Tribute to a dreamer

Askoh Desai pays his tributes to the economist K N Raj who passed away recently, and who, not once but twice created wonderful institutions:

The plan and the annual budget apart, there was not much to do for an economist in the government. Raj lingered for a while, but working in the government is frustrating even today when economists are better valued; it must have been numbing in the 1950s. Raj lingered on for a while, but then looked for greener pastures; and V.K.R.V. Rao netted him. Rao did his PhD under Colin Clark in Cambridge in the 1930s. Clark had, with John Maynard Keynes’s encouragement, made the first estimate of British national income; Rao took his methodology and estimated India’s national income. After straying in south India for a while, Rao ended up teaching economics in Delhi University in 1942, and managed in 1949 to set up the Delhi School of Economics with some autonomy. On his invitation, Raj joined it in 1956. And Raj lured Amartya Sen, Jagdish Bhagwati, Sukhamoy Chakravarty and Mrinal Datta Chaudhuri to DSchool. They were not such famous figures then as they are now; they were bright young economists trained abroad — Amartya and Jagdish in Cambridge, Sukhamoy in the Hague, and Mrinal in Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

This was the DSchool I got to know when I came to Delhi. But it was not these famous names that made DSchool what it was. It was the informality — the ever-open doors of teachers, the open area around the canteen where teachers and students talked their heads off, the lively seminars and the labyrinthine library, which contained everything. Though Raj had moved on to higher things by then, DSchool was his creation, and bore his stamp.

Five years later, when I was in Sussex University, Raj again came to me and said, “I have now started a new centre in Trivandrum; come and join me.”I listened to him and went. I saw something unique. Raj had got hold of Laurie Baker, who built him a beautiful, low-cost campus. He bought cheap bricks, and soaked them in water for a couple of days; if they did not disintegrate, he used them. He made large windows with wooden shutters; they gave ample cross-ventilation in the local humid climate, and obviated the use of glass. He scattered a few buildings on a hill; the woods separating them gave them a sense of privacy. And he built a tower to house the library; one could find a seat with a breathtaking view of the surrounding valleys, and get lost in books. Being on the campus, I could walk to the library at any time of the day or night. We could talk economics and much else in any of the many cosy corners. Students would walk into my home whenever they wanted sustenance, material or intellectual. The place was ideally designed for debating and creating economics. It was the DSchool model in a different environment.

I did not last long; Raj was away, and I ran into complicated faculty politics. And Raj was upset that I left. Personal fates do not matter. What matters is that Raj had an ideal in mind — of a free, democratic marketplace of ideas. He tried it out twice; it did not realize his dream either time. DSchool lost its young stars when Indira Gandhi brought high inflation, shrinking real salaries, and intellectual intolerance. CDS lost all the friends Raj had brought together — A. Vaidyanathan, N. Krishnaji, T.N. Krishnan, myself — the local politics made outsiders unwelcome. But Raj had a dream of creating an intellectual market place, where economics would emerge from friendly contention. It was a great ideal, and two failures do not prove it wrong. Raj was unlucky; but he was on the right track.

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