year plans. In a series of articles in the 1970s, he pointed out that while poverty reduction was newly incorporated in the objectives of the new plan, the Soviet-style input-output framework that was then used by the Planning Commission completely ignored the functioning of markets and the complex relationship between poverty, investment behaviour and growth. He emphasised then, and in later work, that public spending, agricultural productivity and foodgrain prices were central to poverty reduction, while the then prevailing planning strategies assumed that reducing poverty was simply a matter of redistributing aggregate consumption with limited implications for investment and growth.

Suresh Tendulkar started his career at a time when most professional economists in India rarely used data. This was understandable given the scarcity of large data sets and the limited computing facilities to analyse them. Yet, his near-obsessive use

Economic & Political Weekly

august 6, 2011

of available data reflected his conviction that carefully documented empirical patterns could lead us to a more nuanced understanding of the effects of economic policy. His interest in redistribution could be seen in his early work, but starting in the late 1980s, he became almost exclusively occupied with the measurement of poverty and an exploration of its determinants. Using data from the National Sampl e Survey, and in collaboration with K Sundaram, he showed that the poverty of the scheduled castes and tribes was associated with their over-representation in poorly-paid occupations, and that both occupational and poverty changes over the 1990s were more favourable for the castes than for the tribes. While these tribe-caste asymmetries are now widely accepted, there was little discussion on this at the time.

The Last Meeting in Mumbai

As chair of the Government of India expert group formed to review the methodology of poverty measurement, we see once again Tendulkar’s ability to be outspoken on matters of consequence. In 2009, the group arrived at considerably higher poverty rates by substituting average prices from survey data for outdated price indices. Importantly, it provided drastically higher ratios of rural-urban poverty than previous official estimates.

Tendulkar retired from the Delhi School in 2004, a year before I joined. The Centre for Development Economics had begun to organise short refresher courses in empirical methods and in spite of his many official commitments, he would always agree to deliver a lecture when asked. We would always have to find some way of spending his budgeted honorarium for the lecture since he would never accept one.

My last meeting with Tendulkar was in Mumbai in early March this year. The

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vol xlvI no 32

Centre for South Asian Studies at the University of Michigan had organised an interdisciplinary conference on inequality. He listened carefully to representations of the unequal in archaeology, music, film, literature and politics. His own paper was more polemical than was any of his previous work. There were no numbers but a big question. Had the politics of group-identity and the quotas that it supported undermined the ability of the Indian state to promote individual citizenship? And could markets, by responding to indivi dual endowments offer some correction? At the end of the long discussion following his brief talk he said, with typical humility: “Thank you for all these comments, I am going to think about them’’.

The next day, the conference organisers had planned a field trip to Dharavi. We sat next to each other on the bus on the long congested ride from Bandra to our destination, talking of academia, jobs and of course, the Delhi School. He spoke matter-of-factly of the difficulties in finding a job when he returned to India, of the people that did and did not like his work, of department meetings and their spirit of argumentative collegiality. In Dharavi, we went through narrow lanes and metal staircases to get better views from the rooftops. He went up and down with all of us, refusing helping hands that reached out to him.

I last heard from him on 15 March. His email said:

I hope you had a smooth road ride to Pune .. Mrinal da must have been pleased to spend time with you and Tom… This is to request for your latest detailed CV. I will tell you the motive later.

I would have liked a later.

Rohini Somanathan (rohini.somanathan@gmail. com) teaches at the Delhi School of Economics.

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