An eminent economist of India passes away

Dr Raja Chelliah (1922-2009) may have been India’s only serious public finance economist in living memory.   He first and more clearly than anyone warned of the out-of-control fiscal situation and the grave burden of the public debt.

Unfortunately he has left no professional successors.  The institute he founded appears to consist mostly of a name and some  buildings and a lot of wasteful bureaucratic public expenditure as is typical of the new Dilli Raj of recent decades.   I recall a heated discussion with two of his successors there in the late 1990s in which they somehow attempted to say they were beyond Government of India control and could do as they pleased (which they had in fact proceeded to do).  Neither could be said to have been familiar with Indian public finance data at the degree of precision necessary to grasp  the fiscal problems Dr Chelliah had warned against.  Like the Planning Commission and similar sets of public buildings, it is all mostly a waste;   Delhi’s “think tanks” have been largely incapable of any real thought.

Raja Chelliah very kindly met me in the summer of 1987 or the winter of 1988 at his Planning Commission offices when I was putting together the University of Hawaii perestroika-for-India project  that led in due course to sparking the 1991 reform  thanks to Rajiv Gandhi in his last months.    I wish very much I could have had  Dr Chelliah join the project but he was over-committed.

His passing means there is no one left in the Indian economic-policy establishment who has (or wishes to have ) the faintest clue about the gravity of the fiscal situation.  It may be a sign of the times that the business press is reporting on the same day  that the current head of the RBI bureaucracy has been  saying that monetising Indian fiscal deficits seems to him “benign”, pointing abroad and saying something like “Look aren’t they doing it too?”!    (Contemporary Delhi and Bombay are self-deluded and  so enamoured with   five-star hotel rooms that they may be unable to cope with  economic reality outside such an environment.)

Dr Chelliah was professionally serious, committed to truth-telling, personally modest and truly eminent in his contribution to modern Indian economic thought.

Subroto Roy, Kolkata

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