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Cake for Kelkar

India celebrates its ‘policy economists’ with as much gusto as the West fetes their theoretical cousins. With due reason, writes Dipankar Bhattacharyya in his review of India on the Growth Turnpike.

books Updated: May 15, 2010 00:11 IST
Dipankar Bhattacharyya

India on the Growth Turnpike
Edited by Sameer Kochhar
Academic Foundation
Rs 995 pp 317

India celebrates its ‘policy economists’ with as much gusto as the West fetes their theoretical cousins. With due reason. A significant number of issues that are taken as settled in mature capitalist systems are still evolving in emerging economies. This elevates the role of the policymaker to someone who can deliver proximate — and tangible — gains. Part science, part art of the possible, those attempting to recast economic policies in India often sail in uncharted waters. And very few do it with the panache of Vijay Kelkar.

Over three decades, Kelkar’s has been an understated yet penetrating voice in areas as diverse as oil exploration and fiscal rectitude. It is easy, then, to find Kelkar’s fellow travellers. Sameer Kochhar, who heads a think tank on digital, social and financial inclusion, has strung together an eclectic clutch of essays in India on the Growth Turnpike: Essays in Honour of Vijay L Kelkar.

Arvind Panagariya credits Kelkar with being among the first economists to predict India growing at nearly ten per cent and Nitin Desai explores what we need to do to sustain this growth rate. Ajay Shah and Ila Patnaik make a cogent case for retooling our legal and institutional framework to stabilise the new phenomenon of the Indian business cycle. Surjit Bhalla examines the impact of the new tax architecture for which Kelkar can take justifiable credit.

Arvind Subramanian draws lessons from the crash of 2008 and wonders how to prevent the next one. Indira Rajaraman dissects the received wisdom about transparency in light of the Reserve Bank’s ability to shield India from many of the excesses that laid bigger economies low. Physical and social infrastructure-building get their due with Subhashish Gangopadhyay raising questions on how we go about buying land and Bibek Debroy questioning whether India is about to squander its demographic dividend, an idea flagged by Kelkar in 2004.

Vijay Kelkar, says Panagariya, “is that rare policy economist who can see reforms necessary to promote growth before anyone else, effectively communicate the rationale behind them to policymakers and the wider public, and sometimes even successfully implement them himself.”

The strands captured in this collection reflect a nation in transition and a sense of where we are headed. That this perspective has come to occupy the centrestage is in no mean measure the result of Kelkar’s work as a policy economist in India over 33 years. That should be satisfying enough. Seeing policies yield fruit on the ground must be a bonus.