Economist Abhijit Sen, who died on Monday night, was a strong advocate of the public distribution system of foodgrains and a leading expert on rural economy.
He was 72.
A member of the erstwhile Planning Commission, Sen was the author of the landmark report that recommended making the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices (CACP) a statutory body and its fixation of minimum support prices – which the government was bound to accept – be based on the cost of production.
Born in Jamshedpur on November 18, 1950, Sen, whose father Samar Sen worked as an economist for the World Bank, was schooled at Sardar Patel Vidyalaya in New Delhi before studying Physics at St Stephen’s College in Delhi University.
Switching to economics, Sen earned his PhD from Cambridge University for his thesis, ‘The agrarian constraint to economic development: The case of India’ under the supervision of Suzy Paine.
He taught economics at Sussex, Oxford, Cambridge and Essex before joining the Centre for Economic Studies and Planning at Jawaharlal Nehru University in 1985.
In 1997, he was appointed chairman of CACP and tasked to recommend support prices for agri commodities.
He authored the report of the High-Level Committee on Long Term Grain Policy in July 2000, that recommended fixation of MSP based on all paid-out cultivation expenses in cash and in kind, plus the imputed value of unpaid family labour and rent/interest forgone on owned land and fixed capital assets.
This formulation was later captured in the ‘Swaminathan formula’ that recommended that MSPs of crops be at least 50 per cent more than the cost of production.
The Sen panel had also favoured a universal public distribution system with uniform central issue prices for rice and wheat while doing away with ‘below poverty line’ and ‘above poverty line’ categories.
This was used by the Congress-led UPA government in the National Food Security Act of 2013, to provide wheat and rice to more than a third of the country’s population at a uniform Rs 2 and Rs 3 per kg price.
During the Manmohan Singh government from 2004 to 2014, he was a member of the Planning Commission.
In 2010, he was awarded the Padma Bhushan for public service.
Sen was a strong supporter of the public distribution system (PDS) of wheat and rice and would contend that the cost of food subsidies to the exchequer was frequently overstated and that the nation had enough financial leeway to afford both a universal PDS and a fair price for farmers’ produce.
His brother Pronab Sen is also an economist and was the chairman of the National Statistical Commission and Chief Statistician of India.
His wife Jayati Ghosh is a prominent economist and his daughter Jahnavi is a journalist.
Reacting to his death, Kaushik Basu, former chief economist of the World Bank, said: “Shattering news. A brilliant mind and a fine human being.”
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