John Matthai was born on 10th January, 1886 in Kozikode in the state of Kerala. He graduated in Economics from the University of Madras, after which he pursued Doctoral Research atthe London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) and then went on to obtain a D.Litt from Balliol College, Oxford. He taught as a Professor at the university of Madras and went to head the University between 1922 and 1925.
Role in the India’s Independence Movement:
He was an economist and belonged to the capitalist class of the members of the Indian National Congress who argued in favour of the Bombay Plan to which they were signatories. He was appointed a Companion of the Order of the Indian Empire (CIE) in 1934 for his contribution to the constitution of the Tariff Board.
While for most of his working life he served as a Director with Tata Sons (during which time he contributed to the Bombay Plan), he served for a very short time as a Minister in the government. He served as the first Railway Minister of independent India and subsequently as the Finance Minister, starting soon after the 1949 budget had been presented. He presented two budgets but resigned soon after in 1950 as a protest against the increasing power of the Planning Commission and P. C. Mahalanobis.
After he retired from Tata Sons, he assumed several positions: the first Chairman of the State Bank of India which was set up in 1955 and, the founding President of the Governing Body of the National Council of Applied Economic Research (India’s first independent economic policy institute that was established in 1956); served as the Vice Chancellor of the University of Mumbai from 1955 to1957 and then as the first Vice Chancellor of the University of Kerala from 1957 to 1959.
His nephew, Verghese Kurian, was the father of India's White Revolution. His son, Ravi J. Mathai, was the Founder Director of the prestigious Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad.
John Matthai’s doctoral thesis at the LSE was on the indigenous local governments and their manifestation in Indian village life and titled ‘Village Government in British India’. In 1915 he published this as a book with a preface from his teacher Sidney Webb (who along with his wife Beatrice Webb had founded LSE in 1895). He later wrote India and the War, a series of papers on the impact of WWI on Britain and its expected effect on India.