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Agricultural economist Sheila Bhalla was a life-long supporter of peasants’ rights

Pritam Singh writes: Even after her retirement, she continued studying the changing face of agriculture and the impact of neoliberal economic policies.

Written by Pritam Singh |
Updated: September 16, 2021 8:04:06 am
Sheila Bhalla. (Source: www.socialsciencecollective.org)

Sheila Bhalla (1933-2021), professor emeritus at Jawaharlal Nehru University, an internationally renowned agricultural economist with special expertise on Haryana agriculture and a scholar deeply engaged with progressive and democratic movements in India passed away on September 5, 2021. She and her husband, G S Bhalla, were my teachers at the Department of Economics, Panjab University (PU), Chandigarh, and were the kind of teachers with whom you kept lifelong contact. G S Bhalla passed away in 2013.

Sheila, as she was affectionately known, was Canadian by background. She met Gurdarshan (G S Bhalla) when both were carrying out their postgraduate studies at the London School of Economics. Both were attracted to the socialist vision of reorganising economies and societies; in Sheila’s case, she was influenced by her father, J C W Scott, a Canadian physicist and a radar specialist who was also a committed communist. This shared intellectual and political vision led to Gurdarshan and Sheila getting married and deciding to move to India.

Bhalla came from a large family originating from the village of Badhni Kalan near Moga. To engage meaningfully with her new Punjabi family, she acquired an excellent understanding of the Punjabi language and reasonable proficiency in spoken Punjabi. For a considerable period during their academic careers in Chandigarh and Delhi, Sheila looked after her husband’s elderly mother who could only speak and understand Punjabi and developed a loving relationship with her.

The Bhallas spent their entire lives combining their superb academic work with multiple forms of support for workers’ and peasants’ movements and for democratic rights in India. I have so many memories of them, but will share just one today. When they joined PU in 1969, I had just entered the second year of my undergraduate studies. On September 2, 1969, the Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh passed away and some of us organised a meeting in the university to pay homage to his revolutionary leadership. Many students turned up but only two faculty members from the whole university joined the meeting — the Bhallas. It was a great boost to our morale and the beginning of a lifelong relationship.

The management of PU was, for a very long time, controlled by pro-Arya Samaj right-wing groups supported by the Congress Party and the Jan Sangh, and later by the Bharatiya Janata Party. Together with her husband, Sheila played an understated but critical role in challenging the dominance of these parties. They were assisted in this by their friends Dharam Vir of the Chemical Engineering department (a man of remarkable intellect and moral stature who was a life-long friend of the Bhallas) and Gurbaksh Singh Soch of the English department (who died young). They developed the Panjab University Teachers Association (PUTA) from an organisation of virtually no importance to one that had critical significance to the governance of PU. When Professor Bhalla successfully challenged a heavy-weight pro-Congress faculty member (V N Tewari) for the office of president of PUTA, Sheila played a key role in organising and strategising their group’s election campaign. Many left-wing teachers such as D N Jauhar, Manjit Singh and Ronki Ram (not to mention myself) later became presidents of PUTA, but the influence of left-wing ideology on the organisation was first created by the Bhallas and Vir. Whenever the history of PUTA is written, their names will feature as guiding stars.

During their time at PU, the major opportunity and breakthrough in the research career of the Bhallas came with the award of a substantial research project grant by the Haryana government to study the development of the Green Revolution in the state. Their first major publication, Changing Agrarian Structure in India: A Study of the Impact of Green Revolution in Haryana (1974), resulted from this project. One important finding of the study was the inverse relationship between farm size and productivity, that is, when farm size increases, farm output per acre decreases. The study’s finding that small farmers are more productive resonates today with the farmers’ movement in India, which aims to defend small and marginal farmers against the onslaught of big agro-business firms.

Subsequently and especially after their move to JNU, a division of intellectual labour seemed to develop between them — Sheila specialised in Haryana and other regions of India such as Andhra Pradesh, while G S Bhalla specialised in Punjab and Gujarat, among other regions. Sheila pioneered the study of agrarian relations in Haryana and published outstanding papers on the subject.

The tribute paid to Professor Sheila Bhalla by the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS) recognises the convergence between her intellectual and political work:

“AIKS expresses deep grief at the passing away of Professor Sheila Bhalla, a life-long fighter for the cause of peasants and workers. Her vast array of work helps us to understand the impact of capitalist development on Indian agriculture, the plight of the poor, agricultural labourers, tenant farmers and other peasant groups. An agricultural economist of great renown, after her retirement she continued to live an active life dedicated to studying the changing face of agriculture and the impact of neoliberal economic policies.”

Bhalla is survived by her daughter Sharan Rastogi, and her sons Upinder Singh Bhalla and Ravinder Singh Bhalla (all three have doctorates in their respective fields in India), and Yoginder Singh Bhalla, together with eight grandchildren.

This column first appeared in the print edition on September 14, 2021 under the title ‘The engaged scholar’. The writer is Professor Emeritus, Oxford Brookes Business School

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