By inducting Suman Bery, a well-known economist with varied experience in financial economy, inclusive and sustainable growth issues as well as economic forecasting, is the government looking for the missing edge that the think-tank Niti Aayog has? Bery has rich experience in many of the path-breaking policy decisions made in the country. In 1993, he was part of the C Rangarajan Committee that initiated a liberalised exchange rate management system in the country. He worked in the Suresh Tendulkar Committee that worked on an estimation of the poverty line, much criticised but generally accepted. He was also part of the Tarapore committee on capital account convertibility. Bery has worked successfully on critical policy issues, which need a detailed analysis of data.
Suman Bery has rich experience in applied economic research and had in the past been a member of the Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council under Dr Manmohan Singh. He was also a member of the National Statistical Commission, a body responsible to the parliament for the quality and integrity of India’s statistical system. He served as the chief economist at Shell based in the Hague, the Netherlands. He was a non-resident fellow of the Brussels think-tank Bruegel, as well as a Senior Fellow of the Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth.
Bery was well-known as the director-general (chief executive) of the National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER), New Delhi, from January 2001 to March 2011. The NCAER is one of the leading independent policy research institutions in the country that undertakes social science research under sponsorship from the government, private and international bodies. It is particularly known for its work in economic forecasting, household surveys, infrastructure, trade policy and human development.
Prior to the NCAER, Bery worked with the World Bank in Washington, DC. He worked on the macro-economy, financial markets, and public debt management with a focus on Latin America. From 1992 to ’94, on leave from the World Bank, Bery worked as a special consultant to the Reserve Bank of India, Bombay (now Mumbai), where he advised the governor and deputy governors on financial sector policy, institutional reform, and market development and regulation. That was when the Rangarajan Committee report came out. In addition to serving on numerous government committees, Bery has served as an independent (non-executive) director on the board of State Bank of India, India’s largest commercial bank, giving him an understanding of the operations of public sector banks in the country.
Apart from his work experience, Bery’s educational qualification is impeccable. After completing his undergraduate work at the Magdalen College, Oxford University, in philosophy, politics and economics, he obtained a Master of Public Affairs (MPA) degree from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Princeton University. What he lacks is delivering regular sermons as many other former economic advisors do. There was no ready recall of Bery as a result until he was appointed at the Niti Aayog.
In Suman Bery, the Indian government has, at last, brought a researcher with varied experience to head the national think-tank. Neither of the two prior incumbents, Arvind Panagariya or Rajiv Kumar, had the strong research background that Bery is bringing in. Panagariya is at best a professor of economics while Rajiv Kumar lacks the scholastic touch that the government think-tank will like to showcase. Bery’s induction is expected to see a thorough recast and fine-tuning of the national think-tank. The question is how successful he will be in managing a team and inspiring them to take up practical research for the union government and states. Though Niti Aayog keeps mentioning cooperative and competitive federalism, it did not so far produce any exciting policy documents for any state, take for instance states like Punjab and West Bengal suffering from financial strain yet indulging in populism.
More than the departure of Rajiv Kumar, what was curious was the government’s act of picking him as a replacement for Panagariya, an internationally reputed professor, to lead the think tank. Rajiv Kumar was certainly a lightweight to head a body that was expected to steer the government’s future policies. Several initiatives, for instance on electric vehicles or new technologies, were spearheaded by Amitabh Kant, a bureaucrat working as the CEO of the think-tank. Kant’s tenure was extended by one year in 2021; it will end in June this year. That is one month after Suman Bery takes charge. Will Kant get another extension? Will the Niti Aayog members change? It will be interesting to see how the government recast the national think-tank, the Niti Aayog. Sadly, the body has not yet emerged as an effective intermediary between the Centre, states, business and academia but has remained effectively a sort of pedestal for the prime minister. It’s time the government makes it a proper think-tank to intermediate among the stakeholders which include states, especially opposition ruled ones, business — both domestic and foreign — as also academia. Or will it be a tall task for Bery to carry forward?