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B S Minhas: Down-to-earth policy analyst

T N Srinivasan  |  New Delhi 

Not only was he a brilliant economist, he was not afraid to speak his mind.
With the death of at the age of 76 on August 30, 2005, India has lost another of her illustrious economists soon after the death of I G Patel,
Minhas was the eldest son of a poor Punjabi farmer and the first to go to a school, let alone to a college, in his family. He received a BSc in agriculture in 1949, an MA in economics in 1953, both from Punjab University.
After serving as a lecturer in economics during 1954-55 at Punjab University, he went to the US in 1955 with his expenses paid by Punjab University in return for his promising to come back after his doctoral to teach at the university.
After obtaining an MS in agricultural economics at the University of Illinois at Urbana, Minhas went to Stanford University where he obtained his PhD in economics in 1961. He taught for a year at Stanford as assistant professor in economics and then returned to India to join the Planning Unit of the Indian Statistical Institute in Delhi in 1962.
He was made a professor in 1963, a research professor in 1968 and a distinguished scientist in 1976, until his retirement in 1989. He headed the Planning Unit for 15 years.
Since he did not return to his former position as a lecturer at the Punjab University, the University demanded his repaying the amount it had spent in financing his travel to and education in the US. If I am not mistaken, Minhas did repay.
Minhas held several non-academic positions including membership in the Planning Commission and sixth Financial Commission, chairman of the Governing Council of the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) and secretary general of the Afro-Asian Rural Reconstruction Organisation. He also held visiting positions at the University of Sussex, Johns Hopkins University and the World Bank.
Minhas' two early publications in economics, drawn from his Stanford dissertation, were co-authored by two future nobel laureates in economics (Kenneth Arrow and Robert Solow) and the late
The two are widely cited and justly celebrated for their introduction of the constant elasticity of substitution function and its pioneering use in empirically testing the well-known factor price equalisation theorem of Paul Samuelson. It has since been widely used as a production, utility and aggregation function in hundreds of empirical studies in economics.
Most of his writing in economics after his return to India were largely empirical and oriented towards analysing many of the critical economic policy issues faced by India. Among these contributions a large proportion involved measurement of poverty and policies for poverty eradication.
Measurement and data issues engaged his attention through out his academic life. As Chairman of the Governing Council of the and also as Chairman of the Data Improvement Committee of the ministry of finance in the late 1960s he constantly endeavoured to improve India's statistical system, while staunchly defending it against ill-informed criticism. Three years ago, Oxford University Press published a collection of essays edited by him on national accounting and data systems.
Like former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, Minhas believed that the overarching objective economic policy and planning in India has to be necessarily the eradication of India's massive poverty. He had no patience with those who viewed economic policies with rose-tinted glasses of ideology, rather than their impact on the lives of the poor.
For him policy interventions, including public ownership and monopolies as well as free markets, have no intrinsic value but are instruments to be used, depending on their efficacy, in delivering equitable development.
He noted in the mid-1980s of the "corruption and enormous waste" in India's anti-poverty programmes, including in particular, those numerous "ill conceived and unproductive ones" of the Emergency era.
Indeed, his opposition during his membership of the Planning Commission to nationalisation of the wholesale trade in wheat was driven, not by any ideology or love for private wholesale traders, but by his conviction that the government, while it can do no better than private traders with their intimate knowledge of the trade, will end up hurting the poor and small farmers.
He resigned his membership of the commission. He proved right and the government soon abandoned its monopoly in the wheat trade. He was offered membership of the commission again in January 1975, which he declined since he was unsure of what the commission could possibly do during the Emergency. He met Indira Gandhi in December 1975 and argued with her to no avail in favour of lifting the Emergency and release of political prisoners.
Minhas was not only a distinguished economist and a down-to-earth policy analyst, but was, most importantly, also one of unimpeachable character and integrity, who was not afraid to speak his mind, not infrequently in blunt language.
As one target of his withering criticism once ruefully put it, "it is not enough for Dr Minhas to call a spade a spade "" he has to call it a bloody shovel!" The quality of his mind and his ability to convey the unvarnished truth without fear of consequences earned him the respect of politicians in and out of power.
Indira Gandhi frequently sought his advice even after he resigned from the planning commission. Jaya Prakash Narayan held him in high regard. Minhas spoke at length about his relationship with the two in his JP memorial lecture, appropriately titled "Planning and the Poor of India", in 1985.
Alas his critical voice is no longer to be heard when the country needs it most, now that some of the same old failed, enormously wasteful and corruption-prone anti-poverty programmes that he criticised are being expanded.

First Published: Thu, September 15 2005. 00:00 IST