In November 2019, we received an email: “Thank you for your email. I confirm my participation as a jury member in the Businessline Awards for Changemakers.” — Isher Judge Ahluwalia.
Isher, however, couldn’t attend the final jury meeting of BL’s awards owing to ill health; still, she continued to communicate with us enthusiastically, exhibiting impeccable professionalism — a trait that’s amply evident in her memoir — Breaking Through — as well.
Written at a time when she is fighting her own battle with a disease, the book is deeply personal. “In life, one never knows what comes next,” writes Isher. “It is always a surprise.”
The book is about the life of a leading Indian policy economist. So, it definitely talks economics, but with a difference. Isher speaks the language of reforms — both social and economic. She was a professor at the Centre for Policy Research, and then director, and later Chairperson of ICRIER, one of the leading think tanks in India.
Economist and thinker
The book is an account of a woman who has built her own stature in economics. “The book was written in a few months, in trying circumstances. As the book nears completion, I was losing the ability to read and write on my own, and was relying extensively on help from my family to put down my thoughts,” she says as she concludes the book.
The narrative touches upon a bouquet of interesting phases in Isher’s life — her romance with academics; the challenges of coming from a family with limited means and 11 children; being the first to attend a university (from Presidency College to Delhi School of Economics and Massachusetts Institute of Technology); how and when Isher Judge became Isher Judge Ahluwalia, wife of economist Montek Singh Ahluwalia; her journey from IMF to back home; and not to forget how the young Isher mastered the English language, an unknown turf for her.
Honesty is an integral part of Isher’s personality and the book stands testimony to the fact. So is her subtle sense of humour — she thanks her husband’s support to her when penning the book – “As my health weakened, he would take dictation, type out the chapters, sit and read them out to me, write out my corrections in hand, and work them into the typed version. He is certainly the highest qualified Research Assistant that I could hope for...”
On the dismal science
Isher also raises a pertinent question — of how economics is taught in India. Despite having some of the best names in economics, who also were great critiques, she observes that in India exists chasm between research and practice of economics. “...as I look back on my DSE (Delhi School of Economics) years, I am struck by the glaring gap between the cutting-edge research pursued by my professors and what they taught us in the classroom. While we were taught economic theory very well, we were largely insulated from the major debates that were taking place on a policy issue. This was so even when several of our professors were leading participants in these debates.”
That said, she add that this was perhaps because “… despite its stellar faculty, DSE was still a traditional Indian academic institution, working within the confines of a traditional Indian university.” She further pens “...I was also struck by the fact that we were not encouraged to apply economic theory to issues of economic policy that were of contemporary interest. The year I was in DSE (1965-67) were years of immense turbulence in Indian politics and economic policy.”
Talking about the decision to return to India, she says, “For my part, the reasons to return to India were also personal. I was never interested in a job in the government and had also ruled out teaching because the Indian university system does not provide university professors with the flexibility and facilities needed to pursue their own research interests. I began to think of defining a research project, getting some funding and locating myself in an institution where I could pursue empirical research on the Indian economy. But, a major factor in my decision to return was the desire to raise my children in India and for them to grow up Indians.”
The chapter ‘Battleground’ holds a mirror to a slice of the Indian society and hence is relevant even today. “Montek’s civil servant colleagues were not easy to integrate with socially. There was an age barrier. Montek and I moved to Delhi when he was 36 and I was 34, but because he was a lateral entrant, he was already quite senior in the civil service hierarchy, and his colleagues were also much older than us. There was also a gender barrier, as most women in social gatherings clustered together and rarely got involved in discussions on policies and politics.” Her observation that the “sense of hierarchy, however, spilt over to the women” is a reality even today.
ICRIER has been associated with Isher’s name even now, though after 15 years, as chairperson of the Board of Governors of ICRIER, Isher has stepped down from her position due to declining health.
How ICRIER happened to her? She recounts: “I got research funding from the Steering Committee for Research on International Economic Relations (SCRIER). This was a new think tank set up by Dr KB Lall, former commerce secretary and defence secretary, with funding from Ford Foundation. SCRIER was designed to fund research on policies that India must adopt if it wanted to integrate more productively with the global economy. In 1981, SCRIER was transformed into ICRIER — and so the think tank that gave me my first research grant in India would ultimately be one that I would be at the helm of for close to two decades.”
Isher’s story is straight from the heart. She does not go over the top with her achievements; she rather makes it sound like a tale of any achiever — being at the right time and place and staying focused.