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K.N. Raj: Kerala's finest economist

K.G. Kumar

AT a conference in Thrissur, organised last week by the Department of Economics, St Thomas College, several of the best minds in the country came together to pay glowing tributes to a son of Kerala who can be called - without fear of contradiction - the greatest economist this State has produced. That the conference was held at Thrissur was even more appropriate, for that sleepy little town was where this distinguished person was born 80 years ago.

Kakkadan Nandanath Raj or plain K.N. Raj, as he is universally known, is that rare combination of teacher, researcher and builder of institutions, all rolled up in a backdrop of progressive libertarianism that stopped short of radical Marxism but always embraced a deep humanism and concern for the disadvantaged, the underprivileged and, above all, the nation.

`Planning, Institutions, Markets and Development' - the theme of the Thrissur conference - sums up the key areas in which Raj has been active. As the Assistant Chief of the Economic Division of the Planning Commission, he played a pivotal role in India's planned development, drafting sections of India's first Five Year Plan, specifically the introductory chapter. Raj was then merely 26 years old.

Subsequently, he moved to Delhi University, where he was Professor of Economics and also Vice-Chancellor (from October 1969 to December 1970), spending a total of 18 years there. During that time, he was instrumental in setting up the Delhi School of Economics (DSE).

Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen recalls "several stimulating and instructive conversations with him in the DSE in the early 1960s, in those heady days when many of us were privileged to participate, under Raj's superb leadership, in the building of a great graduate school of economics."

After the Delhi stint, Raj returned to Kerala in 1971 to set up the Centre for Development Studies (CDS) at Thiruvananthapuram, an institution that soon acquired an international reputation for applied economics and social science research. The work that Raj and his colleagues did for the United Nations in the early days of the CDS, and published in 1976, helped shape the contours of what later came to be called the "Kerala model" of development - the co-existence of low per capita income and very high physical quality of life indicators.

As for markets, Raj, like his friend Amartya Sen (who calls him "a remarkable applied economist"), does not have the automatic aversion for markets that most Left-leaning economists display. In 1970, Raj recommended that all controls on the steel industry be removed, and the industry be exposed to the effects of market forces. That was seen as almost heretical at a time when the command economy was in full rule and the public sector was a holy cow.

Raj once wrote: "I think that most of the things that welfare economists talk about are those that are obvious to all of us, especially the common people. In fact, even a pure philosopher and religious thinker like Sree Narayana Guru, who achieved a social transformation in Kerala, spoke about the very same things that welfare economists speak about today: education, health care facilities, even small-scale industries... Many people like me practised welfare economics without knowing that it was welfare economics, because we were anxious that economics should help the poor. But people who take economic theory literally would say that this is not our problem."

For Raj, development has always been the central problem. For that unstinting concern, we, as citizens of India, ought to be grateful and, as residents of Kerala, perhaps even more so, for K.N. Raj's contribution to his home State will long outlive conferences, seminars and tributes.

The writer can be contacted at kgkumar@gmail.com

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K.N. Raj: Kerala's finest economist



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