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OBITUARY

Prominent social scientist S. Parasuraman passes away

Print edition : Sep 02, 2022 T+T-

Prominent social scientist S. Parasuraman passes away

Prof. S. Parasuraman.

Prof. S. Parasuraman. | Photo Credit: VIVEK BENDRE

He expanded the nature, reach, and worldview of Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai.

Prof. S. Parasuraman, who insisted that field work and action research were as important as academic excellence in the social sciences, died on September 2 at 70 after battling illness for about a year. He expanded the nature, reach, and worldview of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai. From 2004 to 2018, when he headed the institution, Prof. Parasuraman eliminated elitism from TISS and took research, education, and social work to the farthest corners of India and beyond. A former TISS research fellow from Assam said: “He was not just an academician but an institution builder. Because of his initiative we got a TISS campus in Guwahati, and thousands of students from north-eastern India, including me, got higher education.”

Prof. Parasuraman was under no illusion why TISS was founded in 1936 as the Sir Dorabji Tata Graduate School of Social Work. One of the first things that he told this correspondent was not to romanticise social work because the beginnings were not based on the ideal of social justice or equity. “It was set up soon after the Great Depression when people were restless as effects of the Depression were affecting everyone, everywhere. The institution was set up to control disaffection among people,” he said.

To Prof. Parasuraman’s credit, he did not leave it the way he found it: social work was hard work and it moved out from the clubs and mansions where socialites regaled each other with tales of the poor over an evening cognac. He was determined that the institution would rise above the reasons of its founding.

Early years

Born in a humble agricultural family in Kovilpatti, Tamil Nadu, a town well-known for chikki and hockey, Parasuraman battled hunger, poverty, and the constant prodding to find work before finishing school.

It was perhaps because of what he overcame in his childhood that he never thought there was an impossible task: his usual refrain for anything that was difficult to accomplish was “Pannidalam ma, mudichidalam ma” (we can do it; we can finish it).

Theory, for Prof. Parasuraman, gave shape to reliability and a basis to replicate of ideas in practice. Hence, while theory informed practice, he insisted that practice was needed for theory to exist in social sciences. “We [TISS] have our strengths, but many institutions are also doing cutting edge research,” he said in a 2015 interview to Frontline.

“For instance, can we replicate what Adaikalam [The Banyan’s Emergency Care and Recovery Centre] is doing? What Banyan is doing? Do we have a theory for it? While we have academic expertise, we must also develop the ability to work with other organisations and institutions. That is something we did less as an institution in the past.”

Condolences

Soon after his demise, the TISS Twitter handle said: “With profound sorrow, we announce the passing away of Prof. S. Parasuraman. TISS deeply mourns his loss and offers condolences to his family.”

Students and many of his contemporaries offered condolences, on social media and in other spaces.

Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M.K. Stalin, in a message in Tamil, said: “I am saddened by the passing away of Dr. Parasuraman, who was born in a humble family in Kovilpatti, and served for 14 years at the helm of India’s pioneering educational institution TISS.”

In a tribute, his colleague, Prof. T. Jayaraman, said: “He was one of the few academicians who could confront the challenge of scale for human development in India.”

Congress leader Jairam Ramesh, describing him as a fine scholar and institution builder, said: “We worked very closely together during 2009-14. The PMRDF initiative taken when I was Rural Development Minister owes much to him.” Many other leaders from different walks of life condoled his death.

Exit from TISS

Parasuraman’s exit from TISS was underwhelming. TISS had expanded to Tuljapur, Hyderabad, and Guwahati, apart from having collaborative courses run by non-governmental organisations. The intake had risen from less than 500 to over 6,000. Prof. Parasuraman had always found ways to finance TISS, thanks to his association with leaders in Delhi and help from corporates and well-wishers, who shared his vision.

There were many questions raised over the expansions, even though students, and through them, the country benefited a great deal.  One common complaint was that he was “diluting” the quality of students who went out from TISS. Multiple faculty and former students who interacted with this correspondent dismissed this claim.

By mid-2017, it appeared that Prof. Parasuraman’s days in TISS were coming to an end. He suddenly found that those he considered close to him were distancing themselves from him. Soon after he left, recovery proceedings were initiated against him. Many of his friends from the institution, and those close to corridors of power, did not speak up. The narrow-minded bureaucracy in another institution that Prof. Parasuraman believed would help him did not materialise. He left TISS with a heavy heart.

He recalled these incidents in a matter-of-fact manner, when this correspondent met him in 2019 at the MIT-WPU, Pune, on the sidelines of the first national conference on media and journalism. He had moved on and was concentrating on the Pune-based institution.

Prof. Parasuraman was focusing on building the stature of another organisation, when years of not taking care of his health caught up with him.