An economist’s account of social transformation in Kerala

Vinson Kurian Thiruvananthapuram | Updated on February 19, 2020

MA Oommen. File photo   -  File photo

MA Oommen’s autobiography released

Social conscience is not always the commonly acknowledged attribute of an academic economist. But octogenarian MA Oommen, one of the most influential developmental economists in India today, is a delightful exception.

Oommen has endeared himself to the academic community by writing exhaustively on the critically important themes of democracy, development and decentralisation. He spent most of his 30-odd years of teaching in Kerala, shaping the thinking of a generation of economists, leading educators, and top bureaucrats.

Kerala FM releases Ormappadikal

The release of his autobiography Ormappadikal (Reminiscences) here the other day was an occasion for legions of students and admirers to pay tributes to his outstanding scholarship and vision. Kerala Finance Minister Thomas Isaac released the book by handing over a copy to Malayalam writer Paul Zachariah, recommending it as a compulsory reading for the teaching community in Kerala.

The function was hosted by the economic think-tank Gulati Institute of Finance and Taxation, Thiruvananthapuram.

Oommen walks down the memory lane sketching the story of Kerala’s social transformation in this autobiography, published by DC Books. Starting with his meeting with renowned social reformer Ayyankali, Oommen goes on to subtly develop the freedom-capability approach of Amartya Sen.

Through the innumerable anecdotal tales in the book, the author makes himself a kind of god of many small things. The chapter on land reforms details the hijacking of legislations by vested interests, while the two chapters on local governance affirm the author’s contribution to institutionalisation of local democracy in the state.

‘Beautiful literary piece’

Acknowledged as a devoted teacher by a generation of eminent students in this state and outside, his dedicated struggle to interrogate the epistemological foundations of the discipline and his initiatives to reform the MA courses in economics are well narrated in several chapters of the autobiography.

The introduction of the semester system, exercise book for all the subjects studied, project work, student evaluation and so on in the 1970s at the Dr John Matthai Centre where he was the first Professor, merits particular attention. His evaluation of Marx’s relevance in contemporary world is a scholarly piece.

While poet Satchidanandan summarises his elaborate Foreword thus: ‘Sharing and not selfishness is the root of well-being; the measurement of development is freedom’, Paul Zachariah calls it a beautiful literary piece that enables the reader to do a deep introspection into his/her own life.

Oommen has had stints at the Institute for the Study of Economic Development at Naples, Italy, and at the Economic Growth Centre, Yale University. He received the Rockfeller Foundation Post-Doctoral Award in 1968 and the Senior Fullbright Scholarship in 1974-75.


Published on February 19, 2020

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