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Remembering A Vaidyanathan (1931–2020)

V K Natraj (profvk@gmail.com) is former director, Madras Institute of Development Studies, Chennai.

A Vaidyanathan was a stalwart among social scientists. He has made distinguished contributions to several branches of economics. These include agriculture and irrigation, water management, data analysis and development policy. He has contributed to policymaking as an academic and an interlocutor. Decentralisation and participatory governance were his principal interests. He also played an important role as a mentor who encouraged and promoted young talent.

The author thanks Rama and Sanjaya Baru, K Nagaraj and G S Ganesh Prasad for helpful suggestions.

Professor A Vaidyanathan (hereafter, AV) who passed away on 10 June was the quintessential social scientist. ­Although he will be remembered for his outstanding contributions to various branches of economics, AV was a true ­social scientist. Over the past year or so, he was engaged in writing his intellectual reminiscences. The text was practically ready and efforts were on to entrust it to a publisher. This will, hopefully, but most unfortunately, be published posthumously, and is sure to fascinate any serious social scientist. He has traced his intellectual evolution from his graduate student days in Cornell University through his early research work in India to his days in the Centre for Development Studies (CDS) and later the Madras Institute of Development Studies (MIDS). Not to be forgotten is the rich experience AV had in the Planning Commission. What stands out is his constant attempt to seek answers to the problematique of development unhi­ndered by disciplinary boundaries. AV’s reminiscences open a window to his personality of which a major component was a certain restless, untiring focus on seeking answers to new questions. Quite literally, he lived on his toes. Except for the last few weeks of his life when he was physically exhausted, AV thought, ate, slept and talked economics, policymaking, and development.

It should be made clear right at the start that what follows is not intended to be a summary, much less a discussion of the entire corpus of AV’s work. It is selective and the thrust is more on presenting him in his multifaceted roles as a rese­archer, interlocutor, mentor and a critical but concerned student of society. This is an apology in advance for omissions.

In this context, what needs to be stated first is his catholicity of outlook and temperament. He held strong views on matters of policy and issues concerning the state, but that never prevented him from listening to the “other” point of view. And he was truly “liberal” (of course, not in the sense of liberalisation). It was therefore possible to have a stimulating intellectual dispute with him and not feel apprehensive that this would affect one’s personal relationship.

AV should be thought of as a social ­scientist for two reasons. First, he had a live interest in all branches of ­social sciences, and as mentioned earlier, he was never afraid to cross borders. Second, he was willing to engage in a dialogue with fellow professionals from other disciplines, and in the process, ­enrich the discussion for both sides. A major worry for him was the state of social sciences in the country, and several times, along with a few others, he thought of ways in which this could be highlighted in the public domain. He mentions in his reminiscences that after he graduated with a doctorate from Cornell, he began experiencing some discontent because his training as an economist seemed unable to provide answers to questions that kept cropping up in his mind. In feeling this way, he was basing himself on the hands-on experience that he had while working on projects in India. There was always an urge to ­arrive at a better understanding of the state of society than was made possible by the conventional tools. What was available appeared to him to be incomplete, and therefore, he went on to ­explore further and widen the frontiers of the then somewhat new discipline of development economics. And that is a pursuit which AV never gave up. AV did not reach the stage where he felt he knew all that had to be known.

Research Interests

In a sense, his research interests all tie up to make a wholesome dish. Just sample the fare he has given—irrigation and water management, the institutions to perform this function, including, most importantly, those which are genuinely people-centric, with data collected efficiently and interpreted meaningfully, and finally, an abiding concern with the end result of policy intervention. In his last work, he has presented this as his quest, although, given his innate desire not to project himself, he has refrained from saying so openly. At the same time, AV had a great love for data while recognising the problems in collection, collation and interpretation. I recall a discussion relating to panchayats and local government in general, when he expre­ssed this need for “numbers,” as he put it in Tamil, he needed something to “bite into.” But, he was no mere number cruncher; he was far too insightful for that role, though numbers did hold a fascination for him.

Coming back to the evolution of his rese­arch, his work in the Perspective Planning Division (PPD) of the Planning Commission was of great significance. The now much-discussed basic minimum income plan had its origin, in quite a different avatar, in the work of the PPD. But, as AV often said, that spell brought him in contact with some top minds and gained a wealth of experience. After a stint at the World Bank, he decided to change track and accepted an offer to move to the then newly founded CDS in Thiruvananthapuram. While his work at the World Bank gave him exposure to countries other than India, he also realised all too well the intrigues in that institution and the limitations of its approach to development. AV’s work in the Planning Commission had another kind of impact on him. He began to see the importance of local conditions, and this brought home the realisation that nati­onally planned strategies may not ­always succeed in every region. As he has written in his reminiscences, he was quite convinced that

improvements in techniques for preparing integrated plans at the national level are of limited practical value for preparation and harmonisation of regional plans. States have diverse needs, potentials and priorities. They are ill-equipped in terms of data, institutions and expertise to handle these tasks.

It is quite likely that the Planning Commission experience stimulated him to turn his attention to local institutions and how they could be harnessed for planning and development.

Over several years in the recent past, AV became a fervent advocate of decentralisation. While many of his arguments in support of this position were undoubtedly right, there was a niggling doubt in some of us who interacted with him frequently. We felt that, possibly, he seemed reluctant to appreciate the problems that the system had to contend with. More importantly, I felt he was not giving adequate recognition to the steps being taken to provide local institutions with resources, although it is nobody’s case that devolution is wholly satisfactory. One could, of course, argue with him; he was never one to shy away from discu­ssion and dissent; he could be quite ­aggressive on occasion and often could be tenacious in defending his view. This comment is made not least because AV would not ever like any hagiography, least of all about himself. As a firm believer in decentralisation, naturally he was interested in issues relating to governance and the role of institutions. One remark of his is of profound significance. He says:

a proper understanding of the performance of public institutions therefore calls for studies in a wider evolutionary perspective sensitive to the complex and intricate ways in which they are shaped by material conditions, social and political configurations and the economic context. (India’s Evolving Economy: Puzzles and Perspectives, 2013)

In personal discussions, invariably, he would return to this theme and speak of the interaction among processes, institutions and outcomes.

Another dimension of his work relates to India’s bovine economy. He made ­interesting comparisons between China and India in respect of their bovine populations. He drew attention to the necessity of utilising animal power to get the land ready for cultivation in India ­because of its warmer summers and the resultant hardness of the soil. This, along with some other factors, such as varying food habits in the two countries, led to the differences in the utilisation of cattle. Again, what strikes one is the holistic perspective in which the analysis is framed.

It is in relation to irrigation and water use that AV’s work is best known. He made out a persuasive case for exploring alternatives to the interlinking of rivers and emphasised the need to think seriously of exercising caution in the use of water. Since the environment’s health was a matter of deep concern for him, here too, AV strongly argued for a proper environmental impact of any proposal to interlink rivers. In a paper published in the Economic & Political Weekly in 2003, he brings home the point that the transfer of water across basins is neither as simple, nor the outcomes as positive as made out to be. Advocates of this strategy would do well to read this and other related works of AV on this subject. His analysis of the transfer of water across basins should be a mandatory reading for anyone championing the cause of ­interlinking.

Data Collection and Analysis

A subject of everlasting concern for AV was the collection and use of data. In several papers, he has pointed out that the data available is in fact “impressively large.” At the same time, he has bemoaned the lack of a really efficient national statistical system, which would collect data at various levels.

It is his view that the following problems require immediate remedial attention. First, costly and repetitive time-consuming surveys should be avoided. Second, the available data should be ­accessible in the public domain. AV has cited instances of data relating to rainfall and related issues that are yet to be publicly available. He has convincingly argued that if data is freely and publicly available, it will act as a deterrent to the tendency to utilise data for selective purposes. This will act as a system of internal checks and balances. AV was always critical of the tendency of researchers to accept uncritically whatever the data showed without subjecting it to rigorous scrutiny. What caused concern for him was that the validity of the inferences was not examined, while ­sophisticated techniques were used for empirical analysis. It was with reference to data collection and use that AV could be seen and heard at his passionate best. He loved numbers but was firm that all inferences should be evidence-based. It would never occur to him to accept any conclusion not supported by evidence.

As late as end May 2019, AV wrote a short but incisive piece on the proposal to merge the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) into the Central Statistics Organisation (CSO) and analysed the pitfalls of this. Further, he also made use of the occasion to draw attention to the fault lines in the existing modes of data collection. Let us remember that he wrote this when he was not in the pink of health.

A most interesting contribution from AV is with respect to the relation bet­ween the weather and crops. This is one of the papers in his volume, India’s Evolving Economy: Puzzles and Perspectives (2013). While agreeing that the work done by the India Meteorological Department is of good quality, his complaint is that much of the data has remained unpublished. As a result, there has been very little follow-up work, and a further missed opportunity is that the work has not been extended to more crops and ­regions. This paper is important since it focuses on the underutilisation of available data and the general complaint that AV has always had about data not being in the public domain.

As one would expect, AV made a significant contribution by analysing the census village directory studies with K Narayanan Nair at CDS. He felt rather disappointed that this major piece of work did not evoke the enthusiastic res­ponse that he expected.

It is quite obviously impossible to do justice to the achievements and contributions of A Vaidyanathan in a short piece. I realise that there are many omissions. There is the work he did while chairing the centre’s Task Force on Revival of Rural Cooperative Credit Institutions. He was a member of the Planning Commission and worked for United Nations agencies at different points of time. For a short while, he was the director of MIDS. In a monograph (yet to be published), he has spoken of his stint as ­director and, with wry humour, said he was happy to be divested of the responsibility which happened when he was invited to join the Planning Commission. Probably not known to too many, AV had an almost puckish sense of ­humour. One of his favourite pieces of advice to me was this: “Natraj, remember, you cannot save people from themselves.”

K Nagaraj, a member of the MIDS faculty, often recalls how AV, when he was director, would drop into Nagaraj’s room, prop himself up against the table, and the two of them would discuss academic issues endlessly. And this was when Nagaraj was a junior faculty. He never stood on formality, and Nagaraj remembers fondly that, in spite of quite serious academic differences, their personal relationship never suffered. Hierarchy meant little to him. In the past few days, I have heard from younger colleagues from MIDS, some of whom have moved away from the institute, who all spoke of the warmth and interest that AV showed in their work. Another remarkable trait in AV was that he never hankered after having his papers published in foreign journals. His principal concern was that the publisher should be of repute and known for work of quality.

An incident in AV’s life needs to be recounted. In 2008, when the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, Mumbai was under siege, AV was a guest in the hotel. He was in Mumbai attending a meeting of the Board of the Reserve Bank of India. It was quite an adventure for him to get out of his room unscathed, but typically like him, chose not to publicise his heroism. And it was at my prodding that he let the media know of what he had gone through.

AV contributed immensely to MIDS. He and C T Kurien were a great combination, united by their devotion to academics and the institute, in some ways different from each other, and yet sharing an affectionate relationship.

A final anecdote: In the early years of this century, meetings were held to bring together farmers from Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. AV was present at the first meeting in Chennai, sitting quite unobtrusively. But, the moment the Karnataka farmers realised he was there, they flocked to him. It was obvious to all that they were in the presence of a stalwart. Karnataka has a claim on AV. He was born in Maddur, half way between Bengaluru and Mysuru, and famous for its Maddur vada, but I never found out if he was partial to this oily delight!

AV Sir, we shall all miss you; we ­salute you.

 

Updated On : 23rd Jun, 2020

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