Jagdish Bhagwati
Professor of Economics, Columbia University

How has India changed in your lifetime?

To embed this video, copy this code:

Bhagwati, on pre-independence Mumbai.

Jagdish Bhagwati

One of the most influential trade theorists of his generation, Jagdish Bhagwati is a professor of economics at Columbia University and a Senior Fellow in International Economics at the Council on Foreign Relations. From 1991-1993 Bhagwati was an Economic Policy Advisor to Arthur Dunkel, the Director of GATT. For the World Trade Organization, he has been an External Advisor to the WTO and has served on the Expert Group on the Future of the WTO appointed by the Director General. Bhagwati has been a Special Advisor to the UN on Globalization. He was also on the Advisory Committee to Secretary General Kofi Annan on the NEPAD process in Africa, and a member of the Eminent Persons Group under the chairmanship of President Fernando Henrique Cartoso on the future of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development.

Bhagwati is the recipient of several prizes and honorary degrees, including Gold and Silver Stars from Japan's Order of the Rising Sun and the Padma Vibhushan from the government of India. The author and/or editor of over fifty volumes and over three hundred articles, Bhagwati's articles have appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Financial Times, The New Republic and The Times Literary Supplement. He founded the Journal of International Economics in 1971 and another journal, Economics & Politics, in 1989.

His most recent books are In Defense of Globalization (2004) and Free Trade Today (2002); his early books, particularly India: Planning for Industrialization (1970) and India (1975) opened the doors for current economic reform in India; on these reforms he was advisor to India's Finance Minister, now Prime Minister.

Bhagwati has delivered lectures at many top educational institutions and appeared on television shows including the MacNeil Lehrer News Hour, the Charlie Rose Show and Bloomberg. He is a director of the National Bureau of Economic Research, a Fellow of the Econometric Society, a member of the American Philosophical Society and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a Distinguished Fellow of the American Economic Association, on the board of the Academic Advisory Board of Human Rights Watch, Asia and on the Council of the Economic Priorities Accreditation Agency. The recipient of many awards, among them the Mahalanobis Memorial Medal, the Bernhard Harms Prize, the Kenan Prize, the John R. Commons Award, the Freedom Prize and the Frank E. Seidman Distinguished Award in Political Economy, he has been awarded honorary degrees from several universities.

Jagdish Bhagwati graduated from Cambridge University in 1956 and continued his studies at MIT and Oxford. Before joining the faculty at Columbia, he was a professor at the Indian Statistical Institute, the Delhi School of Economics, and MIT. 


Jagdish Bhagwati: I was born in Bombay, now known as Mumbai, in 1934. And I was deeply influenced by the fact that the people from the state of _________ . . . because the whole state bifurcated into _______ and _________ once we got independence and the people states reorganized along the linguistic lines. It used to be common that Bombay presidency. Now it’s split into two. And I was part of the ________ faction.

Actually are traditionally very much oriented towards business. They are the ones who went all over into Africa and all over the world. They’re the biggest community of Indians abroad. One thing which ________ have on top of that is a very powerful tradition of social work. And Gandhi, the great Gandhi, was himself a _______. He built on that tradition. He didn’t invent it. What he did was to essentially harness this for social good in a very big way.

So every family virtually is involved. And I came from legal family. But my father, you know, fought for independence. My eldest brother became the Chief Justice of India and set up the entire legal aid program, and also public interest litigation. So there would be bridges built up for him, and villages named after him because he was a great, radical force. This ran in the family.

So the reason why I got interested in economics was because when I started studying economics, I realized, unlike law, which my parents wanted me to get into. At that time law was not seen the way it is today, as something where you can do public interest litigation. You can do pro bono work. You were just supposed to be, you know, X versus Y; Regina v. Brown. Just case law and nothing really interesting. But I could see my teachers at Cambridge, England, where I first started doing economics seriously at the age of 19. They were all oriented towards social work.

So I could see economics not just as a bunch of chess problems or mathematical problems as sometimes people do. But as simply an instrument for bringing about an uplift of people. And coming from India, and with this background, I was just a patsy for it. It became my vocation.

Well I think there’s one common thread, diversity, which is simply that my father came from a very poor family. And his own father was a primary school teacher. So my father went through on charity and then scholarships entirely all the way. So it’s a high degree of social mobility.

But they were all, that generation, my parents; I’m 73 now almost, and I’m talking of something like 110 years ago in India. And they were all very puritanical. The kind of upbringing I had. For all the seven sons that my father had, plus three cousins that were still growing up with us, so he was bringing up ten children in the family. And there was no luxury, no comfort, nothing. We didn’t get any money. There was no way of raising any money in those days like American kids do. The only money that you got was from your parents. And we didn’t get any. We weren’t allowed to go to restaurants. There was no money for restaurants; money for about two movies a year. And weren't allowed to wear long pants. It was always short pants until I left for Cambridge, England at the age of 19. We always used the buses. No taxis, no cars and so on.

But at the local bookstore, there was an open account. Each of us read skillions [sic] of books. Education was number one priority. And that really, whenever I get an honorary degree, I always tell the kids, “You gotta thank your parents, because without that you wouldn’t be here now. Because they gave you the values. And in many cases they also gave you the money to be able to do your education.”

So one brother became the Chief Justice of India; another, you know, President of the International Pediatric Neurological Society; my younger brother became President of the World Foundry Association because he’s a Ph.D. in metallurgy and so on.

And I’m no slouch in economics. So that’s four out of seven, and that’s a pretty high ratio.

But it was entirely due to these values which we had. And I think it’s also stood us all in good stead, because like my neurosurgeon brother was one of India’s leading neurosurgeons, he could have settled down in Chicago where he did his basic work, but he went home. And today he does neurosurgery on ppoor people, no cost, no charge. And he charges, of course, the rich people.

That’s sort of built into our system. So even when I do something like free trade, and people say, “Oh gosh, you gotta be a devil with horns if you believe in free trade.” I said, “Look, just hold back, because I like free trade not because I’m into corporate interests and so on. Corporate interests are into what I believe. It’s the other way around.”

I want to do it because I think it’s going to lead to growing prosperity. And it’s going to draw people into more prosperity. But it’s not to say that it’s the only way to do it. Frequently you will have to supplement it with other policies. But it is a principle instrument for at least the developing countries.



Recorded On: Aug 14, 2007