TRIBUTES were paid last Friday (5) to Prof The Honourable Bishnodat Persaud, a distinguished economist whose psychiatrist son, Dr Raj Per saud, is familiar to readers of Eastern Eye.
Prof Persaud – or Vishnu as he was generally known – died in London, aged 82, on July 24 after battling cancer for many months.
At the service at Golders Green crematorium, Raj spoke movingly about his father, as did his younger brother and sister, Avinash and Sharda, who both happen to be economists as well.
Vishnu’s novelist wife, Lakshmi, to whom he was married for 54 years, spoke too, as did his sister, Maharanee, who had come from Canada.
What emerged at the part-Christian, part-Hin du, part secular service is that Vishnu’s story is, in microcosm, the larger story of the Indian diaspora.
It began with the journey of a man called Bind eseri, Vishnu’s paternal grandfather, probably from Patna in Bihar to what was then British Guiana in the year 1880. British Guiana became Guyana after independence in 1966.
Having finished his indentureship in 1885, Bindeseri went back to India in 1890 but returned in 1892, possibly because he could not find work in British India. On the sea voyage he met Ram dulari, also from Patna, whom he married the same year.
Dwharka Persaud (spelt Prasad in Bihar) was Vishnu’s father. He died when Vishnu was 13, leaving his mother, Dukhni (née Ramdeen), to bring up two sons and seven daughters – Asarphi, Dhar phi, Indrani, Rajrani, Phoolrani, Bhagwandatt (boy), Maharanee, Bishnodat (Vishnu) and Maturani.
Vishnu left for the UK in 1954 and met Lakshmi – she had come from Trinidad where her forefa thers had arrived from Uttar Pradesh in the 1890s – while they were students at Queen’s Uni versity Belfast, in 1957. The married couple went back to the Caribbean, returning to the UK in 1974.
One of Lakshmi’s novels is Daugh ters of Empire, “a sweeping family sa ga, across generations and continents, a moving portrayal of migration and the challenges it presents”.
“The (Persaud) family is now spread between Guyana, Barbados, Trinidad, the UK, Canada and North Caroli na,” said Sharda, who teaches economics at North London Collegiate School in Stanmore.
“The family has tended towards medicine, law, account ancy, civil service, publishing or jour nalism or business,” she explained. “So a wide range, really, but medicine is probably the most popular choice.”
It has certainly been a high-achieving family, typi cal of the Indian experience across the diaspora, especially in the UK and the US.
But the really remarkable story that emerged is Vishnu might have been the unheralded genius indirectly responsible for India’s economic miracle.
This is apparently because he was the man who persuaded Manmohan Singh to abandon the bad old socialist way of thinking and embrace radical new ideas of the free market. Singh is generally credited with opening up India when he was ap pointed finance minister after PV Narasimha Rao took over as prime minister in 1991.
There is no doubt that Vishnu was an influen tial economist. He worked for the Common wealth Secretariat in London from 1974-1992, the last 11 years as director and head of the econom ic affairs division.
Present at the funeral was Sir Vince Cable, who had been one of Vishnu’s colleagues. Also present was Sir Shridath (“Sonny”) Ram phal, who, as Commonwealth secretary general from 1975-90, worked closely with Vishnu.
Both men were born in British Guiana – Vishnu in the village of Cum berland at Canje, Berbice, on Septem ber 22, 1933, while Ramphal recalled he was born “five miles away” in New Am sterdam on October 3, 1928.
“Vishnu’s division helped to advance the world’s economic thinking,” accord ing to Ramphal. “And it did so, too, in its shap ing of the many expert group reports it pi loted like the Brandt and Bruntdland and South Commissions. Vishnu’s personal contribution in this was one of world wide proportions – a Caribbean schol ar whose life had a global reach.”
Singh, now 83, was secretary gen eral of the South Commission, an independent economic policy think-tank headquartered in Geneva from 1987 to November 1990. It is claimed that Vishnu, an adviser to the Commission, set about cajoling and persuading Singh to rethink his whole approach to speeding up India’s “Hindu growth rate” of three-four per cent.
In his tribute, Vishnu’s son, Avinash, effectively drew a straight line between his father and the fact that “India is now the world’s fastest-growing economy” and “200 million people have been taken out of extreme poverty”.
Avinash, who is currently Emeritus Professor of Gresham College and non-executive chairman of Elara Capital PLC and Intelligence Capital Limit ed, said his father was “an advocate of the shift away from the statist model of economic devel opment prevalent in the 1980s. He played a major role in progressing the future finance minister and later prime minister of India, Manmohan Singh, along that path.”
Singh and his father had “many courteous but intense arguments”.
“Dad also came across Manmohan when he was the economic advisor to the Brandt and Brundtland Commissions helping to draft the re ports,” revealed Avinash. “Manmohan was a very reluctant, even an anti-reformer, when Dad met him first, but in the aftermath of a balance of pay ments crisis, there was a vacuum of ideas. Man mohan filled it with the ideas about greater open ness that he got from Dad rather than those coming up from the advisors at the Ministry of Finance. Over time, of course, Manmohan gath ered around himself other local advisors.”
On the day of the funeral, the flag at the Univer sity of the West Indies, where Vishnu was Alcan Professor of Sustainable Development from 1992-96, was flown at half mast. From Nigeria, Chief Emeka Anyaoku, who succeeded Ramphal as secretary-general, sent a message that Vishnu “was a humane economist who rendered out standing service to the cause of sustainable de velopment, especially the economic development of the developing countries”.