Obituary: Professor TKN Unnithan 

Professor TKN Unnithan, a longstanding member of the CHEC Governing Board, died on Sunday 2nd July 2017 and was cremated in Jaipur, Rajasthan, India on 5th July. He became involved with CHEC after Zena Daysh visited Rajasthan in 1973 and held discussions about the setting-up of CHEC-India. Later, Professor Unnithan became the Founder-President of CHEC-India and subsequently developed the Indira Gandhi Centre for Human Ecology, Environment and Population Studies following a resolution at an International Conference on Human Ecology in 1979. The multi-disciplinary Centre is now a teaching and research department of the University of Rajasthan offering a full range of degree programmes. The highly successful research programme has addressed many local environmental problems, particularly contributing to the sustainable development of the harsh environment of the desert state of Rajasthan. 

By 1982, Professor Unnithan had become a member of CHEC’s Governing Board. He was made a Vice-Chairman in 2011 and a patron of CHEC in 2013.  India played a key role in the early development of CHEC: in 1982, Zena Daysh acknowledged the significant roles played by Indian politicians and scientists in the formative international conference and community programmes.  CHEC-India, always firmly based in the University of Rajasthan, has had a consistent set of local projects, and has long held a special conference on World Environment Day (June 5th).  This day for the environment stemmed from the UN Environment Conference in Stockholm in 1972 and was first celebrated in 1974.   

Professor Unnithan’s support for CHEC was consistent and prolonged.  In 2005, he wrote to Dr. Singhvi, the former Indian High Commissioner in London, in full support of a proposal by Dr. Singhvi and Zena Daysh to hold an international conference on human ecology in Delhi in collaboration with UN Habitat.   

In a message on World Environment Day, 2013, Professor Unnithan expressed his wish that people would bequeath future generations a safe, clean and sustainable environment.  He saw the results of development in changes in living standards, but asked whether development had benefitted only a few, while the rest of society, particularly those at the bottom of the social ladder, had not been touched by economic development. He also felt concern about pollution, enquiring whether or not it was an inevitable consequence of development. Professor Unnithan clearly saw the underlying problems of achieving an equitable form of sustainable development that would benefit all sectors of society. 

Professor Unnithan’s support for CHEC in part reflected his professional training as a sociologist and in part from a broad vision of the social responsibility of scholars and scientists in an age of rapid social and environmental change. Born in 1927 in Thonackadu village in what is now Kerala, he was the first male child born after 80 years in his matrilineal Nair family. Although many of his forbears were Sanskrit scholars, his parents valued modern education and sent him to a government school, even though getting to school and back every day involved walking six km and fording a stream.  After schooling, he left Kerala for Lucknow University, where his professors, who were socialists touched by Gandhi’s teachings, had a great influence on him. Later, Professor Unnithan went to Europe, studying at Cambridge, UK (1951-2, Fitzwilliam House) for a research methodology course and later to The Netherlands, where he took a Master of Social Sciences Degree at the Institute of Social Studies, The Hague. In 1956, he obtained a Doctorate in Sociology at the State University of Utrecht with a thesis later published under the title ‘Gandhi and Free India’. In the Netherlands, he interacted with three eminent and socially committed Professors: the Nobel Laureate Jan Tinbergen; Bart Landheer; and Jan Prins. They widened his outlook as an internationally aware, educated person with deep moorings in the Indian psyche.  

In 1957, he married a young Dutch girl, Gerda Kauffman, and also started his academic career as a lecturer in the Delhi School of Economics, part of Delhi University. In 1959, he began teaching urban sociology to architecture students at Delhi.  Soon after, in 1961 he was appointed Reader and Head of Department of Sociology at the University of Rajasthan.  He spent the remainder of his academic career there, becoming Professor by 1970 and later serving as Vice-Chancellor for two periods in the 1980s and 1990s.   

Professor Unnithan’s early scholarly work related to Gandhi and his philosophy and actions. He established and directed the Gandhi Bhawan (University of Delhi), a centre dedicated to the study of the words and works of Mohandas K. Gandhi, publishing extensively on Gandhian thought, non-violence and peace studies in India and abroad. He once wrote that “Gandhi’s contribution would have been far greater had he directed his opposition simultaneously against the caste system which has given sanction to untouchability (Unnithan, 1955). Later his writings on sociology became key reading for young Indian sociologists. In recognition of his “outstanding contributions to human knowledge” he received the 1989 Indian UGC National Award (Pravananda). In 2006, he received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Rajasthan Sociological Association recognising his enormous contribution to the development of sociology in Rajasthan.  

Professor Unnithan realised that universities should contribute to the communities in which they are situated and carried out research into local problems, establishing a tradition that the Indira Gandhi Centre continues to the present day.  He encouraged others to follow his basic philosophy that every educated individual must devote a part of his time for the improvement of the community of which s/he is a part. He led CHEC-India to establish local community projects, such as re-afforestation of degraded land and community health improvement.  In wider urban society, he played a key role in establishing the twin city link between Jaipur and Calgary, Canada.  With support from Lester Pearson, he organised the 1970 ‘International symposium and summer institute on development processes and developing areas’ at the University of Calgary. Returning to the University of Calgary several times, in 1988 he received the distinguished Killam Visiting Professorship award. 

One of his legacies to the Jaipur community was the hospital he and his wife, Gerda established. The Jaipur Calgary Charitable Eye Hospital & Research Centre Trust, Jaipur was established in 1982 to provide all types of ophthalmological services to poor and needy persons. The Hospital came into existence as a result of goodwill gesture from Mayor of Calgary who visited Jaipur in 1978. When Professor Unnithan retired to Jagatpura in 1988, he remained active, running a charitable hospital — Khejri General Health & Eye Care Centre – which offers free services to villagers from the surrounding area. It was registered as an NGO and received funds and support from many sources outside India.  

Professor Unnithan taught us the importance of human ecology, helped many of us to put it into practice, and demonstrated by personal example how this can be done. One of the last of the eminent leaders involved in the early days of CHEC, he has a great legacy which we should strive to emulate and extend.  We send our deepest sympathy to all his family and especially his wife, Gerda, who shared so many of his charitable outreach activities with him. 

Written by Ian Douglas

Key academic publications by Professor T.K.N. Unnithan  

T.K. N.Unnithan,1956, Some Problems of Social Change in India in Relation to Gandhian Ideas, Groningen,  

T.K.N. Unnithan 1956 Gandhi and Free India: A Socio-Economic study, Groningen,   

T.K.N. Unnithan, Indra Deva, and Yogendra Singh (Eds.), 1967 Towards a Sociology of Culture in India, Essays in Honour of Dr. D. P. Mukerji. New Delhi: Prentice Hall of India, (Spanish translation 1973; German in: Kapp 1987).  

T.K.N. Unnithan, 1969 Sociology of Nonviolence and Peace: Some behavioural and attitudinal Dimensions: A study of elites, non-elites and students and institutional situations and of elites in Nepal and Ceylon. New Delhi: Research Council for Cultural Studies, India International Centre.,   

T.K. N.Unnithan,1973 Sociology of Adult Education in India, Prassar (April) 6-13.  K. N.Unnithanand Y. Singh, 1973 Traditions of non-violence, Delhi: Arnold-Heinemann 

T.K.N. Unnithan, (Ed.), 1973 Sociological Theories of Pitrim A. Sorokin, Bombay,   

T.K.N. Unnithan & Ram Aluja, 1977 Prisoners, Meditation camps: a sociological analysis, The Maha Bodhi Journal (Aug.-Oct.), 62-68.  

T.K. N.Unnithan,2000 Leisure, Values, and Social Change,” in Ishwar Modi (ed.), Values and Social Change: Essays in Honour of T.K.N. Unnithan. Jaipur, India: Rawat Publications, 113-124. 

T.K.N. Unnithan, 2002 Is a Gandhian World Social Order Desirable and Possible? In Mundackal Paulose Mathai, M. S. John, Siby K. Joseph (Eds) Meditations on Gandhi: A Ravindra Varma Festschrift, Delhi: Concept Publishers, 162-178.  

C.C. Zimmerman and T.K.N. Unnithan, 1975 Family and Civilization in the East and the West with Particular Reference to India and the U.S.A., Bombay, Thacker and Co. Ltd.

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