UCL Home

Obituary: Prof. Colin Rosser

01 November 2012

Professor Colin Rosser, former Director of the Development Planning Unit, UCL, has died at the age of 86.

Son of a South Wales mining family, he won a scholarship to Cambridge to study anthropology.

But before that, he did military service with the Gurkhas, beginning a lifelong devotion to the Himalayas. During his time in India, he was involved in the occupation of Karachi docks to deter landings by the 1947 mutineers of the Indian Royal Navy.

Back in Cambridge, he took his degree and then undertook his D.Phil in research in the remote Kulu valley of the western Himalayas (now part of Himachal Pradesh). He and with his wife Tessa trekked over the 16,000 feet pass to get there and lived under canvas for two years while he wrote a dictionary for the unknown language of the valley and analysed the culture.

Colin was appointed to then-Swansea University College, where in 1965, with Chris Harris, he published the much respected Family and Social Change in a south Wales town. He also returned to the Himalayas with important studies of the Newars of the Kathmandu valley.

But conventional academic life could never hold Colin for long, and with an astonishing swiftness he transformed himself into a Consultant in Social Planning in the major Ford Foundation project, the Calcutta Metropolitan Planning Organisation (1961-67), starting his lifelong concern with urbanization in developing countries, and launching the strikingly innovative Calcutta: Basic Development Plan (1965). He went on to write a major report for the Foundation on urbanization in the third world.

In 1976, he succeeded Otto Koenigsberger as Director of the Development Planning Unit (DPU), a graduate training and research centre at University College London. By now he had developed his characteristic preoccupation with the importance of learning from practice and conceived of the DPU as a place where practical organisers (including consultants) could interact with theoreticians, academics, each learning from the other to mutual advancement. All DPU academic staff were expected to undertake consultancies in third world cities.

But once again, academic life could not hold him for long. In a major coup for the DPU and University College London, Colin won a World Bank contract to set up Master's programmes in highway engineering and transport at the Institute of Technology Bandung in Indonesia. Colin himself went to direct the project (1982), recruiting nine members of academic staff to assist him. He also organized “State visits”, the Provost of UCL to Bandung, the head of ITB to UCL.

In 1984 he moved again, this time to Kathmandu, to his greatest challenge, the creation of an international think tank, research (in physical ecology and economic development) and training centre for the Tibetan-Hindu Kush region: the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD). It involved a diplomatic nightmare - all the surrounding governments, from China and Russia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India to Outer Mongolia and Bhutan. It was to be located in Kathmandu. It was Colin's supreme test to create the centre from nothing and ensure its survival. It was to be his preoccupation up to his retirement.

Just before he retired, the State government of Himachel Pradesh invited him to revisit the Kulu valley where he had started his research career – now by road over the pass (and there was even an air strip). To his horror, he found Italian hippies had penetrated the valley – and were growing marihuana on the slopes – development had indeed arrived.

He retired to the Malvern hills on the Welsh border. But he still had time to throw his great energy and enthusiasm into a social survey for the British aid ministry on the city of Cuttack in one of India's poorest States, Orissa (published as Jobs for the Poor, DPU).

Colin was a person of exceptional energy and dedication. He remained fascinated by “practice”, the exigencies of action and management (in the field of planning), even though he had great skills and subtlety in anthropological analysis. But, in the end his legacy remains in institutions rather than publications.

Nigel Harris
Emeritus Professor, UCL
23 October 2012