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T N Srinivasan (1933–2018)

A Spirited Polymath

T S Gopi Rethinaraj (gopir@iisc.ac.in) is at the Divecha Centre for Climate Change, Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru.

T N Srinivasan was one of the most distinguished economists of post-independence India and contributed immensely to academic research and public policy. Although he is better known for his extensive scholarly work in various areas of economics, he has also written on energy policy, nuclear power, and other topics that few would associate him with. Equally important was his unflinching commitment and generosity towards students and young researchers throughout his long career.

This article has been expanded from a short obituary published in the Hindu Business Line on 16 November 2018.

T   N Srinivasan, known to friends and colleagues as TN, lived a full scholarly life until his death on 11 November 2018 in Chennai. One of India’s outstanding economists and an unrelenting champion of free trade and economic liberalisation, he was the quintessential puritan among academics. In his long and distinguished career straddling academia and public policy, he contributed significantly to development economics, statistics, econometrics, economic growth, income inequality, international trade, and human development. Although his contributions to economics are varied and enduring, TN is famously known for the work with his friend and long-time collaborator Jagdish Bhagwati, which laid the intellectual groundwork for India’s economic reforms in 1991.

TN also wrote, albeit sporadically, on topics other than his well-known forte. I had the fortune and privilege of collaborating with him briefly on nuclear policy in which I received doctoral training at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. My association with TN began in the twilight of his illustrious career when we were colleagues at the National University of Singapore (NUS) for two years from 2011 to 2012. He held the Yong Pung How Chair Professorship at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in NUS after retiring from Yale University. He had a five-decade association with Yale, starting as a doctoral student in the early 1960s under the supervision of Nobel Laureate Tjalling Koopmans, becoming a tenured professor in economics in 1979, and eventually heading the department from 1997 to 2000. In between he also had a long stint at the Indian Statistical Institute (ISI) in Delhi during the 1960s and 1970s and held visiting professorships at Stanford University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and Johns Hopkins University.

Until meeting TN in Singapore in early 2011, I had barely any exposure to his scholarly accomplishments. My understanding of economics was limited to two introductory courses that I took as part of my thesis preparation in nuclear engineering. It was from another senior economist colleague at the NUS I came to know about the professional stature of the new unassuming colleague from Yale with whom I quickly developed a fondness and association. We had offices opposite to each other, frequently commuted together between home and work, lived in the same housing complex, and soon became family friends.

Getting Along

I always looked forward to talk to him on random topics and he never failed to charm with his vast erudition. My initial conversations with TN were mostly about our ancestral district in Tamil Nadu, and sometimes about the curious dynamics between the state’s politics and Tinseltown. He was least bothered about the private lives of actor-turned-politicians who dominated state politics until recently, and insisted that public discussion of them was unwarranted unless they had some bearing on governance.

TN regaled me with fascinating accounts of life and culture in Thanjavur district during the years before and after independence. His ancestral village, Thirukodikaval, situated on the northern banks of Cauvery near the temple town of Kumbakonam is home to a popular Shiva temple that has separate shrines for Lord Yama and his first assistant Chitragupta. According to local belief, taking a dip in the temple pond on a full moon in the Tamil month of Chithirai appeases Yama’s record keeper and absolves past sins. In 2011, TN took Abhijit Banerjee and a few others on a road trip to his ancestral village and enthusiastically shared the experience on return without being nostalgic.

His family had endowed a Sanksrit academy and undertook its responsibility for many years. Although well-versed in Sanskrit scriptures and Hindu mythologies, he was neither religious nor interested in observing rituals. He was a vegetarian by choice, never wore the sacred thread, spoke disapprovingly of the politics of communal hatred, and detested the current environment of cow vigilantism and the underlying food politics. As someone who fervently believed that the “intrinsic objective” of India’s economic growth is to end the widespread poverty (of which hunger to him was the most depressing manifestation) once and for all, he said the government’s job was to ensure that the citizens had enough food on their plates and it “had no business to determine their food choice.”

Growing up in a district of numerous temple towns, he retained a lifelong interest in the history and architecture of temples. TN was also a discerning connoisseur of Indian classical music, especially Carnatic, and rarely missed the December–January katcheri season in Chennai. This is one area where I never attempted to engage with him since my music interest was narrowly limited to Tamil movies in which he never evinced any interest. In the last few months when his famed mental alertness and sharpness started fading, his tone was subdued by his favourite music that played continuously in the background. For a committed atheist who lived a detached and austere life, music was the closest expression of his religiosity.

Work in Nuclear Policy

It was the March 2011 Fukushima nuclear accident that presented an opportunity for me to collaborate with this great economist, on nuclear policy, a topic few would associate him with. By some strange coincidence, I was then the lone resident researcher at theNUS with nuclear engineering background and, hence, was frequently invited to brief the media about public health and safety implications of the nuclear accident in Japan.

In the days and weeks after that unprecedented nuclear disaster, TN would regularly drop in my office to discuss about the accident and shared copies of news articles on related developments. He was not only familiar with the basic technical aspects of nuclear reactors, but was keen to know more about specific engineering and radiological aspects relevant to the vintage boiling-water
reactors (BWRs) in Fukushima Daiichi as the accident unfolded. Over the next several months, we continued to discuss various nuclear technology and policy issues and Fukushima’s impact on the future growth of nuclear power. These discussions initially led to an op-ed piece (Srinivasan et al 2012) we wrote jointly with Surya Sethi, another visiting faculty then at NUS and former principal advisor on energy and climate policy at the erstwhile Planning Commission.

He prompted me to work on a longer review article to provide a broader perspective and examine Fukushima’s implications for India in the context of the massive public resistance against the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant (two 1,000 megawatts water-water-energy [vvE]-type reactors built with Russian technology and assistance) that was nearing completion in Tamil Nadu. Official assurances about the safety of those reactors did not cut much ice with the protesters in the aftermath of Fukushima. The central government with the help of the state government (which dilly-dallied on the issue by initially letting the protesters take control of the situation near the site) then used various repressive means to break public resistance and threatened the protesters with sedition cases.

TN was disturbed by the government’s response to the anti-nuclear protests at Kudankulam. He criticised the government’s lack of sincerity and the institutional failure for not anticipating the public mobilisation against the project. The latter, according to him, could have been avoided if a systematic social cost–benefit analysis incorporating public views into decision-making had been done before sanctioning the project. He empathised with the protesters because millions of people could be subjected to unwarranted risk in the case of a severe accident like Fukushima. This sentiment was stated emphatically in our joint paper that “the deleterious consequences of the Fukushima accident and the risks of their happening at Kudankulam are real” (Srinivasan and Rethinaraj 2013).

TN considered the official attempt to mollify the protesting public by engaging former President Abdul Kalam to testify on reactor safety as “duplicitous.” The issue, according to him, was not just about safety and engineered safeguards of the reactors, but also, whether the potential risks had been weighed against the potential benefits from the plant in a social cost–benefit framework. Nuclear accidents, even if very rare, have high social costs. Hence, we concluded in the paper that

in addition to ex-ante insurance through appropriate siting and plant design and other safety features, response plans in the event of accidents have to provide post ex-post insurance in nuclear power plants. Exclusive attention only to engineered safety ex-ante is dangerous. (Srinivasan and Rethinaraj 2013)

It took a very long time to write this article since it had to meet the exacting standards of my co-author. The process of research and writing until he was satisfied was one of the greatest learning experiences in my academic career. The draft went through numerous revisions, including his intellectual contributions. And every time he patiently read through the draft afresh, suggesting changes to make a point more forcefully or correcting a muddled thought hiding in circumlocution. I also wrote a book chapter (Rethinaraj 2012) and a policy brief that made an environmental case in support of nuclear power during the period and greatly benefited from his feedback on those drafts. Although he did not have any particular opposition to nuclear power, he was not convinced with my narrow focus on its technical merits and insisted that nuclear decision-making should be preceded by a credible socioeconomic analysis to gain public trust. What if people are still opposed to nuclear power and do not want a nuclear plant in their backyard? For which he responded with his characteristic bluntness: “so be it, as long as we want to stay a democracy.”

The Fukushima crisis highlighted the collusive ties between the regulators and the industry compromising public health and safety. As a science reporter for the Indian Express during the years 1995–99, I had written frequently about the lack of transparency in nuclear regulation in India and thought that the solution lay in creating an independent entity along the lines of the United States (US) Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Here, too, TN reminded me that having an independent nuclear regulator is only a “necessary condition but not sufficient condition” and gave examples from other sectors where regulators become captive to the industries they are supposed to regulate. He provided pointers to the extensive literature in economics on regulatory capture and suggested to read some of the seminal papers. Regulatory independence was not an end but only the means to an end. What will truly serve the public interest is setting up an institution with better credibility and resources than the present Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB), free from the direct and indirect influences of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC).

During the course of working together, we gave a seminar for the faculty at the NUS. TN travelled to Japan and presented a preliminary draft of our paper in May 2012 at the Yale–Kobe Joint Symposium organised to mark the 110th anniversary of the Kobe University. I also used my visits to Japan and Austria in 2011 and 2012 to get feedback from nuclear experts and officials in the Japanese nuclear establishment and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

The discussions with TN during the two years we were colleagues in Singapore greatly enriched my thinking on nuclear policy issues. It was during these conversations I discovered that his familiarity with nuclear issues came from the two papers he wrote on nuclear power many years ago. In 1975, he co-authored a paper (Konno and Srinivasan 1975) that included a detailed sensitivity analysis and economic critique of various nuclear growth scenarios and reactor strategies projected by Wolf Häfele and Alan Manne on the transition of the global energy system from fossil fuels to nuclear fuels. He also wrote a book chapter (Srinivasan 1983) in 1983 providing a comprehensive review and critique of nuclear energy development in India. Although he criticised the lack of a credible economic reasoning in the official support for nuclear power from the 1950s through present and was also not satisfied with the typical costing method using only market costs and administered prices, his views on proliferation were aligned with India’s official position against the “unfair and discriminatory” nature of the international non-proliferation regime.

Energy Policy and Other Interests

Long back, TN had collaborated with Kirit S Parikh to develop an analytical method for determining an optimal choice for the energy and agriculture sectors in India using a linear programming model (Parikh and Srinivasan 1980). The research for this paper and his nuclear policy work was done during his visits to the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in Austria during the 1970s and the 1980s. The model is a rigorous examination of various options for electricity generation over a period of three decades into the future using cost minimisation to meet the requirements for agriculture, transport, cooking, and industrial applications. This paper also explores the potential role of various types of nuclear reactors in India’s evolving energy mix, including fast breeder reactors that could be fuelled with reprocessed fuel from the indigenousCandu (Canada Deuterium Uranium) type reactors and high-temperature gas-cooled reactors suitable for certain industrial process heat applications.

On energy options, he never revealed any preference for specific choice of energy technology and was only particular that any policy choice should pass the muster of a rigorous socio-economic analysis and accommodate public concerns to a reasonable extent. TN believed that when societal preferences are included in any analysis in a credible and transparent way, there was a better chance of accommodating public concerns over involuntary exposure to risks. Such an approach provides a credible analytical framework for comparing the risks and benefits of various energy technologies, and argued for making the basis of energy policy decisions explicit and accessible for independent review. In any case, he had a poor opinion about the quality of environmental impact analysis done by government agencies in India in support of energy and other development projects. While economic and financing cost analysis in support of energy policy is available in literature, he complained that the social cost–benefit analysis has not received adequate attention among researchers and policymakers.

I raised this issue, at TN’s suggestion, with the former deputy chairperson of the Planning Commission Montek Singh Ahluwalia at an informal dinner meeting in Singapore in 2012. Ahluwalia dismissed the use of social cost–benefit analysis for taking policy decisions and cited that policymaking as such is complicated and delayed by the Byzantine political process. What he left unsaid is that there is currently neither capacity nor interest in the concerned agencies to do such analyses. Surya Sethi, who coordinated the effort in preparing the 2006 Integrated Energy Policy report for the Planning Commission, has shared his frustrations about the lack of institutional capacity within the government to do even basic energy analysis, let alone the kind of sophisticated analysis that TN demanded in support of a credible energy policy. The Tata Energy Research Institute (TERI), which was originally created in the 1970s to specifically do these kinds of analysis the country lacked, drifted from its original mandate and stretched itself too thin as the organisation expanded.

While TN continued to work in his forte with younger researchers and kept himself abreast with the economics literature, he also took occasional interest in topics that excited him and brought fresh insights as an outsider. One such area was judicial activism about which he was very critical. The recent enthusiasm among certain judges, in his view, was encroaching the realm of policymaking and implementation that should be left to elected lawmakers and the executive. He presented his views on judicial activism at a seminar in the NUS Law School and in the public lecture he gave at the O P Jindal Global University in 2012. He saw the recent instances of judicial overreach as an attempt by the judiciary to compensate for its past failings, especially during the Emergency period. He wrote that the “concept of sin and atonement may have their value in Dharmashastras but none whatsoever in constitutional jurisprudence,” and that Indian judges needed exposure to other disciplines for handling certain cases better (Srinivasan 2016a).

In 2016, he accepted my request and spent a week at the National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS) despite his poor health and spent most of the time interacting with young faculty members and other researchers, providing feedback on various research proposals. During this stay he also delivered the 15thM NSrinivasMemorial Lecture for which he read the sociologist’s oeuvre. Although he was given the choice of speaking on any topic from his comfort zone (that is, economics), TN chose to comment on the work of Srinivas in social anthropology and caste dynamics for the public lecture. He spent the next six to seven months rewriting the draft of the lecture (on which he obtained feedback from several competent friends and colleagues) until its publication in August 2016 (Srinivasan 2016b).

Integrity and Commitment

The breadth and sophistication of TN’s scholarship is well known. In an environment of widespread authorship abuse and unethical research practices by senior researchers and people holding positions of power (Rethinaraj and Chakravarty 2017), he held the highest standards for academic and research integrity. What distinguishes him from many others who have achieved comparable distinction is his unflagging commitment to students and young scholars throughout his long career. He was a truly selfless scholar, and generously gave his time and seriousness to researchers irrespective of their stature.

Students who took his courses or interacted with him share similar experience. A doctoral student in Singapore, who wrote two papers jointly with him in recent years, said that in the process of writing with TN he “learned more through that experience than all of grad school put together.” Another doctoral student, who briefly interacted with him during his 2016 visit to the NIAS in Bengaluru, fondly shared her experience of receiving extensive written comments for a paper: “I feel lucky to be a recipient of his mentorship and kindness.”

There are several such instances of TN taking interest in the intellectual well-being of young researchers. His friend and collaborator Bhagwati reminisced that TN “was not just a great economist but also a hugely generous scholar who extended a helping hand through timely commentary on their manuscripts to countless aspiring young economists around the world” (Yale News 2018). Christopher Udry, economics professor at the Northwestern University, who completed his doctoral dissertation under TN’s supervision, recollected thus: “He was a model adviser and mentor, someone I could rely on throughout my career” (Yale News 2018).

When TN was about to complete his two-year visiting professorship in the NUS, the entire doctoral student cohort of the public policy school petitioned to the authorities to retain him longer. He brought a lot of analytical rigour in teaching research methods for doctoral students and the elective courses he taught in the public policy school. He was a merciless and unsparing critic of colleagues’ work at research seminars and had very low tolerance for mediocrity, analytical lapses, and misuse of data. But, he was also extremely generous with time for colleagues who sought his advice. It was these qualities that endeared him greatly to numerous students and younger colleagues. Kishore Mahbubani, the then dean of public policy at the NUS, was keen to support regular term visits and asked me to explore options with TN but was concerned about him staying alone without help given his frail health condition toward the end of his Singapore stint. Within a few months of leaving Singapore, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease but managed to remain independent with some difficulty until mid-2018. But his mental agility and sharpness remained intact, allowing him to work alone as well as collaborate with others from distance.

In some academic disciplines, it is common (and considered a virtue) to brag about one’s contribution, however small, to policymaking. Even though TN played an influential role in shaping economic policy in India and had access to policymakers at the highest levels, he rarely spoke about them. He was the archetype of the sage scholar who lived a life truly devoted to scholarship. Former union minister Jairam Ramesh’s tweet after TN’s death describes him best: “He never craved for public recognition and was immersed in the world of scholarship till the very end.”

References

Konno, H and T N Srinivasan (1975): “Nulcear Reactor Strategies: Sensitivity Analysis of the Haefele-Manne Model,” Energy Policy, September, pp 211–22.

Parikh, K S and T N Srinivasan (1980): “Food and Energy Choices for India: A Programming Model with Partial Endogenous Energy Requirements,” Behavioral Science, 25: 367–86.

Rethinaraj, T S G (2012): “Nuclear Power and Environmental Impact: Risk vs Perception,” Nuclear Power and Energy Security in Asia, R Basrur and S L C Koh, New York: Routledge, pp 71–89.

Rethinaraj, T S G and S Chakravarty (2017): “Unethical Authorship Is Research Misconduct,” viewed on 24 December 2018, https://sc-lab.org/pdf/2017-research-misconduct.pdf.

Srinivasan, T N (1983): “Nuclear Power and Economic Development: India,” Strategies for Managing Nuclear Proliferation: Economic and Political Issues, D L Brito, M D Intriligator and A E Wick, Lexington, MA: Lexington Books, pp 85–98.

— (2016a): “Evolution of Judicial Activism: The Supreme Court of India,” Development in India: Micro and Macro Perspectives, S M Dev and P G Babu, Mumbai: Springer, pp 39–56.

— (2016b): “Micro Foundations of Public Policy: Some Thoughts Inspired by the Contributions of M N Srinivas,” National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru.

Srinivasan, T N and T S G Rethinaraj (2013): “Fukushima and Thereafter: Reassessment of Risks of Nuclear Power,” Energy Policy, 52: 726–36.

Srinivasan, T N, T S G Rethinaraj and S Sethi (2012): “How Fukushima Is Relevant to Kudankulam,” Hindu, 8 March.

Yale News (2018): “T N Srinivasan: Economist Was a Powerful Voice for Economic Reform in India,” viewed on 23 December 2018, https://news.yale.edu/2018/11/13/tn-srinivasan-economist-was-powerful-voice-economic-reform-india.

Updated On : 8th Jan, 2019

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