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Economist who could talk to the layman

Mukul Dube | August 26, 2003

Professor Syed Ali Mohammed Khusro Husaini died on 24 August 2003. The various appointments he held spanned a remarkable range: he taught economics at Osmania and other universities and he conducted and supervised research at the Institute of Economic Growth in Delhi, which he also headed for many years.

He was Vice Chancellor of the Aligarh Muslim University and India's ambassador to the Federal Republic of Germany; he was a member of the Planning Commission and later headed the Agha Khan Foundation's office in India; and he was Chairman of the Eleventh Finance Commission.

In recent years he did a great deal of work in the voluntary sector. Even this list is by no means exhaustive. As an economist, Khusro Sahab will be remembered chiefly for his work on different aspects of agriculture such as land reforms and the question of buffer stocks; although he also wrote on banking and even did a study of students of the Delhi University.

His work in monetary economics, which he did not keep up for long, in certain ways anticipated Milton Friedman's, as Friedman himself said. His professional and intellectual work covered many different areas and was very far from narrow.

And he was not just a theoretical economist but a practical one too. For example, the Finance Commission, which he headed sought to use fiscal controls to establish the federalism which, politics had not only not achieved but which it worked against in many ways.

It is said of most economists that they can communicate only with other economists, but Khusro Sahab had a rare ability to make the most complex ideas comprehensible to ordinary people. This power underlay much of his writing for lay readers. It also explains his immense popularity as a teacher.

He took his role of teacher very seriously, and at the Delhi School of Economics he guided a record number of Ph.Ds to completion. A considerable devotion and unending patience could also be seen when, for example, he taught children how to play tennis.

Although he was close to what the ideal economist should be, and although he chafed at the bit when other commitments kept him from his work in his chosen field, Khusro Sahab told me once that his interest really lay in literature.

Ending up in a different profession had not caused this interest to flag. World literature and Urdu poetry are areas in which the depth of his knowledge far exceeded the ordinary. Khusro Sahab, in short, was an example of a vanishing breed, the complete man, the man who cannot be put into any single compartment, the man who makes a success of all that he attempts.

He was a product of the best that the first half of the twentieth century offered, and in particular he was a fine product of the finest of India's composite culture, the best of our tradition of tehzeeb, with an abiding interest in classical music and able to refer, aptly and with equal facility, to the Quran, the Mahabharat and the Bible when needed.

Although a connoisseur of fine food, he yet ate with relish, in a foreign land, the modest meal prepared for him by an Indian student. One can but marvel at such a man and seek to learn from him.

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