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K N Raj and the Centre for Development Studies: A Tribute

that this inheritance is safe in the hands of a young generation of talented and motivated scholars who flock to the CDS from all over India, year after year. They are the future and hope of the institution built by Raj as it wishes to remain a proud custodian of the fine traditions set by him.



suggested that Raj spend a few more

K N Raj and the Centre for

months to work on it to help him recommend the award of a PhD in Economics!

Development Studies: A Tribute

Thus Raj returned, at the age of 23, with a

PhD degree from the LSE. His return in July 1947, first working as K P Kannan a journalist in Colombo, then in Reserve

he demise of K N Raj on 10 February in Thiruvananthapuram may well mark the formal beginning of the end of what can be called the “Nehruvian era” in all its dimensions – economic, social, political and, most certainly, politicophilosophical. He was an outstanding member of a select group of Indian intellectuals who passionately pursued developmental challenges and sought solutions within the framework of democracy.

Raj’s family background led him, quite understandably, to reject any kind of religious faith either as an excuse or as an anchor for the myriad problems of life in this world. His early exposure to liberal western values and his involvement in a group that perennially debated about the possibility of socialism as an alternative to capitalism led him, quite early in life, to take a position as a political democrat and economic socialist. My own view of him is that of a radical Nehruvian. And yet I must confess that despite him being my mentor for nearly four decades, I cannot claim to have understood him with any certainty. To me, he was often an enigma at the personal level and always an ecstasy at an intellectual level.

K N Raj was exceptionally kind to young scholars and students and was warm and open-hearted in his conversation. From the very beginning I was fortunate enough to interact with him freely on matters ranging from the personal to the intellectual without ever giving me the impression that I was, and remained, a far too junior a researcher. Since his formal retirement from the Centre for Development Studies (CDS), he talked

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more frequently especially on matters personal but always in a larger context.

Early Life

Raj was born in 1924 and was the only child of his parents, K N Gopalan and Karthiayini. His maternal grandfather Ayyakkutty was a judge in the princely state of Cochin during the 1920s. He was known as “Ayyakkutty Judge” or “Asan (Pandit)” and was a disciple of Sree Narayana Guru, Kerala’s foremost social reformer of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Once he recounted to me with great glee an incident when his mother, as a young woman from what was then considered a backward community, drove around a Morris Minor in Trichur town causing considerable resentment, not to speak of panic, among the upper caste men who had to be content with being just onlookers. During a conversation about his family background, I told him: “I have heard that you were born with a silver spoon in your mouth”. He laughed it out loudly only to add later in a soft voice: “My mother’s side was somewhat better off”.

By the time he finished his BA (Honours) in Economics from Madras Christian College at the age of 20, his father had already made plans for him to go to England to study. Raj told me that his father gave him the money required for his education there before leaving India. But three years later, when Raj returned, he gave back a portion of that money. At the London School of Economics (LSE), he was enrolled for an MSc in 1944 but, when his supervisor F W Paish read his thesis he

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Bank of India, Planning Commission and finally in the Delhi School of Economics are all part of the folklore about him that is so familiar among his friends and students. I had the privilege of listening to his stories of these exciting times. Although he did exhibit the occasional lapse of shortterm memory, Raj was, even at the end of his life, a conversationist par excellence.

The Making of CDS

What I cherish about Raj are his contributions in the making of the CDS at Thiruvananthapuram and through that Kerala’s contemporary development process and policy. I feel that the coming together of a humanist-communist (Achutha Menon), a radical Nehruvian (K N Raj) and a radical Gandhian (Laurie Baker) was a rare confluence that enabled the creation of the CDS with its unique personality.

The campus was built in a rather barren land of 10 acres but soon it was filled with trees of all kinds. By economising on building construction, a part of the government grant given for that purpose was saved and spent on buying books for the library. However, Raj’s idea was not in saving some money. He was more interested in demonstrating the feasibility of low-cost and low-waste building construction as well as in a development alternative that could, and should, use available resources, both labour and materials. What was built by way of physical facilities was quite spartan but there was everything required for a research centre in social sciences such as library, lecture halls, hostels, guest house, canteen and a few quarters. But the pride of place was accorded to the library which


grew into one of the best in the country in development studies in general and economics in particular.

He put a number of young researchers to work out the economics of inter-cropping and multi-level cropping and collaborated with the Central Plantation Crops Research Institute located in Kasargod, the northernmost part of Kerala. A whole range of new areas were opened up for research under his leadership. Some of these were the economics of livestock, a subject he had already worked on, economics of health and nutrition, economics of education, econo mics of building construction, economics of fisheries, economics of alternative energy and so on. But his concern with regard to Kerala’s development remained that of unemployment and the possible use of this “hidden potential”. So he came up with the idea of Labour-cum-Development Banks which would be an agency at the local level to identify and execute viable projects. The idea was later worked out along with his colleagues in some more detail, but the central message was the need to mobilise local labour and materials for economic development that would be, by its very nature, broad-based through decentralised development planning.

Kerala Model of Development

Later Raj wrote a paper, along with P G K Panikar and T N Krishnan, on “Some Perspectives on Planning and Development with Particular Reference to Kerala” that was handed over to the Kerala government to help it prepare its Fifth Five-Year Plan. The ideas and experimentations referred to earlier were all put together and a nucleus of a development perspective was developed. It is this nucleus which later developed into a landmark 1975 study called Poverty, Unemployment and Development Policy: A Case Study of Selected Issues with Reference to Kerala, later to be acclaimed (sometimes in opposite terms) as the “Kerala Model of Development”. The particular timing of the study was due to Raj’s membership in the UN Committee on Development Planning chaired by Jan Tinbergen who took special interest in redistributive policies in eliminating mass poverty in developing countries. Some used this study to portray it as a low-cost road to human development while some others used it to portray the achievement in social/human development as the price in terms of “real” economic growth.

I think the objective of the study was not always understood in the proper spirit. Raj’s idea was to demonstrate the possibility as well as the feasibility of human development (without of course using the currently fashionable terminology), which ought to be at the centre of the development discourse. Here he gave precedence to social change and the consequential changes in public policy. While doing so he had no qualms in tracing the roots of public policy to the benign policies of the erstwhile princely state of Travancore. He also lauded the land reform measures as also the redistributive and progressive policies of successive governments in Kerala, especially in creating opportunities for education and health for the hitherto excluded as well as in tackling poverty through such public policies as a universal public distribution system.

Of course, Raj was not unaware of the importance of economic growth, but he predicted, rightly so in retrospect, that a solid base of social advancement effected through redistributive policies was necessary for that to happen in a meaningful sense. Three decades later, when I got an opportunity to lead a team of researchers in the CDS in 2004 to prepare a report on human development in Kerala, I consulted Raj and argued with him that the available evidence gathered by us indicated not only a revival of economic growth that was as impressive as the national average but also a further acceleration of human development indicators. The latter observation was important in view of the impression that the “Kerala Model” had reached a dead end. Raj was glad to listen to what I had to report and encouraged me to go ahead with the preparation of the report which was later published as Kerala Human Development Report 2005.

Decentralised Development: A Lifelong Passion

Among all the themes that he pursued vigorously, the theme of decentralised development planning remained close to his heart till his last days. In fact, the first working paper of the CDS was “Planning from Below” intended for a national debate. Subsequent work on Kerala had a distinct flavour of the framework of decentralised development. In 1980, Raj was instrumental in reviving the debate in Kerala and I distinctly remember a meeting he convened at the Centre to discuss a paper he jointly prepared with a number of us young researchers where the then Chief Minister E K Nayanar and a couple of his ministers were present. Later, Kerala went through its own version of decentralisation with elections to district councils. However, it was the 73rd and 74th amendments to the Constitution that again revived the political debate and action. Raj collaborated with E M S Namboodiripad in steering the whole process.

Global as Well as Local

Of course, work in the CDS was and is not confined to Kerala. Raj, in particular, was quite at ease addressing the development issues at the local, national and international levels. He wrote on many national, economic and political issues ranging from comments on the five-year plans, growth and stagnation in Indian industrial development, employment and unemployment, cow slaughter, the new economic policies that started in the mid-1980s, the comparative growth performance of China and India and so on. But as many people know, he was not satisfied with only studying “economic” problems or issues.

His writing on the politics and economics of intermediate regimes evoked sharp responses from the party political left such as E M S Namboodiripad but in retrospect it would be hard to say that Raj’s characterisation was not in consonance with the reality of the Indian situation. When the Garibi Hatao programme was launched by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, Raj reacted equally sharply by drawing attention to a similar populist programme of the 18th century Europe including the one by the 18th Brumaire Louis Bonaparte of France through his L’Extinction de Pauperisme (Eradication of Pauperism).

Raj was instrumental in securing the affiliation from the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi for two training programmes that was started in 1975 at the CDS: the MPhil programme in Applied

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Economics and the PhD programme in Economics. Through these programmes he ensured that there was a steady flow of students from several parts of India working on issues relating to regional economies or on national issues. At that time the MPhil programme was unique in that it allowed students from any discipline to join provided they had an interest in studying development problems. With the proliferation of MPhil programmes in universities, the attraction has somewhat waned especially for students beyond the southern region although a few from eastern India as well as from Punjab continue to come to the CDS.

Raj made several attempts to attract highly respected scholars from the profession to join the Centre, something which has been recalled by some of them in their tributes to him. That he could succeed only partially was understandable given the small town nature of Thiruvananthapuram not to speak of its geographic location far away from metropolitan cities. But this was to a great extent compensated by the steady flow of outstanding scholarvisitors for seminars and discussions as well as to teach selected topics to the students of the MPhil programme.

I can recall, as many of my colleagues would, the awe with which we used to interact with Joan Robinson who was a regular visitor every December till her death in 1980. She, of course, would fly directly from her visit to China and speak to us with great zest about how China is mobilising its labour for national reconstruction. Raj, despite his close personal friendship with her, was less enthusiastic about this pure praise but was keen on observing China.

His visit to Vietnam earlier (in late 1974) was filled with considerable enthusiasm that we could discern on his return and the way he spoke to us, which of course was followed by his writing a “Hanoi Dairy” in this journal, later published by the Oxford University Press. However, a similar enthusiasm was conspicuous by its absence when he returned from a visit to China in 1977 and he did not write about it.

I remember asking him why he was not keen on writing about his China visit; he jokingly told me that during a visit to the famous Ta Djai village, the peasants told

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him that the length of the pea that they were cultivating was so long only because they could apply the wisdom they got after reading the Little Red Book!

A larger number of Indian scholars, both from India and abroad, also visited the CDS, some more regularly than others. Some of them were enlisted as members of the governing body of the CDS while some others became Honorary Fellows. Raj had a particular fascination when scholars from other disciplines with a developmental agenda came in contact with him. I distinctly remember the visits of A K N Reddy (with whom I had the opportunity to work as a junior researcher at the instance of Raj) when he started working on biogas and other forms of alternative energy sources as well as that of M S Swaminathan. Raj even thought of setting up a Centre for Appropriate Technology to which Achutha Menon promised help and the former royal family of Travancore was willing to donate some land and buildings.

Raj, the Persona

Frankly, I could not always fathom what went on in his mind when it came to the running of the Centre. Initially, he collected a number of scholars together. Some stayed on till the very end of their life such as P G K Panikar, who was the director during 1971-85 and took care of all the nitty-gritty of day to day administration. I S Gulati was another pillar, an embodiment of calm, caring and considerate especially to younger researchers. By the end of the 1970s and to the disappointment of some of us youngsters, he took voluntary retirement but continued till his end as an Honorary Fellow devoting his time to academic pursuits including guiding many PhD students. A Vaidyanathan was another senior faculty member who returned from the World Bank in the mid1970s and continued till 1984. By this time a few others had also left the CDS although T N Krishnan, a very close confidant of Raj, returned to the Centre as its director after a stint in the UN. Appointments at the senior level were made through informal interactions and no formal mechanisms were put in place. Scholars like K K Subrahmanian and P S George who joined the CDS in the mid-1980s stayed on but some others left for better pastures. Raj also lived to see

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the younger generation taking over the reins of the Centre and he provided the much needed intellectual and moral leadership that we all sought from him.

He could be a difficult PhD supervisor. He put me to work on different themes in development studies and when I wanted to concentrate on my PhD he said: “research is more important than getting a PhD”. When I was later not given a promotion at the CDS because I did not have a PhD, I told him that I would not work under him for PhD and wanted to go abroad. When his persuasion to stay on in the CDS failed, he was remarkably largehearted by giving me a letter of recommendation that was truly glowing in praise. Only a few students managed to complete PhD to his satisfaction.

There was no formality in dealing with Raj as long as you were intellectually prepared to engage with him. In class he allowed his students to ask all kinds of questions and when some of them, in their supposedly revolutionary fervour, mouthed their slogans and clichés he would say, as I heard once, that: “do keep your heart wherever you want; but lend me your ears”.

There is so much to write about this extraordinary personality for whom the project of national development came before everything else. To an extraordinary degree he practised what he believed and preached.

The demise of his wife Sarasamma nine years ago deeply affected Raj and he never concealed it. But his two wonderful sons, Gopal and Dinu, took care of him so well and compensated for the loss of their mother, even if partially. Dinu was his PRO par excellence and was always there to greet his friends and visitors. As Raj willed, Gopal made arrangements to remove his eyes for donation as soon as he died and cremated his mortal remains without any religious rites.

We at the CDS will miss Raj, literally and figuratively. But we are sure his legacy will guide and beckon us to continue on the intellectual pursuit that he vigorously charted out to enhance development with democracy.

K P Kannan ( is at the Centre for Development Studies.

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