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Y K Alagh: A bridge between theory and administration

Shreekant Sambrani writes: If the Narmada project today has become the lifeline of Gujarat, a good part of the credit must go to this Great Beagle of Indian development economists. He was its early champion and pursued its planning regardless of changes in government

Among the many contributions that Alagh made to the development history of India, none was more significant or more impactful than his work on the Narmada project.

Yoginder K Alagh wrote a column “A Note of Trust,” in this paper on December 27, 2016. He talked about his “great grandfather, the great beagle so to say,” who graciously handed out a large one paisa coin (what we called the dhabboo paisa) to the many children who touched his feet in obeisance. The column was about demonetisation, which took the reader through a fascinating narrative of history and the concept of money as a store of value and how that was destroyed by a stroke of administrative fiat. It also challenged the South Asian aam aurat’s long-held belief in saving under all circumstances.

That was quintessential Alagh: Simple folksy wisdom disguising deep insights, all in just 700 words. I wrote to him saying that his column was easily the best among the literally hundreds of opinions I had read since November 8. He replied, “Thank you Sambrani Saheb. I wrote it in fun but while it was generally liked, I got the short end of the stick from the Sangh Parivar.” That, too, was typical Alagh, sure of his scholarship and no false modesty, but with a great sense of proportion.

I G Patel, who also read his columns, and I would often discuss what he wrote. We shared a small joke that Alagh could squeeze in a lot more words in the allotted space because many of them comprised a single letter, which was also the thinnest in the alphabet.

The reason why the Alagh columns invariably became first-person accounts was because he had such a vast repertoire of experiences of all aspects of economic policy and administration, both in India and on the international stage. His spectrum of expertise was easily the widest among all the columnists I have been learning from. That includes, besides Patel, international luminaries such as Paul Krugman, Tom Friedman and Joseph Stiglitz. He also did not take lightly his role as an academic economist. He had effectively bridged the gulf between economic theory and administration. India has a long list of economic bureaucrats, but none was so multi-dimensional as Alagh. And his erudition was complimented by his prolific writing in popular as well as academic media.

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I first met Alagh in 1971. He was then at the Sardar Patel Institute of Economic and Social Research in Ahmedabad. I had just joined the faculty of the Indian Institute of Management in the same city. He had organised a seminar by a visiting scholar on input-output analysis and planning. I raised some issues rather vehemently and insisted on speaking longer. He had to remind me that it was the visitor’s seminar, not mine.

That was the start of a good association. The last time we met was in a seminar organised by the Darshan Itihas Nidhi on entrepreneurship in port cities in Gujarat. I had some points to raise in the concluding session. Alagh was the chair, and so I prefaced my remarks by saying that I would remember his advice from our first meeting. He had a hearty laugh. That brought our association to a full circle.

Among the many contributions that Alagh made to the development history of India, none was more significant or more impactful than his work on the Narmada project. He was its early champion and pursued its planning regardless of changes in government. He worked long himself and drove a team of dedicated young staff to prepare exhaustive plans and analyses. As he was to write several times in the last 20 years, it was perhaps the most thoroughly planned development project covering all aspects including the reach of the canal network and the welfare of the displaced.

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The withdrawal of the World Bank support for the project on environmental and rehabilitation policy grounds in the 1990s did not affect his commitment to the project. He believed that this was a wrong decision and lent full support to all the state governments which pursued it, ranging from the Chimanbhai Patel ministry in the early 1990s to the Narendra Modi governments 10 years later.

If the Narmada project today has become the lifeline of Gujarat, a good part of the credit must go to this Great Beagle of Indian development economists. He gave countless dhabboo paisa’s worth to his adopted state. That will be remembered long after those who gave him the short end of the stick are consigned to the dustbin of history.

The writer taught at IIM, Ahmedabad and was the founder-director of the Institute of Rural Management, Anand

First published on: 10-12-2022 at 07:23 IST
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