An oft-related anecdote about Yoginder K Alagh relates to the time when he was the Vice-Chancellor of Jawaharlal Nehru University. The students were on a hunger strike. Alagh went to the agitation site and after a discussion with them decided to go on satyagraha as well. Opinions vary as to whether the VC had gone on a counter-protest or it was Alagh’s way of telling the students that he was on their side. What is undeniable is that Alagh, who passed away on Tuesday, was a rare university head who evoked admiration amongst students across ideological inclinations. Much of that had to do with his ability to engage sympathetically with a wide range of people, drawing on his skills as an educator, institution builder, administrator, policymaker and economist. In a career that began when the country was taking the early steps towards economic self-sufficiency and continued well into the liberalisation era, Alagh wore several hats with equal felicity.
Born in Chakwal in undivided Punjab in 1939, Alagh studied at the University of Rajasthan and got a doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania. He returned to the country in the late ’60s to join the Indian Institute of Management at Calcutta. In 1979, he chaired a Planning Commission Task Force which used nutritional requirements to formulate poverty lines for rural and urban areas. He served on the Gujarat government’s planning board for the Sardar Sarovar Dam, initiated the first reforms to decontrol steel, cement and aluminium prices and set up the econometrics cell of the agricultural services commission. A member of the Planning Commission in 1987 and 1990, he became the Union Minister of State with independent charge of Power, Science & Technology and Planning & Programme Implementation in the United Front government in 1996-98. In the 2000s, he headed a committee whose report paved the way for recognising farmer cooperatives as “producer businesses”.
At a time when welfare is back on the agenda of policymakers, Alagh’s ability to gently tease out minute economic and sociological details without losing sight of the bigger economic picture — evident in his regular columns in this newspaper — will be much missed.