Home >Opinion >Online-views >In praise of Indian female economists

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 Jotirao 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, 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 world. 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.

Niranjan Rajadhyaksha is research director and senior fellow at IDFC Institute.

Comments are welcome at cafeeconomics@livemint.com. Read Niranjan’s previous Mint columns at www.livemint.com/cafeeconomics

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