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Home > 2023 > V K R V Rao: Remembering an Institution Builder | K N Ninan

Mainstream, VOL 61 No 6, February 4, 2023

V K R V Rao: Remembering an Institution Builder | K N Ninan

Saturday 4 February 2023


by K N Ninan *

The Institute for Social and Economic Change (ISEC), Bangalore founded by renowned economist and former Union Minister Dr V K R V Rao in 1972 completed its golden jubilee recently. This was the third institute founded by Dr Rao, the other two being the Delhi School of Economics (DSE) and Institute of Economic Growth (IEG) in Delhi. Professor Rao, the first to obtain a PhD in Economics from Cambridge University and recipient of the prestigious Adam Smith prize was a colossus who strode the academic field in India.

  Acknowledging his role as an Institution builder then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in her address while laying the corner stone of ISEC campus in Nagarbhavi, Bangalore on 11 July 1974 stated as follows: “Dr V K R V Rao’s restlessness and dynamism have found expression in the building of numerous institutions. The country is indebted to him for the centres of study and research he has built in Delhi and now the region from which he hails, and to which he has returned after a rich life spent elsewhere in the country, has the benefit of his vision, his experience, and his creative drive.”

  Rao felt that institutions like ISEC should play a major role in the economic and social transformation of the country and hence gave this name to the Institute. Although the then Mysore government headed by Chief Minister Devraj Urs had offered the heritage Carlton house on Palace Road for housing the permanent campus of the Institute, Dr Rao declined the offer stating that he preferred it to be far out of the city. That is how ISEC got located in Nagarbhavi village on the outskirts of Bangalore city surrounded by a vast expanse of ragi and maize fields. The only road to the upcoming ISEC campus site was a bullock cart trail. Rao was very shrewd and invited the then Prime Minister of India Smt. Indira Gandhi to lay the foundation stone for the ISEC campus. The PWD laid a motorable road at breakneck speed to the campus site for the function. When ISEC campus was ready in 1976 Professor Rao invited then President of India Shri Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed to inaugurate the new ISEC Campus. The road to ISEC campus was tarred immediately. The villagers of Nagarbhavi acknowledged the role played by Professor Rao in providing a fillip to development activities in and around Nagarbhavi by locating ISEC here and preferred to call it as ‘VKRV Rao Institute’. As a tribute the road leading to ISEC was renamed by the Bangalore City Corporation as Padma Vibhushan Dr V.K.R.V. Rao Road.

  His tenure as ISEC Director for the first five years and later as Chairman of ISEC Board of Governors was the golden era of ISEC. He gathered the best minds in the country such as M N Srinivas (renowned sociologist), V L S Prakash Rao (renowned geographer), L S Venkataramanan (renowned agricultural economist) and others to build and guide the Institute to realise its mission. One cannot fail to recognise the contributions made by state officials especially its dynamic Development Commissioner late Dr. G V K Rao, Mr T R Satish Chandran, Dr D M Nanjundappa, former Mysore High Court Chief Justice Nittur Srinivas Rao and others who contributed immensely to building the Institute. National and International conferences including by UN agencies, annual/biennial conferences of professional societies such as Indian Society for Ecological Economics, Indian Society of Agricultural Economics, Training Programmes for researchers, research scholars, government officials and NGOs were held in ISEC during this period. Nobel laureates and renowned international scholars such as Sir John Hicks and Lady Ursula Hicks, Kenneth Arrow, Sir Alec Cairncross (VKRV Rao’s classmate in Cambridge), Joan Robinson were among those who visited ISEC and gave seminars. Karnataka Chief Ministers right from D. Devaraj Urs to Basavaraj Bommai visited ISEC to participate in ISEC events.

  Professor Rao set high standards. For the post of Professor, he insisted that a faculty member must have published at least one book to be eligible and stalled the elevation of a faculty member as Professor until he published one book.

  A major initiative of Professor Rao during its formative years was conducting inter-disciplinary studies to examine the cluster approach to rural development taking Tumkur district for a case study. The Tumkur project funded by the Ford Foundation witnessed several scholarly studies and publication of books and research papers during the seventies and early eighties. The research revealed that the success of this approach would depend on how far the property relations and power structure in rural areas was made egalitarian. Many faculty members were sent abroad to upgrade their skills and knowledge in prestigious foreign universities and institutions under this project.

  Rao was the first person to estimate the national income of British India in 1936 at a time when there were no computers or calculators. He updated his seminal thesis with a study of India’s national income from 1950 to 1980 which showed that the Indian economy was marked by structural retrogression and unlike the experience of developed countries the services sector was fuelling India’s growth.

     Another major study was the Bangalore city survey under which a goldmine of data was analysed to assess the challenges and opportunities faced by Bangalore the emerging metropolis. If the government, Bangalore Development Authority (BDA), and Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) had sincerely implemented its recommendations such as establishing satellite towns Bangalore would not have degenerated into a chaotic concrete jungle.

  Never has Centre-State relations been strained as now with the centre using governors and GST to arm-twist opposition-ruled governments. The holding of a Three-day National Conference on Centre-State Relations in ISEC by the Government of Karnataka in the mid-1980s was a milestone in which the then Chief Minister Shri Ramakrishna Hegde participated in its deliberations on all three days. Its recommendation to activate the Inter-State Council as envisaged under Article 263 of the Constitution has remained a pipe dream despite the tall talk of ‘co-operative federalism’.

   The completion of eighty years by Professor Rao in 1988 was an important occasion with a national conference being held in the Institute on 5th October 1988 in his honour attended by the ‘Who is Who’ of Indian economics and social sciences such as Professors M L Dantwala, V M Dandekar, Nilakantha Rath, Malcolm Adiseshiah and many others. At the event a bust of Professor Rao was unveiled by then Karnataka Chief Minister Shri S R Bommai (father of the current CM Basavaraj Bommai) in the ISEC seminar block. Speaking at the event Professor Rao who was moved by the affection showered on him said that he felt embarrassed to be present at the unveiling of his own bust. The deliberations of the conference were published in a major book entitled: India-The Emerging Challenges.

  Professor Rao had great foresight that ecological economics would emerge as a major discipline and founded the first Ecology Economics Unit (renamed later as Centre for Ecological Economics and Natural Resources) in the country at ISEC in 1981 headed by Professor M V Nadkarni. The centre undertook pioneering studies on economics and institutional aspects of uncultivated lands in India, economic instruments for pollution control in the north and south, economic valuation of biodiversity and ecosystem services, sustainable use and management of natural resources, study of common property resources, solid waste management, etc. A major initiative of the centre was the conduct of the five-week ISEC-NCI Training Course on: ‘Approaching the Environment in India: New Theories and Methods in the Study of the Nature-Society Interface’ for Post-Graduate students from Nordic countries in collaboration with the Nordic Centre in India (NCI). This has been held almost every year since July 2007 until the outbreak of the covid pandemic.

  ISEC faculty contributed immensely to policy formulation and helped frame Karnataka’s agricultural policy, study the causes of farmer suicides, prepare the Karnataka development report and strategies to address regional imbalances, as well as evaluate several development programmes.

  One of the lasting contributions of ISEC has been its PhD programme under which many students from across the country and even outside have been trained and awarded PhD degree in different social science disciplines. Many are occupying high positions in India and abroad in the government, private, and NGO sectors including some who are employed in UN agencies. Many international scholars collaborated with ISEC for their research. The Indian Council of Cultural Relations (ICCR), Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India deputed some ISEC Faculty members to foreign universities as Visiting India Chair Professors. ISEC also has one of the best social science libraries in southern India which has now been digitalized.

  However, there are several challenges faced by social science research institutions in India. These are as follows:

  • The focus of social science research has been mostly on applied research whereas theoretical studies received low or no priority since government and private funders/organisations funded only applied research especially evaluation of government programmes and policies.
  • In tune with the general decline in academic standards in the country overall the quality of social science research has deteriorated.
  • Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR) institutes unlike government departments and institutes were supposed to be free of bureaucratic culture. But ICSSR Institutes have become highly bureaucratic which has hampered good quality research and lowered academic standards.
  • These were supposed to autonomous institutes but there is growing interference, politicalisation and interventions, subtle and not so subtle, by the government in appointment of Directors, faculty and even staff including assaults on academic freedoms which has lowered the morale of faculty, staff, and students.
  • Sycophancy and mediocrity rather than merit have become the order of the day.
  • Governments are increasingly giving low priority to social science research with funds being cut off or reduced. There are even media reports which suggest the central government’s plan to abolish the ICSSR (incidentally set up by Professor V K R V Rao in 1969) and merge it with a higher general education body. This does not augur well for the future of social science research in India.

There is pressure from the government to promote its narrative that social science research undertaken so far is biased being based on western models and ideologies rather than on Indian mythology and civilisation and hence irrelevant. For instance, we are told that even before the Wright brothers invented the aeroplane in 1903, Indians had invented the aeroplane (pushpak vimana) 7000 years ago. But it is ironic that even after three decades and sinking thousands of crores we have failed to develop an aeroplane engine to power our Tejas jets.

* (Author: K N Ninan was a PhD student and Professor at ISEC, Bangalore)

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