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Boss lady #8 : Isher Judge Ahluwalia

The Bonnie of the Bonnie & Clyde of India’s 1991 liberalization reforms

The protagonist of my next blog is a relatively familiar name. Perhaps most widely known for her stalwart leadership at the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER) and her book, Industrial Growth in India: Stagnation Since the Mid Sixties which gave intellectual direction to the liberalization reforms introduced in 1991. Bibek Debroy wrote in his tribute to her, “Economics is a profession and transcending the profession, there is the individual. This comes across partially in the two memoirs, in Isher’s more than in Montek’s.” In this blog, I’ll introduce you to the individual — Isher Judge Ahluwalia, less so, the economist.

Isher receiving an award for the best all-rounder student at the Marwari girls school

Before I get on with her story, I want to draw your attention to the fact that almost all the women I have profiled so far have been serious institution-builders (institutions ranging from IIM-Ahmedabad, the Institute for Economic Growth at DSE, AIIMS, Center for Economic Studies & Planning at JNU, National School of Drama, Lady Irwin College, Central Cottage Industries Emporium, the Craft Council of India, and in this case ICRIER). How come the enduring policy spaces they created are thriving today, and yet their names aren’t emblazoned in our collective memories?

Ok, now back to Isher Judge Ahluwalia. Incidentally, her biography titled “Breaking Through” (no this is not a trite choice, once you read her story or get to the end of my blog, you’ll realize how apt the choice is) was the first of these women in econ & policy biographies I started reading after moving to India. My partner and I literally fought over who gets to finish the book first, because her story was so captivating.

When Isher and Montek moved back to Delhi leaving behind their comfortable jobs at the IMF and the World Bank, Isher writes that she had some trouble figuring out her niche in Delhi’s intellectual social circle. She remarked that she was very much “a Hindi-medium person at heart” and therefore, not a seamless fit in “Lutyens’ Delhi”.

Isher’s great-grandfather, Bhai Wadhawa Singh, was a famous pickle-maker in pre-partition Lahore. Her father, however, migrated with the family to different Indian cities in search of more lucrative economic opportunities. The family of 11 children (Isher was the ninth) ended up in Calcutta. Isher was the only woman in her family to pursue higher education — and not an ordinary one. By the 70s, Isher was pursuing a PhD in Economics at MIT, following a Masters degree at the Delhi School of Economics, and prior, a Bachelors at Calcutta’s Presidency University. Scholarships were necessary to translate every opportunity into reality but so was constant negotiation with her father to let her push the limits of what women in their family were typically allowed to achieve. Her father came around eventually, and Isher quite literally broke out.

Isher at MIT, during her PhD years

The school Isher went to in Calcutta was “Hindi-medium”. But her interactions with girls from all over India in cosmopolitan Calcutta exposed her to different possibilities women can have depending on their social group’s norms. Isher was deeply influenced by a young graduate from Presidency college, who taught her economics in high school. Through a distant cousin, she learned about Presidency College in Calcutta —Presidency to Bengalis then is what Harvard is to “Boston Brahmins” (says Isher). The wrinkle, however was that Isher was not well-versed in English at the time, and her father wasn’t too pleased about a co-educational college. She fought the English battle by learning actively from her peers at Presidency and studying the Hindi-English dictionaries diligently, and a 35 rupee per month scholarship from the government helped fight the father battle.

At 20, Isher left home for the first time to pursue a Masters at the Delhi School of Economics (DSE). Permission was granted because it so happened that her brother was also moving to Delhi for a job around then.

Two aspects from Isher’s chapter on her DSE days jump out to me. First, when she was at DSE, education was very much a means to get to a good PhD program in the US. Second, and this was probably a contribution to the first point; she notes that there was a glaring gap between the research and intense policy dialogues her Professors were part of regarding say, devaluation of the rupee in 1966, the drought and postponed 4th Five Year plan, and what they imparted in the classroom. The line between the mathematically rigorous economics instruction and it’s real-world application in a very turbulent Indian economy in the late sixties was never drawn.

Last interesting note from her DSE days. When her Masters results were out at DSE — eight students received a first division. Seven out of them were women, including Isher. She writes, Utsa ranked first (I’m almost sure she is referring to Utsa Patnaik). Anyway, after DSE, Isher took flight for her PhD in economics at MIT (this was also her first time on an aeroplane!) The airport was also the last time Isher saw her father, who had finally become a champion of her professional pursuits. He passed away toward the beginning of her PhD.

At DSE, one of Isher’s mentors was none other than Paul Samuelson. An interesting anecdote: Isher was mortified when Samuelson unleashed a barrage of questions during the first few minutes of Isher’s classmate’s paper review presentation. Isher was preparing her own paper review and was nervous about getting grilled ruthlessly. She made Samuelson promise that he wouldn’t interrupt the first 20 minutes of her paper presentation since she was working very hard at it, and he obliged. Later during her time at MIT, Professor Samuelson went out of his way to help Isher out when she was in need of immediate surgery and had very littler resources or connections to make that happen.

Isher and Montek, following their wedding

During one of her PhD summers, Isher applied for an internship at IMF that changed her life in many ways. As soon as she landed in DC, an acquaintance gave her a list of six suitable Indian bachelors at the IMF, though Isher was in no real rush to look for a partner. Nevertheless, high on the list was Montek Singh Ahluwalia. Their first meeting was at the World Bank’s Executive Dining room — the rest of this policy power couple’s path is history.

Isher and Montek’s courting in DC (walks around town, plays at the Kennedy center) funnily reminded me a lot of how my partner and I would spend our weekends (he was working at the World Bank at the time so the story felt familiar). I also found it interesting that Isher resisted the idea of marriage because the vastly differential cost burden of the great Indian wedding depending on whether you’re the bride or the groom (even if you put the whole business of dowry aside!). I hear her.

Both Isher and Montek developed impressive careers at the IMF and the World Bank respectively. Once they had children, and an exciting employment opportunity emerged, they decided to move to Delhi. Montek was swept away in the whirlwind of responsibilities that came with his time at the Planning Commission. Meanwhile, Isher went to work on building a research career from scratch in Delhi.

About her initial Delhi years, Isher writes — “being a working mother where your work is research on industrial stagnation in India in the 60s, is doing two full-time jobs with little or no pay.”

The think-tank that gave her her first research grant in India (ICRIER) would end up becoming the one she ran for almost 20 years.

In 1984, the Prime Minister’s Office offered her position of economic advisor in the Ministry of Secretary but later decided that they would only be able to offer her a deputy econ advisor position. Isher rightly called them out for outright sexism considering her husband was meted out very different treatment though he started working with government when he was younger, and had fewer degrees on paper than her. In the same year, Isher took up the position of a Professor at the Center for Policy research. Note that this was the year when angry Hindu mobs unleashed unspeakable terror on Delhi’s Sikh community following Indira Gandhi’s assassination. Following the terrible events of 1984, Isher actually mobilized the Sikh community among the Delhi intellectual and policy circle to collectively send out a message of peace and healing. This is just one example of the depth of Isher Judge Ahluwalia’s leadership.

About the groundbreaking 1991 reforms, I’ll quote directly from her memoir:

Isher writes, “When Montek and I had moved back to India a little over a decade ago, we had both hoped to make some contribution to economic policy in India: him in the government and me outside. Neither of us would have imaged that he would be at the center of the biggest economic reforms that Indian has carried out in its history. He was entering what would become the most exciting phase of his career, with the longest tenure as Finance Secretary. I had reasons to be satisfied that my work contributed to the change in thinking. My challenge now was to avoid becoming Mrs Finance Secretary!” I think she was more than successful in doing that last bit.

Dr. Isher Judge Ahluwalia passed away last fall. Toward the end of her memoir, you realize that she started writing her memoir after her diagnosis, with none other than Montek as “research assistant” and scribe for when she was too exhausted to write herself.

Isher’s story is incredible. One of upward mobility made possible by education that I’d wish on every young Indian who starts out with very little. Sadly, we know that her life was the exception, not the norm. But her work contributed to increasing the likelihood of a story like hers in the post 1991-world.

Apart from the perseverance that shines throughout her memoir, I was also really taken by the intellectual partnership Montek and Isher formed. They supported and complemented each other’s careers in a way that is truly aspirational and far from typical even today. Isher’s memoir left me with the optimism I needed as a young woman, who also moved from DC with her partner, to explore how to be useful for public policy in India. After reading the book, I have deep respect for Montek Singh Ahluwalia for the partner he was to this incredible policymaker — Isher Judge Ahluwalia.

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