To the average Malayali, only literary critics and political ideologues are intellectuals. Economists hold the last place in the Malayali's list of 'budhijeevi'. The reason perhaps could be that Kerala's economic policies have been mostly driven by socio-political considerations rather than purely economic theories or ideas. But, it doesn't mean there have not been outstanding economists of Malayali origin. Can one forget India's second Finance Minister- Prof. Challiyil John Matthai (1886-1959)? Although Matthai was no major politician and had no significant role in the independence movement, Prime Minister Nehru wanted professionals like him in his maiden cabinet. Matthai was first the Railway Minister and a year later Finance Minister, replacing Shanmukham Chetty. The Kozhikode-born Matthai studied at the London School of Economics (LSE) and Oxford, was a director with the Tatas and one of the architects of the pro-business, 'Bombay Plan.' He quit as the Finance Minister in 1951 protesting against the Socialist Nehru vesting 'too much' authority with the Planning Commission. Later Matthai became the founder chairman of the State Bank of India.
Interestingly, despite Matthai's proclaimed right-wing affiliations, Kerala's first Communist Chief Minister, EMS Namboodiripad, didn't find him unacceptable as the newly-formed Kerala University's first vice-chancellor (VC). Neither was Matthai deterred from accepting the position because Communists were in power. Both respected each other irrespective of their ideological differences. Matthai was awarded the Padmavibhushan in 1959. (Verghese Kurien, architect of India's White Revolution, was his nephew).
The next among the best Malayali economists was KN Raj (1926-2010), who belonged to the other side of the ideological spectrum. The Thrissur-born Kakkadan Nandanath Raj was a staunch Nehruvian Socialist. At 26, he was the youngest among those who drafted at Nehru's behest, India's first Five Year Plan. Raj too was an LSE alumnus, advisor to Prime Ministers from Nehru to Narasimha Rao and a close friend of Manmohan Singh, Amartya Sen and KR Narayanan. After serving as the vice-chancellor of Delhi University, Raj was instrumental in building up the prestigious Delhi School of Economics. Chief Minister C Achutha Menon brought Raj from Delhi to set up the Centre for Development Studies of Thiruvananthapuram in 1970, which became India's one of the best academic institutions. It was a paper Raj wrote along with two other Malayali economists -TN Krishnan and PGK Panikkar- of the CDS, which made the world take note of the Kerala Model of Development. Though he remained a life-long Socialist, Raj never minced words to critique the Left whenever necessary.
To this illustrious league belongs MA Oommen, who is celebrating his 90th birthday now. (Another Malayali economist of this top league is CT Kurien who became 90 last year). It is a testimony of Oommen's exceptionally fruitful life as an astute economist, prolific writer, brilliant academic, educationist, and above all, a public intellectual that a new book of his was released even on his 90th birthday. His 'Essays on Fiscal Decentralisation' was released by C Rangarajan, former Governor of Reserve Bank of India. This is the latest addition to his more than 30 books in Malayalam and English besides 400 odd papers which collectively form a comprehensive economic history of Kerala's last 7 decades.
No academic has written and spoken as much as Oommen about Kerala's development issues. He was the first academic to write about Kerala's economic issues since the late 1950s and on the path-breaking land reforms as early as 1971 with Raj's preface, which opened the subsequent studies from all over the world. The '3 Ds' -development, democracy, and decentralisation- have been of his abiding interest, and was the name of the book brought in Oommen's honour on his 80th birthday. However, what makes Oommen a public intellectual is also his lifelong mission to use his knowledge and skills to better the lives of the marginalized and oppressed. He has proclaimed that the biggest influences on his life were Christ, Marx, and also Amartya Sen but was never a blind devotee of anyone. In his memoirs 'Ormmappadikal' he wrote: 'I consider Marx most relevant for at least the next 100 years too... Reading Marx brings me the utmost satisfaction. Yet, I don't belong to those devotees who await the dawn of Communism like those waiting for Christ's second coming. Though he courted rationalist views for some time, Oommen rediscovered the value of faith and became an admirer of radical liberation theology and its propounders in Kerala like MM Thomas or Bishop Paulos Mar Poulose.
Unlike Matthai and Raj, Oommen was totally home grown. Born to a lower middle class family in an obscure village (Venmani, Pathanamthitta district) he went to ordinary schools. Certainly, this and also his father's concern for the poor played a role in his abiding commitment to the ordinary people. He has been a strong critic of mainstream economists and economics courses for their unconcern for the real problems of the poor and was even nicknamed, 'Professor of Poverty'. Oommen's humble beginnings hardly affected his will. He was the first in Kerala University to Master in Economics with a first-class (first rank too) and also to take a Ph.D. The first teacher at Kerala University's Economics department, he was the first Economics Professor at Calicut University and the founder-director of the John Matthai Centre at Thrissur. He introduced at the Centre the semester system with internal assessment, student evaluation, etc, which is common now but unheard of in Kerala, then. A staunch critic of the traditional syllabus and curriculum, Oommen brought in new courses like Forest Economics, Transport Economics, etc. at the Centre. But, as is wont in Kerala, all his innovations met with fierce resistance from the status quo and were dumped when he left for Africa to head the Economics department of the Botswana University. The irrepressible Oommen could not resist himself in Botswana, too, as he lost his job after he openly criticized the pro-rich budget presented by the country's Finance Minister!
Oommen served in many official positions under various governments and universities. He was a postdoctoral scholar of the Rockefeller Foundation, a senior Fullbrighter and also a Visiting fellow at Yale University. Yet, he never shied from criticizing authorities whenever it was due. He recognised the historic role of Kerala's Land Reforms but repeatedly pointed to its drawbacks like its failure to give land to the real tiller, exemptions to estates and shortchanging the Dalits and tribals. He even hit the streets to back CK Janu's tribal struggles for land. Oommen was closely associated with the People's Planning programme of the 1996 LDF government which he found to be an unprecedented democratic experiment. But he did not spare the Left for abandoning it halfway. He slammed all the governments for bringing down the quality of Kerala's higher education by over-politicization, profiteering, nepotism, ineptitude, and sheer ignorance. He admired the Kerala Model but exposed its exclusion of women.
Oommen has had a large personal share of bitter experiences too. He has faced ostracism, discrimination, and plain betrayal even from friends. He was kept away from the CDS in its beginning; his Ph'D plans were scuttled after getting selected to Hawaii University; someone ,whom he made his computer operator, pilfered his work on state finance commissions and published under her own name; he was the only State Finance Commission chairman who was denied full salary and staff; and the Institute of Social Sciences, an institution at Delhi he helped to build, treated him shabbily.
But the nonagenarian is hardly bitter. Like his favorite Santiago of the Oldman and the Sea, he swears to sail on without giving in.
PS: Talking about Malayali economists, it is interesting that two of the world's top economists today have Malayali roots and are women to boot. Gita Gopinath, the First Deputy Managing Director of IMF (yes, the former economic advisor to Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan) and Roopa Purushothaman, Tata Group's Chief Economist who co-authored 'Dreaming With BRICS'.