P.G.K. Panikar 1923-1999
Professor P.G. Kesava Panikar, known as PGK, passed away in Bangalore on 27 August 1999, a day after celebrating his last Onam with his children and grandchildren, as quietly as he lived. To colleagues and students he was a teacher, an economist and above all an institution-builder. But those close to him knew that he was also a connoisseur of music and theatre. Panikar was one of the select few who were intimately involved in the establishment of the Centre for Development Studies in Thiruvananthapuram under the intellectual leadership of K.N. Raj.
When the Centre was formally established in February 1971, Panikar was chosen as its Director, a position which he held for 14 years. This was no mean achievement because he had to function as a member of a renowned and outstanding team of economists and formally direct the Centre through many organisational challenges during its infancy. This included overcoming bureaucratic opposition to the construction of the aesthetically designed but low-cost buildings by the renowned architect Laurie Baker. It was, I believe, his self-effacing character that earned him the acceptance of his colleagues, staff and students. He preferred to remain in the background, making no claims either in institution-building or academic work. But I think his role was remarkable in both areas which he carried on simultaneously until retirement.
Panikar’s contribution to the celebrated CDS study on Poverty, Unemployment and Development Policy in Kerala was in preparing, for the first time, a food balance-sheet for Kerala that included food items which were left out in the Dandekar-Rath study on poverty. This work was an offshoot of his interest in the hitherto scarcely researched area of economics of nutrition in India. He developed these interests to later contribute to the economics of health care.
In 1984 he published a comprehensive study, authored jointly with C.R. Soman, an outstanding scholar from the medical profession belonging to the Trivandrum Medical College, on the Health Status in Kerala, aptly subtitled, ‘paradox of economic backwardness and health development.’ This was perhaps the first study in India viewing health from a developmental perspective as well as covering an entire state within the country. Subsequent studies were only variations on the theme set out by Panikar and Soman.
Professor Panikar was concerned with financing health care in India and examined the implications of the developments in China. The high cost of medical care for the people, especially the poor, was a major interest on which he completed a study only recently. His work in the area of health and development – a number of them published in the Economic and Political Weekly – received national and international attention as testified by the interests taken by ICMR/ICSSR and who. As a member of an ICMR/ICSSR team he helped chalk out an alternative development strategy for the health care sector in India. But recognition or a lack of it did not seem to bother him. It appeared to us at the Centre that he was out to prove that ‘once a researcher, always a researcher.’
In the early ’90s, when there was much fanfare in the name of mobilizing money and people for initiating further research in areas to which he had contributed from the early ’70s, it did not bother him unduly that he was only a bystander. Instead, he continued to pursue his research interests with greater vigour.
The area of health and development was not the only one which interested him. Apart from such subjects as rural savings in India, he worked extensively on the condition of agricultural labourers and the state of the agricultural economy in Kerala. His ‘minute of dissent’ in the 1971 Kuttanad Enquiry Commission Report analysing the conditions of work and wages and the poverty of agricultural labourers, anticipated future research on employment, income and food intake among agricultural labour households.
At a time when institutional culture and institutional development enjoy low premium, reminding ourselves of the contributions of such a ‘mute inglorious Dickens’ as Professor Panikar in institution building will, I hope, not be considered as irrelevant.