Mahendra K Premi: A scholar whose work changed contours of Indian demography

File photo of Professor Mahendra K Premi
Mahendra K Premi passed away in the morning of December 24, 2020, leaving behind a rich legacy of rigorous work in empirical research and inclusive relationship at Jawaharlal Nehru University. He taught and guided a large number of students at the Centre for the Study of Regional Development for over 40 years. Besides making significant contribution in analysing and interpreting demographic changes in the country in the context of global development, he helped many colleagues like me have a proper population perspective for building a framework for studies in regional development.

 

I had not come across the surname Premi before I met him and often wondered if someone had given him or his ancestors this surname for the loving and affectionate attitude to all around them. Whether it was Republic day, New Year day, Diwali, Dussehra or Eid, he was the person walking in the corridors of the Centre distributing sweets. With his traditional Hindu background, he showed amazing liberalism and at a marriage function of a student of mine, held against all societal norms in a village in Haryana. After Prof Premi’s words of blessings, many of the Left-leaning students addressed him as comrade Premi. I recall his being an important member in a selection committee for promotion of a colleague, not a Marxist scholar but sympathetic to many of the positions like most of us at the Centre. A senior Leftist Professor of political economy made an anxious enquiry from me if the person got the promotion and if Prof Premi’s presence made a difference. I was shocked as I had heard Premi eloquently praising his work in public and private and could never have imagined him but supporting his case.

 

In my random recollections, I stumble on two incidents – one in which he corrected all of us at the Centre and another when I succeeded in changing his position. A senior officer from the Census came to me seeking admission to the Centre and showed the letter of permission from his office. We discussed the matter in the faculty meeting considering whether we were exceeding the quota for such admissions, academic record of such candidates and whether their admission in the middle of the academic year helped in pursuing serious policy research. Premi till then was the only person who had read the letter of permission and said “but the candidate has been permitted only to attend certain courses as a casual student to which there can be no technical objection”.

 

Prof Premi had a system of loaning books after putting them in his register which I found cumbersome. After a few months I realised that I had loaned his books to students and I did not remember to whom. We discussed the matter seriously for some time and finally he decided to give up the registration system.

 

His seminal contribution has been in areas of urban development, migration, socio-economic profile of the country. This has been recognised as changing the contours of Indian demography. He will be remembered for rescuing the discipline from the narrow confines of fertility, mortality and life tables. He was the first to draw my attention to the fact that migrants in large cities are socio-economically better off than the non-migrants and we are not able to focus attention on the poor and vulnerable migrants due the method of data generation by the Census and NSS.

 

Given that the demographic issues like birth rate, citizenship, marriage, etc, are coming to occupy the centre stage of political discourse, the country will miss scholars like Mahendra K Premi. and Information System for Developing Countries



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