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Updated: May 16, 2010 01:20 IST

An economist with human welfare at heart

Dharmalingam Venugopal
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Dr. B. Natarajan
Dr. B. Natarajan

The year 2010 marks the birth centenary of the late Dr. B. Natarajan, an applied economist of rare distinction, whose economic predictions as well as policy prescriptions have greatly benefited the country, particularly Tamil Nadu. A socialist at heart, he welcomed every means to further human welfare. He decried the growing tendency of ‘Maa-Baapism', which had made the people dependent on the government for anything and everything. He called his memoirs appropriately, ‘Economics is not all', meaning economics without ethics and morality is meaningless. Economic humanism should underlie an economist's work, according to him.

Born into an agricultural family in the southern tip of the country, Dr. BN, as he was known, started his career in Delhi under Sir Theodore Gregory, the first economic adviser to the Government of India in the years immediately preceding Independence. Later, he became the first and the last Economic Adviser to the government of Composite Madras State in 1948. During the five years he held the post, he blazed many a new trail in planning and economic administration. His office became the forerunner of the Department of Statistics.

When Andhra Pradesh was created in 1953, its first Chief Minister Sri. T. Prakasam appointed Dr. BN as its Economic Adviser, Development Commissioner and Secretary, Planning. Though he occupied the post only for two years, Dr. BN set up the Department of Statistics and prepared several blueprints for its industrial and agricultural progress.

Dr. BN served as U.N. Economic Adviser to Egypt and Syria but gave up the assignment in response to a call to serve his home State as a legislator. He won by a thumping majority from Nagarcoil but was soon disillusioned with the government's functioning and returned to economic research before his term ended. Associated with the National Council for Applied Economic Research (NCAER) from its inception, Dr. BN became its Deputy Director-General. Though Dr. BN was not much in favour of quantification in economics, he pioneered studies on the national income and techno-economic surveys of various States.

After his retirement, he set up the Institute for Techno-Economic Studies in Madras (now Chennai). The reports “Tamil Nadu 2000 AD” and “Tamil Nadu 2020 AD” commissioned by the Ford Foundation in the 1970s forecast the shape of things to come with remarkable accuracy. “Economics is often deprecated for its incapacity to predict. But of late, it has evolved quite a few tools for projections and predictions,” he said.

The national Futurology Workshops he organised on topical issues like housing, water management and transport greatly helped planners and policymakers to anticipate long-term problems as well as potentials. His study of the London Passenger Transport System eventually prepared the way for the State transport undertaking in the Madras State. After making a detailed study of crop insurance in Japan in the 1950s, he proposed a universal crop insurance scheme for the Madras State. An ardent supporter of the interlinking of rivers, Dr. BN never lost an opportunity to strike a blow for schemes like the Ganga-Cauvery link, the Grand Garland Canal project and the diversion of the west flowing rivers in southern India.

An erudite scholar in English and Tamil, Dr. BN rendered great works like Tirukural, Thirumanthiram and Tiruvundiar into English. “Tamil can be truly glorified only by those who have mastered English” he would often say. He died on his 75th birthday in 1984.

(The writer is an economist with Indian Overseas Bank. email:

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