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Of cloves, census and commitment

Haseeb A Drabu | Updated on June 12, 2020 Published on June 12, 2020

A Vaidyanathan

Vaidy was a data guru. He helped design the National Sample Survey, one of many things he did over an illustrious career. Being taught by him was a privilege, working for him was a pleasure. And knowing him as a person was both and more.

In 1984, I was looking for Professor A Vaidyanathan just after reading his authoritative essay, “Indian Economy since Independence” in the Cambridge History of India. I asked a senior hanging around in the corridor at the Centre for Development Studies where I could find him. “He has just gone up to the library. Follow the fragrance of cloves and you will find him.” That is exactly how I located him! I think he had given up cigarettes and got addicted to cloves! So a strong whiff of cloves either announced his arrival or left his trail.

And which section of the library was he in? Those who knew him will not take even a second to guess! Of course, the Census & Survey section! So I met the lion in his lair. He was probably looking at the National Sample Survey, which he had helped design very early in his career. He would remember and refer to various NSS Rounds, exactly like a legal luminary cites case references from the AIR volumes! His passion for data was unmatched.

Vaidy, as he was called by everyone — family, friends, colleagues and students — had a simple mantra for all aspiring economists; “Dirty your hands with data!” And, if you had the misfortune of having to show him some data analysis, he would not even look at you while giving a sharp whiplash: “Massage it a bit more!” Lest you think otherwise, what he would mean is do more data crunching! He was in the classical mould of a hard taskmaster; a sharp mind with an acerbic tongue. Mistaken by many for arrogance. He was actually quite paternal.

Exactitude was the defining quality of his own work and he demanded it of his students. He would always insist on “getting a worm’s eye view”; in-depth, intensive and incisive. This was his methodological premise, so to say.

But, and this was his hallmark, he was neither rigid nor fixated. While he would not fancy the frills and fancies of theoretical constructs, he would not only appreciate but value what others did in those areas. In this, I thought he was a bit of an optimistic cynic; he knew it wouldn’t help but he hoped it would!

Making the future better

Numbers were not cold dry statistics for him; they were warm blooded, almost human, and would speak to him. He is the only economist I know who could make data sing a sexy number! He would study the numbers with the intensity and expression of an astrologer trying to peer into the future. Except that he was looking at the past to understand the present in order to make the future better. I can never forget the reams of data on rainfall that he would pore over endlessly! It showed commitment.

Vaidy was the pioneering “pracademic” of India; he combined the skills of a policymaker with the insights of an academic. He was a development ideologue without the baggage of a political ideology. In the fraternity of political economists, most of who were his friends, this was an oft-made criticism.

He started and ended his career in academic and research institutions — his first job was at the National Council of Applied Economic Research and last one at the Madras Institute of Development Studies. In between, he spent a long time in policymaking nationally and internationally; at the Perspective Planning Division of the Planning Commission, the Food and Agriculture Organisation in Rome and the World Bank in Washington. He kept his policymaking engagements alive even while he was teaching at CDS or MIDS.

A distinctive path

It was this grounding in policymaking that made him instil a sense of contemporaneity and relevance in the academic research agenda; not just in his own work but of those whom he mentored. He was not a contrarian, but walked his own distinctive path. Look at the choice and range of his subjects. He worked on water way before it became fashionable; the bovine economy, decades before it was known that one of every three cattle in the world is Indian. Way before the even the Brazilians and Aussies made it a multi-billion dollar business.

I felt very honoured and chuffed to implement my teacher’s Report on Cooperative credit institutions when I was the Finance Minister of Jammu & Kashmir. I reached out to him around that time, in 2016. And I reminded him how he got me my first job. Soon after he was appointed Member of the Planning Commission, he sought me out and I was appointed as a Consultant in the Perspective Planning Division of the Planning Commission. When he left, he recommended me to Dr Bimal Jalan and I was moved to the Economic Advisory Council of the Prime Minister. Being taught by him was a privilege, working for him was a pleasure. And knowing him as a person was both and more.

Once at lunch in the canteen, conversation veered to beef and I mentioned that Kashmiris were not beef eaters. Sociology of culinary culture be damned, he instantly correlated it to a data point saying: “Ah! I was wondering why the bovine to population ratio is so high Kashmir!” In his pioneering work on the bovine economy, he must have noted that the ratio was high for a Muslim majority State. Quintessential Vaidy! RIP!

Haseeb Drabu is a former Finance Minister of Jammu and Kashmir and Chairman, J&K Bank. He was a student at the Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram.

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Published on June 12, 2020
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