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A foot in both worlds

5 Mins read
Achyuta Adhvaryu

New professor and 21st Century India Center director Achyuta Adhvaryu shares his vision for tackling the most pressing issues facing India

Achyuta Adhvaryu has always felt a deep connection to India. 

“I was born in India and then moved with my parents to the U.S. when I was 3 years old,” Adhvaryu said. “I mostly grew up in New Jersey, but I’d spend entire summers with my grandparents in India when I was little.”

Many of his best childhood memories involve these summer trips, steeping in him a deep connection to the country from an early age.  

“I have always had one foot in one world and one foot in another,” Adhvaryu said. “I had this amazing exposure that a lot of kids in the U.S. don’t tend to get, being able to see this totally different side of the world. That really connected me in an enduring way to Indian culture, history, music, language, the importance of family, all of that — and it also allowed me to understand, from a very young age and very viscerally, the idea that I should feel so fortunate for the opportunities I had, that so many people struggle to meet even their most basic needs for food, shelter and clothing.” 

Adhvaryu’s path unexpectedly led him to the study of economics when he signed up for an undergraduate economics class on a whim while attending the University of Pennsylvania. 

“I actually wanted to do physics and music, and I accomplished neither of those things,” Adhvaryu said, laughing. “But during that first economics class I fell in love with the subject, because it marries this quantitative, analytical basis for understanding the world with a more human element. The things we study have the potential to actually make a difference in people’s lives, which is pretty unique. That marriage of intellectual rigor and real-world impact is really what keeps me obsessed with the study of economics.”

After graduating from Penn, Adhvaryu pursued his Ph.D. in economics from Yale University. 

“I was drawn really early on to the field of development economics because I was fascinated thinking about what holds people back from growing their incomes. Why are so many communities, societies, countries, etc., trapped in cycles of poverty?” Adhvaryu said. 

Though his initial research pointed him toward health care delivery in East Africa, about a decade ago, his interest in studying India began to grow. 

“I loved working in East Africa, but I had this personal connection to India and to ultimately making an impact there, given how important a role it’s played in my life,” Adhvaryu said. “So around 2013, I started to go to India regularly and struck up some research partnerships there. And that grew into an incredible amount of work that I’ve done with my collaborators and friends over the last decade.”

One signature accomplishment is the founding of the nonprofit organization Good Business Lab.

“Good Business Lab is focused on using rigorous evidence to demonstrate how worker wellbeing and business interests can be better aligned. Our work is largely based in India,” Adhvaryu said. “We’re taking what we’re learning through carefully designed, academically rigorous studies and helping to bring insights and solutions into the broader world — actually creating impact.”

Adhvaryu, who was recently hired as a professor of economics at the UC San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy (GPS) and as the director of the newly-created 21st Century India Center, plans to leverage the school’s strategic West Coast location to conduct rigorous analysis of social policy and private-sector decision-making in India and around the U.S.-India relationship. 

“UC San Diego is an incredible place to do work on India because it already has such huge strengths in terms of India-focused researchers. This is partially why I was attracted to come here,” Adhvaryu said. “So part of the center’s goal is to be a clearinghouse for all that activity, a central place that we can kind of take all that work, wrap it up and tie a bow around it, so to speak, and give it more of a voice and a platform. UC San Diego as an institution is really well poised right now to have a great presence and impact in India.” 

And GPS is the perfect home for the India center within the UC San Diego system, he added. 

“There’s no question in my mind that GPS is where the center belongs within the university because the school takes real-world impact and a deep connection to policy and advocacy very seriously,” Adhvaryu said. “GPS has done a great job of being that base on campus where policy and real-world decision making is emphasized, so it makes a lot of sense to have people here like me whose goal is to do that for India.”

Adhvaryu said his vision for the 21st Century India Center involves three pillars: global competitiveness, inclusive growth, and climate change and sustainability. 

First, India is a huge and growing economic power in the world, but by some measures, it has fallen behind other Asian powers, particularly China, Adhvaryu said. The first pillar examines how research insights can strengthen Indian policymaking and private-sector decision-making. 

Second, though India has grown so quickly, there are also hundreds of millions of poor Indians who struggle to meet the basic needs of daily life. How can the government design and implement policies that ensure that all individuals — especially women, low-income individuals and historically disadvantaged minorities —  are beneficiaries of the dramatic economic growth that India has engendered in the past few decades? 

Third, no discussion of India — or indeed the world — is complete without an understanding of the impacts of climate change and what can be done to mitigate those impacts as well as adapt to the changing climate. 

“There’s already incredible amounts of work going on here at UC San Diego as the STEM campus of the UCs, both on the science and technology side as well as the policy side, so we’d like to contribute to that understanding and deliver insights in that realm as well,” Adhvaryu said.

And though Adhvaryu has a great deal on his plate professionally, he makes sure that a great deal of his spare time is spent with his wife and four boys. 

“I basically spend a lot of time roughhousing,” he joked. 

Adhvaryu also enjoys sports — such as surfing — and the outdoors and, since moving to San Diego, has reveled in the indoor-outdoor living that’s an integral part of Southern California life. 

“There’s something very grounding about having everything be naturally open to the outdoors,” Adhvaryu said. “I grew up on the East Coast and then lived in Michigan for a decade, so it was weird for me at first to see all the windows open everywhere. But it’s been really lovely to have that indoor-outdoor connection.”

He also carries a passion for music, as he studied Indian classical music for the bulk of his childhood. Adhvaryu sings and plays the tabla, which are Indian drums. 

“That’s a big passion of mine and will hopefully be something I can pass on to my kids,” Adhvaryu added. 

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Virginia Watson is the communications editor for the School of Global Policy and Strategy. She has spent her entire career in editing, writing and design, both in industry and higher education. She holds a master's in technical and professional communication from Auburn University and a B.S. in journalism with a minor in graphic design from Troy University.
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