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In search of the ‘what’ and ‘why’

A. Vaidyanathan would pore over economic data and tease out the most interesting patterns

It is now an age where Economics is ruled at one extreme by a formalism where mathematics dominates and at the other by narrow field experiments where crude empiricism reigns. But not long ago, there were economists who sought to understand how the wheels turned in the economy by carefully weighing all the evidence available. A. Vaidyanathan, teacher, researcher and policymaker, who died on June 11 at the age of 88, was one of a fading generation of economists whose body of work was built around how data answered the questions of ‘what’ and ‘why’ in the Indian economy.

In the economic discourse in India of the past half century, one can identify many ideas, hypotheses and methodologies with his contributions. “Vaidy”, to his friends and students, first made his mark in the early 1960s in the Perspective Planning Division of the Planning Commission. He and his mentor, Pitambar Pant, prepared a pioneering study in 1962 of what it would require and how long it would take to achieve a basic minimum of living standards. That landmark study was a precursor to the World Bank-led global research on measuring poverty. Later, his ‘decomposition methodology’, developed with B.S. Minhas, was immensely useful in assessing output growth in agriculture. In one of the enduring policy debates on poor industrial performance after the mid-1960s, Vaidyanathan (along with K.N. Raj and Sukhamoy Chakravarty) consistently advocated the need for stepping up agricultural growth if the economy was to grow faster. Throughout his career, Vaidy maintained a passion for critically analysing economic statistics. His numerous research papers are still valuable for their insights into what the data can and cannot reveal.

From the 1980s onwards, Vaidyanathan’s heart lay first in understanding India’s bovine economy and then of water use in Indian agriculture. From there flowed his interest in irrigation, pricing of water and sustainable exploitation of water resources. He headed many State and Central government committees on aspects of water use. His recommendations were not always followed up on but he had an indefatigable energy and sense of curiosity.

From the mid-1970s onwards, Vaidy taught and conducted research first at the Centre for Development Studies (CDS), Trivandrum and later at the Madras Institute of Development Studies. He would have agreed that his best years were at the CDS, at the time one of the country’s premier economic research centres. We feel that it was his interaction with students at CDS that gave him the greatest satisfaction. He had time for every student, whatever her interest, whatever the perspective and whatever the difficulty. In his seminar course on Indian Economy, students learnt to appraise the received wisdom from various perspectives and examine the underlying empirical tools and statistical data sets used. His critical but always positive comments in the classroom launched many a successful doctoral thesis.

Listening to all sides

In a field where viewpoints could be extreme and debates acrimonious, Vaidy had the remarkable ability to listen to all sides and be open to all viewpoints. He would have his opinions but he was never closed to ideas from the ‘opposite’ side. It is perhaps this capacity that saw him interact with people across political divides. Vaidyanathan held many official positions including as member of the Planning Commission in 1989-90 and then as a member of the central board of the RBI. But nothing gave him greater pleasure than poring over economic data to tease out the most interesting patterns and stories. Vaidyanathan acknowledged the shortcomings of India’s official data system but he also recognised its strengths. He was unhappy with the deterioration in recent years of the methodology of GDP estimation and the weakening of the Central Statistics Office and the National Sample Survey. If you did not have good data how could you answer the questions ‘what’ and why’?

R. Nagaraj is Professor, Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research; C. Rammanohar Reddy is Editor, ‘The India Forum

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Printable version | Jul 11, 2020 2:13:31 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/in-search-of-the-what-and-why/article31836050.ece

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