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Indian economist and activist impresses and inspires

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Section: News, Top Stories

October 25, 2013

An audience of faculty, students and others gathered Tuesday in the Heller School’s Zinner Forum for a conversation with Indian economist, professor and social activist Sukhadeo Thorat. Thorat first spoke for about 15 minutes before opening the floor to questions from the audience.

In his introductory speech, Thorat humbly told the impressive story of how he rose from extreme poverty in a small Indian village to several respected university positions both at home and overseas. He served as the chairman of the University Grants Commission, which is responsible for upholding standards for educational institutions in India.

Thorat’s prolific work, including 22 published books and hundreds of essays, has influenced Indian social and economic policy. He praised Heller for its commitment to social justice through education, something he believes in fiercely. His activist work is dedicated to the breakdown of India’s ingrained caste system, which Thorat believes must be eliminated from India for an equal society to exist.

“[After college] I had the terrible choice of going into academics or professional activism, as I thought one would prevent me from the other,” Thorat said. “After going into academics, I realized that you must use [power and prestige granted by academia] to create progressive change.”

Thorat also stressed that India’s caste system creates a completely unique type of inequality and social stratification, as it actively excludes members of specific castes from any and all education and economic opportunity. Thorat reached this conclusion after 34 years of research, and it has served to strengthen his egalitarian activism.

“Once you understand the roots of poverty and social exclusion, the size of it and its consequences on the groups [in society], then you come to policy and progress,” Thorat said. His research took him all over the world, including Singapore and Japan, where he only became more certain that poverty is multifaceted and must be dealt with as such.

Following his speech, Thorat answered questions from the audience. In several answers, Thorat claimed that merely opening opportunities in India’s capital markets for more people was not enough. He said that “the market has had very positive movement forward [recently], but it is unable to eliminate the caste system.” When asked for an example of breaking down the caste system, Thorat turned to the institution of marriage. “Inter-caste marriage has been important because marrying within caste only enforces institutional stratification … marriage is a major remedy to the caste system.”

Though the event was under an hour, Thorat was a highly effective orator. He confidently and honestly told the gathered crowd about his strong commitment to social justice, remaining modest and frequently returning to his assertion that an egalitarian world is possible in our lifetimes. Some questions targeted the viability of Thorat’s theories, but the huge applause at the event’s end and the hopeful expressions of the attendees showed that Thorat’s dream of a better India and a better world are not so high-reaching after all.

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