Professor Dhirajlal Keshavlal Desai's contribution to the development of the agricultural management mandate of IIMA was immense. He joined the institute on December 12, 1963 after being interviewed for the post of Agricultural Economist by Professors Kamla Chowdhry and Warren Haynes, and then by Dr. Vikram Sarabhai. Dr. Sarabhai had approached Prof. Henry Arthur of HBS for advice on introducing 'agribusiness' to IIMA; Arthur sent Michael Halse to Ahmedabad in early 1963 to initiate work in agriculture management. The Institute had obtained a two-year (1964-66) grant for an Agriculture-Cooperatives (AgCo) Group with five faculty members and five assistants. Dr. Desai joined this group. When the grant was about to end in 1966, Dr. Desai, as the then Chair of the Group, was instrumental in shifting the Group's focus from community block development to a major concern of those days-high-yielding crop varieties. This enabled continued funding and the recognition of the Group as an Agro-Economic Research Centre. Dr. Desai oversaw the transition of the AgCo Group to the Centre for Management in Agriculture (CMA) in 1971. In 1970, with support from USAID, he led the introduction of the one-year Programme for Management in Agriculture (PMA), which in 1974 became the PGP-Specialization Package in Agriculture and later the PGP in Agri-Business Management and is now the PGP in Food and Agri-Business Management. Dr. Desai was a pioneering 'agribusiness' researcher-he credited Dr. David Hopper who was then at the Ford Foundation New Delhi and later became Vice President of the World Bank with the idea of defining agribusiness in the Indian context of those days in terms of agricultural input management and agricultural output management, leaving farm management to the universities.
Born on June 17, 1924, Dr. Desai hailed from Jhalod, a small town of Gujarat. He studied in schools in Jhalod and the nearby towns of Dahod and Godhra, and then joined the first year of B.Sc. at Gujarat College, Ahmedabad in 1940. He shifted to the College of Agriculture, Pune in 1941. In his second year he left college to join the Quit India movement. He was arrested and spent August 1942 to February 1943 in jail, first in Dahod for a few days and then at the Central Jail at Sabarmati, Ahmedabad. He had been influenced at a very young age by Mahatma Gandhi. In jail he was influenced by two Gandhians, Babalbhai Mehta and Surendraji, and when he was released, worked with a social reformer, Thakkar Bapa on famine relief in Odisha. Thakkar Bapa, at the prodding of Dr. Desai's father, persuaded him to resume his agriculture studies in 1944. After graduating in 1946, he served the Department of Agriculture, Bombay State, for about 11 years, also completing his M.Sc. in Agricultural Economics of the Poona University. In 1958 he joined the PhD program in Agricultural Economics of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, with a full scholarship from the Agricultural Development Council of New York. He was made a member of the Gamma Sigma Delta Society of the university. On his return in January 1961 he worked as agricultural statistician, and after a brief stint as agricultural economist at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (June 1962 to December 1963) he joined IIMA.
In August 1964 he was sent to Harvard as a member of the second batch attending the International Teachers' Training Program; the other members were Professors B G Shah, Dwijendra Tripathi, M N Vora, S K Bhattacharya, K K Anand and R C Goyal. Dr. Desai was proud he was the first person to have a "dollar consultancy" at the institute (1965) when he consulted with Arthur D. Little on the south Indian fertilizer market for a new plant in Goa. He chaired the CMA from 1970 to 1973. He became the GSFC Chair for Management in Agriculture in 1973, the second person to hold a Chair after Prof. Kamla Chowdhry. During his work at IIMA he carried out assignments at Kasetsart University, Bangkok, the Paddy Marketing Board of Sri Lanka and many other places. The World Bank appointed him as Agricultural and Rural Development Advisor in the Ministry of Planning and Economic Affairs, Government of Liberia in 1975. He went on leave for two years and when he decided to continue in Liberia, he resigned on March 1, 1977. However, growing civil unrest in Liberia made him want to return to India. By May 1979 the institute had agreed to reappoint him. A violent coup in Liberia in April 1980 in which the minister he reported to, David F. Neal was killed, hastened his departure from Liberia. He returned to IIMA on June 5, 1980 and retired in June 1984. Dr. Desai continued to remain active after retiring. He also developed an interest in genealogy, and wrote about his family history, going back nineteen generations to Avichal Desai, a late-16th century ancestor. Dr. Desai passed away on February 16, 2016.
Acknowledgement: We thank Ms. Smriti A. Dagur, Dr. Desai's daughter, for her inputs.
Date of Birth: June 17, 1924
Date of Death: February 16, 2016