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K N Raj and the Delhi School

K N Raj (1924-2010) was one of the most eminent Indian economists of the post-Independence generation. He was an outstanding teacher, builder of institutions and public intellectual par excellence. In this collection of tributes, students and colleagues over close to half a century write about various aspects of his life and work: Raj's contributions to building up the Delhi School of Economics in the 1950s and 1960s, the creation and growth of the Centre for Development Studies in Thiruvananthapuram in the 1970s and 1980s, his interaction with students and colleagues, the wide-ranging nature of his research and also his multifaceted personality.

K N RAJ: IN MEMORIAM
K N Raj and the Delhi School J Krishnamurty Raj and others faced the unenviable task of persuading the University Grants Commission (UGC) to cover the excess expenditure (Raj 1998: 24-30). I suspect it was this concern for simplicity and low building

K N Raj (1924-2010) was one of the most eminent Indian economists of the post-Independence generation. He was an outstanding teacher, builder of institutions and public intellectual par excellence. In this collection of tributes, students and colleagues over close to half a century write about various aspects of his life and work: Raj’s contributions to building up the Delhi School of Economics in the 1950s and 1960s, the creation and growth of the Centre for Development Studies in Thiruvananthapuram in the 1970s and 1980s, his interaction with students and colleagues, the wide-ranging nature of his research and also his multifaceted personality.

I am indebted to A V Jose for his comments and suggestions.

J Krishnamurty (krishnamurty@gmail.com) is a visiting professor at the Institute for Human Development, New Delhi.

Economic & Political Weekly

EPW
march 13, 2010

T
o write about my teacher, a person I had known for about half a century and who was a major influence in my life and career is difficult. There is so much to say and yet it must not become the story of my life, but the story of K N Raj and the Delhi School of Economics (DSE) over about 18 years, from 1953 to 1971.1 My own knowledge of events dates from 1960;2 for the earlier period I have depended on written accounts and what I have learnt from him and others.

Early Days

How did Raj come to join the School? Apparently V K R V Rao had offered him a post even before the dse formally came into being. In any event, in 1953 Rao managed to create a professorship in monetary economics and offered it to Raj who had applied for a reader’s post. As P N Dhar, one of the founders of the DSE, recalls,

Raj brought some of this glamour [of having worked in the Planning Commission] with him when he joined the School. His wide interests, youthful enthusiasm and affable personality made him very popular with students and colleagues. Rao lionised him, introduced him to everybody in the University and treated him as his most prized possession (Dhar 1998: 17).

S L Rao, a student of the School around the mid-1950s, describes him thus:

He was one of the youngest professors and was immensely popular among his students, being not very much older than most of us. A bachelor, he welcomed students to his home, fed them and introduced them to the art of conversation and ideas while freely sharing his collection of books (Rao 2010).

While Rao regarded Raj as his protégé, they openly differed on many things. Unlike Rao, Raj felt that a modest redbrick building would be more appropriate for the School and he was unhappy with the idea of naming the auditorium after Swami Vivekananda. However, Rao’s views prevailed and a costly concrete building was constructed. In 1956, Rao was away,

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costs that led him seek Laurie Baker’s services in the early 1970s to build the Centre for Development Studies (CDS) at Thiruvananthapuram. His priority was to spend not on buildings, but on creating the best social science library in south India.

During his early years at the DSE he was active in promoting extra-curricular activities and even in later years always made it a point to be present during functions of the School’s corporate body, the Fraternity. However, Raj was unhappy with the contrast between the projected image of the DSE and the reality: its postgraduate centre “was not much to write about”, and the output of doctoral dissertations “was painfully thin” (ibid: 26). The absence of internal democracy would have bothered him. Raj must have spent those years frustrated, but thinking hard about how he would change the School when he got his chance.

During the latter half of the 1950s, Indian economists of quality sought him out and gladly presented papers at the DSE seminars. Amartya Sen, for instance, recalls first meeting Raj in Delhi in October 1957 (Sen 1998: 27) and in the years that followed Raj met and kept track of the work and achievements of new and brilliant economists coming out of foreign universities as well as those working in India. He also watched them perform in seminars before their peers. He must have begun to develop his ideas of who would be in his “dream team”.

In 1962, when he succeeded B N Ganguli as director and head of the department, he had the opportunity to make the changes he had been contemplating for some time. This principally involved major additions to the teaching staff, administrative reforms, overhaul of the MA syllabus and teaching, and a revamping of the PhD programme.

A major step was the appointment of Amartya Sen, Jagdish Bhagwati and Sukhamoy Chakravarty as professors. The appointments of these and other outstanding economists required a great deal of

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K N RAJ: IN MEMORIAM

groundwork which Raj did most effectively. He was also able to get the department recognised by the UGC as the Centre for Advanced Study in Economic History and Economic Development.

Administrative Reform

In contrast to the existing system where decision-making was centralised and internal consultation procedures were not explicitly laid down, he adopted a scheme of decentralisation. He decentralised functions to committees and individuals who would be expected to deal independently with matters assigned to them and come back to him for signature (where essential) or to resolve strong differences of opinion or where major policy considerations were involved. Meetings of the department were held regularly and sharp disagreements aired openly. Raj was generally able to evolve a consensus on what had to be done.

Perhaps the most revolutionary step taken by Raj was to introduce the principle of rotation of the post of head of department among the professors of the department. This stemmed from his belief that administration was a necessary chore, but that it should be shared and that in the department he had created, the head was but the first among equals. While Raj knew that many of his colleagues were better known internationally, this did not worry him. Unlike many other academic leaders, he was not afraid of being overshadowed by the people he recruited and he was perfectly willing to share power with them.

While Raj hated doing administrative work, he was actually very good at it, perhaps as a result of his stint in government. He built up the department filing system and he would read all correspondence sent to him and provide detailed comments. He would mark it to other concerned colleagues and having obtained their inputs, enter his decision. He also created a separate office for the department, distinct from the DSE office, and managed to get C G Devarajan, who was to become its backbone, appointed.

Reform of the MA Programme

New Syllabus: Around 1963-64 when several new faculty members with new and varied specialisations had joined the

Economic & Political Weekly

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march 13, 2010

department it became clear that changes would have to be made in the syllabus at the MA level. It had to involve teachers in the colleges offering admission to the MA course (although the lectures were arranged by the university department); and it had to reflect the specialisations and at times conflicting views of the department staff. Apart from this there was the complex process of getting it approved by the university’s decision-making bodies. Raj and his senior colleagues managed this difficult process extremely well and the new course became effective from July 1964.

Apart from a set of compulsory papers on such subjects as economic theory, macroeconomics, statistics, comparative economic development and Indian economics, the syllabus provided for a wide range of optional papers for the final year, aimed at providing some degree of specialisation to the students and providing them an opportunity to gain from the diverse specialisations of the readers and professors of the department.

Tutorials: Both Rao and Raj believed in the importance of the tutorial system which had been in place at the School much before it was implemented by the university at the undergraduate level. Raj was instrumental in recruiting Elizabeth Krishna, whom he met at Oxford, and she worked hard over the 1960s, with the active support of several junior colleagues, to make tutorials a valuable complement to lectures.

Changes in the Examination System:

Under the old course, the MA Economics examination was held at the end of two years. A student appeared in eight papers over a period of about 16 days. Half the examiners had to be external to the university. Unfortunately, the final results were often at variance with internal assessments and some external examiners had awarded unduly low marks to some of the better students, thereby harming their career prospects. Raj and his new colleagues found it quite unacceptable. So, they began reforming the examination process. The bold step was taken of abolishing the requirement that half the examiners had to be external and much more power was given to the moderation committee. With

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the new syllabus, students were no longer required to appear in all their papers at the end of the second year. Further, in response to initial high failure rates under the new syllabus, the system gradually moved to one where students could reappear and, under some circumstances, even try to improve their results.

These reforms faced some opposition from within the university and there were many problems in its working. There is little doubt, however, that over a period of years, the examinations became much less of a gamble.

Research Students

Until about the mid-1960s, the School lacked a critical mass of professors and readers who could guide research. The students varied greatly in terms of prior training. The system was poorly regulated: many on the rolls were inactive; supervisors were often not from the university and the department tended to play a passive role.

In the 1960s Raj and his colleagues worked to tighten up the system by eliminating dormant registrations, attracting better trained students to do research, holding seminars where research students had to participate and present papers, and introducing a greater degree of collective responsibility for research students. As a result the number of degrees awarded rose from eight over the 1950s to 31 over the 1960s to 45 in the 1970s. While Raj did not personally contribute greatly to the output of PhDs, his work, along with his colleagues, in building the department into a first rate research centre was responsible for a spurt in PhDs. Many of the PhDs of the DSE have become well-known economists today.

An example of Raj’s commitment to research and his abiding concern for the welfare of research students was his decision in the early 1960s to place air conditioners intended for the department staff in the research room. He felt it would benefit more people and that research students were more likely than others to be working over the summer months.

Several students were personally supervised by Raj, but only four obtained the PhD degree. The earliest was Dharm Narain. He was at that time a college lecturer with an MA from the university several years earlier. His thesis on the response of area under

K N RAJ: IN MEMORIAM

cultivation to prices impressed us greatly, not only for its undoubted quality, but also for what seemed remarkable at the time, the fact that this Delhi PhD thesis was accepted for publication as a book by Cambridge University Press (Narain 1965). M J K Thavaraj, an MA from Madras and a college lecturer, did his PhD with Raj on public expenditure in colonial India. The third successful PhD student was T C Verghese, again a mature student and a staff member at the Agricultural Economics Research Centre in the DSE campus (his thesis was later published as Verghese 1970).

I was different from the three mentioned here: I was much younger, a recent MA of the DSE and one of his favourite students. In retrospect, without condoning my own deficiencies, I think Raj expected too much from me and did not fully appreciate what a big transition it was from the MA to the PhD programme. While I found him a very demanding supervisor (Krishnamurty op cit) I think the training he provided was excellent and served me well.

Contributions to Teaching, Research and Policy

Finally, a brief assessment may be attempted of Raj’s contributions to teaching, research and policymaking during his tenure at the DSE. The period from 1953 to 1970 was one of the most productive periods of Raj’s life. He was a very young professor when he joined the School, and incredible as it may seem, he was still a relatively young man of 46 when he left it. Throughout his tenure at the DSE, students were attracted to him. As S L Rao (op cit) notes:

Raj was a great teacher of monetary economics. His lectures demanded total concentration as he went step by step, building the edifice of his subject.

My own experience, as I have recorded elsewhere (Krishnamurty op cit), was no different. Several others have mentioned his gifts as an inspiring teacher. In later years he lectured on Indian economics, inspiring many to take up research on it.

Many of his research contributions emerged from the DSE environment where he was free to think, discuss and write on any issue that interested him. While some of this work was done on research projects, on government committees, or in response to specific requests, the bulk of it was done without research grants or special facilities, but emerged out of his abiding interest in Indian economic problems.

The range of his work is astonishing. Among his major research outputs of the School period were the Cairo lectures (1957); the Bhakra-Nangal project evaluation (1956) and several papers in the School journal, The Indian Economic Review. He published many articles under his name in the Economic Weekly and its successor, the Economic and Political Weekly. In 1959, his paper on employment and unemployment in the Indian economy, which complemented his Cairo lectures, appeared in the international journal, Economic Development and Cultural Change. In the early 1960s he published a couple of papers in Oxford Economic Papers on the Raj-Sen model and on the marginal rate of saving in the Indian economy.3 His work on employment, investment choice, regional development, agriculture and livestock, resource mobilisation, Plan models, price behaviour and a host of other Indian development issues set the tone for much of the Indian development discourse during the 1950s and 1960s and beyond.

He served on several committees set up by the government. His paper to the panel of economists on the formulation of the Second Five-Year Plan is still worth reading. He continued to be on the panel of economists advising the Planning Commission. Later, in 1963, he was chairman of the Committee on Steel Control, which made the path-breaking recommendation to decontrol steel on the ground that the objectives of control were not being met. This was much before the dismantling of the overall controls regime in the 1980s and 1990s. Towards the end of his stay in Delhi he was appointed to the Committee of Experts on Unemployment Estimates, chaired by M L Dantwala and he contributed significantly to its influential report, published in 1970.

Internationally, he participated in the ILO Meeting of Experts on the Employment Objectives of Economic Development in 1961 which contributed to determining the place of employment creation in development strategies. This paved the way for development of the Employment Policy Convention (Convention 122) and the later creation of the ILO’s World Employment Programme.4 He was also a member of the famous ILO Mission to Ceylon in 1971 led by Dudley Seers.

Raj was a great disseminator of his own ideas: he was determined to ensure that they reached those who influenced or determined policy in India. His presence in Delhi and his earlier work in the Reserve Bank of India and the Planning Commission helped him to build up an amazing network of contacts within the government and outside. In those pre-internet days, he would take care to mail off-prints of his papers to people likely to influence policy and to actively lobby for the acceptance of his ideas. He would also write occasional articles in the daily newspapers to promote his views and he would be delighted when it provoked controversy.

Concluding Remarks

It would take a much better writer to convey Raj’s personality and charisma to readers not fortunate enough to know him. He was short and stocky with large glasses through which his affection and concern for others always seemed to shine. He was a charming host and conversationalist, genuinely interested in the people he met. He valued institutions and knew how to build and sustain them. Gentle with his students, he could be pugnacious when dealing with his professional peers and with communal and chauvinistic opponents in the university. The welfare of his students and the maintenance of the highest professional standards were his abiding concerns. This is the man those of us privileged to work with at the School will always remember.

Notes

1 There were periods of absence during visits by Raj to the University of Pennsylvania in the 1950s and Oxford in the early 1960s. Towards the end of his tenure in Delhi he spent a year in Washington.

2 In this remembrance I have tried not to repeat what I have written in my article published within days of his passing away. See Krishnamurty (2010).

3 For a select list of his publications, see A Vaidyanathan and K L Krishna, ed. (2007).

4 I am grateful to Gerry Rodgers for this information which recently appeared on the ILO intranet web site.

References

Dhar, P N (1998): “The Early Years” in Dharma Kumar and Dilip Mookherjee (ed.), D School: Reflections

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K N RAJ: IN MEMORIAM

on the Delhi School of Economics (Delhi: Oxford University Press).

Krishnamurty, J (2010): “K N Raj: Teacher, Economist and Institution Builder”, The Hindu, 12 February.

Narain, Dharam (1965): Impact of Price Movements on the Areas under Selected Crops in India, 1900-1939 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Raj, K N (1959): “Employment and Unemployment in

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the Indian Economy: Problems of Classification, Measurement and Policy”, Economic Development and Cultural Change, Vol VII, No 3.

– (1998): “The Delhi School of Economics” in Kumar and Mookherjee (ed.).

Rao, S L (2010): “Original Reformer”, Letter, Business Standard, 15 February http://www.business-standard.com/india/news/letters-original-reformer/20/ 42/385694/

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Sen, Amartya (1998): “On the Delhi School” in Kumar and Mookherjee (ed.).

Vaidyanathan, A and K L Krishna, ed. (2007): Institutions and Markets in India’s Development: Essays for K N Raj (Delhi: Oxford University Press).

Verghese, T C (1970): Agrarian Change and Economic Consequences: Land Tenures in Kerala, 1850-1960

(Calcutta: Allied Publishers).

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Economic & Political Weekly

EPW
march 13, 2010 vol xlv no 11

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