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This article was first published 4 years ago  » Business » Who is Prasanta Pattanaik, Padma Shri?

Who is Prasanta Pattanaik, Padma Shri?

By TCA Srinivasa-Raghavan
February 20, 2020 20:01 IST
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Had he not been a student, admirer and follower of Amartya Sen, TCA Srinivasa-Raghavan feels it might have been a Padma Bhushan.
Illustration: Dominic Xavier/


The year was 1971.

The place Delhi School of Economics, which was undergoing a major upheaval.

Amartya Sen, who taught welfare economics and social choice theory, had just left for the London School of Economics.

So had Manmohan Singh, who taught international trade theory, for the commerce ministry.

So, too, had Arjun Sengupta who taught economic policy.

Into the breach left by Sen and Singh walked a 28 year old, ex-student of Sen.

He had done both his MA and PhD at DSchool, as it is called, and then gone off abroad somewhere.

His name, we were told, was Prasanta Pattanaik. He was shy and self-effacing.

He spoke with a strong Oriya accent and slight lisp, almost in a whisper. We students were not impressed.

But slowly and surely he began to show his real prowess. This had three aspects.

One was phenomenal patience when confronted with scores of intellectually heterogeneous students.

He understood how deeply students from Delhi University's undergraduate system were baffled by all that advanced economics theory and maths.

The other was the ability to explain things till everyone -- or almost everyone -- had comprehended some arcane point.

It took time, but it was reassuring.

He would start with a statement of the problem and solution.

Then would come geometry. And finally the algebra.

The international trade classes were especially problematic.

They were large and, therefore, more heterogeneous than the social choice ones.

Most wanted stuff written on the board that they could copy and regurgitate in exam.

The third aspect was extraordinary kindness to students, which was notoriously lacking amongst the senior faculty.

Pattanaik stayed at DSchool for just five or six years.

He left around 1975 or 1976, much to the dismay and despair of students. They could sense how much he cared.

Once, I couldn't find a book in the library that he had said needed to be read.

He cycled home five kilometres, one way, in the heat of a late April afternoon to fetch the book for me.

The last I saw him was in 1972 or 1973 when I went to ask him about a topic for research.

He suggested environmental economics and a study of Chilika lake in Odisha, which was under some sort of threat.

It's the second largest brackish water lake in the world covering around 1,000 sq km.

Pattanaik was awarded a Padma Shri this year.

Had he not been a student, admirer and follower of Amartya Sen, it might have been a Padma Bhushan.

But he qualifies on one other, unassailable ground. No one outside the narrow circle of choice theorists knows him.

This is consistent with the Modi government's approach which has made it a point to go outside the NDMC-PLU line-up.

You may well ask, what did Pattanaik do after he went away to a university in the US? He persisted, nearly for his entire career, with social choice theory which kind of faded away in the 1980s.

Rather like game theory it had had a clear run for three decades.

But then the empiricists took over and purely theoretical efforts had no takers any longer.

And what is social choice theory? No one quite knows because it seeks to achieve the impossible, namely, devising consistent rules for arriving at social consensus over how to order a country's affairs -- more-or-less, that is.

And, of course, it fails because it quickly becomes apparent that whatever set of rules you draw up, different rules can and do contradict each other (for instance, CAA).

To find a way out of this problem in a mathematically-acceptable way is the challenge. But it leads nowhere.

Despite this, Pattanaik devoted himself to this endeavour.

Some would say it was the waste of a colossal brain.

But a lot of mathematics, like number theory, is like that.

I mean, who but a true maths bhakt would care about, say, the Fibonacci Sequence, in which each number is the sum of the two preceding numbers? In fact, there's even a journal devoted entirely to them.

That's not unlike social choice theory which, too, has a journal devoted to it, and which Pattanaik once edited. It's not for the faint-hearted.

So why do academics like Pattanaik devote themselves to solving what are essentially unsolvable problems?

The best answer was given by George Mallory who was asked why he wanted to climb the Everest. 'Because it's there,' he replied.

Pattanaik and other social choice theorists, too, can say the same thing.

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