Please tell us about yourself
“The bars in my apartment’s windows showed how unsafe my neighborhood used to be,” says Esha Chhabra, MPA I in the Woodrow Wilson School. At the time, Chhabra lived in Patna, the capital of the Indian state Bihar, once known as the “kidnapping capital of India.”
Prior to attending Princeton, Chhabra worked as a country economist for the International Growth Centre’s (IGC) India-Bihar Programme, identifying areas for research that could aid effective policy making. She helped build the program’s identity, covering everything from creating a foothold for IGC in the bureaucracy to expanding the research portfolio to managing the office.
“People always ask me why I moved from Delhi to Patna, because typically the move is in the other direction,” she says. Before the mid-2000s, Bihar was viewed as a failing state with all socio-economic indicators below the national average and limited economic opportunities.”
“As a result, many people migrated from Bihar to other cities. Since the new government came in, there have been economic, developmental and legal improvements in Bihar and Patna, but it’s far from perfect.”
How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and unusual career?
Chhabra began her career interested in economics and finance. After graduating with honors from the University of Delhi with a bachelor’s degree in economics, she went directly to the London School of Economics, where she earned her master’s in finance and economics a year later.
“It was a great time to study finance because the world’s financial state was changing, but it was a bad time to be on the market for a job,” she says. “One week into my LSE classes, Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy.”
Tell us about your career path
Chhabra started as an intern at RBI performing Empirical analysis of Non Performing Assets (NPAs) of four major Indian banks.
After returning home to India after graduation from LSE, Chhabra realized that, even though her specialization was in finance, she didn’t want to work in an investment bank or hedge fund. “I found it to be somewhat of a monotonous field and I couldn’t dedicate my life to it,” she says.
She worked as a Research associate at NCAER (National Council of Applied Economic Research) doing analysis of the present capacity, growth trends, forecast of future capacity requirements as well as financial and policy constraints hindering the growth of the ports and airports sector in India. Co-authored the chapters on the airports and ports sector.
Following a seven-month stint working on an infrastructure project at the National Council of Applied Economic Research in Delhi, Chhabra went on to work with the Planning Commission of India, the apex-level, policy formulation arm of the government. Here she facilitated senior officials in overseeing the Annual Plan cycle for the states of Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. She drafted background notes to aid senior policymakers’ decisions during annual meetings organised to finalise Annual Plan outlays. She says her experience gave her great insights into how bureaucracy functions.
With an understanding of government operations in place, Chhabra moved on to the IGC (International Growth Centre) . As part of a small team, she had an opportunity to learn about managing an organisation.
Chhabra managed the IGC programme budget of over half a million dollars, which included research projects conducted by leading global researchers and institutions for the Government of Bihar.
Responsible for the integration of the policy and research agenda by connecting researchers and policy specialists and dissemination of research results to achieve policy impact.
She says her experience convinced her to pursue her Master’s in Public Affairs (MPA).
How was the experience at Princeton?
Chhabra says her time at the Wilson School has been productive. “The people have a tremendous impact on me. My interaction with other students, including learning about their experiences and what they’ve done, is very important.”
What are your future plans?
Though graduation is more than a year away, Chhabra is already thinking about what’s next in her life. She says she’s probably going to return to India but is thinking about diversifying her experience and working in Africa. “Bihar was an ineffective state before the government changed, and I think I could draw parallels to Africa,” she says.
“But right now, I want to gain theoretical knowledge and backing to my policy experience. It’s good to have an overarching perspective of theory so I can better understand the policy planning and implementation process wherever I may end up.”