A contrarian economist

A contrarian economist

Newly appointed Principal Economic Advisor Sanjeev Sanyal is a polymath in more senses than one He has eclectic reading habits that range from the Rig Veda to philosophers like Karl Popper to physicists such as Werner Heisenberg to the history of the sub-continent - when he isn't thinking deeply about “complex adaptive systems” or criticising Marxist-style planning or Indian policy making. [caption id="attachment_10616" align="alignleft" width="179"]

Sanjeev Sanyal, Principal Economic Advisor[/caption] And all this while doing his day job -as the newly appointed Principal Economic Advisor (PEA) to the Ministry of Finance, Government of India, and till recently, as Managing Director and Global Strategist at Deutsche Bank. The 45-year-old Sanjeev Sanyal is also the best-selling author of three books - Land of the Seven Rivers: A Brief History of India's Geography, The Ocean of Churn: How the Indian Ocean Shaped Human History and The Indian Renaissance: India's Rise After a Thousand Years of Decline. Economist, author, amateur historian, polymath and free thinker, Sanyal, son of a civil servant, is an alumnus of Kolkata's St James School, St Xavier's Collegiate School and Delhi's Shriram College of Commerce, three of India's most famous educational institutions. After completing his B.A. in Economics from Delhi University, he went to Oxford University's St John's College for his Master's degree in economics. A report in Forbes says his upbringing in Communist-ruled West Bengal in the 1980s and India's post-liberalisation transformation influenced his world view. Having witnessed first-hand how socialist planning had hurt both his motherland and his native state made Sanyal inherently suspicious of rigid planning. Long regarded as a Young Turk who doesn't hesitate to question the shibboleths of his professional predecessors, Sanyal was named a Young World Leader by the World Economic Forum in 2010. Like many contemporary Indian economists and analysts, he questions the Nehruvian economic consensus. But going a step further, he asserts that Nehruvian socialism was fundamentally flawed and could never have succeeded, regardless of how well it was implemented. But to come back to his books, which deal with the history of geography and urban design, he says the philosophical underpinning of complex adaptive systems (CAS) inform all his writings. CAS what It's an esoteric science of complex macroscopic collections of relatively similar and partially connected micro-structures formed in order to adapt to the changing environment and increase its survivability as a macro structure. They are complex because the behaviour of the whole is not an aggregations of the behaviour of the constituent parts of the whole. The Forbes article quotes Sanyal's first boss Manu Bhaskaran, CEO of Centennial Asia Advisors, Singapore, as saying: “It was thoroughly enjoyable working with him because of his new ideas and unorthodox views. I felt I was learning from him , rather than he from me.” He worked in Deutsche Bank till 2008 as Chief Economist for South and South East Asia. Then, he took a step very out of character for an economist - he took a break to research for a write his book, Land of Seven Rivers... Like his analysis of economics, which differed radically from those inspired by Marxism, his analysis of history, too, was a departure from the dominant Marxist thinking on the subject. He was influenced by CAS, according to which the world consists of constantly evolving eco-systems whose constituent parts do not always work in tandem - a sharp repudiation of classical Marxist theory that posits that the world comprises predictable systems that can be planned and controlled. CAS, he has explained, is in line with his thinking. “It's also the underlying philosophy of the Rig Veda,” he has told the media. In keeping with his philosophy, he has taken stands that challenge conventional economics. He says global imbalances - some countries running large surpluses while other run corresponding deficits - should be accepted. In this, his views fly in the face of those who continue to swear by the virtues of “equilibrium”. In keeping with his reputation of being a bit of an iconoclast, Sanyal has written as essay titled “Predictions of a Rogue Demographer”, in which he challenges the UN forecast that global population will grow to10 billion by the end of this century. His model, which takes into account rapidly rising urbanisation, which brings down fertility rates, forecasts that earth's population will peak at 8.5 billion within the next four decades before falling to 8 billion. A contrarian, who is inherently suspicious of linear extrapolations that inform much of contemporary economic forecasting models, Sanyal, believes that the government's top two priorities should be to reform the legal system to facilitate governance and that there should be a fundamental shift in how we build our cities. Sanyal says cities like Chandigarh, designed by French architect Le Corbusier, have failed because rigid Socialist planning has come in the way of their organic growth, unlike, say, the more chaotic but much more dynamic and rapidly growing Gurgaon, now part of the National Capital Region. But despite his strong and often contrarian views on fairly mainstream subjects, his peers swear that he is not dogmatic. A former colleague says he has seen the new Principal Economic Advisor change long held views when confronted with data that proved him wrong. “He has the intellectual honesty to accept his mistakes,” says an old friend. These two traits - a strongly independent style of thinking and the humility to accept a mistake, while maintaining his intellectual rigour at all times - make him a formidable professional. At a time when Prime Minister Narendra Modi is breaking the mold and taking Indian into uncharted economic waters, Sanyal's inputs are expected to add a cutting edge to his boss, Chief Economic Advisor Arvind Subramanian's erudite prescriptions for taking the Indian economy into a higher growth trajectory. Says a former colleage, speaking on condition of anonymity: “He is one of the clearest thinkers in the small community of globally recognised young economists. I can't predict what heights he may or may not reach in his new position. But one thing is certain: as PEA in the Ministry of Finance, he will certainly push the boundaries and try and navigate Indian economic planning into new areas in his three years in office.”

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