In memoriam

Pravin Visaria 1937-2001

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WHO would have suspected that an unexplained loss of weight was the initial indication of the onset of cancer. In less than three months after being admitted to a Mumbai hospital for a routine biopsy, we had to confront the shocking news of the untimely demise of Pravin Visaria, statistician and demographer extra-ordinary, Director of the Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi and Honourary Chairperson of the Governing Council of the National Sample Survey Organisation.

Pravin was not a man fluent with words. In an academic and policy-making environment where image and media relations often take precedence over substance, not many got to know him. A Kutchi-Jain, who trained in Bombay with great teachers like the late M.L. Dantwala, he believed in doing his duty more than being visible. Equally marked was his strong accent on austerity and a demanding code of ethics for research and researchers. No wonder, as the meeting to honour his memory organised at the Institute of Economic Growth made abuduntly clear, despite his reticence and poor skills at networking, Pravin Visaria was held in high regard by his professional colleagues in the academia and in government, both for the quality of his work and the clarity of his views, and equally his qualities as a person.

Pravin Visaria’s early career, after completing his doctorate at Prinecton University on questions related to the sex ratio in India’s population worked at the University of Bombay (1963-73); the Development Research Centre of the World Bank (1973-80) and the Sardar Patel Institute, Ahmedabad (1980-83). He was, at that stage, persuaded to resuscitate the Gujarat Institute of Development Research (earlier Gujarat Institute of Area Planning) where he served as Director from 1983 to 1996. In this phase, he published major books on the sex ratio, infant mortality, non-agricultural employment, contraceptive use and fertility, urbanization and India’s population policy. He was awarded the V.K.R.V. Rao award for Demography in 1984.

When he shifted to Delhi a few years back as a visiting Professor at the IEG, it was to focus on his research and spend time with his family, time which his many administrative assignments ensured that he rarely had. He was persuaded, reluctantly, to take over the Directorship of the Institute. True to character, once he did accept, he threw himself whole-heartedly in restoring the Institute to its once pristine position. In a period when social science research institutions are going through a lean phase, facing a resource crunch and increasing interference by government, reworking the institutional matrix could not have been easy.

The additional responsibilities at the NSSO and the many other enterprises that Pravin was associated with must have taken their toll. But not once did anyone hear him complain, or ever become cynical about the ability of our system to reform itself and be meaningful to society.

Not understanding the fine points of our statistical system, I only dimly comprehend Pravin’s (often along with his wife, Leela) many contributions to Indian debates on mortality, fertility, migration, measurement of poverty and unemployment, survey analysis and population policy. I did, however, collaborate with him in a book project initiated by Professor Dantwala on voluntary agencies and social change, an unlikely area of concern for a demographer. And I can still recall the feeling of quiet satisfaction when he was able to present the book to Dantwala Sa’ab on his 85th birthday, days before the master passed away. I have rarely experienced such committment to a former teacher’s project – a quality only nostalgically referred to these days.

We at Seminar had hoped to publish Pravin’s essay on the first Census of the new millennium in our last Annual. Unfortunately, that was not to be. For this journal that will remain an enduring loss.

Harsh Sethi