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Updated: February 26, 2014 11:42 IST

P.J. Thomas, an unsung economist

R. Madhavan Nair
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Some brilliant minds pass away unhonoured and unsung. P.J. Thomas, who had his training in economics at Oxford University and served both British India and Independent India as chief economic adviser, was one such academic.

John Mathai, who also studied economics at Oxford, has a centre of Calicut University named after him and was Vice-Chancellor of the University of Kerala, but Thomas, despite equally illustrious accomplishments, was content to be Principal of St. Thomas College, Pala.

E.M. Thomas, who teaches economics at Christ College, Irinjalakuda, highlights the intellectual greatness of Thomas in his book P.J. Thomas – Keralathinte Keynes (P.J. Thomas - Keynes of Kerala). After meticulous analyses, the author points out that Thomas had a rare insight into economic and social issues, and his observations are of great relevance even today.

Though born into a farmers’ family at Kuravilangad, Thomas was brilliant in his studies and earned DPhil from the University of Oxford, became a teacher of economics, and later professor and Head of the Department at Madras University.

Thomas was destined to scale greater heights. He was appointed chief economic adviser to the Government of India when the country was under British rule.

He held the post even after Independence. Earlier, he was the economic adviser to the late C. Rajagopalachari, who was Chief Minister of the erstwhile Madras State.

Among his close friends were former U.S. President John F. Kennedy, whom he had met when the latter was a journalist covering the inaugural UN Assembly in San Francisco at which Thomas was an Indian delegate, and writer G.K. Chesterton.

Nearer home, his friends included poet Vallathol Narayana Menon and frontline leaders of the Church.

He was honoured by the Pope with Knight of St. Gregory in recognition of his contribution to the community.

Thomas was the brain behind the successful implementation of prohibition in Salem district. The loss of revenue on account of prohibition was made up through the introduction of general sales tax .

He was instrumental in introducing general sales tax, and Madras State was the first to introduce the levy.

As an economist, he gave priority to the welfare of the rural poor.

His writings showed a rare insight into the problems of the poor, and contained the seeds for social and economic reforms that were taken up later.

Rural indebtedness

He wrote extensively about rural indebtedness, farm sector, international trade, land reforms, labour policy, public expenditure, exchange rate policy, cooperative sector, and population growth. Many of these turned out to be prophetic.

His students say the seeds of the much-lauded land reforms that were introduced in Kerala could be seen in his articles.

His writings touched upon decentralised planning, rural employment, and food security.

Thomas died on July 26, 1965.

It is surprising that the contributions of an economist of such eminence have not been properly acknowledged. As the first attempt in any language to document his contributions to Indian society, P.J. Thomas – Keralathinte Keynes, published by the Sahithya Pravarthaka Cooperative Society, deserves a round of applause.

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