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Remembrances of an Indian development economist

Summary:
The statistical assistants at ISI were literally called ‘computers’ (I was a bit taken aback when on the first day a man came to see me and said “I am your computer, sir”). One day when I was chatting with this human ‘computer’, he said some years back he had worked with a foreign professor who was rather short-tempered and used to scream at him for the slightest delay or lapse. (It so happened that I knew this professor). I said he should have protested if the professor was unnecessarily rude. He gave me a sneaky smile and said that he and other ‘computers’ had taken their ‘revenge’ on that guy. When I asked how, he said they used to mess up his calculations without the professor knowing about it. Back to office, TN told me that in India when I wanted something in a Ministry I should not

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The statistical assistants at ISI were literally called ‘computers’ (I was a bit taken aback when on the first day a man came to see me and said “I am your computer, sir”). One day when I was chatting with this human ‘computer’, he said some years back he had worked with a foreign professor who was rather short-tempered and used to scream at him for the slightest delay or lapse. (It so happened that I knew this professor). I said he should have protested if the professor was unnecessarily rude. He gave me a sneaky smile and said that he and other ‘computers’ had taken their ‘revenge’ on that guy. When I asked how, he said they used to mess up his calculations without the professor knowing about it.

Back to office, TN told me that in India when I wanted something in a Ministry I should not go to the lower officials; I should instead work my way from the top down (this was called ‘proper channel’ in official parlance). TN gave me the contact of the higher-up officer in the same Ministry, who when I told him what I needed immediately called the lower official and asked him to share the data.

Next day I went to the same official who had refused me before. He was now full of oily politeness and said that it was the great fortune of the Ministry that a professor like me was going to make good use of the data. But for the next few months on one excuse or another he made it very difficult for me to lay my hands on the data.

After a lot of running around I finally got the data, but I tried to fathom the reason behind his delaying tactics. Was it his resentment that I went to his boss instead of buttering him up? Was it his way of asserting his passive-obstructive power (the weapon of the weak)? Or did he expect some bribe from me? (In general, on bribery in Indian offices, apart from the ethical problem, practical problems abound: how to know whom, when and how much? Sometimes touts are there to help in this matter.)

The famed Berkeley economist Pranab Bardhan has been writing his memoirs in a series of posts. The excerpt above is from Part 26.

Here is a bit from Part 27, on his role in the invention of modern development micro theory:

Sometime before Ashok Rudra and I started on our large-scale data collection, I was already doing some theoretical and conceptual work on agrarian relations. My first, mainly theoretical, paper on share-cropping (jointly with TN) came out in American Economic Review in 1971. That paper was unsatisfactory and had quite a few loose strands, but it was one of the first papers to look theoretically into an economic-institutional arrangement of a developing country at the micro-level.

This was a time when development economics was preoccupied with macro-issues like the structural transformation of the whole economy involving transition from agriculture to industrialization or problems of its aggregate interaction with more developed economies.

In a short trip abroad I presented my work on share-cropping in a seminar at Yale where my friend, Martin Weitzman who was teaching there, was present. He later told me that it made him start thinking of a more general context, that of sharing profits or revenues with workers in a modern firm that might resolve some macro-economic problems like unemployment—he later came out with a book on this titled The Share Economy.

Joe Stiglitz by that time had also moved to Yale, and asked me to stay overnight with him after my talk. That night at his home kitchen, as he was washing the dishes after our dinner, we kept on talking on various aspects of share-cropping. I told him that to me share-cropping was clearly an inefficient institution in agriculture, and yet it had been around for millennia in different parts of the world. We were both wondering why. Joe started looking at it from his point of view of imperfect information (the landlord unable to monitor how much effort the peasant put in). That led to his chain of thinking which ultimately produced his classic paper on share-cropping in 1974.

And his brush with insurgency:

In Delhi in the early 70’s the eminent historian Ranajit Guha often visited us in the evenings. He was sympathetic with the Naxalite movement, and had connections with some of the active youths who were then underground. He once challenged me if I’d dare meeting these youths, and get acquainted with their ‘ground-level experience’ on land relations in India; he said that this could be a ‘learning opportunity’ for professors like me. I immediately agreed.

So I (and few other academics) were instructed to come one evening to a ‘secret’ place in Delhi.

At the appointed hour we gathered in a darkened room with windows curtained and only a couple of candles lit. Soon we saw about 10 or 12 young men marching into the room, chanting the hushed greeting of ‘Red Salute’. (To me they looked like earnest young men of affluent families, possibly ex-students of St. Stephen’s College). Guha, presiding over the occasion, said that we’d have first a statement of the current land and the village revolutionary situation from those youths as they see it. Then I, as someone who had researched on the agrarian relations in India, would make a statement, and then if the other academics had anything to add they could. After that the youths would respond, and then the meeting would end.

It started with the group leader putting up a tiny map of India on the wall and pinning a little red flag at each of the places where ‘action’ was currently going on. Even though India has more than half a million villages, the map was so small that ten or so red flags were enough to make the whole map look red. The leader pointed to the map as an obvious proof that India was ‘ripe’ for revolution. Then he gave his understanding of the ground reality of land and peasants. All I heard then was a collection of clichés, as if he was just regurgitating rhetoric he had learned from some cheap pamphlet. I actually expected much better from these intelligent-looking young men.

Then when my turn came I said I agreed with them that the condition of the landless peasants of India was indeed atrocious, but the nature of exploitation and the type of agrarian relations in different areas were quite complex and diverse. I then cited some simple data from my research to illustrate my points. I ended by saying that not being aware of the complexities might actually hurt their revolutionary cause.

Then, after some brief comments from the other academics, Guha invited the youth leader to respond to our comments. I braced myself for being called ‘reactionary’, ‘bourgeois’, ‘class-enemy’, etc. but what happened next left me agape. The leader just repeated his initial statement, and nothing whatsoever in response to our points. It seemed to me that he had learned one statement by rote and used it for all occasions. Then they all stood up and left the room marching and chanting ‘Red Salute’. That was indeed a ‘learning experience’ for me!

Chris Blattman
Political economist studying conflict, crime, and poverty, and @UChicago Professor @HarrisPolicy and @PearsonInst. I blog at http://chrisblattman.com

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