In praise of In­dian fe­male econ­o­mists

Mint Asia ST - - Views Theirview - Ni­ran­jan Ra­jad­hyak­sha

An old group pho­to­graph taken af­ter an of­fi­cial farewell given to the head of eco­nomic re­search at the Re­serve Bank of In­dia (RBI) some­time in the late 1940s tells us some­thing im­por­tant. There are only a hand­ful of women among dozens of men. One of the women in the photo is Nalini Am­be­gaonkar. A se­nior economist who worked with the In­dian cen­tral bank told me that she was in charge of the credit plan­ning cell that later be­came the mon­e­tary pol­icy depart­ment.

The re­cent ap­point­ment of Gita Gopinath as the chief economist of the In­ter­na­tional Mon­e­tary Fund has once again thrown the spot­light on the glass ceil­ing in eco­nom­ics. She now joins World Bank chief economist Pinelopi Kou­jianou Gold­berg and Or­gan­i­sa­tion for Eco­nomic Co-op­er­a­tion and De­vel­op­ment chief economist Lau­rence Boone. Eli­nor Ostrom is the only woman to have won the No­bel Prize in eco­nom­ics. I asked in a June 2012 col­umn whether there is a gen­der bias in eco­nom­ics (see Here’s To You, Mrs Robin­son). This in­stal­ment of Cafe Eco­nom­ics fo­cuses on some of the most tal­ented fe­male econ­o­mists in In­dia. The list is ob­vi­ously not com­pre­hen­sive, and I ran it past a few economist friends.

Let us be­gin with some­one who joined the RBI around the time that old photo was taken. Dharma Ku­mar joined the cen­tral bank af­ter re­turn­ing from Cam­bridge. She later aban­doned the pol­icy world to be­come an in­flu­en­tial eco­nomic his­to­rian whose in­sights into caste, as Ra­machan­dra Guha once noted, were in the tra­di­tion of Jy­oti­rao Phule and B.R. Ambed­kar. She also sparked off a de­bate in 1991 when she wrote a let­ter on how the Eco­nomic and Po­lit­i­cal Weekly had strayed from the eclec­tic in­ten­tions of its founder edi­tor and had been hege­mo­nized by Marx­ist in­tel­lec­tu­als.

Kr­ishna Bharad­waj had shot into promi­nence with a cel­e­brated book re­view in the same jour­nal a few decades ear­lier. She was a young pro­fes­sor at the Bom­bay School of Eco­nom­ics when Sachin Chaud­hary asked her to re­view one of the most dif­fi­cult books in eco­nomic the­ory, The Pro­duc­tion of Commodities By Means Of Commodities by Piero Sraffa. The Ital­ian mas­ter was so im­pressed by the re­view pub­lished in 1963 that he in­vited her to Cam­bridge. She went on to be­come one of the most re­spected eco­nomic the­o­rists in the world, as well as one of the an­chors of the Cen­tre for Eco­nomic Stud­ies and Plan­ning at Jawa­har­lal Nehru Univer­sity.

In 1970, Padma De­sai shook the In­dian pol­icy con­sen­sus af­ter the pub­li­ca­tion of In­dia: Plan­ning for In­dus­tri­al­i­sa­tion, the book she co-au­thored with Jagdish Bhag­wati. It pro­vided an early in­tel­lec­tual case for the sub­se­quent shift from cen­tral­ized plan­ning to a mar­ket econ­omy. De­sai was also a Bom­bay School prod­uct who later be­came the first Asian woman to get a PHD in eco­nom­ics at Har­vard. She later taught there as one of the lead­ing global ex­perts on the dif­fi­cult tran­si­tion from com­mu­nism to cap­i­tal­ism.

Isher Judge Ah­luwalia is an­other economist who has pro­vided in­tel­lec­tual fire­power to eco­nomic re­form­ers. Her two books on the stag­na­tion in In­dian man­u­fac­tur­ing af­ter 1965 showed how re­stric­tive in­dus­trial as well as trade poli­cies had hin­dered pro­duc­tiv­ity growth, and made large swathes of In­dian in­dus­try un­com­pet­i­tive. Her work came at a time when there was an al­ter­na­tive view that in­dus­trial pro­duc­tion had hit a road­block be­cause of poor do­mes­tic de­mand for man­u­fac­tured goods. She has more re­cently been one of the lead­ing thinkers of In­dia’s ur­ban chal­lenge.

Utsa Pat­naik has not only been an in­flu­en­tial teacher but is also known as one of the finest Marx­ist econ­o­mists in In­dia. Her aca­demic work is highly re­garded, but she is per­haps best re­mem­bered for her role in two big de­bates in In­dian eco­nom­ics. The first was her con­tri­bu­tion to what is known as the mode of pro­duc­tion de­bate in In­dian agri­cul­ture, which be­gan with a sam­ple sur­vey con­ducted by Ashok Ru­dra in Pun­jab. The crux of the de­bate was whether In­dian agri­cul­ture was feu­dal or cap­i­tal­ist. The sec­ond big de­bate was on the nu­tri­tion puz­zle, with Pat­naik chal­leng­ing the view put forth by An­gus Deaton and Jean Dreze that In­di­ans were con­sum­ing fewer calo­ries be­cause of oc­cu­pa­tional di­ver­si­fi­ca­tion. Her ar­gu­ment was that de­mand had fallen be­cause of im­pov­er­ish­ment.

Fi­nally, there is Bina Agar­wal. Her book on land rights for women— A Field of One’s Own: Gen­der and Land Rights in South Asia— has been de­scribed as a clas­sic in con­tem­po­rary de­vel­op­ment eco­nom­ics. It tells us a lot about how gen­der equal­ity is rooted in in­ad­e­quate prop­erty rights for women. In 2010, Agar­wal shared the pres­ti­gious Leon­tief Award given by Tufts Univer­sity for “out­stand­ing con­tri­bu­tions to eco­nomic the­ory” with Daniel Kah­ne­man.

There are sev­eral other names that can be added to the list of In­dian women econ­o­mists—jay­ati Ghosh, De­vaki Jain, Indira Ra­jara­man, and Kanta Ranadive, for ex­am­ple. Their work has not been high­lighted here only be­cause of the lack of space.

Mean­while, a new gen­er­a­tion is also mak­ing its pres­ence felt, not just in academia but also in the pol­icy word. Pami Dua is a mem­ber of the mon­e­tary pol­icy com­mit­tee that sets in­ter­est rates. Shamika Ravi and Ashima Goyal are mem­bers of the Prime Min­is­ter’s Eco­nomic Ad­vi­sory Coun­cil. In­dia has not yet had a fe­male RBI gov­er­nor or chief eco­nomic ad­vi­sor. The pri­vate sec­tor has a far bet­ter gen­der record when it comes to chief econ­o­mists.

Fi­nally, a ques­tion for con­nois­seurs of In­dian eco­nom­ics: Who should ide­ally be de­scribed as the first for­mally trained fe­male economist in In­dia? It would be great to know.

Com­ments are wel­come at cafeeco­nomics@livemint.com

RAMESH PATHANIA/MINT

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