Friday, March 26, 2010

The Kelkar Effect

Ramesh Ramanathan, in his latest article, writes about a landmark victory for the crusaders of decentralization in India.

Ever since the 73rd and 74th constitutional amendment made local governments an independent third tier of India`s federal system (after the federal government and state government), cities and local-government bodies (Panchayats) have been saddled with a peculiar problem - too many responsibilities without the funds to tackle them.

Now, thanks to the 13th Financial Commission headed by Mr. Vijay Kelkar, there will be `a substantial, buoyant, predictable source of funds for local governments; building in rigorous performance incentives`. Kelkar has recommended that a four-fold increase in the funds transferred to local bodies between 2010 and 2015, through a formula allocating about 2% of the total divisible pool of taxes in this period.

As usual, it is individuals and not committees or commissions that move mountains. So this piece is not about decentralization, its about the Kelkars.

This is the second time I`ve come across glowing praises for a Kelkar. The first was during a visit to Kanpur when the IIT Director, Prof. Dhande, described the origins of his institution, and the role of Dr. Puroshottam Kashinath Kelkar (1909-1990).

Sometime during the early 1950s the Americans has expressed their interest in the establishment of the third IIT in India (after Kharagpur and Bombay). The US ambassador at the time, eminent economist, John Kenneth Galbraith had many cities shortlisted for the new institution and Kanpur was nowhere in the reckoning. Apparently, Kelkar met Galbraith, and in a single meeting, persuaded him to consider a location on the outskirts of Kanpur, a town infamous for its polluting leather-tanning and metal-casting industries.

Galbraith then, in turn, persuaded his neighbor at MIT, Prof. Dahl to relocate to India as the co-founding director of the Kanpur Indo-American Program (KIAP), which went on to pool the talents of nine leading American universities and set the foundations for IIT-Kanpur.

What I admire the most about P.K Kelkar is that he saw himself as an "instrument of a historical process" and insisted that he should not be idolized in any manner - no statues, busts, photo-frames or buildings were to be linked to his name. What a refreshing change in a country where almost every street and building is named after some individual or the other!

After Kelkar's death, the guiding lights of IITK decided to go against his wishes and , in 2003, named the central library after him. Now it is called the "P.K. Kelkar Library". Strangely, there is nothing on display in the library (except a b/w photo-frame in an office upstairs) or on the IIT homepage that tells you anything more about Kelkar the individual.

Even a basic Wikipedia entry was missing - until today.


Ramanathan, Ramesh (2010), Well Done, Mr. Kelkar, The Mint-WSJ, 24 March 2010

IIT Kanpur History - Convocation Address by Dr. P.K. Kelkar, 17 May, 1981

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