Isher Judge Ahluwalia

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A brief biography

September 27, 2020: The Times of India

Judge Ahluwalia was one of India’s most influential economists and public policy thinkers. She was known for her work on industrial development, macro-economic reforms and urban policy in a field largely dominated by men.

While married to Montek Singh Ahluwalia, former deputy chairperson of the Planning Commission, she stayed out of his shadow and maintained her own distinct identity. In 1984, she was sounded out for a chance to work with the government as deputy economic advisor in the industry ministry but turned it down. In her memoir, Breaking Through, which released while she was in the final stages of her battle with brain cancer, she writes, “I also made it plain that I felt they were engaging in gender discrimination because Montek had been offered the position of an economic advisor five years earlier when he was only 36. I was 39 and my qualifications were no less — in fact, they were greater as I had a PhD from MIT whereas Montek was not a PhD.” This point was often made to those who called their home asking for Dr Ahluwalia, to be met with the response: “This is she”.

She was the ninth of eleven siblings in a conservative Punjabi family that ran a small pickle business. Despite a tight financial situation, she was always an academic star. From scholarship to scholarship, she worked her way to Presidency College, Delhi School of Economics and finally, the economics department at MIT for her PhD, where her advisor was the Nobel-winning Paul Samuelson. Always independent-minded, she wrote a paper arguing against his positions on foreign direct investment, and still got a good grade.

In 1970, while she was writing her dissertation and interning at the IMF in Washington, she met Montek Singh Ahluwalia, who was then at the World Bank. She married him and moved back to India. She worked at the Centre for Policy Research and later as chairperson of the thinktank, Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER), which she built into a redoubtable institution. She was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 2009.

Her book on industrial growth in India, advocating the loosening of socialist controls, was published in 1985. While it met with a chilly reception in left-leaning circles (she was even accused of being funded by the CIA), its empirical rigour was difficult to question. Another book on the productivity and growth in Indian manufacturing was published in 1991. Later in her career, Isher pivoted to urban policy.

Through her life and career, she came into contact with many people who were later to decisively shape India’s economic future: from Amartya Sen and Bimal Jalan, to Manmohan Singh, who was instrumental in bringing the Ahluwalias back to India. She called herself a cheerleader for Manmohan Singh even as she expressed frustration at his government in the later UPA years. She even campaigned for the one election he fought and lost. The couple’s personal networks though cut across ideological lines. In her memoir, she recollects borrowing money from Utsa Patnaik, who topped D School, while Isher came second. She also describes her friendships with women from the corporate world, like Kiran Mazumdar Shaw and Sudha Murty.

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