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Sailing off-course

IE has been pointing to the sharp focus on research in applied economics in east and north India. Both the two Nobel Prize winners in Economics of Indian origin hailed from West Bengal. Delhi has several applied economics institutes.

The record of the southern universities and colleges has been unflattering with regard to focused economic research. The Madras Institute of Development Studies [MIDS] and Madras School of Economics were expected to address these lacunae. Dr. Malcom Adiseshiah and Dr Raja J Chelliah did work on this.

I had closely interacted with Adiseshiah with collecting information on his work for recording a four-hour slot for the archives of All India Radio. I admired his sharp focus on current and emerging economic and development issues.
Adiseshiah, with his rich experience as an academic, a renowned administrator, a former Deputy Director General- UNESCO, Vice-Chancellor-Madras University and Member-Rajya Sabha, generously bequeathed his resources for setting up the MIDS. I was present at the launch of MIDS and at the numerous programmes organised by MIDS from the 1980s. The initial team at the helm included economists Dr C T Kurien and Dr A Vaidyanathan and the well-known bureaucrat S Guhan.

Guhan’s experience as an illustrious finance secretary of the state also helped in getting the close participation of policymakers at Delhi and Chennai. The programmes had rich development content.

Does one see a focus on economic studies at MIDS today?

Subsequent years saw a shift in focus from economic and developmental issues to social and historical issues. Dr VK Natraj’s tenure as director intensified this shift; social scientists like Dr AR Venkatachalapathy further expanded on this. Look at the subjects of the programmes in recent weeks: Theories of Change in Rural Transformation. Making the World a Better Place. Urban Waterlines. Cultivating Transforming Faith and a New Ecology of Hope. Services Trade and Choice of Industries. At the Intersection of Class and Gender. Dalit Women in Contemporary India and the Quest for Equity Perspectives on Financial Inclusion. Women’s Health Care & Child Delivery System. A Fourth Framework – Reinterpreting the 1940s in India…

Myriad economic issues that cry for study

Look at the myriad economic and development issues of the state and the region that require attention. eg. the poor state of agriculture in Tamil Nadu with average annual growth in production over 50 years since the green revolution at less than 1 per cent. Look also at the state’s finances: just three items, salaries and pensions to government employees, subsidies and debt servicing account for more than the state’s revenues. Public debt of the state has registered a four-fold increase from Rs 100,000 crore to nearly Rs 400,000 crore in just a decade. Also, serious issues relate to the states policy of universal public distribution system and not a PDS targeted at the weakest sections. Public health and welfare are among the exceptions for good performance. There can be discussions evaluating the issues.

Critical analysis of the Central and state policies take a backseat at MIDS; understandably so with both being strong financial supporters for MIDS.

Chairman MIDS, Dr K L Krishna, is a distinguished economist with over five decades of experience in teaching and guiding research. His specialisation in statistical methods in applied econometrics, statistical industrial economics and his publishing over 30 research papers have received wide acclaim as also his work at the Delhi School of Economics. Surely, he could work on expanding research in developmental economic issues at MIDS. But, like an absentee landlord of Thanjavur, living in Delhi and rarely frequenting Chennai, he may not be much familiar with the ground realities of Chennai.

Dr Shashanka Bhide, an agricultural economist, as Director during 2014-18, did conduct several seminars on current and emerging economic issues, participated by global and national experts; particularly impressive was the one on issues of agriculture development of the southern states. There is need for organising more such.

I also find a schism between MIDS and the Malcolm & Elizabeth Adiseshiah Trust (MEAT). In the past, these two used to work in tandem in presenting awards, scholarships or prizes. In recent years, I notice the two trusts operating differently with just the octogenarian C T Kurien represented in both the Boards of Trustees. Even the meetings of the MEAT are held at the premises of the Asian College of Journalism. Of course, both the boards are manned by the old and the very old!

Change MIDS to MISS or MIHS

I do hope and pray Malcolm is not turning in his grave with the focus of the development institute more and more on social and historical issues. Of course, this is of value to researchers getting their papers published and receiving their degrees and doctorates. I cite an example: a research scholar in animal behaviour can spend time on the mating season of cockroaches, get his doctorate and also publish his research findings in scientific journals. Good for him/her; but of greater relevance for a developing country like ours is the immediate beneficial application of the research findings.

I feel the focus of economic institutes could be more on the scope of application of such research for the benefit to society. MIDS can leave the task of social transformation to Karunanidhis, Ramadosses and their ilk and focus on hardcore economic research of immediate value; or amend its name to Madras Institute of Social Studies (MISS) or Madras Institute of Historical Studies (MIHS).

Dr P G Babu, who succeeded Dr Bhide, brings with him rich experience, having worked with the Indian Institute of Science, the Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research (IGIDR)and TIFR. He has held various academic and administrative positions and has held visiting professorships at universities abroad and in India. I do hope the distinguished economics professor will endeavour to re-rail the focus of MIDS on development economics.

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