President Robert J. Zimmer convened the Center in Delhi’s inaugural forum. (Photography by Kuni Takahashi) 

Centered in Delhi

A new home in India deepens the University’s historic academic connections to the country and concentrates its expertise on complex global problems.

As the assembled dignitaries snipped the ribbon to inaugurate the University of Chicago Center in Delhi, servers circulated through the audience offering champagne. “I would like some myself,” President Robert J. Zimmer said from the stage. After declaring the center officially open, he prepared to toast the occasion and the commitment to scholarship in India and throughout South Asia that it heralded—but first he needed a glass to raise. “Could I have a glass please?” Zimmer asked a passing waiter, who gladly obliged. “Thank you very much.”

He toasted “all of those who are going to work here and the wonderful work that’s going to be done in this center.” Before Zimmer’s opening salute, before the ribbon cutting, before a ritual lamp lighting, before hundreds of guests were even shuttled to the center itself, the University had already showcased examples of that work.

The March 28–30 opening of the Center in Delhi included many festivities, formal and informal—a gala dinner; remarks from the US ambassador to India, Nancy J. Powell; beaming alumni posing for photos amid cocktails and conversation. On the final morning Chicago Booth dean Sunil Kumar joked, “We’ve had a day and a half of celebration. I believe, quite firmly, that that’s enough.”

During those 36 hours, in fact, scholarship dominated the agenda with occasional celebratory intermissions. UChicago faculty and administrators in attendance, joined by Indian counterparts, stood on substance, not on ceremony. As Powell reported in her address at the ribbon cutting, “My seatmate on Tuesday night on the plane from Newark was one of your participants, who was working very, very hard on his presentation while I was sleeping.”

A presidential forum opened the program on Friday, March 28. In a ballroom at New Delhi’s Taj Palace Hotel, flashbulbs illuminated the warm red backdrop bearing the center’s logo as Zimmer invited the panelists to the stage. Raghuram Rajan, a Chicago Booth finance professor on leave while he serves as governor of the Reserve Bank of India, moderated the forum.

Questioning business, media, academic, and government leaders, Rajan set a genial tone while leading the speakers through the thicket of impediments to economic growth in India and around the world. Arun Maira, a member of the Indian government planning commission, referred to author V. S. Naipaul’s nonfiction trilogy about the country, which included India: A Million Mutinies Now (William Heineman, 1990). “If V. S. Naipaul were to write a book about India today,” Maira said, “he’d call it, ‘India: A Million Bottlenecks Now.’”

Maira described a clogged nexus of government, industry, regulation, and education, where economic progress stalls. “There is at the moment a great mistrust in institutions,” he said, “and that is really paralyzing the decisions and implementation of decisions.”

The world’s second most populous nation, India’s 1.2 billion people offer a “demographic dividend,” the potential means to economic power. Shobhana Bhartia, chair and editorial director of HT Media, warned that the dividend could instead become a “demographic curse” without better training of workers for the available jobs. “I come from a firm where we are constantly trying to look for skills, we are constantly trying to look for people, and we can’t find them,” Bhartia said. “And yet you hear of millions of engineer graduates who are jobless. So where is the link between actually having skilled workers who can get jobs as opposed to having growth which is completely jobless?”

Another panelist, Chicago Booth economist Randall S. Kroszner, addressed the impact of automation on employment. Where low-skilled workers once moved with relative ease between construction and manufacturing jobs, Kroszner said, they now have fewer options because technological innovation has made much manual work obsolete. Many of those workers lack skills to find other jobs. That prompted Rajan to ask his opinion on a neo-Luddite view of a future where “machines do the work and the software engineers collect all the rents.”

Similar concerns at the dawn of mechanization 200 years ago didn’t come true, Kroszner responded, and he believed they would not now. Education will be essential to preventing that from happening, he added, perhaps made accessible to a much larger group of people online. “Obviously that’s something that has a lot of potential for providing a lot of information and training to people, wherever they might be, and at much lower cost than in the past,” he said. “So I think there may be challenges now, but that’s also a spur to innovation and there’s a lot of experimentation.”

“I hear you all saying that rereading economic history is a good thing,” Rajan said, “because you see the insoluble problems of the past are the insoluble problems of the present. And we found solutions then.”

That optimistic sentiment carried particular resonance in India, the country that, in effect, invented innovation.

Provost Eric Isaacs began his talk to open the session “Transnational Innovation in Science and Public Health” with a technological once upon a time: 5,000 years ago in the Indus valley of northwest India, near today’s border with Pakistan, the Harappan civilization built cities using scientific developments unprecedented in human history. Underground drainage and sewers, canal irrigation, and water-storage systems served large populations. Weight standardization facilitated trade.

“This is all very sophisticated and sort of portends the current day,” Isaacs said. Recent research into the Bronze Age society offered equally portentous insight into its collapse. “Because of climate change,” he said—not human-driven like what the planet faces today, but nevertheless catastrophic.

In the context of those historic achievements and the threats that undermined them, he struck a note of inspiration and obligation. “I’d encourage all of our scholars, both here in India and at the University of Chicago, to really think big about addressing some of the global challenges that we’re facing.”

Isaacs and others described those challenges in sobering detail. By 2050, he said, India’s population is expected to reach 1.7 billion—half a billion more than today—requiring cities to expand their capacity by 400 percent, an “extraordinary and very, very fast increase in urban structure.”

Already basic services can be dangerously unreliable. In 2012, Isaacs said, a single blackout “affected 620 million people,” or about twice the population of the United States. “That’s about half of India’s population,” he added, “about 9 percent of the world’s population. So the scale here is huge.”

K. Srinath Reddy, president of the Public Health Foundation of India, prefaced his own series of disturbing statistics with the fact that the national bird is the peacock, not the ostrich. “Therefore I will be quite candid in confessing that 99 million Indians currently do not have access to clean drinking water, 626 million Indians practice open defecation, and 660 million Indians are subjected to polluted air by the national air-quality standards—and if you take the [World Health Organization] air-quality standards, then no Indian is actually breathing clean air.”

In that environment, he went on, “4,000 infants die every day, equivalent to 12 jumbo jets,” a rate twice that of Sri Lanka and worse yet than Nepal and Bangladesh. Maternal mortality in India is six times higher than Sri Lanka. And only 52 percent of children have had routine vaccinations, compared to 99 percent of Sri Lankans. “These clearly represent systemic failures,” Reddy said, “so we are really looking at framing public health in the broader social context and recognizing that while science discovers and technology develops, public health has to deliver.”

Those bleak comparisons to its poorer neighbors—“India is super rich compared to Nepal,” economist Jean Drèze said—define what’s known as the “Indian enigma.” The “Early Childhood Education” panel, featuring Drèze of the Delhi School of Economics, James Heckman and Martha Nussbaum from UChicago, and Indian author and commentator Gurcharan Das, explored explanations and solutions.

“What should we do about all this?” Drèze asked. The Indian constitution calls for “early-childhood care and education for all children until the age of 6 years,” or about 259 million kids, based on the 2011 census. In the mid-1970s, a program called Integrated Childhood Development Services began working to meet that constitutional mandate.

Pulling props from his pocket like a magician, Drèze displayed the program’s most important products. A boiled egg with lemon for added vitamin C—or a banana as a vegetarian alternative—provide calories and nutrients for children who suffer a dearth of both.

An egg a day is more than some Indian states can afford for their children, but coordinated attention to early-childhood needs—preschool education, vaccines and health care services, in addition to food—has shown promise even without sufficient funds. Failure to intervene from a young age, the panelists agreed, can have lifelong consequences. Deep poverty evident everywhere in Delhi reflects the effects of such nationwide bottlenecks.

Drèze referred to his fellow panelist Das, who “points out quite rightly that the capacities of the Indian state are very weak and that either we have to strengthen these capacities or we have to limit our ambitions. I agree with that,” he said, then reiterated Isaacs’s earlier call to action. “We can and we must strengthen the capacities, and as far as ambitions are concerned, we must not limit them on the country, we must expand them and widen them.”

Situated in the DLF Capitol Point commercial building on busy Baba Kharak Singh Marg at the edge of Connaught Place, a teeming shopping district, the Center in Delhi has an up-close view of India’s ambitions and its bottlenecks.

A bank and a car showroom flank the center. Across the street the Rajiv Gandhi Handicrafts Bhawan sprawls the length of a city block, offering traditional regional items from around the country—shawls from Kashmir, paintings from Bihar, jewelry from West Bengal, wood carvings from Madhya Pradesh.

Between the center and the vertiginous radial roads of Connaught Place, where imports such as Dominos Pizza, Dunkin’ Donuts, Adidas, and Benetton populate the alphabetical blocks, a Hanuman temple attracts Hindu worshippers. In a surrounding open-air bazaar, homeless people and stray dogs sleep through the passing cacophony. Cars, buses, motorcycles, and autorickshaws use their horns like radar, constantly honking not in anger—or, at least, mostly not—but to alert other vehicles to their location.

Everything seems to converge near the Center in Delhi, in the center of Delhi, and arguably of India itself. “This could have been put in [suburban financial and industrial city] Gurgaon and that wouldn’t give you the real taste of India,” said Harshbir Rana, a Delhi resident whose twin son and daughter, Amanvir and Amrita, graduated from the College in 2012. “This does.”

At her side, Rana’s husband, Jasvir, echoed, “This is the nerve center of India.”

Likewise, the Center in Delhi will offer firsthand insight into UChicago for Indian scholars and prospective students, a large and growing constituency for American universities. Powell, who resigned her diplomatic post on March 31, said nearly 100,000 Indian students attend college in the United States—only China sends more from abroad—and visa applications are increasing.

Many American schools make visits to India, Jasvir Rana said, but don’t necessarily put down roots. A physical presence like the Center in Delhi “will be like a window into the University, real on the spot,” a measure of its academic soul in the soil of a distant city.

In the reception area of the 17,000-square-foot space, a wall-sized video board flashes images from Hyde Park. A student tug-of-war fades into an illuminated Harper Library fades into the maroon-feathered Phoenix mascot fades into an Institute of Politics event fades into dean of the College John W. Boyer, AM’69, PhD’75, on his bike.

Work at the center will cover the breadth of the University’s scholarship in three broad categories: business, economics, law, and policy; culture, society, religion, and the arts; and science, energy, medicine, and public health. The number of people and events at any given time will vary, with professors in residence, civilization courses, lectures, and research collaborations all overlapping.

A handful of offices accommodate faculty and administrators. A classroom and a tiered lecture hall provide space for traditional classes and talks. A lounge and scattered study areas offer reading hideaways and room for groups to meet.

Like the University’s centers in Paris and Beijing, administrators say, this Indian presence will strengthen existing relationships with researchers, students, and faculty in the region, while establishing new ones that only proximity makes possible. “All of the local people that we do want to collaborate with will see this as a really big positive statement of our intent,” said Bharath Visweswariah, the center’s executive director. “I think the physical space will also just allow us to engage a lot more frequently and with a larger group of people.”

Given the level of the University’s long-standing involvement in the country, that’s saying something.

Chicago’s academic connections to India predate the Center in Delhi by decades. Milton Singer, PhD’40, who developed a preeminent South Asian studies program in the 1950s and ’60s, advocated direct collaboration with Indian scholars.

Outside the program’s umbrella, the relationships also span many years and disciplines, from astrophysicist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, who spent nearly 60 years at the University before his death in 1995, to Chicago Booth’s Rajan, now India’s chief central banker.

Gary Tubb, a Sanskrit scholar and the Center in Delhi’s faculty director, pointed out that Chandrasekhar earned not only the Nobel Prize but also a designation “quite a bit less common among our faculty.” In 1968 he received the Padma Vibhushan, one of the highest civilian honors from the Indian government. “As far as I know, since the time of Professor Chandrasekhar no member of the faculty has been awarded a distinction in any of the Padma categories,” Tubb said. “Until this month.”

Joining Chandrasekhar’s rarefied company were emeriti political science professors Susanne and Lloyd Rudolph, recipients of the 2014 Padma Bhushan. Beginning their academic careers in 1956 with an overland journey from Europe to India, they have since spent the equivalent of 11 years living in the country, becoming prolific experts on its postcolonial political culture.

Tubb presented the couple with silk scarves at Friday night’s gala dinner, and they were honored with a reception at the center on Sunday afternoon, the day before the president of India bestowed the Padma Bhushan. Lloyd Rudolph’s brief remarks at the dinner, received with a standing ovation, recalled South Asian program luminaries such as A. K. Ramanujan in Tamil language and literature, Sanskrit expert Sheldon Pollock, and anthropologist Bernard Cohn. Faculty members such as those and their PhD students have produced “prodigious” scholarship, Rudolph said, noting Susanne Rudolph’s role as director, a position she held for 18 years.

To young scholars today, India remains a rich research destination. Law students Marco Segatti, Brian Ahn, and Alex Kiles happened to be in Delhi at the time of the center’s opening. Members of the Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic, they spent two weeks studying the housing rights of the city’s untold millions living in inadequate, even outright uninhabitable, conditions.

India’s homeless population, they found, does not conform to Western preconceptions. “Ninety percent of the homeless, in Delhi at least, works. Has a job,” Segatti said. “So this is completely different than in Europe or the US where the problems leading up to homelessness are perhaps the loss of a job or other issues, but certainly they’re not constantly employed.”

About 150,000 homeless people live in Delhi, an estimate that does not include slum dwellers. Slums themselves are a specific class of settlement, officially recognized, if not protected, by the government.  There are roughly 90 slums in the city, the students said, a number dwarfed by some 685 unregistered colonies. In all, Segatti added, “we’re talking about millions of people.”

Most of them live on government-owned land at constant risk of being displaced and having their belongings bulldozed, perhaps without notice, to make room for development. Some have options to avoid that fate.

There are three main alternatives the government offers—moving the people into new housing on the site postdevelopment, relocating them, or upgrading the areas, that is, “putting in paved roads, bringing in sanitation,” Ahn said. “The big problem is when they are moved to different locations, or when they are promised a space back in their original location, there’s just no engagement between the government and the people.”

Working with an Indian NGO that advocates for the people’s rights, the students encountered bureaucratic bottlenecks that arise within and between branches and levels of government in the management of such a complex issue. Their experience reflected a theme that came up throughout the center’s opening events: the challenge of creating a critical mass of knowledge from international perspectives and then putting it to local use, aligning Reddy’s triptych of discovery, development, and delivery.

India, he noted, is perceived as such an “innovation crucible” that major foreign companies have set up research laboratories in the country. At the same time, available vaccines do not reach the children who need them. “Ultimately we have to adapt this global knowledge to our local context,” Reddy said, “and that is where I believe what the Portuguese writer Miguel Torga said is absolutely appropriate: universal is local without walls. So we will have local adaptations, but we’ll break down the walls.”

That served as a fair summation of the University’s purpose in India. “The general theme has been one of collaboration,” Tubb said, “which is, in a single word, the overall goal of the University of Chicago Center in Delhi.”

A goal that was not accepted without characteristic scrutiny, even during the enthusiastic opening ceremonies. Kumar, the Chicago Booth dean and Bangalore native, kidded that he risked his Person of Indian Origin card—which spares him the visa application process to enter the country—by refusing to rubber-stamp a research proposal tied to the center. He subjected the idea, which he ultimately approved, to his usual evaluation based on three criteria: impact, complementarity, and specificity.

Subjecting the center itself to a similar examination, he raised what he called a provocative question: “Why do all this?” With fellow deans Martha Roth of the Humanities Division and Mario Luis Small of the Social Sciences Division, Kumar discussed the nature and value of collaboration within and between their disciplines and across international borders. Even before their conversation, he was persuaded. “After much thought, and after 36 hours of celebration, and some alcohol,” Kumar said, “I’ve finally come to the conclusion that this is a good idea,” his PIO card secure.

A faculty committee led by South Asia historian Dipesh Chakrabarty came to that conclusion a few years ago. Their recommendation set in motion a process that culminated with the Center in Delhi’s opening, a celebration in UChicago style, a study in global thought and local action.


The Center in Delhi will support and expand opportunities for University of Chicago faculty and student research, education, and collaboration with Indian and South Asian universities, research institutes, and cultural organizations.