Remembering A. Vaidyanathan, the Scholar Who Changed the Role of Data in India

Rescued during the 26/11 siege at the Taj in Mumbai, the professor had promptly taken the very flight he was booked on to return to work.

Around seven in the morning there were two messages, two minutes apart.

The first said “good morning” and the next said “Some sad news. Prof. Vaidyanathan passed away late last night, early this morning”.

It is taking time to sink in, but there is no other way this news of professor Vaidyanathan’s passing could have been delivered. With a perfunctory ‘good morning’, and then a matter-of-fact news. That was what Vaidyanathan would have wanted and certainly not this write-up about him that I am undertaking.

But, unlike many of my contemporaries who were his students and part-feared, part-adored and part-respected him, I could take more liberties for not having received my formal training from him. I was his student in an informal way, and even an optional student.

I got to meet him, know him and work with him all at the same time when I was appointed on the Vaidyanathan Task Force on co-operative reform. I had heard about him from some of my colleagues, followed his work – particularly the sharp articles he would write in the Economic and Political Weekly. When I was put on to the committee, I was warned, “Watch out, he is a task master and he has a sharp tongue, not easy to work with him”.

Having worked with him and interacted with him all these years, I really did not know where this came from.

Yes, he was meticulous, stickler to data and its interpretation, but was quite an endearing personality. Friendly, caring, warm and non-hierarchical. And the most endearing part of it was that there was a certain easy attitude about himself.

“If you cut his veins, you will find data flowing instead of blood,” one of his students told me, and I was soon to realise that.

In the first meeting of the task force, he said that we would need the services of a statistician for helping the committee to navigate through the data. This was the first time that I had heard that a task force would summon the services of a statistician!

While, the secretariat for the committee was National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development, people in Reserve Bank of India (RBI) obliged and deputed a senior officer from the statistical department to be with the committee. While the committee did run some regressions and looked at the available data, he and the rest of us were really sad at the type of data that was available. So much so that we made a mention of it indicating that the report was based on dodgy data!

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It was not the days when data was suppressed, but those when some data was just not collected. One of the recommendations of the committee was to make better data available.

On the other hand, we the research community, should be thankful to him for ensuring that the RBI has a dedicated data warehouse and that data can be accessed at a granular level. This database is the direct result of Vaidyanathan’s intervention in 2003 when he was appointed the Chair of Expert Group on Central Database Management System.

The RBI press release indicated that the data was placed in the public domain before the recommendations of the committee!

But these activities and adventures were only much later in his career – a career that spanned academia and practice, what is cherished most is his association with Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram and later Madras Institute of Development Studies. He also worked with National Council for Applied Economic Research, the Food and Agriculture Organisation and as a full time member of the planning commission. After the submission of the Vaidyanathan Committee report, he was inducted as a member of the central board of Reserve Bank of India. 

He nurtured generations of young researchers. Every third sentence in a conversation would move towards data, analysis and what one could argue based the findings. While he worked on a range of issues – agriculture, credit, labour and co-operatives – what marked out was his work on water and his collaboration in closely working with Centre for Science and Environment on climate change related issues. 

Two anecdotes summarise his being. He was in the Taj Mahal hotel (having attended the Central Board meeting of RBI) on the day of the Mumbai terror attacks. When I came to know that he was there and had safely moved to Chennai, I called him to enquire about his well-being.

He dismissed the experience by an imaginary wave of hand (on telephone) and said, “There is a piece on The Hindu about my experiences, read it. Now tell me what are you doing about your field level data from Rajasthan, when are you going to get this out?”

The piece in The Hindu is even more revealing. He is in the heritage block, where all the action is happening and he gets to know of it by switching on the television in the same hotel. He is rescued at 3 am, and on his way out, he gets into his trousers, packs his clothes in his bags, and takes the morning flight that he was booked on!    

In 2017, he sent an 80-page manuscript with this message:

Attached are reminiscences of my professional life and work. As a close friend and one who has been closely involved in wide ranging discussions over the years, I want to share them with you. I need to emphasis that these are not meant for wider circulation.

I wrote back to him a bit disappointed that there was no mention of the Vaidyanathan Committee in this write up. Also, very little personal detail. He said, “This is about professional life not the fluff one did, you just don’t get it. It is not an autobiography, it is only professional work.” 

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The work of the Vaidyanathan committee had brought me near Vaidyanathan and helped me to foster a friendship that was cherished for a long time. The work of the committee was indeed of very high quality – it meant much to many people – and looked like one of the last hopes for the revival of co-operatives.

As we were finalising the report, Dr Y.V. Reddy who was then the governor of RBI, volunteered to chair the implementation committee – a commitment shown at that level was somewhat rare.

As much discussion was happening on the implementation mechanisms, the Finance Minister announced a farm loan waiver programme. Possibly, that was the end of hope.

Reddy was no longer interested in the implementation committee and Vaidyanathan said, “It is over, let us move on”. That could have been one of the reasons that this work did not find mention in his reminiscences.

In his passing we have lost an eminent economist, a great and open mind, a guru and an intellectual. I have lost a friend and a guide, and of course, a down-to-earth, here-and-now philosopher.

A. Vaidyanathan is survived by his wife Shanta, daughters Rama Baru and Radhika Vaidyanathan, son-in-law Sanjaya Baru and grand-daughter Tanvika Baru. He is also survived by his brother A. Arjunan.

M.S. Sriram is a faculty member and chairperson of center for public policy at IIM Bangalore. He can be reached at [email protected].