Isher Judge Ahluwalia was one of India’s leading policy economists, an icon for professional women, a builder of institutions, a woman of faith, a patriot and a person of courage. She helped make the case for India’s transformative economic liberalisation in the early 1990s and was awarded the Padma Bhushan, a high national honour, in 2009.
Isher Ahluwalia, who has died aged 74, rose from humble beginnings. Born in 1945, she grew up in Indore and Kolkata as one of 11 children (10 of them girls) in a middle-class Sikh family and went on to obtain a PhD in economics from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She also worked at the IMF in Washington. There, as an intern in 1970, she met her future husband, Montek Singh Ahluwalia, who was working at the World Bank and went on to become one of India’s leading economic policy officials.
After their return to India, the pair influenced the direction of Indian policy. She did so with her research. Her husband worked under their mutual friend Manmohan Singh, a reforming finance minister from 1991 to 1996 and prime minister from 2004 to 2014. She also played a large role in developing independent, high-quality economic research, as director and chairperson of the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations.
Her achievements were all the more remarkable given that she obtained her education and launched her career at a time when horizons for Indian women were limited. Especially in conservative families, such as hers, they were normally pushed into early marriages.
She began her studies at a Hindi-medium school in Kolkata, before attending the prestigious Presidency College (where she learnt English) and then the Delhi School of Economics, finally winning a scholarship at MIT (where she was taught by Paul Samuelson and Robert Solow, both later Nobel laureates).
The decision in 1979 to return home, when so many Indian intellectuals were moving in the opposite direction, was triggered by the suggestion from Mr Singh that her husband should apply for a job as economic adviser in the finance ministry. But the reasons were patriotism and the desire to bring up their two sons, born in 1977 and 1979, in India.
She then worked on industrial policy at the Centre for Policy Research. This led to the publication of her Industrial Growth in India: Stagnation Since the Mid-Sixties in 1986, and Productivity and Growth in Indian Manufacturing in 1991.
The first book demonstrated clearly that industrial growth had slowed badly and that this was due to excessive state controls. The reforms she sought, and more, ultimately arrived in 1991.
In 2008, she was appointed chairperson of the government’s committee on urban infrastructure and services. This led her to focus on urbanisation, which had been unduly neglected. In 2014, she co-edited a book on urbanisation and published Transforming Our Cities: Postcards of Change, based on news articles she had written. She had earlier co-edited, with Ian Little, a book in honour of Mr Singh, with essays by leading economists.
Yet her most important contribution was the transformation of the ICRIER into an internationally recognised and financially independent think-tank. She was its director from 1998 to 2002 and chairperson from 2005 to shortly before her death. She sought to build up the institution’s resources and the quality of its personnel. That she was successful was partly due to her ability to persuade leading business people, including Uday Kotak, Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw and Narayana Murthy, to be involved.
Her intelligence, integrity, warmth and concern for others struck all those who met her. Manoj Kumar, chief executive of the Naandi Foundation, which works on provision of clean water and of which she was a board member, remarks that “she was a people’s economist”. “She had this thing about being connected, and this appetite for getting insight through conversations with communities rather than rely on secondary data,” he says.
These achievements were not easy. As she writes in her 2020 autobiography, Breaking Through, published just before her death, “being a mother is a full-time job. Being a working mother is two full-time jobs”. Yet, while treasuring her roles as wife, mother and grandmother, she never gave up her hard-won position as an independent actor. She wrote that “while I was happy about Montek’s achievements, I didn’t want his official position to define me”.
Isher Ahluwalia will be remembered as much for her luminous personality as for her achievements. I was fortunate to be a friend for almost half a century. I cherish her memory.
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