Shaibal Gupta: A rare institution builder in Bihar

The economist and political commentator who set up the Asian Development Research Institute in Patna died on Thursday.

ByAnand Vardhan
Shaibal Gupta: A rare institution builder in Bihar
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A narrow lane, branching off Patna’s bustling Boring Road, is called the Adri Lane. In 2018, it was unusually busy as vehicles made their way to the venue for an international conference, on the occasion of Karl Marx’s birth bicentenary. The lane’s name is an acronym for the Asian Development Research Institute, or ADRI, whose modest building can be seen as the lane tapers off.

However, the Marx event wasn’t what the institute usually does, it isn’t a leftwing think tank by any means. The event was remarkable only for the international profile of critical evaluation and visiting scholars in a provincial city.

In the passing away of Shaibal Gupta on Thursday, economist and political commentator, Bihar has lost one of the very few institution-builders who, over the last three decades, made ADRI a well-known address for social science research in general, and Bihar-focused economic and public policy studies in particular. Given that far more famous names like Amartya Sen failed in institution-building at Nalanda University despite state support, it’s clear that ADRI would remain Shaibal’s most visible legacy in the intellectual life of the state capital.

That, however, shouldn’t make one lose sight of his individual body of work, ranging from economic research to accessible commentary for different media platforms.

More significantly, he was one of the few outstanding economists from the state who, despite international academic credentials, chose to stay back in Bihar and continue their research and develop perspectives on the region. After a Masters in Economics from Patna University, Shaibal did a doctorate before returning as a member of faculty at the AN Sinha Institute of Social Studies in Patna, a state-funded centre for social science research in the state capital.

In 1991, he chose the city to chart an independent course with the establishment of ADRI. Over the next three decades, even as a non-profit initiative of a few determined social scientists, the institute carved a niche for itself in offering region-specific research and relevant data on different aspects of the state economy, society and public administration.

Shaibal’s choice of his home state for his research studies was, as former deputy chief minister Sushil Kumar Modi recalled, driven by his attachment to Biharipan (loosely translated as the state of having a Bihari identity). It was perhaps a form of sub-nationalism, a sentiment that scholar Arvind N Das had foreseen slowly emerging among a section of aware Biharis in his writings in the early 1990s. In this context, it bears recall that Shaibal clearly expressed his advocacy of Bihar’s case in the face of, what he considered, a long history of the Centre’s injustice against the state. With a rigorously argued paper, he lent scholarly weight to Bihar’s demand for special status. To add to that, he argued in favour of freight equalisation and how that was one of the ways to do justice to Bihar’s just economic claims.

Amidst a wide repertoire of his work, two aspects of his scholarly presence were remarkable in many ways.

First, he was able to blend the different worlds of isolated research and contribution to actual policy-making in the state secretariat. This aspect of his, and by extension ADRI’s work, was more visible in the first two terms of Nitish Kumar-led government in the state. To begin with, his inputs were used by the state government to initiate economic reforms in the state. It was his initiative that led the state government to present the economic survey as a study of the current health of the economy before presenting the state budget. Each year, on the behalf of the state government, ADRI prepares the survey report, to be tabled in the state legislature. As a remarkable example of research body-government partnership, the state government set up the Centre for Economic Policy and Public Finance within ADRI with Shaibal serving as its director. He also led the efforts to establish the Patna chapter of the International Growth Centre of the London School of Economics, or LSE.

In a front-page piece for Dainik Bhaskar, Sushil Modi, who also served as Bihar’s finance minister for a long period, recalled how Shaibal facilitated the study programmes of Bihar-cadre bureaucrats in the LSE, almost serving as Bihar’s brand ambassador abroad. The former finance minister also recalled he was invited to speak at LSE because of the Shaibal’s efforts. It’s perhaps this bridge that Shaibal built between research and the policy inputs to the government that he was remembered by leaders across parties who relied on his economic reviews for the assessment of the state. No wonder that he was cremated with state honors, and even bureaucrats remembered his erudite contribution to the state.

Second, Shaibal was also able to mainstream academic observations and subtle insights into media commentary on Bihar. Besides being a regular contributor to various newspapers, his views on Bihar’s politics and economy were sought by a wide array of TV news channels and digital platforms. Amidst half-baked analysis offered by parachute journalists descending on state in poll season or the smug state bureaus, his astute and insightful commentary on political affairs, including polls, stood out for their immediate as well as long-term value. His accessibility to whoever sought his views was also fondly remembered yesterday as the news of his death trickled in. A report in the Hindu talks about cancer-stricken Shaibal’s accessibility even during his last few months. “The moment I stop speaking to you people or visiting academicians, I will stop breathing,” Saibal replied when the newspaper’s correspondent spotted him with an oxygen pipe during the budget presentation last year and advised him against moving around and talking to the media in such condition.

In a remarkable life of curiosity and animated by ideas and rigorous observations, Shaibal Gupta acquitted himself admirably as an economist, political commentator and institution-builder. To his credit, and much to his liking, he accomplished all that while being in beloved Bihar.

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