Professor K.K.George – Visionary Scholar, Teacher and Mentor

Dr. N Ajith Kumar, Director, CSES pays tribute to Professor (Dr.) K. K George, Chairperson, CSES who passed away on the 11th of August, 2022. In this tribute, Dr. Ajith recounts his personal experiences of working with KKG and remembers KKG’s role in building CSES, and in mentoring and moulding researchers at the Centre…

Professor K.K.George, who left us on August 11, 2022, is widely known as a scholar on Kerala’s development experience, public finance and Centre-State financial relations and as an active policy advisor. Fondly called by many as KKG, Professor George is also remembered for the impact he made on many among the students and researchers in the School of Management Studies of Cochin University of Science & Technology (CUSAT), Centre for Development Studies and the Centre for Socio-economic & Environmental Studies (CSES).  He played a major role in the life of many researchers by encouraging them to ask new questions that broadened their research. 

In the early years of his professional career, which spanned more than half a century, Professor George worked with Catholicate College, Pathanamthitta, the State Bank of India (SBI) and the School of Management Studies of CUSAT. He was the Chairperson of CSES, which he co-founded in 1996, when we lost him.  His research work at the Economic & Statistics Research Department of SBI were in the areas of monetary economics, industrial economics, regional economics and the economics of international trade and finance. While in SBI, he used to publish articles under the pseudonym G.K.Kolanjiyil (Kolanjiyil being his family name) on various economic issues.  These articles were published mostly in the Economic Times, Financial Express and the Business Standard. As pointed out by Prof. Raghavaiah (a close friend of KKG from SBI days), these journalistic articles led him to ask much larger questions and eventually led to his decision to quit the banking profession and pursue an academic career at CUSAT. Between 1976 and 1990, he contributed to the Economic & Political Weekly on a regular basis mainly on centre-state financial relations (some of them jointly with Professor I.S.Gulati) and Kerala’s fiscal crisis. In the late 1980s, he published two books which were widely read 1) Federal Financial Flows and Inter-State Disparities in India and 2) Essays in Federal Financial Relations, the latter jointly with Professor I.S.Gulati.  A champion of more autonomy and financial powers to states, Professor George spoke around India often on this topic in the 1980s and 1990s.

Visionary Scholar: In 1993, he published his seminal work, ‘Limits  to Kerala Model of Development’ which received wide acclaim, nationally and internationally.  This work and the article, published later, “Whither Kerala Model” provided an alternative view on the much acclaimed development experience of Kerala.  The sustainability of this peculiar development experience was examined in a systematic way for the first time.  The book sparked debates on the sustainability of the Kerala’s model development, which continues till date. His works on Kerala development experience led him to focus on Kerala’s education system.  In 1996, he wrote a paper titled ‘Financial Crisis in Kerala’s Higher Education: Causes and Policy Options’ which was presented in a Seminar organised by Vichara, Mavelikkara.  Though, less known compared to his work on limits to Kerala model of development, it clearly provided important policy directions which are slowly gaining ground now more than a quarter century after the paper was published as a monograph. Several structural issues that led to such a crisis and the implications of the same were dealt with in detail.  In this paper he questioned the model of subsidisation in higher education in the state.  More importantly, he argued for economic development of the state based on ‘post-modern’ skill and knowledge-intensive industrial development.  He concluded the article by pointing out:

“Instead of trying to catch up with others (other states) in ‘modern’ industries, the State must seek to be a pioneer in the ‘post-modern’, skill and knowledge-intensive industries. This calls for further investment in human resource development, both for exports and the state’s own labour market.  This is the only way in which Kerala’s future plans for economic growth can be integrated with its past achievements in social services brought about at huge costs to its exchequer.  What is called for is a new Kerala Model of economic growth.”

It is important to note that he said this more than a quarter century back.  In his 1998 article, “Historical Roots of Kerala Model of Development and its Present Crisis”, he argued that the old change agents – political parties, trade unions, social reform movements, church and missionary organisations are “now acting merely as pressure groups either to defend the status quo or to extract the maximum possible share out of the cake that is not increasing in size”.  …… “It appears that many of these groups have not been able to comprehend fully the dynamic forces released by the implementation of the older agendas.  Nor have they been able to handle the second-generation problems that followed in the wake of their earlier successes”.

In fact, Professor George started arguing for the need to address the “success-induced second generation problems” of Kerala much earlier.  This aspect was later well recognised by the state’s policymakers.  However, it is doubtful whether he is being recognised as the scholar who brought this issue into the policy debate in the state.  He extended this argument in his papers in the new millennium particularly in the ones relating to the Union Finance Commissions and its implications for Kerala.  They were instrumental in the inclusion of the demand for special grants to address the second generation problems faced by Kerala in the state’s memorandum to the Union Finance Commissions.  It is also important to recognise that Professor George’s arguments in the CSES Working Paper (published in 2009) titled “Kerala’s Development Experience: Its Implications for Finance Commissions” (which he wrote jointly with K.K. Krishnakumar) and his involvement in drafting Kerala’s memorandum to the 14th Finance Commission, played a major role in the inclusion of ‘forest cover’ as a devolution criteria by the Union Finance Commission.  As pointed out in an article in the Business Line (dated March 09, 2015) titled “Credit for windfall gains for select states should go to Kerala think-tank”, the 14th Finance Commission accepted it as a criterion for inter-se determination of financial transfers from the Centre to the States and ‘forest cover’ was assigned 7.5 per cent weightage.  While 19 states gained from the new arrangement, on a per capita basis, Kerala, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh were the top gainers. The article further pointed out that “Kerala was expected to be allocated no less than ₹8,000 crore on account of the new devolution criterion”. This is just an indication of the importance of his arguments in deciding the flow of funds from Centre to Kerala. In fact, his studies on the terms of reference of various Union Finance Commissions and its awards were major inputs for the state government in drafting the memorandum to the Finance Commissions.

“Have you read the article on demographic transition which appeared in the Hindu today?”  He telephoned me and asked three days before he left us.  He was passionate about the topic and on previous occasions also brought to my notice articles on the subject.  The demographic profile of Kerala is different from that of the country and the state is witnessing a decline in child population and working age population and an increase in aged population. He often told us that the implications of demographic transition on Kerala society as a whole and on different aspects/sectors such as education, early childhood care, health care, elderly care, social protection, labour market, housing,  family dynamics and governance at different levels have not been adequately studied.  He saw it as one of the megatrends that shapes the Kerala society. In fact, he had also identified and started working on these megatrends of Kerala economy and society a few years back.  But his ill health prevented him from going further.  Rather than analysing social and economic issues from the point of view of one discipline/area, he tried to understand the complexity of the problem from different perspectives and tried to put it in simple words. His ability to cross the boundaries of multiple disciplines and the diversity of the topics he worked on amazed us. 

I am sure that others, who are more competent, will comment more on Professor George’s extraordinary academic contributions. So, I will now share some of my experiences of working with him for more than two decades.

Some Personal Reflections

I first met KKG in the late 1980s when I was a research scholar at the Department of Applied Economics at CUSAT.  We used to see each other often because his cabin in the department was close to where I was allocated a space.  We had some small talks especially on campus politics.  We had a few interactions on some statistical analysis relating to his work.  But, at that time, we never interacted on any academic matters for two reasons.  Firstly, I was new to the economics discipline after completing my post-graduation in statistics and my topic of research was much different from KKG’s research interests.  Secondly, he was a well-established scholar on Public Finance and Centre- State financial relations and my understanding on these topics were limited. 

My association with KKG strengthened when CSES was formed in 1996. From then onwards, I was fortunate to have a close relationship with him till he left us. The institute was conceived to fill a critical gap between the academic world on the one hand and the policymakers, opinion shapers and the general public on the other. His academic leadership provided the direction for research at CSES.  Soon after the institute was formed, I and another founding member of CSES wrote an article on cartelisation in the cement industry with a view to publish it as a working paper. After reviewing the manuscript in detail, KKG told us that it is not worth publishing even if revised. Frankly, we did not expect such a complete rejection. In fact, I was annoyed at his decision as we had spent a couple of months on the work. A few years down the line, I reread the paper and was fully convinced about his decision. In fact, the incident set the tone and tenor of the research at CSES to a great extent- in terms of quality of research, setting research priorities and in identifying policy implications of our research. For the CSES family, he was a mentor and colleague who was an indispensable part of our life for more than 25 years. It was more like interacting with him on a daily basis. Obviously, we had several instances of sharing our differences of opinions. But he did not try to impose any opinions.

He was a critical reader of the manuscripts of research done at CSES. He used to write detailed comments on the margins in his illegible handwriting and marked sections which he thought needed to be discussed in detail.  He was exceptionally willing to give his time and energy for such discussions. Despite being an intellectual much above all of us, he developed a friendly relationship even with the junior-most staff at CSES.  This characteristic of KKG was instrumental in ensuring a friendly, largely non-hierarchical work culture at CSES, which we are proud of. As he pointed out in his autobiography, he considered CSES as his extended family.

His method of writing an article is worth emulating. Even if it is a small article for a newspaper or a popular magazine, he used to have half a dozen drafts. Each draft is read with the same care as the first draft and changes are made. He also wanted his junior colleagues to comment on the draft and the small changes that they suggested were considered as if it is from an established scholar.  One characteristic of KKG is the amount of preparation he makes even for a meeting with a student. In the initial days of CSES we used to wonder why a person of his stature should do that even when he is in the midst of a major work. He often justified by quoting the parable in the Bible (Luke 8:5) about the farmer who went out to sow the seeds. He said, “we never know which seed will grow.”  He also referred to this when we share our feelings about some of our works which have major policy implications being ignored by policymakers. “Maybe not now, perhaps in the future.”

As one of my colleagues recalled, KKG took great pains to collect relevant data not only for his works but also on topics in which his colleagues worked. He often put a journal on the desk of the colleague with a sticker giving the page number and a short scribbling on why it is relevant. This exemplifies a gift KKG had in his mentorship which left his colleagues feeling energised and excited about working more to bring out a better outcome. Even while he tried to have the best possible outcome, when we spent too much time on elaborating some unimportant points, he discouraged us by quoting Voltaire- “Best is the enemy of the good”, perhaps indirectly hinting that you are wasting your time on that point.

He did not yield to the pressures from the media for impulsive reactions. He did not participate in the discussions in the media on the day of the state or central budget because he believed that the budgets should be examined in detail before the views are expressed. But the budget has a shelf life of only one day in the TV studios. In a seminar he concluded with the following observations:

“Even with the best of intentions and even if I keep aside all my other commitments, I may take a minimum of two weeks to come out with a budget analysis. By the time there may not be any takers for my “scholarly” analysis as the budget season for the year will be over by then and many would have already stolen the thunder.”

Even while he refused to give impulsive reactions, he was always willing to give his considered opinions after painstaking preparation. 

Though he was not comfortable with sophisticated statistical tools, he knew how to read the numbers and make good use of primary and secondary data using simple tools. His ability to build arguments based on that with clarity was remarkable. He took pains to follow a trail of evidence and gather more data and information, a skill he tried to share with his students and colleagues. He insisted on academic integrity, rigour and critical thinking.

While he held several positions, he was a person who never went after positions. In his autobiography, he narrates the interview for the post of lecturer in an aided college in Ernakulam district. During the interview, he had an argument with the Head of the Department on some issues in economic planning. KKG says “I forgot that I was a job applicant and thought that I was in a classroom of UCC (Union Christian College, Aluva) and MCC (Madras Christian College), where arguments with the professors and occasionally correcting them were actually appreciated”.   However, the interview board did not have such liberal values and he was not selected. This character of KKG, which endeared him to many, has been disliked by some others who did not want themselves to be questioned. I am also aware that he did not accept some coveted positions offered to him.

Even while being a highly insightful social scientist, close to heart, he was the villager from Vengoor. While he greatly enjoyed his students and colleagues, he was very close to his family- his wife Sherly madam, children – Jeanne, Justin and Ann and grandchildren. 

Before I conclude, let me quote from his autobiography “A Journal of My Life” which was released in a grand function held at Cochin University of Science & Technology a few weeks before he passed away. The function, organised jointly by CSES, Gulati Institute of Finance & Taxation and his friends, was an assembly of his friends, students and colleagues. In the epilogue of the autobiography, KKG writes:

“Looking back from Vengoor, the northernmost village in the old Travancore state, I travelled far and wide around the world …. I have met numerous persons of different races in different countries, and I have received help from almost all the people I met with. I had opportunities to work with eminent persons in different fields both in India and abroad. Failing there maybe, but I can state with full conviction that I led a truthful life and had sought to contribute, however little it might have been, to the larger society.” 

KKG — Your contributions to society will be remembered forever. I have experienced you as an adviser, a colleague and a teacher, like many of my colleagues in the CSES family. You showed exceptional caring warmth to all of us. You shared the joy and agony of developing CSES and your influence on CSES will be long-lasting. It has been an honour to learn from you. We are aware that a fitting tribute to you would be to carry forward your intellectual legacy to the best of our abilities.