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Too few good men

The govt should be grooming economists for the top jobs

Business Standard  |  New Delhi 

If of Cornell University is chosen as the next chief economic advisor in the finance ministry, and of Standard and Poor’s as deputy governor in the Reserve Bank of India, the government would have made a significant departure from the convention of filling such top-level positions with economists who have prior experience of working within the government system. The last time the government chose a chief economic advisor from outside its band of economists was four decades ago, when was appointed to the job. Since then, all chief economic advisors have had prior experience within the government system in different departments, ministries and organisations. In the case of the Reserve Bank, there are more recent precedents for inducting economists from outside the government system, one example being who was brought in from the Indian Institute of Management at Ahmedabad.

The lack of prior government experience need not be a handicap. It may even be an asset, because it might bring in new thinking. Economists like Ashok Desai, Parthasarathi Shome and Subhashis Gangopadhyay have been lateral entrants in the finance ministry at different points over the last couple of decades, and they did make a difference. They may have found the going tough (as Nandan Nilekani, who has just taken charge of the Unique Identity Authority of India with similar lack of government experience, might testify), for the system does not easily adapt to “outsiders”. But there is no doubt that such lateral entrants bring a whiff of fresh air into a hide-bound system.

The other way to look at this is that the government system is no longer throwing up competent economists who can fill posts like that of chief economic advisor. There was a time when all the key economic ministries could boast of well-known economists on their staff. In the 1990s, Shankar Acharya in finance, Vijay Kelkar in petroleum, Rakesh Mohan in the industry ministry and Jayanto Roy in commerce, would in their different ways contribute to a formidable line-up of economists who could function as the government’s economic think tank. Today, following the superannuation of Arvind Virmani as chief economic advisor and the departure of Rakesh Mohan as deputy governor, the cupboard is pretty bare.

It is likely that the market for economists has widened and become more attractive outside the government. This may not have been so even a decade or two ago. Economic reforms and a vibrant corporate sector have also had a role to play in the government’s inability to attract and retain qualified and high-quality economists. What may have made a difficult situation worse is the government’s decision to reserve more posts for a cadre like the Indian Economic Service, which has become a poor cousin for smart young economists who would aspire above all to get into the Indian Administrative Service, and failing that a variety of other civil services. This has made lateral induction at the economic advisor level next to impossible, and the cadre economists are simply not good enough for the

First Published: Tue, September 22 2009. 00:51 IST
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