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Mainstream, VOL LII, No 23, May 31, 2014

Gilbert Etienne

Sunday 1 June 2014


by Jayshree Sengupta

Gilbert Etienne, 86, Professor Emeritus of Development Economics, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva, who used to write regularly in this journal [his last article—“India: Growing Importance of Fruits and Vegetables”—appeared in Mainstream (April 5, 2014)], passed away on May 21. While mourning his demise we are carrying the following tribute by a close friend of the scholar. —Editor

India has lost a great friend and a scholar who knew this country well and deeply, in the recent passing away of Professor Gilbert Etienne. Though he was a distinguished professor born in prim and proper Switzerland, he loved to crack jokes in Hindi and Urdu. He had spent around 10 years in Asia between 1952 and 2008. Coming from a wealthy family himself and married into an aristocratic family of Switzerland, he lived in a mansion in the best part of Geneva and in summer moved to a magnificent chateau in Neuchatel overlooking the lake Neuchatel. It had a library which was stocked with leather bound rare books from past centuries. Part of the summer he spent with his grandchildren in a mountain chalet.

But his heart was in South Asia. He knew Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh very well and spent a long time in China also. Unfortunately he could not come to India in the last four years and had to twice cancel his visit due to sudden ill health.

He was a Renaissance man who had varied interests. He studied Asian art in Paris but also had a law degree. His Ph.D was on Indian economy. India’s villages truly interested him and he wrote about agriculture and economic reforms which thrilled him. He had presented us with his book, Studies in Indian Agriculture —the Art of the Possible, which I found interesting. He studied Pakistan’s agriculture also and wrote a book, Agriculture and the Rural Economy of Pakistan—Towards a Possible Future. He wrote a book on Bangladesh, Development in Perspective, in 1979. He was also a keen observer and commentator on geopolitical issues in Asia. His observations on China were very interesting as he knew China well.

I used to meet him and his charming wife, Annette, who is also a distinguished scholar in gender studies in her own right, in their Geneva home with my late husband, Dr Arjun Sengupta. There would be always a touch of class in the way they entertained. The house was full of antiques and many from the subcontinent. There would be excellent French food and wine. Each dinner plate was unique and had a history from a collector’s point of view, which he certainly was. There was always excellent cheese after the main course and he loved to smoke a cigarette afterwards.

His first love was Hindu art and he taught it in Lahore in 1952-53. He used to find most unusual art pieces around old monuments and collected them. He also had a good collection of tiles from Iran. I remember seeing a beautiful small sculpture of a Yakshi’s face in his house. He loved it very much and told me: “I found it lying on the ground and she was saying—take me home!” He stayed in Bombay from 1956-58 working in a Swiss watch company, Favre Leuba. He had met the artistic circles in Bombay during his stay.

His work on India was appreciated and he got the global award from Priyadarshini Academy, Bombay, for outstanding contribution to social and economic development studies in 2002. He was very thrilled about it and came to collect it with Annette. He also was the recipient of a gold medal from America in 2010. He was recognised as a famous ‘professeur’ and a scholar by many in Geneva—even the waiters and the manager of the hotel where I was staying once, recognised him.

 He was always interested in debate and arguing about what policies are best suited to take India forward. He wrote regularly for Indian newspapers and journals. He felt passionately about removing corruption from all the countries in the subcontinent. He was particularly interested in the development of Dalits. He wrote a book, Dalits in Indian Villages and Poverty Alleviation, published by IRMA, Ahmedabad. He and his wife had adopted a village near Delhi—Bulandshahr where they returned periodically to see how it was changing and developing. He used to tell us funny stories from his visits to his village.

But none of his achievements and personal wealth made him arrogant. He drove a ramshac-kle car but more often than not, moved around Geneva on a simple bicycle. He was most unassuming in his dress and loved to mingle with ordinary people. He loved to laugh. I feel I have lost a dear friend who was artistic, intellectual and a fine human being. 

The author, a well-known economic journalist, is a Senior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.

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