The other Tendulkar

Updated on: Jun 21, 2011
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Suresh Tendulkar, who passed away in Pune yesterday, was the economist's economist. Soft-spoken, self-effacing, and forever shy of the limelight, Prof Tendulkar had taught Indian economics to several generations of students at the Delhi School of Economics (DSE). Prof Tendulkar instilled in his students not just a detailed and rigorous knowledge of the way the Indian economy functioned, he also taught them the value of precision and clarity. Not for him vague statements that were not backed by indubitable facts as revealed by data; nor for him the tendency to make predictions on a hunch. Prof Tendulkar liked to get it right. He often did. Much of the research that Prof Tendulkar conducted after joining the DSE pertained to the dynamics of the Indian economy. His room on the first floor used to be filled with hundreds of dusty reports lying all over the place. His desk was a clutter that only he could navigate. From this emerged a body of work that ought to have informed policy but, such was the disjunct between government and academia, that it did not happen.

Dissenting note

But you cannot keep a good man down, and state recognition was extended to him when he was made a member of the last Pay Commission. He took a good, hard look at the way government servants were paid and was appalled. He concluded (a) that government servants were paid far more than the public realised through all sorts of hidden benefits and (b) that their emoluments needed to be linked to efficiency in some manner. But the others on the panel had a different agenda. In the end Prof Tendulkar was forced to write a dissenting note.

Some years later, in 2008, when Dr C. Rangarajan left his post as chairman of the Prime Minister's Economic Advisory Council (PMEAC) to go into the Rajya Sabha, it was to Prof Tendulkar that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh turned. It was a short stint. He enjoyed it thoroughly, except one aspect of it. Once, visibly bewildered, he asked me how he should deal with the media. I told him not to and to leave it to his secretary. In 2009, Dr Rangarajan came back to the PMEAC, and Prof Tendulkar was entrusted with making an estimate of poverty in India. His report concluded, much to the consternation of those who have a vested interest in poverty studies, that not as many Indians were as poor as generally perceived. There was a furore, based more on subjective and anecdotal evidence. Bemused, Prof Tendulkar was left wondering when, if ever, Indians would accept facts as gospel, rather than opinion.

Single-minded focus on facts

He also undertook to write a detailed analysis of the 1991 crisis. One day he phoned me to ask what my understanding of it was, and I gave him the background, which included the inertia of the finance ministry during 1990, as also the political reasons that led to a sudden outflow of capital in India during September-December of that year. Prof Tendulkar heard me out, and asked, "Can you prove it?" At that time, I could not. But in about 18 months, the proof he needed will be available when the fourth volume of the Reserve Bank of India's (RBI's) history is published. The vacillations and lack of sure-footedness of the then finance secretary will, hopefully, be fully documented.

A few months ago Prof Tendulkar underwent a heart bypass surgery, which seems to have not worked. He is no longer with us, but it must be hoped that his single-minded pursuit of knowledge based on facts will eventually become the bedrock on which economic research and policy in India stand.

Published on December 14, 2011

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