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The uniquely Indian brand of economics

Kaushik Basu has done a grand job in giving the economics of running the country a broad scope, enthuses Meghnad Desai.

india Updated: Dec 04, 2007 15:49 IST

The Oxford Companion to Economics in India
Editor:
Kaushik Basu
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Pages: 598
Price: Rs 2,750

During the years of the struggle for independence, there was a debate on whether there was something distinctive called Indian economics or whether it was all economics, but applied to India as to any other country as circumstances
permitted.

Justice Ranade (who does not have an entry in this book) took the ‘Indianist’ view. Dadabhai Naoroji (another neglected name), while not taking a view on the debate, made salient contributions to the measurement of national income and of poverty, which are part of ‘all economics’.

Through the independence struggle, economic issues such as tariff and the rupee-sterling ratio occupied the Indian leaders. The Congress, when Subhash Chandra Bose was its president, was sufficiently concerned to appoint a National
Planning Committee in 1938. It was steered by Jawaharlal Nehru, who gave primacy to economic issues. Economics
has thus always been more than just of academic interest to Indians.

The concern that a nation should have its own economics was not unique to India. As they went through their respective
development phases, most European countries, and even the US, sought a unique national brand of economics.
Frederick List thought German economics should counter classical economics, which had an English bias. But as these
countries developed, they ‘converged’ to the view that while problems may seem different due to history or institutions, at the base, the economic explanation of these problems was similar.

In India, the same happened, though more reluctantly. Still, Indians have made significant contributions to economics
in the last 50 years and India’s problems have elicited much analysis from economists around the world.<b1>

Kaushik Basu has edited this ‘Companion’ as a reference book for economists, students, teachers, researchers, policymakers and even the intellectually curious. Here, experts have tried to communicate in a readable manner some abstruse matters, covering topics of policy interest — poverty, affirmative action, green revolution, primary education,
textile industry, etc. The writers are mostly Indian economists working in India or abroad with a few India specialists
from abroad.

<b2>Star contributors are Amartya Sen, P. Chidambaram, Montek Singh Ahluwalia, Ashok Mitra, Jean Dreze and Sunil Khilnani. The approach is modern and moderately on the radical, rather than a liberal and market-friendly, side. Thus you won’t find Jagdish Bhagwati, Surjit Bhalla or T.N. Srinivasan among the contributors. At the same time, hoary old controversies of the Sixties and Seventies — semi-colonial mode of production, home market, peasant differentiation — have been rightly ignored.

There are entries on Dhirubhai Ambani, G.D. Birla and the House of Tata. Special attention is given to gender issues — there are entries on gender and empowerment (Mukesh Eswaran), gender inequality (Bina Agarwal) and women in the labour force (Ashwini Deshpande). Issues of caste, inequality and human rights have also been dealt with. The practical side of business has been covered in entries on pharmaceuticals, IT, textile, genetically modified crops, FDI, telecom, stock market indices, etc.

I close on two complaints, one minor and the other major. The first is that there is no table of contents at the beginning,
so you can’t see who has written what and where to find the matter of interest to you. This makes the Companion difficult to navigate.

The major complaint is about the biographies included. Those of distinguished people are included, but many others ignored. One bears up with Mahatma Gandhi and even Indira Gandhi (though why not Charan Singh, who
was pivotal to undermining cooperative farming and protected small farmer rights?). Ambedkar is there, as is Nehru, but not C.D. Deshmukh or the pioneer of planning in India, Tarlok Singh. Also, as I said above, no Dadabhai Naoroji or Ranade or R.C. Dutt. <b3>

Among the recent economists, while Dandekar is included, D.R. Gadgil is not, and neither is Lakdawala (who, like Gadgil, was Deputy Chairman, Planning Commission) nor Vakil nor Brahmananda. As a Bombay graduate, I detect a Presidency College/JNU bias, though I may just be paranoid. In a volume like this, one should try to be ecumenical.

But these remarks are not meant to distract from what is a very good and informative volume. Economics is never a bowl of cherries as far as reading it is concerned. But Kaushik Basu has done a grand job in giving economics a broader scope and assembling authors who write expertly but in an accessible style.

Meghnad Desai is a Labour Party legislator of Britain’s House of Lords and a former professor at the London School of Economics