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Lunch with BS: Ashok Gulati

Home truths

Kanika Datta  |  New Delhi 

Reputed for his forthright views, the government's advisor on farm prices grew up in an environment that was far from rural.

Ashok GulatiMeetings with Dr Ashok Gulati invariably involve incisive dissections of Indian agriculture. So I hesitantly invited the recently-appointed chairman of the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices (CACP) for Lunch with BS, uncertain whether he would accede to a seemingly frivolous request for a freewheeling conversation. To my surprise, he accepts and selects the Noida outlet of Pind Baluchi, the rustic-chic chain offering north Indian cuisine, writes Kanika Datta.

Gulati is one of India’s sharpest and most respected agricultural economists, basing his blunt judgments on solid research that even his critics find hard to refute. He’s been on the edge of policy-making for over a decade, having served on the Prime Minister’s Council during Vajpayee’s premiership after attracting attention for his work in the quasi-government think tanks Institute of Economic Growth and National Council for Applied Economic Research. Now, he’s in the thick of it as advisor to the government on its price policy for agricultural products at a time when food inflation has become a contentious issue.

As we scrutinise the menu, I ask him what it’s like working in government after his stint in the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute, for which he set up and headed the India office. His answer suggests that some levels of government are struggling to get used to him. He’s in his Krishi Bhavan office at 8.30 a m, a practice that has dismayed the cleaning staff who informed him that work typically didn’t begin before 10.30 or 11 a m.

Gulati is vegetarian and I decide to temporarily convert. We choose dahi kabab for starters and pindi chhole and kadhai paneer for the main course. He ascetically chooses non-buttered roti and we agree to share a lachcha parantha. I complain that web research on him yielded many learned thoughts on agriculture but little on his personal history. I am expecting a farming background in Punjab at least.

His story does begin in Punjab but on the side of the border from where his parents fled during Partition. Born afterwards, he remembers his mother telling him about her family’s early years in a Delhi refugee camp, where they were given a tent to pitch in a graveyard – theirs included three graves.

Not unexpectedly, the Partition experience scarred the family but also dictated its priorities. Living in two-room government housing in Sarojini Nagar, his father was given a job as a telephone operator for the state-owned telephone company. “My mother realised that whatever wealth you accumulate can be lost in one stroke. What will remain with you is what is in your head. So she gave education the highest priority and used to beat me if I didn’t study,” he says.

The beatings, he explains with a grin, were required because he preferred sports to academics, quite unlike his conscientious older sister and brother, (he is the third of four siblings, the youngest being ten years his junior). But life was tough. With his father frequently incapacitated by illness, Gulati remembers often being fed by neighbours. Of the two-room house, one had to be rented out, so the family lived in one room (later he jokes that had he been in Kanimozhi’s place he would never have had a problem adjusting to a prison cell). The “study” was the kitchen, where the siblings sat on a gunny sack to do their lessons.

Like his brother, Gulati went to the local government school (fees: 11 paise a month), where the teachers complained about his obsession for sports. The first time his name appeared in the papers was in connection with a school cricket tournament in which he took four wickets for 16 runs. “I remember that cutting I kept – the headline said ‘Gulati deadly’!” But his favourite game was badminton for which he won some 30 medals.

The starters are served; they are succulent and lightly spiced. Despite being sports-mad, Gulati says he managed to come first or second in class. Even so, his father insisted he take commerce and economics for high school rather than science, the natural choice for toppers. His teacher tried to persuade his father to change his mind, but, as Gulati recalls, “My father told the teacher, ‘I don’t know how he manages these marks but he can’t sit down and study’.”

His real interests, he tells me, were physics and comparative religion and over the years, he’s maintained an interest in both, reading Einstein and Vivekananda. The latter has had a lasting impact on him, in that he taught himself to meditate – the serious stuff “when you empty your mind. For some years, I spent hours practicing this, so much so that my whole body would go numb.”

But high school economics also opened his eyes to India’s inequalities, prompting him to write poetry (he quotes one he wrote on the extreme thin-ness of the Indian labourer). After school, there was little money to spare, so he became a tea boy in Eastern Court, serving tea from those six-pack wire holders on a salary of Rs 3.50 a day. When the higher secondary results came, he had passed with merit. But there was no money to send him to university. Get a scholarship, he was told, which he promptly did, entering Shri Ram College of Commerce (SRCC) on a “means-cum-merit scholarship” for economics honours (fees: Rs 7.95 a month, scholarship: Rs 7).

SRCC’s fine badminton court was an added attraction but by now, Gulati confesses, he was “hooked to academics”. It was a learning experience in more ways than one. There were 40 students in his class, 38 of them from schools like Doon School, St Columba’s, St Xavier’s, a world away from his Hindi-medium government-school millieu. “These students had their cliques and nobody would talk to me. In any case, I did not understand English fully, so their conversation went over my head.”

One day the teacher asked him what he was reading. It was a book on statistics by S C Gupta. “He told me I should not read Indian authors, only foreign ones.” Then the teacher took a test and Gulati came first – “after studying this textbook by an Indian author!” That was the first time his gilded fellow students noticed him. They started approaching him for his notes and help and so on. “I said, easy, first you teach me this English that you speak — that was the trade-off,” he says.

The main meal is served. The pindi chhole lives up to its promise but the kadhai paneer is so spicy I abandon it. After SRCC, Gulati did his Master’s and later his PhD from Delhi School of Economics. The time between graduation and Master’s proved an education too. That was when he and a friend experimented in producing a “book” (actually a cyclostyled compilation) in question-answer format called: Indian Economy Before Independence: For Students, By Student.

The two went round colleges to market it and managed to make some money. Some of it was spent on a three-month public speaking course at the YMCA, and he practiced assiduously at home. “My mother would be sitting in front of me sewing clothes and I would start, ‘Ladies and Gentlemen’…”. He also read authors like Dale Carnegie to hone his skills.

He enjoyed public speaking so much that when joined his Master’s course, he volunteered to hold a seminar. The subject, interestingly, was monetary policy and inflation (this was 1974 when oil prices soared). Afterwards, a “very beautiful lady” – no, he replies with mock-wry regret in response to my teasing look, “we did not develop any relations” – complimented him on his lecture. “Did you understand what I said,” he asked her hopefully. “No,” she replied, “but you spoke so confidently!”

But he had another chance to impress her when a teacher walked up and demanded to know whether he’d written a book. Being a first-year Master’s student, he forbore to answer only to be told that his daughter was a first-year economics honours student at Miranda House and wanted a copy of his question-answer book.

After his Master’s Gulati avoided the usual career paths of applying for the bureaucracy or overseas study. Having read at least 300 biographies, he decided he needed to work in India. He was so convinced of this that he even wrote a 14-page letter of admonition to his sister who had married and gone to the US for practicing there when the country had spent money on her education.

His own marriage was not without some controversy, either. He met his future wife when he was a lecturer at Deshbandu College. A Kumaoni Brahmin, her family was not too keen to have her marry into a lower caste. When that problem was reconciled, Gulati had a condition of his own: no gold should enter the house and, indeed, unlike many Indian men, he wears no jewellery.

Till his PhD, agriculture had never been a major area of interest – he hadn’t even studied it in his Master’s. He had intended to do his doctorate on monetary policy. But his supervisor told him that if he wanted to understand the Indian economy he couldn’t do so through monetary policy but agriculture and instructed him to read the Marxist economist Maurice Dobbs. Like his guide, Gulati also acquired a jholawalla ideology for a while – “I used to intervene in fights between Harijans and jats and that kind of stuff” – before he realised he didn’t want to be a slave to any ideology. It was better, he says, to discover the truth and speak it.

I joke that some accuse him of being in thrall to vested Western interests, the reference being to a comment by M S Swaminathan in a recent Business Standard interview. Gulati says Swaminathan had written a letter denying he said that. I point out that this was untrue since his statement was recorded in the reporter's notebook, but Gulati is keen to forget it. He’s not interested in personalities and explains to me with his characteristic logic why agricultural trade should be freed and the conversation then ranges over the problems with NREGA, the issue with the minimum support price and subsidies.

Since the restaurant doesn’t stretch to tea and coffee service, we agree, with just a little reluctance, to kulfi faluda. When it arrives, Gulati surprises me by saying he had been a candidate for CACP chairmanship in 1997 when the United Front government was in power and Chaturanan Mishra of the Communist Party of India was agriculture minister. The second candidate was Abhijit Sen who, given his left-leaning persuasions, stood a better chance. “The chairman of the search committee advised me to lobby with Prime Minister Deve Gowda; I knew him because I had been on the Karnataka planning board for five years. But I declined to do this.” The file then shuttled between the PMO and agriculture ministry for eight months. But the point became moot when he joined Vajpayee’s council, the youngest member at the time.

Fourteen years later, he’s gotten what many consider part of his due. But he wears his achievements lightly. As we walk out into the noisy mall, he’s happy to get off the subject of himself and talk agriculture again.

First Published: Tue, May 31 2011. 00:20 IST