Poverty has been the dominant theme in my writings: economist C.T. Kurien

Prof. C.T. Kurien was one of the early advocates of MGNREGS, and among the six economists invited by the U.N. Secretary General to make an independent evaluation of the global food situation in 1983-84. | Photo Credit: Illustration: R. Rajesh
M.A. Oommen 31 July 2021 16:00 IST
Updated: 01 August 2021 11:14 IST

The distinguished professor has been a lifelong champion of using economic theories as tools to impact real-life situations

C.T. Kurien is an economist with a difference. If Nobel laureate Robert Solow said that economics is for the curious and its study should be intellectual fun, for Kurien, the economist’s role is to participate in transforming the economy. The retired professor, who turned 90 recently, has always approached economics from the viewpoint of fighting poverty. In his last book, Wealth and Illfare (2012), he questions the value of an economic system based on the pure pursuit of profit. Excerpts from an interview:

You turned 90 this month. Looking back, how do you see your beings and doings?

I am sure you will appreciate the fact that 90 years is a watershed. As a teacher, as a researcher, as director of the Madras Institute of Development Studies, I have done my best.


Your Ph.D supervisors and teachers at Stanford University include such great names as Nobel laureate Kenneth Arrow, Chenery and Moses Abramovitz, and you have had long intellectual dialogues with them. Will you please explain the theme of your dissertation and why you selected it? Unlike many of your peers, why did you choose to leave and take up research and teaching in India?

My formal study of economics began only when I moved to Madras Christian College to do a B.A. (Hons). I was disappointed, as economic theory was all about indifference curves, etc. The paper on rural economics had some reference to real-life conditions, but no serious discussion on poverty. I decided to do higher studies in economics. Scholarships were available at U.S. universities, and so I went to Stanford. There, the situation was very different. The emphasis was on pure theory, and mathematics and statistics as tools of analysis. I had a discussion with one of my professors who explained that once you master the tools of analysis, you will be able to apply it to real life. The model of perfect competition was the basis. I took courses with Arrow on mathematical presentations of perfect competition (as also on public finance).

I took courses in economic development. Paul Baran had his version of it (which was very much the Marxist position) but others relied on Arthur Lewis’s famous unlimited supply of labour. Senior Ph.D students were invited for faculty seminars, and when on one occasion the speaker tried to explain the Lewis model, I asked how workers in the subsistence sector survived. The speaker, after a moment of silence, said: “Let’s say, by eating nuts.” And I added: “If there are nuts for survival, there is hardly any problem of poverty.” After the seminar, one of the faculty members said to me: “You raised a very pertinent question.”

Arrow was not my Ph.D supervisor. After I finished course work (two years) and turned to the dissertation, Arrow was on leave. I started with Chenery and after he went to advise Kennedy, Abramovitz was my supervisor. I recall a “briefing session” with him. I referred to a paper by Samuelson who was dealing with general equilibrium and said that if any of the goods in the system happened to be in excess supply (like military tanks after a war), they would be like “sands in the Sahara”. I told Abramovitz that human beings would not exist like sands in the Sahara. He saw the point and asked how I proposed to deal with it, and I said there would be joint utilisation of factors of production (finding expression as self-employment and related technological characteristics). He was convinced and from then on was very helpful. I used the co-existence of mill production and handloom production in India for the empirical aspects of my thesis.

By the time Koopmans’ Three Essays on the State of Economic Science (1957) came out, there was greater recognition of the limitations of the general equilibrium model. Koopmans recognised the problem of excess supply of labour. He referred to two ways of dealing with the situation. What he describes as the “hard-boiled” alternative was to “assume instantaneous elimination by starvation of those whose resources proved insufficient to ensure survival”. Preferring not to eliminate human beings for the sake of theory, he put forward an alternative of “a society of self-sufficient farmers who do a little trading on the side”. While supporting ‘theory’, he conceded too that further research on the survival problem was necessary. In my correspondence with Arrow in the early 60s, I brought this to his notice, and he said, “Yes, you have a valid case.” I pointed out all these issues in my book, A Theoretical Approach to the Indian Economy (1970).

You have written more than 15 books. I have seen an enduring passion to fight poverty and inequality in your writings where you have tried to analytically and factually expose the injustice underlying this social process which threatens the sustainability of democracy. In what manner does your approach differ from others and why?

From the very early days in my life, I was aware of the grim poverty that surrounded my rather comfortable life. I have recollections of visits to my father’s home in Nallanikkunnu (near Pathanamthitta, Kerala). My uncle looked after cultivation around the house and whatever we needed was available in plenty — rice, tapioca, a variety of fruits. But we were surrounded by labourer families whose lives were totally different. Often, they would come home and ask for a jackfruit or such because they had nothing to eat.

A serious encounter with poverty happened during the final years of high school, 1946-48. The British had finally decided to leave India and since political freedom had been won, attention had to be paid to eradicating mass poverty and establishing economic freedom, said many leaders. One of the books I had to study was Minoo Masani’s Our India (1941), which showed through diagrams the extent of poverty in the country. R. Palme Dutt’s India Today (1940) was another book that influenced me. I decided to do economics in college. I discussed it with teachers and other seniors. Nobody really knew what economics as a field of study was, except that it was one of the arts subjects in college.

You have endeavoured to establish that economy is an experiential reality while economics is a propositional entity in several of your works, notably in The Economy: An Interpretative Introduction (1992) and Rethinking Economics (1996), and in a much simpler but comprehensive way in Wealth and Illfare (2012). I believe a genuine pursuit of this would have stimulated more alternative thinking and policy choices in India. How do you respond?

For reasons I have already indicated, poverty has been the dominant theme in my writings. I knew it was wrong to proceed on the assumption that as growth takes place, poverty would be automatically eradicated. One of my writings, ‘What is Growth?’, published in the EPW, led to some discussion. And in Poverty, Planning and Social Transformation (1978), I explained my position. In other papers I wrote, brought together in Growth and Justice (1992), I developed the theme further. In The Economy: An Interpretative Introduction (in the writing of which my interaction with you was immensely helpful), I attempted a different perspective on the economy, which I continued in Rethinking Economics.

After that, I felt I was ready to retire from economics. However, the growing gulf between the rich and the poor during the period after the 1991 ‘reforms’ made me think that the phenomenon must be explained to those who are not familiar with economics. That was the background to the writing of Wealth and Illfare. The reception it received showed that a reworking of economics was called for. After a great deal of preparation, I worked on it with three questions in mind: ‘Who owns what?’, ‘Who does what?’ and ‘Who gets what?’ — the questions I had placed before my undergraduate students. That book, Economics of Real Life: A New Exposition, came out in 2018, when I was 87. The reviews and the responses of younger scholars show that it has been helpful to understand real-life economic problems. I wish research on those lines continued.

The interviewer is Honorary Fellow, Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram.