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Champion of Equity and Justice in International Economic System

Tuesday 24 April 2007, by Muchkund Dubey



Dr Surendra J. Patel, an eminent Indian economist and a distinguished international civil servant, passed away in Geneva on December 15, 2006. After receiving his Ph.D degree in Economics from the prestigious Wharton School of Business in the United States, he taught Economics for a brief spell in a local college in Gujarat, his home State. He joined the United Nations service in 1950 and worked in various bodies in the UN Institute for Development Research where he completed his monumental five-volume study on Techno-logical Transformation in the Third World. It was published from London in 1993 and later republished by the Gujarat Vidyapeeth. He was a Visiting Professor at the University of Sussex, and Dalhousie and Saint Mary’s Universities in Halifax, Canada. In India he was a Visiting Professor at the IIM and Sardar Patel Institute of Economic and Social Research at Ahmedabad. He was also the Co-Chair of the Department of Deve- lopment and Equity in the Gujarat Vidyapeeth.

Surendra Patel worked in almost all UN Regional Economic Commissions. He started with the then Economic Commission for Asia and Far East (ECAFE). Then he moved on to the Economic Commission for Africa in Addis Ababa almost immediately after the creation of this Commission. He played an important role in developing the economic research agenda of this Commission.

Because of his progressive outlook and Left-leaning views, Surendra became one of the victims of MacCarthyism in the late 1950s. That was the time when the US Administration saw a Red under every bed and when American values of freedom and fundamental rights came under as much strain and distress as they have during the recent period of global war on terrorism. On his transfer from Bangkok, Surendra was refused permission by the US authorities to land in New York in order to join and spend some time with his American wife before proceeding to Addis Ababa to take up his new assignment there. This necessitated the intervention of the then UN Secretary-General, Dag Hammarskjold, who with great difficulty negotiated with the Americans a deal which permitted Surendra Patel to come to New York just for 10 days to wind up his affairs there and then proceed to Addis Ababa.

After a spell of duty in the ECA, Surendra was transferred to the Economic Commission for Europe (ECE) in the early 1960s. There he did the main research for and wrote out several chapters of the ECE’s landmark report (1962) on the “Economic Consequences of the Arms Race”. From the ECE, Surendra moved over to UNCTAD almost immediately after it was established in 1964. The next 20 years that he spent in UNCTAD were the most creative and fruitful part of Surendra’s career for the seminal contributions that he made in the areas of his work, both in the realm of ideas as well as policy-making at the national and international levels.

In UNCTAD, he mainly served as the Director of the Division on Trade among Countries with Different Socio-Economic Systems and of the Division on Transfer of Technology to Developing Countries. In both these areas, the work that he did during four to five years of his tenure excelled both in volume and quality the work that had been accomplished in the UN system and in research institutions outside it during the previous 20 years or so. In each of these two areas, new avenues were explored, innovative methodologies applied, frontiers of research pushed forward, and significant breakthroughs achieved. The most extensive and original work during the post-War period on trade between developing countries and socialist states was done in UNCTAD under the stewardship of Surendra Patel. This decisively influenced the framework and policy parameters of such trade.

By far the most important contribution made by Surendra Patel in UNCTAD was in his capacity as the Director of the Division on Transfer of Technology. Surendra was one of the few economists to grasp that the key to the acceleration of the development of developing countries lay in their technological transformation. He, therefore, dedicated himself single-mindedly to the exploration of the various aspects of this subject. He worked with equal zeal both on the negotiating and research fronts. He took initiatives and provided substantive inputs for the negotiations on the Code of Conduct on International Transfer of Technology and on the Revision of the Paris Convention in order to accommodate the interests of developing countries. The Code had very nearly been finalised when it was blighted by the rising tide of neo-liberalism in the early 1980s. Nevertheless, several of the principles underlying the Code are still valid today. Moreover, a large number of macro-level and country studies were carried out by this Division on various facets of technology transfer. It was through this process that Surendra developed his ideas on ramifications, policies, plans and strategies for the technological transformation of the developing countries.

For the thesis for his Ph.D degree, Surendra worked on the secular trends in the long-term evolution of the global economy. This work preceeded by several years Hollis Chenery’s undoubtedly more elaborate and sound work on the same subject. Surendra returned to this theme in the later stage of his career when he produced some seminal papers on the rise of the Third World in the post-War years and their arrival on the world economic scene.

In spite of his having spent almost the entire working period of his life in foreign countries, particularly in Europe, and in spite of his Western life-style, Surendra, till his last breath, remained quintessentially an Indian. He was deeply rooted in the Indian culture in the very wide sense of the term. He was fiercely patriotic. He had extensive links with the Left movement in India. He also retained, till the end, his interest in the Indian economy. His work on the subject include : The India We Want, Essays in Economic Transition (1965) and The Indian Economy Towards the Twenty-First Century.

In his mid-career, when Surendra was formally requested to accept the position of a Member of the Planning Commission of India, he showed no hesitation in accepting the offer and leaving his lucrative job in the UN for the sake of working for the country. He even sent a note to the then Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission outlining his approach to planning and his vision of India’s economic destiny. After this, there was mysteriously no response from the authorities in the Planning Commission. Perhaps they found his ideas too radical. Or, perhaps they thought they would not be able to cope with a person of such strong conviction, clear vision and intellectual prowess.

As a development economist and a UN functionary, Surendra Patel remained committed to equity, fairness and justice in the process of development and in the international economic system. He worked at the cutting edge of negotiations and policy-making to give voice to and empower the countries of the Third World. And he took full advantage of this opportunity to advance the cause of these countries. All Surendra Patel’s work combined in a unique way sound and scientific research and commitment to his deeply held values of equity and justice. Post-independence India has produced only a handful of economists, hardly two or three, who have achieved this feat.

Surendra Patel was a truly renaissance personality. He was a man of wide interests. He was a veritable linguist having a working knowledge of French and Spanish and a smattering of Russian apart from his mastery over English. Among Indian languages, apart from being well-versed in his mother tongue Gujarati, he had a reasonably good knowledge of Hindi and Bengali. He was passionately fond of poetry in several languages. He was deeply read in subjects beyond economics, his field of specialisation.

I came to know Surendra personally when he joined the ECE in Geneva and I was Vice-Consul in the Consulate General of India there. When I returned to Geneva in the early 1980s as India’s Ambassador and Permanent Representative to UN Organisations in Geneva, Surendra was about to complete his tenure in the UN. When he retired in 1984, I gave a reception to celebrate the end of his glorious innings in the UN. This was widely regarded as an unprecedented gesture by an Indian PR. As the officer looking after the Second (Economic) Committee of the UN General Assembly, I was closely following Surendra’s work in UNCTAD. Surendra, in turn, was highly appreciative of my work in the UN Economic and Social Council which led to the establishment of the UNCTAD Committee on the Transfer of Technology and its Secretariat Division on this subject. I remained regularly in touch with him after his retirement and later years we worked together from common platforms on international economic issues, particularly those related to GATT and WTO.

He was undoubtedly a great intellect and a man of extraordinary qualities of head and heart. I do not know any Indian, including among those who held much higher positions in the UN than him, who has made as much and as deep and lasting substantive contribution to the UN as Surendra did.

He leaves behind his wife Dr Krishna Ahooja- Patel, an eminent figure in the international women’s movement, and three sons.

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