Wit and charm were just a couple of traits of one of India’s
first practitioners of economic reforms
On June 21, 2012, precisely a year to the day after Suresh Tendulkar passed
away, India lost another of its leading light of economic reforms, Dr Abid
Hussain. Affectionately known to his friends as Abid Bhai or Abid Sahib, he was
a warm, wise and witty gentleman. His conversations and speeches were peppered
with humour and memorable anecdotes. Those who came into contact with him or
heard him speak invariably came away with interesting material for future
My own first substantive interaction with Abid Sahibfollowed a brilliant speech
he delivered at the World Bank in 1990, soon after his arrival in the United
States as India’s ambassador. The speech narrated how protectionism and
licensing had hurt India. Among other things, he noted the detrimental effect
the controls have had on the quality of products, graphically illustrating the
point by reference to Indian-made fountain pens that flowed more like fountains
than pens. But his message was filled with optimism and hope for India. That inspired
me to send him a note the same day stating that his speech had been
electrifying, but would our politicians and bureaucrats let go of the controls?
He wrote back saying that the two hundred million strong middle-class would
force the change. In retrospect, I wonder if even he thought at the time that
his prophecy would come true so soon.
A man of many parts, Abid Sahib began his career as a civil servant. He joined
the prestigious Indian Administrative Service in 1949 and rose to the top,
serving as secretary in the ministries of commerce and heavy industry before
formally retiring. Such were his diplomatic skills that the government felt
compelled to eschew the normal practice of appointing a member of Indian
Foreign Service or a politician as the Ambassador to the United States and
chose him for the post instead. His command of economic policy making earned
him a membership in the Planning Commission at a time when such appointments
were reserved for the best in the trade. Then again, he wrote prolifically on
such diverse subjects as trade policy, the role of bureaucracy in Indian
democracy, science and technology, and attributes of a good society.
Abid Sahib practiced liberalising reforms well before most civil servants
became converts to them. Two key committees had guided some of the earliest
trade policy reforms in India: PC Alexander Committee on Import Export Policies
and Procedures in 1978 and Abid Hussain Committee on Trade Policies, 1984.
While the former led to some piecemeal liberalisation of imports of selected
capital goods and raw materials through the Open General Licensing, the latter
advocated measures aimed at expanding India’s exports and making trade policy
more predictable. Recommendations of the Abid Hussain committee led the government
to adopt the policy of announcing the export-import policy for three years at a
time instead of annually. The first such policy, covering the period 1985-88,
was announced in 1985. The report also led to the introduction of several East
Asia-style export incentives in 1985-86 and 1986-87. Complemented by
substantial depreciation of the rupee, these measures more than doubled
India’s exports in the second half of the 1980s.
Abid Sahib remained involved in catalysing reforms after they became systematic
in 1991. In the second half of the 1990s, he helped push one of the most
difficult reforms: effective end to the Small-Scale-Industries reservation.
The 1997 Abid Hussain Committee Report on Small Enterprises provided the
intellectual foundation as well as a practical roadmap for this important
reform. Recognising the political sensitivities in this area, the report
carefully balanced its unequivocal recommendation of the abolition of the
reservation policy by a strong case for support to the small and medium
enterprises through alternative instruments. The process of trimming the list
of reserved items got underway soon after and greatly accelerated under PM Atal
Bihari Vajpayee and his finance minister Yashwant Sinha.
Abid Sahib effectively deployed his wit to silence India’s critics. Once, when
visiting a Middle Eastern country, a member of the royal family asked him if it
was true that Muslims in India were an unhappy lot. Unperturbed, Abid
Sahibreplied that this was indeed true but went on to add that in India Hindus
were equally unhappy! On another occasion, confronted with particularly hostile
questioning on a foreign TV channel, he could diffuse the situation by
remarking, “Gentlemen, there seems to be some confusion here. I am Abid Hussain
from India, not Saddam Hussain from Iraq.”
My wife and I last met Abid Sahib over a memorable lunch this past March. He
discussed serious matters such how India could build up its academic
institutions while treating us to his trademark humour. A gem from the
afternoon: When a highly successful man was asked what his greatest strength in
life had been, he replied that it was his wife. When asked to name his greatest
weakness, he answered it was his neighbour’s wife!
With the passing away of this great son of hers, India has been left poorer in
wisdom, wit and much else.
(The author is a professor at Columbia University.)