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Manu Shroff: Economist with Pride as His Carapace

A tribute to an economist, bureaucrat and editor, who left his mark in a number of policy areas.

Manu Shroff: Economist with Pride as His Carapace

A tribute to an economist, bureaucrat and editor, who left his mark

in a number of policy areas.


he universe of the government service significantly expanded in the late 1950s with the onset of an activist Indian state committed to planning and with a new perspective on what public policy ought to be in an impoverished country aiming at higher level of economic development with a pronounced egalitarian emphasis. This changed radically the focus of the government on how to run the administration. A “look back and go forward” attitude of the administration and its concomitant feature of a command system of passing orders and ensuring that they were faithfully carried out were out of tune with demands of a new situation. In the finance ministry, the government redefined the requirements of some civil servants and started recruiting economists trained in the high-valued discipline so that they would become more problem-solvers rather than problem-creators.

It was at the dawn of a new approach to the nation’s development and its instrumentalities that many Indians, specialising in advanced economics and quantitative techniques trooped into the economic policy-making apparatus of the government of India, particularly the finance and commerce ministries and the Planning Commission.

Manu Shroff who passed away on January 29, 2007 after a long and traumatic battle with cancer was one of those shining stars who joined the finance ministry after an illustrious academic career at the Bombay University and the London School of Economics (LSE). Though he passed the bar examination in England, he changed his mind and decided to become an economist when he happened to meet some of the leading lights in economics at the LSE. On his return to India, he found initially few openings for a career in his chosen field. He then joined the Associate Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Delhi. He came face to face with India’s stunted growth but also realised that the so-called captains of industry and trade had an ostrich-like vision of what needed to be done for India’s rapid industrialisation. He was soon disillusioned and was thinking of switching to the legal profession.

Finance Ministry

It was precisely at that juncture that the finance ministry started a recruitment drive for economist positions. It was the most exciting time in the ministry with J J Anjaria heading the economic wing after his tenure at the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the Reserve Bank of India and the charismatic and nonpareil I G Patel as second in command. The intellectual milieu in the ministry underwent a sea change with no more intuition, hunches and the “experience shows” culture in conceptualising and operationalising economic policies. With a dream team in place, the foundations for a knowledge-based economic policy were firmly laid.

Manu’s forte was his ability to go to first principles which enabled him to think clearly without mistaking the trees for the wood. When confronted with intricate problems, he always looked at a broad canvas but did not overlook the warp and weft of irksome details. He was aware of short-term macroeconomics, awaiting quick answers, but rarely lost sight of the long-term developmental framework within which it had to be situated. This was evident in his work as a member of the Resources Working Group charged with determining a feasible level of deficit financing during each plan period. He was practical without being starry-eyed; he was dedicated to developmental goals without being economical on facts so that he would not hesitate to backtrack from a commitment to unsustainable growth fantasies, if the facts on hand indicated otherwise; he was punctilious without being a risk-averter. He never gave convenient advice to please his superiors but he abided by the decision handed down to him even when it did not conform to his reasoning. Here he conflated academic discipline with the bureaucratic imperative. That was why he always commanded respect from his superiors. At one of the Aid India Club meetings in Paris which he attended as an Alternate Executive Director on the World Bank, he spotted an error in export figures in the document that his bosses brought from Delhi. He was ignored by the chief of the delegation who was his superior. The error was pointed out in course of the discussions by the Word Bank economists to the embarrassment of his colleagues. Manu had a quiet smile but without croaking.

Manu belonged to a rare breed of bureaucrats who never ran foul of his superiors, getting a sobriquet as “Man Friday”. His association with I G Patel was legendary. There were many occasions when he presented the views of his office without clearance from Delhi for want of time. IG was confident that Manu would never deviate from the general line of thinking of the ministry. They were intellectual soul-mates to perfection. S Jagannathan, finance secretary and the governor of the Reserve Bank of India trusted his judgment on matters economic. The same was true of Manu’s relationship with V K Ramaswami who was chief economic adviser. In several meetings, whether in the Planning Commission or with foreign delegations, Ramaswami often directed the questions addressed to him, to Manu, sitting behind him. So much was the trust and confidence reposed in Manu by his bosses.

Manu’s amiability and self-discipline to work within the ambit of the labyrinthine bureaucracy without rocking the boat, many of his friends felt, contributed to a withering away of his creative talents and economic scholarship. He was widely read in economics and other subjects and had a flair for original thinking but he did not allow himself to blossom intellectually like his close friend and colleague V K Ramaswami. But whatever little he did was precious enough to be noticed. He once wrote a paper for an international conference on development, arguing that the foreign

Economic and Political Weekly February 3, 2007 debt-servicing burden on the developing economies could be whittled down if it was linked to expanding trade among them. But his paper remained in the unpublished proceedings of the conference without ever seeing daylight. A few years later, the same seminal idea with a little more analytical underpinning was put forth independently by another Indian economist and R N Cooper of the Harvard University, which received wide academic acclaim. When one of Manu’s friends asked him why he did not publish his paper in leading academic journals of repute, his insouciant reply, somewhat redolent of late Satyen Bose was “It does not matter so long as it is there in the literature”. This was Manu – of original bent of mind without desire for self-promotion and any craze for public adulation.

Committee on Financial Sector

The same desire to submerge his intellectual persona unfortunately diminished his contribution to some of the policy issues. As a member of the committee on the financial sector reforms appointed by the ministry of finance in 1991, he, along with another member of the committee, Mrinal Dutta Choudhari, did not go the whole hog in recording their minute of dissent despite their serious reservations about the main thrust of the report which was a gallimaufry of “running with the hare and hunting with the hounds” kind of arguments.

Perhaps Manu’s long-held belief-system might have kept his originality dormant. He placed a premium on bureaucrats remaining faceless and impersonal. Many of his friends and his family members often urged him to take to writing but he always nodded away their entreaties. If any one ever reads his masterly article on globalisation published in the Economic and Political Weekly a few years ago, he/she would realise how much the subject lost by his self-denial.

Unfortunately, his belief-system, which came in the way of his writing, and his loyalty to the government he served received a jolt later in his career. He was an additional secretary in the finance ministry after his distinguished record in the World Bank-IMF Development Committee and was senior enough to become either a chief economic adviser or finance secretary. But all this went up in smoke when a paranoid and vindictive Indira Gandhi staged a comeback. Identifying Manu with her bete noire, Morarji Desai, she shunted him to the Planning Commission – that quango for geriatric and the functionless bureaucracy. Frustrated but with his honour intact, he resigned against the advice of his friends. He then joined the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, as a professor and soon after became the editor of the Economic Times.

As an editor, Manu distinguished himself as editorial writer, with intricate arguments pithily put and with succinct and subtle reasoning, avoiding the journalistic mumbo-jumbo. He focused on basic issues of public policy, which raised informed debate. Being an economist, he started a new feature and invited economists like Anand Chandavarkar and others to write on some great economists like Richard Kahn.

Manu’s honour was partially restored with the departure of Rajiv Gandhi’s regime. He was made a member of the Finance Commission and also offered a concurrent membership of the Planning Commission which he turned down, being never enamoured of that effete body.

For all his misfortunes, Manu was blessed with a wonderful wife – an economist in her own right and a member of the Indian Administrative Service. She is a real lifepartner, sharing with him both the joys and sorrows. When Manu was denied his due in the government, she opted out of a post of a secretary at the centre and chief secretary with the Gujarat government as a sort of silent protest against the injustice done to her husband. She instead took up a junior post as a Gujarat government representative in Bombay to be with Manu.

Manu took his triumphs and travails in his stride without rejoicing or remorse, which was a hallmark of equanimity. He had a horde of friends and admirers. He often went out of his way to help others. His altruism, compassion and a genuine interest in people around him bring to mind a beautiful verse of Walt Whitman,

I dream’d in a dream I saw a city invincible


The attacks of the whole of the earth;

I dream’d that was the new city of




Economic and Political Weekly February 3, 2007

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