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Early Days of the Centre for Development Studies

 on the Delhi School of Economics (Delhi: Oxford University Press). Krishnamurty, J (2010):

K N RAJ: IN MEMORIAM

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Early Days of the Centre for Development Studies

A V Jose

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the maturing of an institution of higher learning in the able hands of Raj and his highly talented colleagues. These colleagues were some of the finest human beings whom he literally summoned from different walks of life and from different parts of the world. Among those summoned

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or many who grew under the tutelage of K N Raj, it was not easy to describe, let alone fathom the many layers of his personality. He, indeed, was a gifted teacher, one passionate about his profession, who dedicated the most productive years of his life to fostering talents from all over the developing world. He made his mark as a master builder of institutions, who contributed to the making of a great tradition based on values he held close to heart: absolute integrity, tireless striving and scrupulous regard for the spending of public money.

More importantly, Raj was an immensely affectionate person with deep empathy and concern for his colleagues and students, especially for those from underprivileged backgrounds. To cap it all he was a ruthlessly tough disciplinarian, willing to spare any amount of time and effort to help his students beat their ideas into shape, even as it ended in driving them up the wall as many times as they met him. Certainly he was one with many human failings too.

As we mourn the passing of one of the most influential voices that donned the policy community of post-independence India, it is important to put in perspective the legacy he has passed on to the next generation, understand its significance, and then as far as possible try to live by those standards he set. My intention here is to impress on the younger generations of students and scholars the value of those standards and traditions, which are eminently worth living by.

The first time I met K N Raj was in July 1969 when I joined the Delhi School of

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Economics (DSE) as an MA student. There in front of the Ratan Tata Library he was going around picking up scraps of paper. The message to the student community was quite clear: please help to keep the surroundings clean. By and large they obliged. In the DSE he had already initiated a cultural revolution by way of making the directorship rotate among professors. Soon it became known that Raj would be taking over as vice chancellor of the Delhi University. An attempt to felicitate him was quietly dropped only because he would not agree to any ceremonial farewell. In any case that idealist venture to set right the Delhi University did not last very long; he was back into the packed lecture halls of the DSE in less than 18 months.

The foray into the viceregal lodge in old Delhi, which was Delhi University vice chancellor’s office, had one unintended but profound consequence in that Raj decided to return to his provincial roots for starting a new institution with a distinctly different culture. For this venture, he got abundant support from a rare decent man: Achutha Menon, the then chief minister of Kerala. The Centre for Development Studies (CDS) started in 1971 was the first institution of its kind in southern India, which was at the time not terribly known for any serious attempt at research and training in the field of economic development and social change.

From 1971 onwards right up to 1980, I was privileged, first as a research assistant to Raj and later as a research associate among a larger group of young recruits, to get a ringside seat to observe

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by the “biblical big fisherman” were T N Krishnan, I S Gulati, P G K Panikar, A Vaidyanathan and N Krishnaji, who literally dropped whatever they were doing before to come to Thiruvananthapuram. They worked with total dedication to the making of a new institution. Right from the mid-summer day in 1971 when I walked into his house exploring the possibility of doing research under him and his wife, Sarasamma, opened the door for me, I became part of the CDS community of Raj. Allow me to share some perceptions, formed in those formative years, which have had a lasting impact on my life and my view of the world.

Establishing a New Tradition

Here was a man, the owner of a prodigious intellect and formidable analytical prowess, who walked the corridors of power at a young age; but then could also walk out with the same ease and elegance that he came in with. At the CDS, together with his like-minded colleagues Raj made it a point to cut a new trail and establish a new tradition, distinctly different from those in other centres of learning.

Raj’s deep commitment to austerity when blended with the boundless artistry and creativity of Laurie Baker the architect, led to the rise of a magnificent edifice, which over the years became a major attraction for many in the social sciences community both within India and abroad. Here was a place devoted to giving respect to the dignity and individuality of the students who came from all over India in search of knowledge. Together with Baker he put a copper plaque at the entrance of the CDS library tower that

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K N RAJ: IN MEMORIAM

proclaimed his motto in the majestic verse of Tagore:

Where the mind is without fear and the head held high; where knowledge is free; where the world has not been broken into fragments by narrow domestic walls.

I only hope that one day the management of the CDS will reinstate that plaque or at least a replica of it to its rightful place.

All of us who were students would acknowledge that K N Raj showed profound respect for any person who came to learn from him and gave maximum encouragement to do one’s own research. During all those years I was there as a young researcher, there never was an instance when Raj or any of his senior colleagues would walk towards my desk and demand assistance to do any tabulation, calculation or bibliography. This point bears repetition, for I have seen many academic institutions in India and abroad, where senior professors would strut around with an entourage of assistants and sign joint papers without doing a trace of work on their own.

An Indefatigable Helping Hand

Raj was quite unique in that he instilled among the students a spirit of tolerance for a broad spectrum of views. People of all ideological shades and colours were equally welcome and never discriminated against. A culture of dissent, debate, and intellectual honesty remained at the core of the institution, anchored on fellowship and camaraderie that transcended all barriers: provincial, linguistic and ideological. Colleagues who would otherwise tear each other apart inside the seminar halls would always remain friends, walk together to the cafeteria and share a meal or a drink at the same table.

I still remember the staff student seminars of those early years. The visitors or students would make their presentations at the end of which, Raj would sum up their presentations far more elegantly and raise some pertinent questions for further discussion, all in less than five minutes. Anyone could challenge Raj or his colleagues, provided he or she could coherently defend the ground and argue the points. Still nobody dared to shoot his mouth off or abuse that privilege. Fear of Raj, which indeed was the beginning of wisdom, pervaded right through the seminar halls.

Another characteristic that defined the CDS was a strong and passionate commitment to the intellectual and social upbringing of young researchers. The only thing that mattered for any young scholar was his/her capacity to formulate a research problem and to carry out research and analysis without any spoon-feeding from the peer groups. So long as the student was on the right track, or at least held out the promise of getting there, Raj was prepared to give the longest possible rope. But he never ever compromised on the content and quality of their work. For those students challenged in terms of the nuances of the English language, he would spend any amount of time helping to prepare a readable draft. For those he felt genuinely deserved help, Raj would hand over his own hand-written data sheets, just hoping that one day they too would draw inferences by plodding through those numbers. He most certainly relished the job of cutting the rough edges of all around him, students and colleagues alike, and was ready to take on that pastime anytime, anywhere.

Right through my formative years in the 1970s, Raj was physically present in the CDS except in 1978 when he took off to lead the Asian Employment Programme of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in Bangkok. That gave me a golden opportunity to induct a second supervisor for my PhD dissertation which was dragging on under Raj’s watch. Not that N Krishnaji who came in was any less demanding; but he certainly would not chew me up the way Raj did. But there was no escape from the long arm of Raj as he remained in control at every stage in the preparation and submission of the dissertation.

Initiating Employment Debates

In Bangkok, Raj had the unenviable task of restructuring the employment related work programme of the ILO in the Asian region. While doing so he indeed managed to bring back employment promotion and skill development to the centre stage of ILO activities in the region. That was also the time when Raj revisited some of the policy perspectives he had flagged in his seminal work: The Employment Aspects of Planning in Underdeveloped Economies (1957), delivered earlier as a series of lectures in Cairo. The crux of the employment problem in developing countries, he argued, was in turning dormant unemployment into paid employment. The mode of attaining such a goal was through labour-intensive development strategies based in agriculture, which, in turn, generated more revolving employment and also raised the productivity and wages of labour in both farm and non-farm sectors.

The comparative studies initiated under Raj’s leadership analysing the problems and prospects of “labour absorption in agriculture” set the stage for a long chain of policy debates on employment planning and labour-intensive development strategies among Asian countries. Years later, the ILO availed itself of an opportunity to celebrate its long-standing association with Raj. In 2004 on the occasion of his 80th birth anniversary, the International Institute for Labour Studies joined hands with several institutions and foundations in India to organise a major national conference on “Institutions and Markets in India’s Development”. This conference happened to be one of the largest get-togethers of Indian economists, including many from Raj’s generation: I G Patel, Ashok Mitra, Hiten Bhaiya, and K S Krishna swamy, all gathered to honour the doyen of their trade at St Thomas College in Thrissur, an ancient temple town of Kerala, where he was born in 1924.

Last Days

I would like to conclude these reminiscences on a personal note. Towards the closing years of Raj’s life I happened to live in his neighbourhood for a while. That was the time when his otherwise vibrant mind was fast receding into the abyss of amnesia. Friends and former colleagues who dropped by and tried to remind him of the good old days were often reduced to tears as Raj struggled hard to connect their faces and names. His moist eyes calm and reconciled, but sparkling as always, reminded all about his legacy and the values he stood for. I remain convinced

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K N RAJ: IN MEMORIAM

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.

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From our perch near Raj’s home, I also got a rare chance to observe the abundance of love and care bestowed on him by his immediate family consisting of his sons: Gopal and Dina, along with other members of the household. I cannot but conclude this note saluting Gopal for his

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-magisterial display of filial affection that has had an added value after the passing away of Sarasamma a few years ago.

A V Jose (avjose11@gmail.com) is honorary director of the Gulati Institute of Finance and Taxation, Thiruvananthapuram.

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Economic & Political Weekly

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march 13, 2010 vol xlv no 11

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