Today is the birthday of one of our iconic teachers. Born in Calcutta on March 12, 1935, Rehman Sobhan (82) rose to the peak of his fame through his rich research, particularly on political economy. On this auspicious day, we shower our warm greetings - Happy Birthday, Sir.
Truly speaking, the first two years of our life in the Department of Economics of Dhaka University (1967 and 1968) passed off a bit monotonously. Sometimes absence of teachers, allegedly engaged in the preparation for the Civil Service Examination, adversely affected classes. The situation was possibly not far from what Adam Smith said about his teachers in around 1740: "In the University of Oxford, the greater part of the public Professors has for these many years, given up altogether even the pretence of teaching". Obviously, we decided to spend more time in the library where, during the break or boredom, biryani and tea from Sharif Mia's canteen served as a respite.
The frustration was soon over. We were told that three 'super-stars' in the discipline of Economics of that period namely, Rehman Sobhan, Anisur Rahman, and Azizur Rahman Khan would be taking courses. Rehman Sobhan would lecture on Pakistan Economics -- a subject generally considered dreary and dull. Some of our seniors suggested that we better sip a cup of coffee in the cafeteria rather than bear with the 'boring' class. Defying the advice, we chose to attend Rehman Sobhan's lectures. Soon things began to turn all rosy for us. The way Rehman Sobhan spoke about the socio-economic and political events of the then Pakistan enchanted the 'houseful' class giving no scope to drowse. The long and beautifully crafted sentences in English, often laced with wit and wisdom, kept us enchanted. Further, his occasional quips led to a lot of laughter in the class. Some of his remarks about the then Pakistan economy still ring in my ears: "…the economy of Pakistan is a multi-storied building built on a wooden structure which is not even of teak"; "Nawab Abdul Gafur Khan Hoti is the greatest Chinichor of Pakistan", etc. etc.
That's not the end of the story. We were asked to submit a term paper based on field-level information. We collected information braving the scorching sun and heavy showers. Rehman Sobhan used to monitor the progress regularly. Possibly, that exercise was the beginning of our engagement with empirical research.
Later on, his publication of the magazine Forum was another feather in his cap. Eminent Professors like Nurul Islam, Anisur Rahman and Wahidul Huq contributed to the magazine. With a distinct leaning to left ideology, Forum was a stern critique of the development policies of the then Pakistan.
In the 1960s, Rehman Sobhan, along with other economists, under the intellectual leadership of Professor Nurul Islam, contributed to the drafting of the Six-point Programme that became the basis for the struggle for autonomy of the then East Pakistan. Prof Rehman Sobhan's contribution to the cause of our liberation is a hallmark in history. Taking many known and unforeseen risks, he crossed the border to join the liberation war, and from March 26 to December 16, 1971, served as a roving ambassador for Bangladesh to lobby in the United States and other countries. After independence, he joined the Planning Commission as a Member and was deeply engaged in the formulation of the first Five Year Plan of Bangladesh. As an adviser to the caretaker government under Justice Shahabuddin, he prepared a Task Force Report on the economy of the country.
A critique of economic policies in the Marxist tradition, Rehman Sobhan reckons that unless the structural causes of inequality are taken into due consideration "neither targeting of development resources to the resource-poor, nor the extension of social protection is likely to resolve the problem of inequality in South Asia…The poor are embedded in certain inherited structural arrangements…. which reinforce each other to effectively exclude them from participating in the benefits of development or the opportunity provided by open markets".
The ever-smiling Rehman Sobhan's love for the country and the people knows no bound. He is a truly democratic soul devoted to dialogues. After retiring from the Bangladesh Institute of Development studies (BIDS), he set up the think-tank Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD) to pursue an argumentative approach to socio-economic and political development of this country. In his own words, "I wanted to create a forum in which people of diverse backgrounds and political views would sit together and develop a culture of having intelligent and civilised arguments…"
We wish you a long and productive life, Prof Rehman Sobhan.
The writer, a former Professor of Economics at Jahangirnagar University, is acting Chair, Economics and Social Science Department (ESS), BRAC University.