Notable Indian economist Isher Judge Ahluwalia was one of the few women of her times to breakthrough into the male dominated academic world with her research and works in urban development. Judge passed away following a tough battle with cancer. She served as the chairperson of the think tank Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER).

She was successful both as an author and an economist, and will be remembered as a woman who stood her own ground while being married to public officer Montek Singh Ahluwalia who served as India’s former head of the Indian Planning Commission. Here’s looking back at her marvellous contributions to the field of economics.

A multi cultural upbringing

Judge studied at the Presidency College, Kolkata with a scholarship of Rs 35 a month, which covered her college fees and a tram to and from college. Growing up here meant she was influenced by more pan India influencers. Judge notes in her memoirs, “the Hindi-medium person at heart” who had “no exposure to English at home” knew that her desire to pursue higher education was about something as simple as retaining control over her life.

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After her Bachelor’s at Presidency, she joined the Delhi School of Economics for her Masters but her parents wouldn’t let her be alone in a city, living by herself. This changed when her brother got a business breakthrough in Delhi and she could go live with him to pursue further education in D School. It was in Delhi around this time that she met other academicians of that time, Dr Manmohan Singh and Amartya Sen. Realising her passion in the field, she then went on to get a PhD at Massachusetts Institute of Technology where she was also mentored by Paul Samuelson.

Her Experience at MIT

As documented in her memoirs, Judge talks about studying in America at MIT. She talks of an incident when she took a firm stand on matters of conviction right from her student years in MIT, where she had opted for a course on ‘Schools of Economic Thought’, offered by Paul Samuelson (who went on to win the Nobel Prize in Economics).

After a presentation by her classmate which ended up a disaster because of the Samuelson’s interruption, Judge went to his office and made him promise to allow her an uninterrupted 20-minute presentation, and insisted on a fair chance. “He readily agreed to this request and I was impressed that he did not seem to mind my implicit criticism,” she writes in her book.

Read a full review of the book Breaking Through by Isher Judge Ahluwalia here

Work and Research

Her research on the lack of economic productivity in India’s licence-quota-permit-raj had made her a much-cited scholar. Judge completed two major books: Industrial Growth in India: Stagnation Since the Mid-Sixties (1989, Oxford University Press) and Productivity and Growth in Indian Manufacturing (1991, OUP).

Judge joined the Board of Governors at the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER), and later became the Director and Chief Executive from 1998 to 2002. She was also a Member of the National Manufacturing Competitiveness Council. She also served as the Vice-Chairperson the Punjab State Planning Board from 2005 to 2007.

Judge’s life was one of a young woman with big ambitions who broke barriers in academics in India. As someone married to Montek Singh Ahluwalia, she was often in the spotlight but not without her own persona coming through. “Managing a home and career is difficult, but managing a home, an academic career, (re)building an institution and staying away from controversy as the spouse of a key policymaker is exponentially more difficult,” notes Laveesh Bhandari in his review in the Business Standard of the economist’s memoirs. She was awarded the Padma Shri in 2009 for her contributions to economic policy.

In August this year, she stepped down as the chairperson of ICRIER due to her deteriorating health. However, she continued to be the chairman emeritus, a special position created to honour her tremendous contributions to significant organisations. Judge was suffering from Grade-IV glioblastoma, which is considered to be the toughest of all cancers.

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