Obituary: Y.K. Alagh: People’s Economist and Master of Public Policy
Prof. Y.K. Alagh, a renowned economist and policy expert passed away at the age of 83 after a brief illness on December 6th, 2022. He was born in Chakwal (Pakistan Punjab) and married Rakshaben from Gujarat and settled in Ahmedabad. He was fluent in Punjabi as well as Gujarati. He was the former Vice-Chancellor of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and taught Economics at several universities in India and the University of Pennsylvania U.S.
Prof. Alagh not only taught Economics but practiced it also. He was a political economist – remained a member of Parliament, and was a Minister of Planning and Programme Implementation, Science and Technology and Power during 1996-98. His major contribution was in the field of agriculture and rural development.
I recall that after becoming a minister in the I.K. Gujral cabinet, he travelled to Chandigarh to meet the Punjab Chief Minister. The then Chief Minister S. Prakash Singh Badal welcomed him and opened the conversation with a preface that both the Prime Minister and the Planning Minister are Punjabis. This is a great opportunity for Punjab to get favourable grants from the Central Government. Prof Alagh in his majestic style spent five hours to register that the allocation of resources has to be matched with the will and the vision; “show us the will, we shall stand by you.” No doubt, he was a Punjabi at heart, but had a precision of a Gujarati.
He was very supportive of young researchers and was an institution builder. As a Vice-Chancellor of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), he built students' stakes in running the affairs of the university. Once, students went on dharna against him, and he sat with them, initiated a dialogue and resolved the contentious issues. He always supported young activists working on the demand side of justice and nurtured those who have joined the public policy forums from the supply side.
His demise coincided with the decreasing relevance of interpretive formulations to the advantage of the people living on the margins. He was the first to measure poverty as starvation rather than income, i.e. how much people eat. This approach was conceived by Alagh Committee in 1979. He was also Chairperson of the W.T.O. Committee, of which I was also one of the members, set up in 1998 by the government of Punjab, and its recommendations were incorporated at the national level.
Prof. Alagh specialised in multi-disciplines like Industry, Agriculture, Media, Co-operatives and contributed to policy planning through various committees and otherwise.
He was my mentor and a friend also. I will always cherish the wonderful memories I have with Prof. Alagh. He was a founder member of the Institute for Development and Communication (IDC), Chandigarh and was Chairperson of IDC Society since 1993. He was an amazing person and had a great sense of humour. He once told me that no other economist mastered the art of practical politics as Prof. Manmohan Singh, and people took it as ‘good economics’.
There are many things for which Prof. Alagh will be remembered, but his commitment to evidence-based policy prescription was remarkable. He took his academics, and quantitative methodologies to collect and analyse data seriously.
He believed that objective data are integral to our future vision. Notwithstanding the fact that data objective or otherwise, have to be located in the path of development. And its interpretation depends largely for whom and for what purpose it was being used.
The lesson learnt from these explorations was, how far the narrative built by data was in conversation with a common citizen’s life story, as our GDP is rising, so are the inequalities. What kind of policy research shall resolve this dilemma? Prof Alagh has left it for all of us to figure out. He was a liberal and democratic person and had a majestic style to carry forward the dialogue.
He wrote a widely read regular column in Indian Express on issues relating to public policy. His writing style was such that even complex issues were simply analysed for the common person.
In normal conversations, he always fondly and respectfully referred to his wife as Rakshaben and mentioned the excellent work done by his son Munish and daughter Tavishi. May his memories give us courage during these challenging times and his family peace and solace.
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