Arun Bose: An Introduction to His Life and Work

This blog post introduces you to the economist Arun Bose (1919-2003) who made important contributions to Sraffian and Marxian literature. Bose was called a ‘Sraffian Marxist’ alongside Ronald Meek and Ian Steedman by Samir Amin in a 2015 article in the Monthly Review. Despite his substantial corpus of published writings, his work seems to have been largely forgotten within India. Therefore this essay provides an introduction to his life and work and ipso facto is a modest attempt at generating interest in Indian economic thought specifically (and more generally in the history of economic thought). In the past, blog posts which fall into this theme dealt with the economics of Krishna Bharadwaj and VKRV Rao. And what follows is a condensed version of Section II of my article ‘Arun Bose on Sraffa: Value Theory and Demand‘ published in Artha Vijnana as part of a 2018 special issue dedicated to the ‘Indian Reception of Piero Sraffa’s Economic Contributions’.”

Born in Calcutta, Bose had become interested in Marxian political economy by the end of high school. He completed his undergraduate studies (Tripos) at Cambridge University between 1937 and 1940. One of Bose’s recollections of Cambridge is the following: ‘During extra-curricular sessions, both Maurice Dobb and Piero Sraffa discussed economic theory and Marxian political economy, leaving an indelible impression on my mind’. Moreover, Bose was actively involved in student movements there and also joined the Communist Party of Great Britain. In the decade following this, Bose worked as a full-time activist in the Indian communist movement.’

Around 1957, Bose decided to resume his study of economic theory. Under the Commonwealth Universities Interchange scheme, he spent a year at Trinity College, Cambridge in 1960-1. Subsequently, he was asked to join the newly founded Kirori Mal College in Delhi at the behest of the economist B. N. Ganguli and the English professor Sarup Singh. B. N. Ganguli is the author of Indian Economic Thought: Nineteenth Century Perspectives (1977), one of the handful of books dedicated to Indian economic thought. In memoriam, the Economics Department at Kirori Mal has organised public lectures under the auspices of Arun Bose Memorial Lectures.’

Between 1963 and 1965, Bose closely engaged with Sraffa’s Production of Commodities by Means of Commodities (1960). Bose published a comment in Economic Weekly (now Economic & Political Weekly) in response to Krishna Bharadwaj’s review of Sraffa’s book entitled ‘Value through Exogenous Distribution’. Bose also published responses to the reviews of Sraffa’s book by Roy Harrod and David Collard respectively in the Economic Journal, one of the main international vehicles for the dissemination of economic ideas. And in 1965, he published an article on Sraffa’s book in the Economic Journal. And during this period, they corresponded; Bose sent Sraffa five letters to which he received responses to all but one (more details about the correspondence is available at the online archives of Trinity College).’

Bose’s next publication was after six years: an essay on Marx in the 1971 volume of the History of Political Economy; it continues to be an important journal devoted to the history of economic thought. Next year, he published another essay on Marx in Science & Society. After another brief hiatus from publication, he published a book in 1975 titled Marxian and Post-Marxian Political Economy; he gave a series of lectures at the Indian Statistical Institute (ISI), Calcutta with the same title. Bose acknowledges Sukhamoy Chakravarty for reading the book draft and for familiarising him with modern linear economic theory (Chakravarty had also reviewed Sraffa’s book which had appeared in 1961 in Arthaniti, the journal of the Department of Economics, University of Calcutta). I reproduce an excerpt from the book’s preface where Bose describes his reason for being impressed with Sraffa’s work:

‘Piero Sraffa impressed me with his conviction that it was perfectly possible, though difficult, to develop a theory of political economy into an exact science, based on absolute precision of concept however much we may approximate in empirical work which would be wielded as effectively as a surgeon’s or a welder’s tools, to dissect or dismantle, and then reassemble the ‘unseen’ interconnections of the economic process, whose cognition is essential for revolutionary political action’ (p. 11; also reproduced in my Artha Vijnana article on p. 29).’

He went on to publish two follow-up books: Political Paradoxes and Puzzles (1977) and Marx on Exploitation and Inequality: An Essay in Marxian Analytical Economics (1980). While a visiting fellow at the Delhi School of Economics (DSE) during 1976-7, Bose delivered lectures on capital theory. (Today, in India, to the best of my knowledge, capital theory is a full course (albeit elective/optional) only at the University of Hyderabad; Bharadwaj had played an important role in designing their MA Economics curriculum along with Amiya Bagchi, Amit Bhaduri, and K. L. Krishna.) A year before his retirement from Kirori Mal College in 1985, Bose published a letter in the Economic & Political Weekly titled ‘Piero Sraffa’; this was in response to P. R. Brahmananda’s obituary of Sraffa in 1983, also in the form of a letter. Brahmananda had himself engaged with Sraffa’s book in a set of three articles in 1963 in the Indian Economic Journal; these were later reproduced in the first volume of the 4-volume Piero Sraffa: Critical Assessments edited by J. C. Wood (1995, Routledge).’

After his retirement, Bose employed his ‘Sraffian Marxist’ approach within a wider social scientific framework to explain India’s socioeconomic condition. In this period, he published the following: an article each in Economic & Political Weekly (1986) and International Review of Sociology Series I (1987); and two books in 1989 titled Theories of Development of Material and Human Resources and Education: Requiem or Rethinking’ and India’s Social Crisis: An Essay on Capitalism, Socialism, Individualism and Indian Civilization. In his Idea of India, Sunil Khilnani identifies India’s Social Crisis as an important contribution to ‘historical sociology’ (p. 218).’

To conclude, there are enough published works by Arun Bose for someone who is interested in writing a dissertation or thesis in the area of Indian economic thought. Moreover, his notes, manuscripts, and correspondence are available for purposes of research at Nehru Memorial Museum & Library (NMML) although I personally found them to suffer from poor penmanship. It is extremely vital that we engage with the ideas of economists such as Arun Bose who provide an alternative way of understanding our economic surroundings.’

The Union Budget 2018-19 in 5 charts

The Union Budget is a key document which informs the public about the Government’s socio-economic plans and priorities. It is important to critically evaluate this document because of our collective ‘failure to provide for full employment’ and the ‘arbitrary and inequitable distribution of wealth and incomes’; Keynes wrote this in 1936 and it continues to remain the same. Moreover, it is our collective right and responsibility to decide how the government should obtain its revenue and how it must be spent. No formula or algorithm exists for this. As Piketty wrote in his Capital in the Twenty-First Century, ‘Taxation is not a technical matter. It is preeminently a political and philosophical issue, perhaps the most important of all political issues. Without taxes, society has no common destiny, and collective action is impossible.

This blog post aims to outline the priorities of the current central government by examining the expenditure on physical and social infrastructure and the nature of taxes. This is done in 5 charts.

(1) Physical Infrastructure

Defence is significantly more important than roads, housing, food, and farmers’ welfare.


Capital Expenditure of Select Central Ministries (in Rs. Crore)
Source: Expenditure Budget Vol. 1, 2016-17, Statement 2, pp 4-9
All values are rounded off to the nearest crore.


(2) Social Infrastructure

Physical infrastructure creation is more important than social infrastructure creation.

Have the negative effects of physical infrastructure creation been accounted for’


‘Total Allocations of Select Ministries (Rs. 112753 Crore)
Source: BS, p 36, Annex No. III-A to Part A
RE refers to revised estimates which include supplementary demands for funds made by the ministries during the financial year.
BE refers to budget estimates.


(3) Direct & Indirect Taxes

Our taxation policy is regressive due to the high proportion of indirect taxes.


Select Direct and Indirect Taxes (in Rs. Crore)
Source: Receipts Budget, 2018-2019, pp. 2-4


(4) Corporate Tax Concessions

Our tax concessions could approximately fund 75% of the social infrastructure spending estimate.



(5) Corporate Tax Structure

Our corporate taxes are regressive.


Effective tax rate paid by sample companies across range of PBT (FY 2016-17)
Source: Statement of Revenue Impact of Tax Incentives under the Central Tax System: Financial Years 2014-15 and 2015-16, p 30 of the Receipts Budget, 2016-2017, Annex-15.
1 Values rounded off to the nearest integer; hence the total adds up to 101 and not 100. Financial year 2012-13. The number of companies whose PBT is zero is 17,912 and their share in total income is around 9 per cent.


Concluding comments

Our government prioritises defence over agriculture. Our government prioritises physical infrastructure over social infrastructure and does not take into account ecological damage and the displacement caused due to physical infrastructure creation. And our taxation policy is regressive. We must use our collective rights and responsibilities to decide how the government should obtain its revenue and how it must be spent.

I thank Rahul Lahoti for inviting me to be a part of the panel which discussed the Union Budget at Azim Premji University-Undergraduate Campus on 14th February 2018, from which this post originated.

A Review of Jean Dr’ze’s Jholawala Economics

sensesolidarityJean Dr’ze is a familiar name among social science students and researchers. His contributions unarguably have helped improve the state of social programmes in India and have motivated several students to take up social research. In 2013, he co-authored An Uncertain Glory‘with Amartya Sen on the importance of public programmes in achieving social development.

Sense and Solidarity: Jholawala Economics for Everyone (2017, Permanent Black) is his second sole-authored book after No.1 Clapham Road, the Diary of a Squat (1990, Peaceprint, published under a pseudonym) on homelessness in London. The 2017 book is divided into 10 sections: draught and hunger; poverty; school meals; healthcare; child development; employment guarantee; food security; corporate power; war and peace; and a set of miscellaneous essays (of which only one was unpublished, but this has now been published in The Wire). His 2017 book is a collection of his previously published essays, mostly in The Hindu, with a fresh general introduction and a section-wise commentary, which sets out the context. This review post engages only with this fresh material.


Dr’ze’s vision, like most of the current and future readers of the book, is to ‘create a good society’ (p.3). As he writes, this warrants the abolition of caste and patriarchy. Such a vision requires a progress in ‘ethics and social norms’ (p.3). He titles his approach ‘research for action’ (p.4). This reminds me of Marx, who wrote in the Theses on Feuerbach that: ‘The philosophers have only’interpreted’the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to’change’it.’

It is indeed commendable that Dr’ze along with Reetika Khera and others have been able to conduct field surveys with student volunteers. Moreover, he has participated in several village meetings, public hearings, and social audits (p.9).

Dr’ze’s underscoring of ‘ethics and social norms’ is extremely important today. Many public policy measures try to create policies with appropriate incentives as if they are gods. What we truly lack, to use Adam Smith’s phrase, is good ‘moral sentiments”sympathy, compassion, friendship, care, etc. These cannot and shouldn’t be quantified or reduced to monetary terms. Nor can they be incentivised. It is here that ‘experience’ plays a significant role. Looking at theory and quantitative secondary data is insufficient to capture most of social reality. It is precisely this reason that has led to the critique on men writing about patriarchy and Brahmins writing about Dalits. Not only is the lived experience missing in these instances but also can it never be obtained.


Dr’ze rightly criticizes the quantitative fetishism found in the community of economists and development studies researchers. And, as if they weren’t enough, the public policy specialists have joined this quantitative bandwagon, or rather the bullet train, as it were. This is not to suggest that we abandon quantitative analysis altogether but rather to use it with great care.

I completely endorse Dr’ze’s recommendation to study literature as a way to understand a society better. He lists the following authors in his book as people who ought to be studied: Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, Daya Pawar, Laxman Gaikwad, Om Prakash Valmiki, and Shantabai Kamble (p.17). In fact, I strongly think that the economics students would benefit with a compulsory course on ‘Literature for Economists‘ alongside ‘Mathematics for Economists’ in the curriculum.

There is not much that Dr’ze writes on economic theory except his approval of game theory, which is not really a theory but a mathematical method of studying conflict and cooperation. I would go further and argue that there is much to be learnt from the theories of economists such as Smith, Marx, Keynes, Kalecki, and Sraffa. A deep understanding of methods’complexity theory, experiments, field work, game theory, instrumental variables estimation, lived experience, ratio and proportion, regression analysis, textual analysis, etc.’in all their plurality is much needed along with a similar understanding of various theories.

Another important learning from Dr’ze’s book is the need to engage with publicly available data, reports, and legislations. For instance, some of the legislations/programmes mentioned in this book are the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS), National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), National Rural Health Mission (NRHM), National Food Security Act (NFSA), and Right to Information Act (RTI). As voters, we too should be reasonably aware of their key provisions.


Many students pursue social sciences with the intention of making a change in the society. And currently, there is a palpable sense of disappointment and disillusionment among these students. Perhaps, Dr’ze’s approach of ‘research for action’ is one solution. At the very least, such research should be recognized and encouraged by academics and the society at large (particularly, parents). Of course, not everyone might have the means or the luck to pursue this course of action. However, this shouldn’t deter anyone from pursuing good research, which can be in the realms of theory, history, methods, action, or some combination of the four.

To me, the central takeaways from Dr’ze’s book are that as members and analysts of the ‘Indian’ society, we must be sensible in our approach to theory and methods by bringing in pluralism in these two areas. And, more importantly, solidarity warrants collective discussion, engagement, and action, which also aids in the progress of our ‘ethics and social norms’.

Finally, I felt that the book is expensively priced at Rs. 795 (hardback). One hopes for a paperback edition priced around Rs. 250. Although all but one are previously published essays, Dr’ze’s introductory chapter and section-wise commentary provides the readers a peek into his valuable philosophy. I end by wishing for the book to be translated into the many regional languages of India.

I acknowledge Abhigna A. S. for her editorial inputs and Aashish Gupta for alerting me to Dr’ze’s 1990 book.”

The Political Economy of GST

India welcomed the Goods and Services Tax (GST) on 1st July 2017, sixty-three years after France first adopted it. In his parliament speech, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that ‘GST marks the economic integration of India.’ It is expected to unify India through the creation of a single market for goods and services as the GST slogan aptly captures: ‘one nation, one market, one tax’. Moreover, it is expected to increase the tax base in India where less than 1 per cent of people pay income tax and close to 90 per cent of the workers are in the informal sector. Both these perceived benefits, according to the government, are expected to accelerate India’s economic growth by making it easier to do business and increasing public investment (financed through increased tax revenue).

The second volume of Economic Survey 2016-17 released earlier last month ‘ another first for India ‘ argues that the introduction of GST partly contributed to ‘optimism about the medium term’. One hopes that the optimism is well founded and not ‘irrational exuberance’, to borrow Robert Shiller’s phrase. Was the introduction of GST aimed at raising tax compliance by simplifying the indirect tax structure with the aid of information technology’ Or, did it aim to structurally reform the Indian economy with a view of increasing employment and reducing inequalities’ There is also another important question to pose: is a uniform tax a good policy move in an economy like India where the intra-state and inter-state differences are significant’

Amidst his discussion on inequality, Thomas Piketty rightly writes in Capital that ‘Taxation is not a technical matter. It is preeminently a political and philosophical issue, perhaps the most important of all political issues.’ Hence, it is important that the political economy of GST is rendered transparent. After the introduction of GST, several Indian states have lost their autonomy in public policy owing to a reduction in their tax revenue because the GST subsumes state taxes such as the value added tax (VAT), sales tax, and luxury tax. [The service tax belonged to the centre.] In fact, as GST is a destination tax, Tamil Nadu, a manufacturing state, had opposed it because of a potential revenue loss of around Rs. 9,270 crore. Additional reforms are necessary to ensure that the state’s economic policies are not throttled.

If simplification of the tax structure was a central goal, the four tax slabs of 5%, 12%, 18%, and 28% do not make sense. However, if the government has an additional goal of influencing consumer choices, different tax slabs make sense. Yet, our current GST tax structure eludes easy interpretation. For instance, why should pens be taxed at 18% and now cost more’ And why should sanitary napkins be taxed at 18% and now cost more’ There appears to be no obvious economic or social logic behind this classification.

On looking closer, the GST classification for goods and services appears to be based on the ‘ability to pay’ principle and therefore progressive in spirit. Hence, non-AC train travel is GST exempt while AC train travel is taxed at 5%. Similarly, while non-AC hotel services are taxed at 12%, the services in AC hotels attract a tax of 18%. From the perspective of the consumer, it is indeed the case that those who consume ‘luxuries’ (e.g., services in Five-star hotels and restaurants) have to pay a higher GST than those who consume ‘necessaries’ such as education and health services. But how are the producers affected’

During the VAT regime, handmade products were tax exempt but they are now taxed at different rates in the GST regime. If one adopts the sole principle of ‘ability to pay’ in the matter of taxation, taxing handmade products might not seem to economically unjust. As a government official put it, ‘a machine-made shawl is priced at Rs 500 and a handmade one at Rs 5,000. If a person can shell out so much for a handmade item, they might as well pay a higher’tax’on it.’ This is a good example of myopic thinking because we need to ask what happens to the handloom sector (employment and wages) once the market price rises.

As I write this, a meeting has been organised to protest the taxing of handmade products. The problem is aptly captured in this statement by one of its organisers:”Handmade products such as khadi saris are already expensive as compared to machine-made products. With imposition of GST, a khadi sari has become costlier.”It is elementary economics that this can lower demand for handmade goods and negatively affect employment in this sector. India’s recycling sector has also been adversely affected due to GST implementation.

Economic policies or reforms cannot afford to be short-sighted either intentionally or out of ignorance. The second volume of the Economic Survey proudly states that the GST regime has formalised the informal textile and clothing sector. But at what cost’

It is true that the big firms will benefit from lowered transaction costs and will be able to enjoy an increased volume of inter-state business. Small firms mostly buy their inputs and sell their output within their own state. In short, the lower transaction costs benefit big firms.

While around 160 countries have implemented GST, its effects have been varied. In Malaysia, household consumption reduced after the implementation of GST; in Australia, the burden of GST was more on the poor than the rich; whereas the weaker sections of the populace benefited from GST in Ethiopia, Pakistan, and Vietnam.

To conclude, while ‘one nation, one market, one tax’ sounds alluring, it presupposes an economically homogenous nation and a uniform market for commodities and labour. Is one tax justified in India, which has several many different labour markets, each with its own ‘equilibrium’ price’ Or do our policy makers think that imposing ‘one tax’ can transform India into a single market’ Just like demonetisation, the GST is yet another bad economic ‘reform’ with detrimental impacts on India’s poor and vulnerable.


This is a condensed version of a talk I gave at National Public School, Indira Nagar, Bengaluru on August 11th. I thank the students for posing interesting questions.’