In memoriam

Arjun Sengupta 1937-2010

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Arjun Sengupta, aged 73, academic, bureaucrat, diplomat, parliamentarian, passed away on Sunday, 26 September 2010, in New Delhi. While he wore many hats, all with remarkable ease and grace, I got to know him closely only during the last six to seven years since 2004. He had then just been appointed by the Prime Minister as the Chairman of the newly constituted National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganized Sector. Towards the end of 2004, I joined him as a full time member. While working with him in the commission, he once told me that he was taunted by some of his eminent friends as the head of a commission to look after ‘prostitutes, beggars and peddlers of all sorts of things.’ How true! Because we later found out that 92 per cent of India’s workforce of 457 million (in 2005) were informal workers without any employment or social security worth the salt. And 80 per cent of them belonged to what we categorized as ‘poor and vulnerable’ households with less than Rs 20 per capita per day to spend on their daily requirements. It is this single statistic which has caught the imagination of the public and led to much debate, within and outside the Parliament, on the meaning of India’s ‘shining’ growth path.

Behind this single statistic lay a great deal of detailed work that sought to unravel the world of India’s informal economy that is so pervasive from the point of the aam aadmi and their livelihood struggles. Arjun Sengupta gave great intellectual and organizational leadership to this vast body of work which the commission undertook resulting in the submission of ten major reports including the final synthesis titled The Challenge of Employment in India: An Informal Economy Perspective. Working closely with him on a daily basis, I could see the academic in him coming out sharply, questioning every stage of our analysis before the conclusions were finally accepted. More often than not, he would play ‘devil’s advocate’ just to make sure we were on the right track. Once the conclusions were finalized, however, he had no hesitation in going public and defending them with his characteristic, persuasive style.

But he was not content to play the role of an academic in the commission. He was a policy-maker par excellence. And he would push for specific policy prescriptions for incorporation in the reports. He was also keen to ensure that such policy prescriptions on a variety of issues given to us in the form of terms of reference, were internally consistent. And thus we came up with a policy framework that we called a ‘strategy of levelling up.’ This addressed the foundational issue of creating a ‘social floor’ to the working poor constitutive of basic and contingent social security, a national minimum wage and minimum conditions of work. Second, it addressed the task of promoting micro and small industry with particular focus on upgrading and developing the vast number of existing clusters of industries and later converting them into growth poles.

Third, the commission addressed the plight of small and marginal farmers, critical because there is hardly any major programme or scheme focusing on this segment of the population constituting 84 per cent of all farmers and close to half the operational land holdings. Fourth, the enormous deficit in skill upgrading and development and access to technology for the small producers received special attention. Fifth, access to credit was found to be one of the major constraints and the declining share of net aggregate bank credit to the small sector was a matter of great concern. All this led to specific proposals such as the need for a national minimum social security with a dedicated and empowered body, the creation of a National Fund for the Unorganized Sector, an empowered body for skill development, to mention only a few.

I mention all these here to emphasize the contribution and the leadership of Arjun Sengupta. While some of the recommendations were taken up for partial implementation, he was disappointed – as many of us were – by the absence of appreciation of the overall logic and the need for an integrated approach that we believed would lead to a more equitable and broad-based growth process contributing to, among other things, much needed social cohesion and solidarity. This is because our work led us to an uncomfortable finding that there is a social dimension to the problems faced by the informal economy rooted in the hierarchical structure of our society.

While Arjun Sengupta had spent a good part of his career advising the government on matters relating to finance, trade and commerce and diplomacy, he later chose to work in the area of human rights. He made signal contributions as Rapporteur to the UN Commission on Human Rights that also led to a series of scholarly papers on the Right to Development of which he became a sort of champion during the last decade of his life. I see here an organic connection with his interest in the right to development and the special interest he took in formulating a developmental strategy for the informal economy in our country.

At a personal level his achievements were quite remarkable. Having earned a PhD in Economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the early sixties, he proceeded to teach at the London School of Economics and Politics and later joined the Delhi School of Economics until 1971 when he was lured (as he once told me) by the late P.N. Haksar to work for the Government of India. He worked as an economic adviser in the PMO under Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and subsequently took up several assignments, including as India’s Executive Director to the IMF, Ambassador of India to the European Union and Member Secretary of the Indian Planning Commission. But the ‘academic bug’ in him continued to be at work when he took breaks to teach at Oxford and later, after retirement from government, as Professor at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University and Honorary Professor at the University of Harvard and the University of Oslo. In August 2005, he was elected to the Rajya Sabha and served in many parliamentary committees. At the time of his death he was also chairman of three academic institutions namely, the Institute of Economic Growth, Institute for Studies in Industrial Development, and Research and Information System for Developing Countries, all located in New Delhi.

As one of the few who sought to address the concerns of India’s working poor with specific policy proposals, he will be sorely missed.

K.P. Kannan