In the twentieth century, India produced many worthy scholars who mastered the art of political economics. Those who specialised in political economics, were well known both in the world of academia and policy-making – with a few caveats thrown in. Domain knowledge was not enough; they needed to be ideologically connected, either as a socialist or as a communist, who appreciated in entirety, centralized planning in independent India.
There were outstanding academicians and scholars whose formidable achievements and persuasive thoughts were overlooked both in the academia and among policymakers because they were classical liberals and pragmatic thinkers – in other words, politically incorrect. Going against the grain, these liberals strongly opposed centralized planning and warned political parties against adventurism instead of adopting a pragmatic approach.
Professor Srinivasa Ambirajan was one such great scholar and economist, whose path-breaking work won him national fame and international accolades. A first-generation economist after 1947, he wrote hundreds of scholarly articles in internationally reputed journals, earning the sobriquet of `Compassionate Economist’.
Noted Prof P R Brahmananda, doyen of Indian economics: “Dr. Ambirajan’s published works were in the area of monetary history and in the history of policy-making, especially in India. His work on the political economy of monetary management during the British rule in India has become a classic.” That’s high praise coming from one of the foremost liberal economists of his time.
S Ambirajan was born in 1936 and schooled at the Ramasesha Iyer School, Pattamadai, Tirunelveli district in Tamil Nadu. He studied at St Antony’s School, Visakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh, completing his Intermediate in Arts at Mrs A V N College there. His father, Prof K R Srinivasa Iyengar, Vice-Chancellor of Andhra University in 1966, was a great scholar and a legendary figure in Indian English literature.
In 1955, Ambirajan joined B.A. (Hons) in Economics, completing his Masters in the same discipline in 1957, followed by a Ph.D. in Economics (1961) from the Andhra University. That was followed by another Ph.D. at the University of Manchester, England, where he held the prestigious Bank of England Houblon-Norman Research Fellowship and the Hallsworth Research Fellowship with distinction. In 1962, he completed a highly rated degree on “Economic Ideas and Indian Economic Policies in the Nineteenth Century.”
The economist was equally at ease in Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Sanskrit languages, quoting fluently from any of them. For many decades, he championed individual freedom, private property rights, decentralized planning and economic freedom for free enterprises to create wealth and reduce poverty and hunger. He believed that government expenditure for building durable capital should be the focus of any welfare government to strive for long-term economic growth and thereby improve peoples’ standards of living rather than indulging in maneuvers over vested interests and short-term goals. According to him, “public discourse on policy should be defined by sobriety, facts and reason, and not by emotion and abuse”.
Prof Ambirajan was a prolific writer for over four decades and published more than two dozen scholarly books and monographs, among other works, which were appreciated among renowned scholars across the world. He wrote hundreds of articles and columns in The Hindu and The Economic Times for several years. Sad to say, but his scholarly works have found more takers abroad than in his own country or state, where his papers have not been accorded the respect they deserve.
He began his teaching career at the Department of Economics, University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia, where he instructed from 1964-1966. Then he moved to the Department of Economics, University of New South Wales, Sydney, where he taught for 15 years from 1966-1981. Later, he joined as Senior Lecturer and was Associate Professor in Economics by the time he left the University of New South Wales.
Back home, Ambirajan was Professor of Economics at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at IIT Madras from 1981 to 1996, including a stint as Head of the Department. From 1996, he was a Visiting Professor of Economics at the Madras School of Economics, which he also helped to build.
While pursuing his first Ph.D. in economics at the Andhra University, he wrote his first book “A Grammar of Indian Planning” in 1959 and vehemently criticized the centralized planning adopted by India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. Interestingly, he premised the arguments against centralized planning by quoting the works of Austrian economists, Ludwig Von Mises and F A Hayek. He also elaborated on the impracticalities of centralized planning in the context of India, as explained by liberal scholar V S Srinivasa Sastri.
Ambirajan’s scholarly range covered a broad canvas: economic history and policy in India, classical economists’ treatises and their theories, policies and its impacts on British administration in India, tools of economic analysis and its relevance, taxation in corporate businesses, issues of public policy and challenges faced by political class vis-à-vis professional economists and social scientists, etc. Many of his books were published as multi-editions over several decades because of his contextual prophecies, content and method of analysis with facts and sound reasoning minus ideological biases.
His major books and chapters in internationally edited volumes are a handful: Malthus and Classical Economics (1959), The Taxation of Corporate Income in India (1964), Economic Ideas and Indian Economic Policies in the Nineteenth Century (1964), Laissez Faire in Madras (1965), Economic Ideas and Economic Policy in British India (1967), Classical Economists on Economic Development and Its Impact on British-Indian Administration in the Nineteenth Century (1970), Classical Political Economy and British Policy in India (1978), The Engineer as Economist (1979), Political Economy and Monetary Management: India, 1766-1914 (1984), India and Indonesia from the 1920s to the 1950s: The Origins of Planning (1986), Economic Wisdom in Ancient Tamil Society (1989), The Delayed Emergence of Econometrics as a Separate Discipline (1989), Economic Wisdom in Ancient Tamil Society: The Acquisition and Use of Wealth in Ancient Tamil Literature (1990), The Professionalization of Economics in India (1996), The Post-1945 Internationalization of Economics: History of Political Economy Annual Supplement (1997), The Concepts of Happiness, Ethics, and Economic Values in Ancient Economic Thought (1997), Good People, Bad Times: Views from Periphery (1998) and Economic Thinking of Dadabhai Naoroji (2001). He also wrote hundreds of scholarly articles in the Economic and Political Weekly Journal, besides numerous book reviews.
In 1999, Prof Ambirajan delivered the B R Ambedkar Memorial Lecture at the University of Madras, where he provided an in-depth analysis of “Ambedkar’s Contributions to Indian Economics” by revisiting the original economics writings of the Dalit leader. Which is no mean contribution considering that even today, only a handful of scholars can understand Ambedkar’s economic thought that are relevant to contemporary economic situations. He expressed his anguish that Ambedkar has been treated merely as a `Dalit’ leader.
Former RBI Governor Dr C Rangarajan had asked Prof Ambirajan to write the third volume of the History of the RBI for the period from 1966 to early 1981. Due to the great scholar’s sudden demise, this enterprise was finally edited and concluded by other scholars. He passed away on February 4, 2001, in Chennai at the not-too-old age of 65.
Since 2002, the Institute for Economic Education and Public Expenditure Round Table, Chennai, organises the Dr S Ambirajan Memorial Lecture delivered by eminent scholars in different fields, but relevant to the great erudition and thoughts of Prof Ambirajan.
IndianLiberals.in is an online library of all Indian liberal writings, lectures and other materials in English and other Indian regional languages. The material that has been collected so far contains liberal commentary dating from the early 19th century till the present. The portal helps preserve an often unknown but very rich Indian liberal tradition and explain the relevance of the writings in today’s context.
The opinions expressed in this essay are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of CCS.