Sanjeev Sanyal, chief global strategist and managing director, Deutsche Bank, is crisp and precise on the phone, much like his writing. I ask him how a financial economist manages to write with authority on everything from geography to environmental policy to urban design. “I’m writing about versions of ‘complex adaptive systems (CAS)’,” he says. “There’s a consistent philosophical underpinning that I apply to all my writings.”
According to the CAS concept, explains Sanyal, the world consists of constantly evolving ecosystems whose components do not work in tandem. This contrasts with how socialism-inspired policymakers think of the world—as closed systems, which function predictably and can be controlled with Marxist-style planning. “I began reading about CAS and it began to gel with my own thinking. Economists such as [Friedrich] Hayek and philosophers such as Karl Popper [are from this school of thought]. [Physicist Werner] Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle is part of CAS. It’s also the underlying philosophy of the Rig Veda,” Sanyal says, laying out the genesis of his world view.
Sanyal, who is based in Singapore, is perhaps best known as an unequivocal critic of Indian policymaking. “We were always reluctant reformers and were forced to reform in 1991 because of a crisis,” he says. “The Nehruvian socialist model was fundamentally flawed and it could never have succeeded, no matter how well it was implemented.” He believes the government’s top priorities should be, one, reforming the legal system to facilitate general governance and enforcement of contracts, and, two, a fundamental shift in how we build our cities. “Our urban planning is still stuck in the pre-1991 mindset,” he says.
He has fast become a respected voice in policy circles for his analyses, which challenge long-entrenched opinions about the way the world should be run. In 2010, he was named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. Of late, his name has been doing the rounds as a likely addition to the BJP government’s NITI Aayog (Sanyal refused to comment on this).
Born and brought up in Kolkata in the 1980s, Sanyal studied at the prestigious St. James’ and St. Xavier’s schools before moving to Delhi and getting a B.A. in economics from the Shri Ram College of Commerce. Soon after, he moved to St. John’s College at Oxford University for a master’s degree. Communist Bengal of the 1980s and India’s transformation after liberalisation in 1991 were major influences on his academic and economic worldview. “You’ve to take into account the context. I witnessed how socialist economic planning hurt both India and, specifically, Kolkata. I’m the first generation of adults from post-liberalisation India. That experience had a big influence and [I became] suspicious of rigid planning,” he says.
CAS was an unusual philosophical base to build on, especially in the ’90s, when it was barely known outside academia. But most of Sanyal’s peers recall that he embraced unexplored ideas even then. Manu Bhaskaran, CEO of Centennial Asia Advisors in Singapore and Sanyal’s first boss, says that’s why he stood out. “It was thoroughly enjoyable working with him because of his new ideas and unorthodox views. I felt as if I was learning from him, rather than he from me!”
This is Sanyal’s second stint with Deutsche Bank. He was its chief economist for South and Southeast Asia till 2008, and wrote on India, Indonesia, and the Philippines, among others. In the end of 2008, he took time out to travel across India, researching for and writing Land of the Seven Rivers, a history of the country’s geography.
He rejoined Deutsche Bank in the beginning of 2011. “I am an internal think tank. I think about big-picture issues—population, geopolitics, or, say, can the dollar be replaced with the yuan,” says Sanyal. In this role, he has produced two series of reports, The Random Walk and The Wide Angle, in which he has put forth some of his controversial and highly quoted views.
In The Wide Angle, he argued that the global economy should accept global imbalances—some economies run large deficits and others large surpluses—and focus on managing their distortions. “One of the reasons mainstream economists get worked up about global imbalances is that they remain endearingly loyal to the idea of the ‘equilibrium’.” He dismisses this concept—one of the pillars of macroeconomics—as a relic of the “Newtonian” idea that systems are like predictive machines.
In the same series, Sanyal wrote the now-famous Predictions of a Rogue Demographer, challenging the United Nations’ forecast that world population would continue to grow to over 10 billion until the next century. He said that the UN’s estimate was too high and global fertility rates would fall enough to match mortality rates. According to him, the world’s population would peak at 8.5 billion and much sooner—in 2055—before declining to 8 billion by 2100. “I’ve had arguments with them about this [world population prediction]. One section says there will be rapid urbanisation and the other says birth rates won’t fall. [Only either can be correct because urbanisation causes birth rates to decline.] You can’t make such linear extrapolations,” he says.
Sanyal has voiced contrarian opinions on other issues too. In a Business Standard column from December 2013, titled The Ideology of Cities, he says that creating an intellectual framework for new cities “is not even an issue of debate in India”.
He blames the master-planning mindset for the failure of cities such as Chandigarh, designed by Le Corbusier, who thought of them as machines for living, rather than evolving ecosystems as perceived by the CAS theory. Socialist-style planning has not allowed them to grow organically, he says, pointing out that new industries came up in Gurgaon, and not Delhi, because planners from the ’60s couldn’t predict and account for their rise in the capital. “Our main cities are still colonial cities,” says Sanyal. “We have not added a successful new city since Independence.”
Reuben Abraham, CEO of the IDFC Institute, says Sanyal’s most important contribution is starting the conversation on these issues. “Bringing economics to the fore in urban debates is valuable. Few people talk about urban economics. That is a failure because people come to cities for the economy, not for its beautiful parks.” According to Abraham, Sanyal’s strength lies in his open-mindedness and intellectual rigour. “He has intellectual honesty. I’ve seen him shift positions if he is given sufficient data. If he sees a mistake, he owns up to it.”
Sanyal has also worked extensively in environmental economics. In 2004, he and environmental economist Pavan Sukhdev set up the Green Indian States Trust (GIST), which promotes sustainable development. One of its earliest projects was to encourage policymakers to replace GDP with an indicator that accounts for environment changes. Sanyal argued for the use of “environmentally adjusted GDP” in a 2009 article in The Economic Times. “We were the first to write monographs on evaluating the environment,” says Sanyal, who has since moved on from the project.
Sukhdev says Sanyal’s readiness to challenge the status quo was remarkable. “From day one, what struck me was his clear thinking. He breaks the mould. He likes to think from scratch and apply economics correctly.”
Writing is one of the ways Sanyal gets people “to think in a new way”. His focus on changing the nature of policymaking and his distaste for socialist planning and thinking are evident in almost everything he writes. If he joins the NITI Aayog, it would be ironic, as its roots lie in the biggest legacy of India’s socialist planning era, the defunct Planning Commission. However, Sukhdev says such a move will be good news for India. “We need radical thinkers to change the way governments have been thinking [about economic progress].”