Promoting Free Societies

Parth J. Shah: Leading the Charge for Liberty and Free Markets in India

Parth Shah header

Few people have had as much of an impact on India’s ever-changing public policy and intellectual conversation as Dr. Parth J. Shah.

Since his time as a university professor in the United States, Parth has been actively connected with Atlas Network as a senior scholar of the freedom movement. He established the Centre for Civil Society (CCS) in New Delhi in 1997. Since then, he has committed his career to advancing social change and the abolition of poverty via the reform of laws and policies, pushing for accountability and choice in the public and private spheres. His work in policy training, education, and livelihood freedom reflects his deep dedication to advancing the ideals of liberty and personal empowerment.

His journey to becoming one of India’s brightest economic lights was not a straight-line path. During his time in college, he became acquainted with classical liberalism through reading Ayn Rand’s works, especially her groundbreaking novels The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. Parth found great resonance in Rand’s embrace of independence and willingness to defy societal expectations, which led to a life-changing adventure into the world of philosophical inquiry and economic theory.

Parth studied the work of classical liberal writers such as Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek, and Ludwig von Mises in greater detail after becoming inspired by Rand’s writings. He laid the groundwork for his future aspirations as a policy advocate by thoroughly grasping economic ideas and their consequences for public policy through the works of these great minds.

His reading presented Parth with a new—and out-of-fashion—way of understanding the world around him. Notwithstanding Rand’s relative popularity in India at the time, most Indians saw free-market ideas as rather foreign and potentially nefarious, thanks to widespread influence from the Soviet Union. “The assumption was that anybody who talked about market ideas had to be funded by somebody in the U.S. and most likely by the CIA. It was a common belief,” he said.

Real-world policy encounters, such as seeing the disastrous effects of alcohol prohibition in Gujarat, his native state, further stoked Parth’s intellectual curiosity. His conviction in the ability of free markets and individual liberty to propel societal progress and prosperity was strengthened by this exposure to the shortcomings of government interventionism.

Parth’s desire to study economics in India, however, was thwarted by a prohibition on switching majors, in this case from science to arts (which in India includes economics). He learned it was possible to do so in the United States, so he enrolled in a graduate pharmacy program in Boston. He soon also learned that it was possible to “audit” courses for free—something not offered in India—an opportunity he took full advantage of by soaking up lectures from Nobel Prize-winning economists at Harvard University.

After completing his pharmacy degree, Parth gained admission to the economics program at Auburn University, where he earned a PhD. He landed his first teaching job at the University of Michigan-Dearborn and soon became an advisor at the Mackinac Center, where he saw firsthand how think tanks function. He also attended training programs offered by Atlas Network that provided him with the skills to start a think tank back home in India.

Another turning point came when Parth learned he needed open heart surgery. For many years, he had intended to return to India to create a forum for the advancement of individual liberty and free-market principles, but he had repeatedly put it off after securing a professorship. Coming face to face with major heart surgery forced him into action.

“I asked myself the night before : ‘what’s one thing I would regret if things do not go well tomorrow in the operating room?’ And the answer was completely obvious. I always wanted to come back to India—start a think tank.”

So that night, after years of enjoying the life of a U.S. academic, he realized it was time to return home and roll up his sleeves. After recuperating from surgery, Parth moved to New Delhi, and—with the help of supporters in the U.S. and his own savings—he established Centre for Civil Society (CCS). He founded the organization with the goal of advancing social change through scholarly research, policy analysis, and outreach.

Parth presents CCS’s work on livelihood freedom at an Atlas Network conference in 2007

Parth set out to create a network of academics, activists, and thinkers who were dedicated to promoting economic freedom and liberty in India. He faced a challenge, however: at the time, India did not have much of an active liberty movement to speak of, so he set out to get the movement started himself through educational programs focused on classical liberal ideas. “We advertised on the college campuses, got people to sign up for it, and we would run the program,” he recalled. “And basically what we had to do is to create our own soldiers.”

The Liberty and Society seminar, named after a program created by the Institute for Humane Studies to teach college students the ideas of classical liberalism and free-market economics, was one of Parth’s most significant endeavors. With stimulating talks, lively debates, and chances to network, the seminar gave young people the tools they needed to question accepted wisdom and consider different approaches to policy-making.

One of Parth’s greatest contributions has been his emphasis on the significance of finding the right language to communicate the message of freedom in local language and context. In India, for example, people understood the phrase “economic freedom” to refer to the privilege that comes with wealth. Thus his efforts to advocate for greater “economic freedom” fell on deaf ears. When he changed his message to instead highlight “livelihood freedom,” emphasizing how economic opportunity benefits the poor, people began to take notice. With this smart rebranding initiative, CCS was able to gain broad support for its cause by bridging the gap between abstract concepts and the local reality. For Parth, It was a eureka moment.

“And so we began to associate the idea of classical liberalism with the poor. I think that was a big shift in some ways compared to how people saw those ideas in other countries,” he said.

“We didn’t work with an industrial house or a large business. We worked with street vendors. And so I think that had a huge impact in terms of our communication.”

231115 B 02481
Parth with Casey Pifer (left, Atlas Network) and Linda Kavuka (center, African Students For Liberty) at Liberty Forum & Freedom Dinner 2023

Thanks to Parth’s trailblazing efforts and dynamic leadership, including helping launch Atlas Network’s first Asia Liberty Forum in 2011, CCS has become a prominent international voice for policy reforms in fields including economic liberalization, governance, and education—establishing a model for others to follow around the world. His example helped lead CCS to win the Templeton Freedom Award in 2021 for their work defending the livelihood freedom of millions of India’s street vendors.

In recognition of his over 25 years of grassroots classical liberal activism, Atlas Network is proud to announce Parth Shah as the recipient of the 2024 Sir Antony Fisher Achievement Award. The award will be presented on stage on November 21 at Freedom Dinner in New York City.