K.N. Raj: teacher, economist and institution builder

K.N. RAJ: He stimulated discussion in India on regional and inter-State disparities in economic growth. Photo: S. Gopakumar

K.N. RAJ: He stimulated discussion in India on regional and inter-State disparities in economic growth. Photo: S. Gopakumar   | Photo Credit: S. Gopakumar

In 1960, when I was enrolled for my MA at the Delhi School of Economics, the shining star at the School was certainly K.N. Raj. The founder of the School, V.K.R.V. Rao, had left the institution, but came back every Founders’ Day to remind us of its glorious past and of the enduring values it embodied. Raj’s style was much lower key, but it soon became clear that his dedication to the School was not less than that of Rao.

Raj taught the MA first year paper in Monetary Economics (as it was then called). He was highly organised. Unlike many other teachers, he revised and retyped his lectures every year to take account of new material. I have no doubt that he was the best teacher I have had. He would begin his exposition at a relatively low level to take account of the heterogeneity of the class and then over the year imperceptibly raise the level of treatment of the subject. Yet, he never gave the impression of unduly oversimplifying the subject or of avoiding difficult issues. He was very patient with students and would give them time during and after the class to explain again any point they did not understand. In later years he gave up this course and instead lectured mainly on Indian economics. He gave this subject stronger analytical content and strengthened interest in applied economics among his students, many of whom went on to make major contributions in this field.

Demanding research supervisor

I was inspired by Raj to do research at the School rather than take the default option of competing for the administrative services. I found out soon enough that as a PhD supervisor or “guide”, Raj was a hard taskmaster. He did not believe in rewriting his students’ work and he did not want his students to write joint papers with him. He expected each chapter to be typed and finalised before it was submitted to him. He would then read it and indicate by underlining or markings on the side whatever he felt needed attention. What was exasperating was that he would not indicate what precisely was needed; I had to work it out and make the required changes. When I complained that one of my chapters had already gone through six revisions, he smiled and told me that the PhD degree was only a trade union card. However, before I was admitted to the trade union I would have to prove that I could think logically and write clearly and well.

Great economist

Raj’s contributions as a professional economist were many; rather than attempting to cover them all, I will highlight just a few taken from areas of shared interest. I think his finest work was the lectures he delivered at the National Bank of Egypt in the early 1950s on the employment aspects of planning. These were published by the bank but, unfortunately, the book soon became almost impossible to find. The lectures reveal a remarkable understanding of the social fabric of rural India. In his view, the supply of labour was made up of two parts: the more or less purely agricultural labour households seeking wage employment and farming families in which members worked on the family farm and occasionally took up outside employment. The western concept of a labour market was directly applicable to the former, but not fully to the latter. He attacked Arthur Lewis’s concept of unlimited supply of labour at the existing wage available to the modern sector, arguing that this was not valid for the self-employed and unpaid family workers within cultivating households, as their decision to work outside the household depended upon such factors as the decision of the household (or its head) and the relation between the average household income and the wage offered in the modern sector.

This view of the complexity of labour supply in the Indian rural economy was carried forward by him in his contributions to the work of the ILO Committee of Experts on Employment Objectives of Economic Development in 1961 and in his work on the Planning Commission’s Committee of Experts on Unemployment Estimates in 1969 and 1970, where I had the privilege of being his associate.

Another important contribution of Raj lay in stimulating discussion in India on regional and inter-State disparities in economic growth. His paper in the Economic Weekly in the early 1960s led to a whole field of study and considerable improvements in the measurement and comparison of State domestic products. He was later to pioneer comparisons between the growth records of India, Pakistan and China.

Master builder

As rebuilder of the Department of Economics of the Delhi School of Economics, his finest qualities emerged. He searched worldwide to recruit the best economists that were available and worked tirelessly to ensure that they were given the terms and conditions they deserved. Unlike many other academic leaders, he did not worry about being overshadowed by the people he recruited. Excellence at the School was all that mattered to him and he achieved this in abundant measure. Those of us who were at the School in the 1960s were struck not only by the brilliance and fame of many of the new appointees but also the wide range of their specialities. Many were probably much better equipped in terms of modern mathematical economics and econometrics than he was and were often much better known in international circles. But this did not deter him and this, I believe, is the hallmark of his greatness.

While he used his power as the head of the department to achieve what he felt the department needed, he simultaneously promoted internal democracy, decentralisation and sharing of responsibilities. Staff meetings were marked by the free expression of diverging views and young staff members like me were struck by the brilliance of the arguments and counter-arguments of our seniors and by the way in which Raj resolved these differences. To the consternation of many other heads of departments, he introduced the rule of rotation of the post of head of the department. This practice has since become the norm in Delhi University.

Not many people today know that he was an accomplished actor and directed for some years the annual School play. When pointing out how we could improve our performance he was always soft-spoken but firm. I vividly remember him sitting in the back row of Swami Vivekananda Hall in 1960 or 1961 calculating the income of Indian States, pausing from time to time to encourage us and to provide constructive suggestions.

Humane economist

I remember Raj not just as an inspiring teacher, demanding supervisor, great Indian economist and master builder of institutions, but also as a humane person for whom every student or colleague was special. His intolerance of inequity and social injustice was deep and infectious; and his life-long concern for the highest levels in academic excellence and integrity continue to set a standard we can only try to reach.

(J. Krishnamurty was a Professor at the Delhi School of Economics, retired as Senior Economist, ILO and is currently Visiting Professor at the Institute for Human Development, New Delhi.)

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Printable version | Jul 7, 2020 9:50:12 PM |

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