The humane economist

When Arjun Sengupta passed away unexpectedly, I lost a real and old friend. I knew him from a time when he was not the diplomatic, soft-spoken, somewhat saintly figure he had come to be, but a Delhi University firebrand. He was to join the government, and his first hour of glory was to help P.N. Dhar and Sukhomoy Chakravarti build bridges with the nascent state of Bangladesh. In the mid-'70s, I went on deputation to the Planning Commission, heading its Perspective Planning Division. My office was the adda for university economists working with the government. Arjun was, by then, well on his way to being the strategist. He was working for the then commerce minister, Pranab Babu. N.K. Singh, then a deputy secretary, would also come. Arjun knew the tricks that modellers play. He was all for the basket of currencies to float the rupee and regularise excess capacity, and was building up the case for later reform including the matter of minimum scale. He was our industrial conscience in those days. He was also the first one among us to wear safari suits. When a member of the lunch adda nonchalantly asked why he was wearing a blouse, he got some choice abuse in return.

When I told him I was going back to my research job, he told me that most people don't leave the laddus in Delhi. I went anyway, and he went to the prime minister's office. I would say no when he wanted me back, until he arranged for me to chair the Agricultural Prices Commission and then worked on Raksha, my wife, to persuade me not to be a stick-in-the-mud. That stint was the best time we had together. We would lunch together once a week. He was not happy about the 1982 IMF loan and wanted much to be done for agriculture and small farmers. We plotted and worked out the small farmers and landless labourers programmes, which the then PM, Indira Gandhi, told us was her constituency.

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