Shreyas Narla and Kadambari Shah on Why Women Economic Policy Makers Matter

Shruti Rajagopalan, Shreyas Narla, and Kadambari Shah discuss the missing women in economic policy and the political structures that limited their opportunities.

In this episode, Shruti speaks with Shreyas Narla and Kadambari Shah about women missing from the 1991 reforms high table decision making, trends in female labor force participation, how women in economics are finding their seats in various economic institutions across India, and more. To learn more about Shreyas and Kadambari’s research, oral history interviews, and their work on the 1991 Project, visit

SHRUTI RAJAGOPALAN: Welcome to Ideas of India, where we examine academic ideas that can propel India forward. My name is Shruti Rajagopalan, and I am a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.

Today my guests are Shreyas Narla and Kadambari Shah, who are my colleagues at the Mercatus Center and research scholars working with me on the 1991 Project. We spoke about their research and writing, explaining the missing women in economic policy, the structure of the Indian Administrative Service, how and why women didn’t have a seat at the high table of decision making during the 1991 reforms, why female economic policy makers matter, the low and declining female labor force participation and much more. For a full transcript of this conversation, including helpful links of all the references mentioned, click the link in the show notes or visit

Hi, Kadambari; hi, Shreyas. Welcome to the show. It is so much fun to have you here in the studio—as opposed to in the office or at lunch or at various places where we are constantly talking about this.

SHREYAS NARLA: Hi, Shruti. I’m so excited to be back again.

KADAMBARI SHAH: Thanks for having us.


We’ve been working together on the 1991 Project. It’s been a couple of years. And Shreyas, you’ve come here and spoken about the reforms part of it. One thing that has been driving all of us a bit crazy, and it’s been an ongoing effort for a few years, is that there were senior bureaucrats like A. N. Verma, there were technocrats like Montek Singh Ahluwalia, there were technical economists like C. Rangarajan—we’ve chronicled their journeys, but we can’t find any women in any of these categories: either bureaucrats or technocrats brought in from outside or technical economists in the RBI [Reserve Bank of India] who were working at a level of seniority that was required in 1991 to be able to work with either Manmohan Singh at the Finance Ministry or P. Chidambaram in the Commerce Ministry or P. V. Narasimha Rao, of course, in the prime minister’s office.

First question: Where are the women?

Structural Barriers Excluding Women

NARLA: That’s a deep dive search that we even had to take up, Shruti, when we were looking up “where were the women?”

The place that Kadambari and I stopped at was recognizing that the feeder pool for all this talent is the IAS—the Indian Administrative Service. When we went about trying to look for these names, we realized that what we needed to look at first was the institution itself and how the services work. As far as (1) how accessible they are to women, (2) how they actually recruit women, and (3) if at all, there is any room for them to grow.

When we did this search, we realized that as part of their recruitment rules that was set up in 1954, there was a clause that said that while in service, if they were to get married, they would have to quit the service. In a way, within the institution’s framework itself, they created a disqualifier for women by making it impossible for them to continue in service if they ever got married while they were recruited.

RAJAGOPALAN: This rule only applies to women, not to men.

NARLA: Not to men. It was for women. This remained on the books till 1971.


NARLA: Which meant that by the time the individuals like A. N. Verma and the other seniors who were part of the technocratic high table in 1991, who all came from the earlier batches, from the ’50s and ’60s—these were the years that there were very few women entering the services. One large part of the reason is that they didn’t continue in the service, which is likely that they didn’t, because of the marriage disqualifier.

(1) They didn’t get to rise too long in the service. (2) Because of a disqualifier like this, the chances of women even appearing for the IAS exam were much lesser. This is visible from the numbers itself. When the disqualifier goes off in 1971, the numbers spike up two times in the number of women being recruited into the IAS. Which is why the years of 1972 to 1974, you have this new generation of women bureaucrats coming in who eventually turn out to be people like Nirupama Menon Rao and some others who we’ll talk about later in the talk. That definitely was a big deterrent.

The second thing, and this goes to the culture of the IAS itself, and this is a lovely quote that’s talked about, how when even the British Raj—because essentially the IAS is what continued from the Indian civil services set up by the British Raj—they imagined the civil servant to be this “lone (male) administrator” (at least in the quote) “riding through the countryside and stopping at remote villages to dispense British justice and administer British rule.” They “had to be ‘hard-drinking, hard-riding, polo-playing fellows’ and not ‘domesticated’ men, preferring the company of their wives and children in the long evenings at camps.”

In a way, while we may have done away with that system when we did grow independent and we set up the IAS, the culture of recognizing that women can be administrators, decision makers, play a role in governance was not a popular view. It behooves to the society itself that we are in, which doesn’t see women as being capable of taking those roles and largely playing their domesticated responsibilities. That permeated into the way the services were also set up.

Even then, while there were women who were employed by the services in the ICS [Indian Civil Service] and in the IAS, they were often only in the education departments or in the health departments, because women, being nurturers, caregivers, can only—their role even in the services was an extension of what are the preordained societal roles that they were playing out.

That played out even in the IAS over the years, which are called the “soft departments”: at least that was for the longest time (and continues to be) a problem, is that women did not get easily allocated to the Finance Ministries or the Commerce Ministry or the Home Ministry, any of the common—


NARLA: Defense Ministries. These are all your North Block, the-seat-of-the-Indian-government ministries. Women did not get very easily allocated to these departments. That was one other problem.

The third, of course—and this comes down to the fact that it’s not that there was an absence of talent. There was, because there were women who were—not in big numbers, but definitely in some numbers—entering educational spaces, finally getting their degrees, moving beyond getting a degree in education or a degree in medical sciences, which was what was the larger trajectory of women graduates in India.

The problem came at how they were treated once they entered the services and the opportunities they would get in terms of their promotion, where they get transferred and all of that. This depended on an understanding: Can women put in the long, late hours? Can they be transferred to departments where they have to do the grunt work? This of course affected their opportunities to how they moved within the services once they entered and they got recruited.

In this broad framework of these multiple barriers and—as I could think about them as these different checkpoints where women were interfacing with the services, what prevented them from (1) entering and (2) being able to rise above and be at that high table?

By the time we arrive in 1991, we have (a) too limited a pool of women to pick from and (2) the chances that, intuitively, also the decision makers would opt for women bureaucrats was just not there, because culturally we didn’t set up the services in that manner.

That’s where we are with thinking about why the search for women in the services, especially in 1991, became hard for us, is to recognize that the institution itself was set up in such a way that it was hard to look for them.

RAJAGOPALAN: While we do the oral history project and while we are pulling together all the expert committee reports, we are trying to make sense of all the events and the people that led up to that 1991 liberalization moment. One question I have is, given this background, was it that there were women, but they weren’t in senior positions—they were one or two steps behind, and they were supporting the effort that was taking place at the time? Or was that also not the case because of these cases of being given soft ministries or rural development, women’s health, vaccination drives—that’s the natural place for women?

SHAH: Just a quick statistic before that: In the 1960s, the ratio of women to men in the IAS was just 1 to 82. In the 1970s, after the marriage disqualifier was removed, it went down to 1 to 8. There was a huge change.

There were women. It’s just that, like Shreyas said earlier, they weren’t senior enough by 1990 to be in the senior positions in different ministries and different departments.

The Unsung Women

For instance, one of the most prominent examples is actually Sarla Grewal. She was in the prime minister’s office. She was the principal secretary to Rajiv Gandhi. Rajiv Gandhi actually played a role in bringing one more female officer into the Department of Economic Affairs, I believe: Renuka Vishwanathan. She has a Ph.D. in public finance. She was the first woman district magistrate in Karnataka.

She sought a spot in the Finance Ministry in the 1980s, but her appointment was not an easy yes. There was a lot of backlash. There were a lot of—what is the right word? Basically, there was a lot of backlash to her appointment, and Rajiv Gandhi was the one that intervened and brought her in.

RAJAGOPALAN: This is basically because she had the requisite talent, right? She really had studied very hard. She could have written the playbook, and at a time of crisis, you need very, very senior, technically competent officers.

NARLA: Her Ph.D. dissertation at Paris Dauphine was a comparative study of the fiscal systems in several of the noncommunist democratic countries. There was a huge survey that she did on them. This is somebody who’s a deep-dive expert in public finance: studied and came back to the services.

Apparently, an anecdote that we got to know while we were talking to her, the whole back-and-forth that Kadambari was mentioning about, was that when she did seek that spot in the Ministry of Finance, they just didn’t know what to do with her because it was not a common thing for (1) a woman to show up and be like she wants a spot in the Finance Ministry and she’s seeking a spot. I believe the file was pushed to the PMO [Prime Mininster’s Office]. This was in that euphoric sense that “Sarla Grewal—a woman—has been appointed as principal secretary.” It’s playing out in that context.

Rajiv Gandhi apparently intervened. The highest point of intervention was that “this is somebody who should be in the Finance Ministry; look at her qualifications.” That’s how she was given a spot.

Not an easy one. I believe she had to make her way up, eventually. But that’s exactly how it played out for women in the run-up to the ’90s episode.

RAJAGOPALAN: When you say that they didn’t know what to do with her, is it that they didn’t expect a woman to have such high technical qualifications? Or that they just didn’t have women in the Finance Ministry in top jobs, so they were worried that such a person won’t fit in?

What is the source of the prejudice, rather?

NARLA: I think it’s both.

SHAH: I think it’s a combination of both. What we realized when we were talking to her was that they didn’t know what tasks to give her. They didn’t know what her job description should be. She’s there, but now what do they do?

This was generally a time (what Shreyas was saying) when the women were put into soft departments; they were given the leavings of men, so to speak. Now this is a woman in the Finance Ministry, and on par with the men at the time—

RAJAGOPALAN: Better, probably. More technically competent.

SHAH: Definitely more technically competent. [chuckles]

RAJAGOPALAN: That’s the funny thing. To me, when I heard about this story, it almost felt like they don’t know what to do with her because they can’t exactly make her the research assistant to one of the more senior bureaucrats because she will completely outperform or she will be better than them and they may not rely on her advice. But at the same time, we don’t have precedent to fit her right at the top.

These are the very strange problems that that first generation of women were facing.

NARLA: Exactly. In fact, the great anecdote about her is that, in the run-up to the 1991 episode with the balance of payments crisis, she eventually gets promoted as joint secretary for external commercial borrowing—but not that easily. Because as part of the job description, she had to keep track on a daily basis about the foreign exchange reserves left with us and do the math entirely for that, which was around-the-clock monitoring of this. A woman with a family, with a child, is not the classic person you give a task like this to, and that’s the mentality and mindset that she was operating in.

Even that promotion was a hard-won battle, and getting that opportunity to do something that was so crucial at that moment, given how precarious India’s economic position was. And she was the one doing this.

RAJAGOPALAN: This is actually really important because the third element to the 1991 story is—this is a crisis. There’s political crisis; there’s economic crisis. Like you said, you need to literally tally the balance of payments on an hourly basis because they are now operating at a point where they have only about two weeks’ worth of reserves left to pay for the imports. If that two weeks is going to become 12 days, you need to know right away, so the calculations have to be perfect. Women, though they are excellent during crisis, are not chosen for any of these.

There are some other names that you guys wrote about in your excellent piece in The Indian Express recently. Can you tell us a little bit more about, for instance, Sudha Pillai? Who’s, again, a really sound economic-principled mind, but we don’t see her name coming up much in any of these stories. Or Sindhushree Khullar? These are people that I’ve only learned about through your work.

What’s the story of these women?

NARLA: The search, quite frankly, was—and you know how I am with this at footnotes, Kadambari and I. [chuckles] We found their names in footnotes and in tiny little document references. Especially when they were joint secretaries, circulars they may have signed with their name sometimes often pop up in these obscure Google Book documents of government documents, which are also not very easy to see.

SHAH: Some were even in the memoirs of the reformers that we typically hear of.

NARLA: Exactly. They allude to them. Janaki Kathpalia’s name, for instance, came up in Dr. Y. V. Reddy’s memoir, and that helped me trace back and we looked up and we found that she was, in fact, trying to push for Mac computers to be introduced into the system and into the ministry, and played that kind of a role.

RAJAGOPALAN: She was working on budgets, which are really—it’s an enormous exercise in the Ministry of Finance.

NARLA: She was the point person for budget preparation in the ministry in the ’91 to ’95 period, the most crucial period that really transformed the way (1) I think the Rao administration handled budget writing, especially under Dr. Manmohan Singh.

Sudha Pillai was actually, fortunately, an easier find in the sense that we had one interview that we found of hers where she talks about her time in the Industry Ministry.

SHAH: Which she calls the most exciting period of her professional career.

NARLA: Exactly. Because I think that she was the point person working on the Monopolies and Restrictive Trade Practices Act reform.

RAJAGOPALAN: What years was this?

NARLA: This was around—in the exact run-up to 1991, but largely even after 1991, when the team of Dr. Rakesh Mohan, who had set up the new industrial policy statement, or the blueprint was ready. I believe they had sought out recommendations on how to reform an anti-monopoly law. This was the time that India had an anti-monopoly law. Now we have a competition law, which thinks about regulating competition in markets, but the idea was that big business is bad, and of course we have a whole history on how that plays out.

This was a law that they were trying to ease, modernize and bring it up to speed given the kind of reforms that were happening as part of the liberalization process. She was the point person working on how do we amend the MRTP Act, which was so pervasive a law—prevented firms to scale and which prevented businesses from expanding, and also was punishing big businesses. How do we think about amending that law? She was the point person who worked on this.

Sindhushree Khullar was private secretary to the commerce minister, Mr. Chidambaram, and was part of that team that was involved in the announcement of the trade policy reforms that we saw in July 1991.

SHAH: And Vandana Aggarwal, who was in the Industry Ministry with Rakesh Mohan: She was involved in preparing the new industrial policy in 1991. The blueprint—that is, their Journal of Comparative Economics paper formed the blueprint for the new industrial policy.

She actually later went on to become the first woman to be the representative of the permanent mission to the World Trade Organization. I think this was in the year 2001.

RAJAGOPALAN: That was a critical year, right, in the WTO? When now consumer goods are suddenly on the table.

What’s interesting, I think this was a few months ago when I spoke with Rakesh Mohan and I brought up his paper with Vandana Aggarwal. He said, “I think it’s one of the best papers I have written, if I may say so myself.” We spoke about Vandana Aggarwal in glowing terms. And this is really the biggest reform that happened in ’91, actually. The external sector, everything else, it happens very slowly. Even up to 2001, we haven’t really figured out consumer goods. We’re slowly working that out. But industrial delicensing happens very swiftly.

NARLA: The story behind this paper is that Rakesh Mohan and his team, Vandana Aggarwal, who was part of it, they had to really first find out—what is the licensing regime in India? Where are the licenses? What’s the extent of regulation or the regulatory framework we are dealing with? What’s the web of licenses that have to be unpacked in the first place?

I think that exercise led to the making of this paper: this identifying the degree of licensing that existed.

SHAH: It was a massive undertaking, and no one had mapped it out to that extent the way that they did. That really gave them the whole picture and helped them write this paper, which then became the policy.

RAJAGOPALAN: Actually, that’s true, because we have an earlier version of this—but again, very largely focused on the external sector in Padma Desai and Jagdish Bhagwati’s book. We have Arun Shourie’s dissertation, which looks at licensing but only from the point of view of foreign exchange and, once again, the external sector. This is really the first look at the mess that has been created since India adopted wartime controls in early ’40s up till whatever, 1989, when they started working on this.

It’s really quite extraordinary what they’re doing. At least they’re trying to undo 50 years of nonsense that has all come in at weird times: and they got it done. Of all the things that have happened in India, I think industrial delicensing is probably the biggest reforms that we’ve ever done—and we never did agriculture. Now we’re in a similar mess for agriculture.

The other interesting thing about Vandana Aggarwal to me is that she came from the Indian Economic Service.

NARLA: That’s right.

RAJAGOPALAN: Do you guys know much about the male-female ratio in the economic service? Because I see a lot of female economists in economics programs. I believe at the undergrad level now the ratio is more than 50% in favor of women. I believe in graduate programs, we have a very solid pool of women within India.

What’s happening in the Economic Service?

NARLA: With the Indian Economic Service: (1) I think the male-to-female ratio was a bit hard to find. That’s largely because (1) it’s too small a cadre. I think the sanction strength as on date is about 517 people to be in the Indian Economic Service, a special body that was created in 1961 for technical economic advisory work, which oversees the country—of our expanse—in the hands of just about 500 people.

I think Vandana Aggarwal was one of those few who managed to really make a mark coming from the IES. The way it’s been structured—and it’s a problem that has been with the IES, and in fact it was Mr. Montek Ahluwalia who mentioned it in an episode of yours earlier, about how the ability for an IES officer to rise above in the services and getting higher promotions was a problem that existed. While they tried to reform that, they were not the popular feed for the talent to reach the high table for economic policymaking in India.

Having said that, I think—much like the spate of results we have seen with IES in the recent years; IES has seen women topping the exam in good numbers, and they are very much there. It’s one of those situations where they are there, but again, the question about—because of the way IES has also structured, their ability to rise above and get opportunities to be economic advisers popularly in different ministries is not as easy a pipeline as, let’s say, the IAS would be.

Though I must say that Dr. Vandana Aggarwal (she got her Ph.D. recently) eventually became the economic adviser for Civil Aviation Ministry and other different such ministries that she played a role in. We don’t hear as many such similar stories happening. Also, I think our conception of what a chief economic adviser is, especially because of the last couple of years—at least three decades or so—is somebody from the outside who comes in.

That would be the way I think about the IES.

RAJAGOPALAN: The reason I was asking about the IES specifically, but more generally this question of women not bubbling to the top: I completely understand what you’re saying about the funnel is not big enough, right? The funnel started opening up too late, because it opens up only in 1971. These women are not senior enough in 1991.

Now we’re 30 years from the 1991 moment also, and if the funnel got bigger and the ratios you were telling me, Kadambari—from 1 to 82 you go to 1 to 8, which is pretty good. I believe if you look after 1970 until recently, the next 50 years until 2020, about 30% to 31% of the incoming IES force is women.

Given these numbers, I would have imagined at least by now the bubbling-up-to-the-top problem would have been resolved, but it doesn’t seem to be the case. We have four or five top technocratic positions and bureaucratic positions in economics and finance in India. One is finance secretary, and I think we’ve had only one female finance secretary. And we know nothing about her, really. At least I don’t know much about Sushma Nath. Maybe you can tell us.

NARLA: It was very short tenure that Sushma Nath had. She ended up being also a member of—the only second woman to be a member of a finance commission as well.

Sushma Nath’s tenure as a finance secretary was quite short. I’m not really sure the number of months but even—in fact, I think she was given a two-month extension to stay on and then a tenure that either was not spoken of too much or written about. While I think there was some amount of media reportage around the time when she became the first woman finance secretary, I don’t think we had a follow-through on exactly what—

RAJAGOPALAN: All her achievements.

NARLA: All her achievements. Exactly.

RAJAGOPALAN: On the other technocratic positions, other than finance secretary: We have chief economic adviser. Deputy chairman of the planning commission, we’ve never had a woman in that role, which is now, of course, the chair of the NITI Aayog.

Another top technocratic position, though it bubbles up from within the RBI, is the governor of the RBI. We’ve never had a female governor of the RBI either. A semi-technocratic job is the finance minister, because both technocrats and politicians have held that job. Now, finally, we have a first female finance minister, but that’s a political position that she has come in from. She hasn’t bubbled up from the technocratic pipeline. (I’m ignoring Indira Gandhi and her short stint as finance minister.)

Now that we are 50 years from the 1971 reform in the IAS—the careers of IAS officers are shorter than 50 years—why have women not risen to the top in economics in a way that they have, say, in the foreign services, because you have Chokila Iyer, you have Nirupama Rao Menon. You have these names in other sectors that also got liberalized in a similar way, but not in IAS and the economic service.

NARLA: A couple of reasons—the way we think about this, Shruti. (1) Let’s say, for example, yes the IFS have had two women foreign secretaries. We’ve had women ambassadors. But, even today, while there may be more women entering the services, at least the percentage of the top remains low. I think even today IFS’s top leadership positions across the different embassies in the world, only 18% are women, and that problem persists even with the IAS.

In the last report, I think about of the 404 mid-level to top-level leadership positions in the bureaucracy, only about 73, if I’m not wrong, were women. This 18-19% has been the trend of women occupying leadership positions in the IAS. One reason, and this is something that has been quoted by women bureaucrats themselves, mentioned the senior ones: it’s so much about—(1) could be the prejudice, but (2) the other thing is that at the end of the day when you’re competing for the few top positions, you’re competing still with a larger pool of men.

While we have about 31% women in the services, you are competing with the rest of the men for the same, because the number of top leadership positions haven’t changed. We still have one chief economic adviser. That’s how the system works anyway. Invariably, you are competing in a larger pool.

The other thing is to do with networks. Call it an old boys’ club or any other way that we can think about it: At the end of the day, the people also who are in the position to appoint somebody—they set up panels. There’s no denying that. They set up panels, they invite applications, all that procedure happens. At the end of the day, how to crack it—those mentorship networks, interactions within the bureaucracy: I think those still continue to be barriers for women even for them to get that opportunity to get to the top.

SHAH: Actually, Bhumi Purohit has some research on this what she calls “bureaucratic resistance,” that bureaucrats typically tend to resist female politicians. There is a cycle going on over here.

RAJAGOPALAN: Basically, also the feeling that women in the services—the bureaucrats are already disadvantaged when they are women. Now if they are seen networking and helping other women politicians on soft subjects, then they are not going to be taken as seriously, and they need to make the networks more with male politicians. This also loops in in a weird way there.

NARLA: I think that can obviously dissuade every subsequent recruitment cycle, career advancement cycle or promotion cycle.

RAJAGOPALAN: I completely buy in to everything you guys are saying, right? Now, let’s say women are 31% of the force, but they’re only about 17 or 18% of the leadership. I understand that it’s not a perfect representation. But I’m not even getting 18%—one in five or one in six when it comes to the top jobs. I’m getting two in a 70-year history across all top technocratic positions.

That to me feels a bit disturbing 52 years after the reform has happened in the IAS.

SHAH: Women reach the ceiling and then they can’t seem to go above it. If you look at the RBI, we did have deputy governors. We had K. J. Udeshi. We had Usha Thorat. We had Shyamala Gopinath. But none of these women are making it to the post of governor, and no one from the outside is being brought in as governor either.

Lateral Entry

RAJAGOPALAN: Actually, that is something I want to talk to you about. At any point when there was a gap in talent or expertise—or let’s not say there was a gap in talent. The talent existed, but at that point in time, the leadership, either political or technical, thought it’s wise to bring in people from the outside. They were brought in. In fact, the list of people brought in from the outside, even though they worked in the government of India for a very long time after that, who make it on that 1991 high table list: it’s quite exceptional.

You have people like Rakesh Mohan. You have people like Montek Singh, Shankar Acharya, Ashok Desai. All of these people have been brought in from outside. Even if I look at the continuation into the Vajpayee years later into the ’90s, you have N. K. Singh, you have Arvind Virmani. You have Bimal Jalan, who even before ’91 and after occupied many positions. More recently, you have your list of everyone from Raghu Rajan, Urjit Patel. Before that generation, there was Kaushik Basu.

People have been brought in from the outside. Why are those people never women?

Did the pool not exist? Did we not make enough female economists even then? That if the pool is small inside the services, it’s also small outside the services? Or did the women exist, the female economists exist outside, but they were never brought in laterally for some other reason?

NARLA: I think perhaps this was our first essay that we wrote on the women economists: Dr. Padma Desai, who we lost recently, and Dr. Isher Judge Ahluwalia and Dr. Sudha Shenoy. These were, for me I think, not only a great discovery but also a reminder that talent was there. And something that we’ve been arguing for is that talent existed.

Yes, definitely in a lot less numbers. The number problem existed, but talent wasn’t the problem so much. In fact, Dr. Isher Judge Ahluwalia was approached in that period of the late ’80s to join the service because—

RAJAGOPALAN: Because both she and Montek came back to India.

NARLA: They came back to India. In fact, her mentor at Delhi School of Economics, Arjun Sengupta, was at that point in time special secretary in the PMO. In fact, he rang her up and invited her to come join the service, but as a deputy economic adviser. By then, Mr. Ahluwalia had already put in enough service as an economic adviser in the Finance Ministry—and not the chief economic adviser position, but the joint secretary level and upwards.

When Dr. Ahluwalia was given the opportunity, it was at (1) a position lower than what Mr. Ahluwalia had joined in when he joined the government. (2) She obviously had more qualifications than him. She had a doctorate degree in economics from MIT. This was no ordinary—

RAJAGOPALAN: She’s Paul Samuelson’s student.

NARLA: Exactly. This is no ordinary individual. She’s done that kind of work. To somebody who’s put in that kind of work, who’s built that kind of scholarship, was writing through pregnancy, writing and publishing through child care, and everything that she writes wonderfully about in her memoir “Breaking Through,” the fact that when she was even considered for an opportunity—

This is somebody who’s reached that point of visibility through her conferences and seminars and presentations, and her work is out there and, in a sense, also part of the network. She’s part of the network. Even then, for somebody to have everything going in her favor, so to speak, compared to other women—even then, the opportunity that she’s being offered is much lower than what she should have otherwise gotten.

RAJAGOPALAN: When you say “lower,” is it lesser pay? Is it a lower designation? Is it a lower opportunity to have a voice?

NARLA: It’s lower designation, lower opportunity, because a deputy economic adviser in the hierarchy of advisers is placed lower—

RAJAGOPALAN: Within each ministry, yes.

NARLA: —within each ministry. And at the age of 39, by which time she’s already made it, she would be on par with some junior male officer joining the services who might not have the kind of qualification, experience that she held. And who’s already trying to make a chink in the armor by talking about market reforms out in the academia. Mind you, she talks about this quite extensively—about how, because of the position she was taking, there’s always a backlash within the academia itself.

It’s not like she’s not ruffling feathers wherever she’s going. For someone who has the intellectual acumen and she’s pursuing ideas in an ecosystem that’s not open to it, it’s a bit of a disservice when you don’t even want to recognize that talent by giving the right kind of opportunity.

RAJAGOPALAN: She had great attitude though.

NARLA: Absolutely.

RAJAGOPALAN: I don’t know if I read this in her memoir. When I was in Delhi University, she would come and lecture and judge all these economics debate competitions and things like that. I remember her recollecting that when people would call their home number and ask for Dr. Ahluwalia, she would say “speaking,” because she was the only Dr. Ahluwalia in the household.

NARLA: Exactly.

RAJAGOPALAN: Everyone thought when they said “Dr. Ahluwalia” they were actually referring to Montek, who’s also an exceptional economist—

NARLA: Absolutely.

RAJAGOPALAN: —exceptional technocrat and all the wonderful things.

NARLA: Also, both of them really stand for the kind of intellectual partnership that’s really aspirational.

Having said that, I must emphasize that in her memoir, she also mentions that while there were these opportunities which weren’t great in the service, she was also very clear on what she wanted, and she asserted that agency, because she was very clear that she wants to have that intellectual independence of being a scholar and—

RAJAGOPALAN: Continue to write original papers.

NARLA: —continue to write original papers. Talk about them; engage broader audiences. I love that photograph of her where she’s on a panel of speakers and she’s the sole woman sitting there. I think it was many of these seminars and open forums that they were engaging with the industry, with other stakeholders on market-friendly ideas and market-friendly reforms—and that’s Dr. Ahluwalia’s journey.

She was there, very much present. In fact, I think she goes on to do a whole television series with DD National where she talks to a series of the reformers of the ’90s, on primetime television (at least of that period), talking about economic ideas on screen for general public consumption.

RAJAGOPALAN: She’s very eloquent.

NARLA: She’s very eloquent, very accessible in that sense.

RAJAGOPALAN: You’re right. I think what happened with Isher Judge Ahluwalia, at least my reading of her career, is I think she was ahead of her times—

NARLA: Oh yes.

RAJAGOPALAN: —when it came to her core research interest in the later part of her life, which was on fiscal federalism and municipal federalism and municipal finance.

NARLA: Absolutely.

RAJAGOPALAN: I feel like if she had come in 15 years later when the ’93 Panchayati Raj and urban local body reforms had already set in—they’d had three, four rounds of those elections, and we were thinking more and more about fiscal decentralization and the finance commission. I think her ideas would have really taken off. I just feel like she was writing about that stuff so early. It was too radical, even amongst free market economists.

NARLA: Oh yes.

RAJAGOPALAN: Fiscal decentralizing at the level that she wanted was just too radical an idea.

NARLA: Too radical—and perhaps a product of the ecosystem she came from, because Padma Desai, who was her teacher at Delhi School of Economics and who came before her, was talking about deceleration of centrally planned economies and how these are interlinked problems when she was talking about these issues back in the late ’60s and ’70s. These were ideas that had absolutely no traction.

Of course, Dr. Desai goes on to write that seminal book, along with Dr. Bhagwati, on “Planning for Industrialization”: a book that almost every reformer we have spoken to, through oral histories, through their own memoirs, talk about how it changed—at least there was a shift in thinking about how the grand central plan that we were hatching wasn’t really working out the way it was meant to do.

RAJAGOPALAN: No. With Padma Desai, for me, the misallocation of talent is quite clear, because she writes about this, right?

NARLA: Exactly.

RAJAGOPALAN: She writes about how she got virtually no credit for that book.

NARLA: Had to change track.

RAJAGOPALAN: When she leaves Delhi School of Economics, she decides to change track and then she starts working on the Soviet economy and that transition. Even on transition economy, she was a little bit ahead of the curve. She spoke fluent Russian.

Of course, women tend to be talented on so many different dimensions; they can also switch very easily.

NARLA: Very true.

RAJAGOPALAN: Recently I met Jagdish Bhagwati, and I was telling him how I was pretty annoyed with Oxford University Press and most of the online websites because when they put up the book, they only mention Jagdish’s authorship and they don’t mention Padma Desai’s. He said, “Well, she wrote at least half the book.” [chuckles]

He was a very theoretical trade economics person. He came from that point of view, but all those meticulous tables—

NARLA: Calculations. Econometric work.

RAJAGOPALAN: —calculation of each sector in the Indian economy: that is very much a continuation of Padma Desai’s work, and you can see that continuity between her dissertation and that book. But somehow she doesn’t get half the credit. All the credit really goes to Jagdish Bhagwati, and she’s always the lesser author—sometimes not even mentioned as the author. In fact, the great partnership is considered between Bhagwati and Srinivasan.

NARLA: True.

RAJAGOPALAN: That work comes 10 years later. The Bhagwati-Desai partnership, in some sense—other than the reformers we spoke to—no one really mentioned.

Padma Desai: I fully understand why she wasn’t brought in laterally, because she just kind of exited the system. She saw how messed up it was when it came to both—she had two disadvantages. She was a free-market economist in a command-and-control system and a female economist. At least by the time Isher Judge came in, at least the market economics had a little bit more buy-in, if not the female economist.

NARLA: True.

RAJAGOPALAN: This is really a tragedy that these women were not brought in laterally, because they could have done incredible work within government of India or advising government of India.

SHAH: There were other women also who weren’t brought in laterally. Rohini Nayyar: She was actually in the civil service exams. She scored higher than her later partner Deepak Nayyar, and she headed the social development and rural development divisions at the erstwhile Planning Commission in the 1980s. She did some really seminal work on rural poverty. She was the first to measure poverty in terms of inadequate calorie intake, which is something she did during her time at Oxford.

But she was also never brought in.

RAJAGOPALAN: In fact now, very late, they have announced a fellowship in her name and her memory, which when I saw that in the newspapers and on Twitter, that really made me smile. I was feeling so happy that it’s finally happened.

SHAH: Exactly. In another avenue from which technocrats were brought in were the World Bank and IMF.

RAJAGOPALAN: This one, Montek and Shankar Acharya.

SHAH: They all came in through that revolving door in some sense, but again, no woman was brought through that door. This is also a broader reflection on the lack of female leadership in these organizations until the early 2000s. But again, I think even to this day, no India director has been a woman. We still don’t have the kind of representation at the top that we should, which is, again, a similar problem that we see in the services, in the technocracy—and the problems lie at the starting points in some sense.

If the bank and the IMF are a starting point from which talent comes in, we just aren’t seeing enough women there. Universities and academia is another place where we see technocrats brought in from, and again, women in economics graduate programs, I think they make up about half the cohorts.


SHAH: But less than 30% of them are teaching at the top departments in, I think, the top 120 universities: less than 30% of women are teaching there. There is this talent, but again, there seems to be this ceiling—which I actually can’t wrap my head around. I can’t find the exact reasons for this, but there is a ceiling.

Women are getting the right education. They’re getting into the right jobs. But their progress stalls at a point, and that could be because of the networks. It could be because of so many different factors, but it’s a little hard to digest in some sense.

RAJAGOPALAN: I think even now for women, one thing which we don’t—I mean, I feel like we consistently underestimate—is that it’s much harder for them to move location and institutions because of their family, the kids are in school. There is still very much an expectation culturally within India that the women follow the men. In fact, Chinmay Tumbe has written about this. How the largest pool of silent migration, which is really unrecognized, is women moving for marriage into their marital home or wherever their husbands are moving.

I think this is a big barrier, but even I’m completely confused, because I’m brought in to give lectures or talks at all these graduate programs in India. I see the classroom: more than half is female. They ask excellent questions. They seem incredibly bright, and I really hope that I continue to hear from them for a very long period of time, but they’re not reflected in the numbers that we see in the research staff, the teaching staff and so on. At least in the proportion that one would like to see them.

NARLA: I just have a sheer curiosity. Hearing both of you talk about this: Do you think somewhere this is interlinked to that larger arc that has been spoken of in the recent years of scholarship, that Ashwini Deshpande has written about—about women really not falling off the labor force participation numbers despite the advancement we’ve seen in the last 30 years? Would this be also symptomatic of the fact that even in terms of leadership positions, in terms of economics talent, really getting to the top—whether in academia, whether in bureaucracy, whether in technocratic roles—this is part of that larger problem that we are facing?

SHAH: I think in terms of the female labor force participation rate [FLPR], there’s so many different arguments that have been put forth. And Shruti and I are actually working on a paper on women and economic freedom related to the FLPR. We see on both the supply side and the demand side various arguments, whether it’s the supply/honor tradeoff that women should not work especially after they get married. Similarly, with education, we see women are getting more educated, going into graduate programs—but we don’t see that translate into formal employment.

This demand-pull issue is, I think, one that again is something that needs further research as well. I think this actually shows up in government jobs. The government jobs: the process to apply, through all three stages—the preliminary exam, the main exam, the interview—anyone can do it. There are no quotas or restrictions on gender.

RAJAGOPALAN: Except age. Except as an age gap.

SHAH: Except age, yes. Again, we see fewer women giving more attempts. Men are actually giving more attempts even though women are more successful in terms of cracking the exam. There is something going on there which really needs more research because there just isn’t enough on it.

NARLA: It would be interesting to study the fact that six attempts are allowed for, let’s say, the UPSC [Union Public Service Commission] examination. I think the upper age limit is 32 years. I really wonder in India, women being able to attempt the sixth time on family support: it’s impossible. I can’t even imagine that being allowed or being even facilitated by families, even—let’s say—the most progressive families.

RAJAGOPALAN: What tends to happen in that is, when they study for the UPSC, they can also take a number of other exams which are in a similar government service field—maybe at the state cadre level and so on. When I say easier than UPSC, just in degree, because all these exams are incredibly competitive. I think women tend to settle more easily because there isn’t the same family support to keep trying for these exams and cracking them.

The women’s median age of marriage is lower than men’s. That’s also—

NARLA: Exactly. Absolutely.

RAJAGOPALAN: —the other thing.

I’ll tell you why I think the general FLPR issue that is there in the entire Indian economy, I don’t see that as being a barrier. While it’s true, Indian female labor force participation (1) is very low and (2) it’s declining, which is an even bigger problem. Kadambari is absolutely right. What we’ve found or what we’ve been looking at is that there is a demand-pull effect when it comes to female labor force participation. As the demand for jobs increases, the overall number of people employed increases, unemployment drops and the number of women who are in the labor force also increases. That’s definitely part of the story.

But the kinds of jobs we are talking about are very elite jobs. I am not talking about domestic workers. I’m not talking about construction workers. I’m not talking about women in dairy farming. India apparently has the highest ratio of female to male pilots.

We don’t have lots of economists in the top position. I don’t think this is just a question of—culturally, we come from a community where women are less likely to be in the workforce, and that might matter, but not for this pool of women. Almost the entire pool has a Ph.D. in economics. We’re already talking about the most privileged class.

NARLA: Absolutely. I think I get it, because there’s also a problem of intent then. Because if in 2007 the Planning Commission could set up this feminist economist group—

SHAH: The only one of its kind, actually.

NARLA: —only one of its kind, I believe. Brought together the best of economist-talent in the country together in one group to recognize how policymaking, budgeting, fiscal decision making, all of that needs to be gendered, because we have really skipped out so many aspects in these crucial policymaking processes which completely neglect the condition of women and how you think about them when you are—how you think about the whole demographic group, which is half the population.

Why does gender diversity matter for policy?

RAJAGOPALAN: Here I’m little conflicted. It’s not like I hate being called a female economist. It usually happens when I’m the one woman on a panel. I’m grateful for the opportunity; I’m very happy to be the diversity candidate to avoid “manels.” That’s fine.

But I really don’t think of economists as male or female. They’re just economists, right? Recently I was having a conversation with Aditi Mittal, and she hates being called a female comedian, because if you’re funny, you’re funny. Demand curves slope downwards for women and for men no matter which gender got the economics degree.

Why does it matter that we have female economists in positions of policymaking? The economics is the same. The theory, empirics, all the tools we are trained in: They’re identical. Why does this matter in the larger scheme of policy—other than the fact that, of course, we would like diversity and inclusion at the top levels? But why does this really matter?

SHAH: I think it has a lot of consequences in terms of the decision making. I’m not trying to say that women will only think about women and men will only think about men, but there are different ways of thinking that do play out. Actually, I think this was a 2004 paper by Chattopadhyay and Duflo, which shows that—I think they exploited—there was a reservation  for women at the Panchayat level and they find—

RAJAGOPALAN: And it’s randomized.

SHAH: Yes, and it’s randomized. They find that when a woman was in power, the women-centric issues were addressed. For example, better roads: Women tend to—in rural areas especially, women tend to bear the burden of carrying water from the wells to the homes. Walking for long hours on roads that are good was essentially a change that came about.

Similarly, for education, for healthcare, for children’s healthcare: All of these different issues were addressed when women were in power. The outcomes were better when the women were in power versus when the men were in power. I think there is this impact for decision making because these issues, women-centric issues, things that may be missed because there is no voice at the table: Those get addressed.

It’s also about how we measure female labor force participation, how we measure different—the statistics: they all come from different sources of measurement. The way we frame the questions, the way we use that data, has a huge impact.

Naila Kabeer and Ashwini Deshpande, they have a 2019 paper where they actually change the way they frame the question in West Bengal about female labor force participation. When you tweak the question slightly, they see that female labor force participation goes up significantly. Women may not think of themselves as working, but they actually are without realizing it. They may not be getting a salary for it. They may not be putting in a nine-to-five. They may not be going into an office, but they are working.

RAJAGOPALAN: Again, I think how we count really matters. I think this is an important thing which we’ve been learning as we research female labor force participation. In India, there are two problems, right? One is that it is low, and the second, that it’s declining. The first question of why is female labor force participation so low in India: Here the Naila Kabeer, Ashwini Deshpande paper really helps us unpack that. It’s low because we are not counting a lot of work that is done as labor force participation. Guess what? A lot of that work is done by women.

Agriculture and even produce—not machine-led agriculture, but even small plots of land next to the house or dairy farming: all of this is part of household generating income activities. Women’s contribution to that—because it’s done in bits, it’s done at different times of day depending on what else is going on inside the household, when the children need to be fed, when the elders need to be cared for: it never really gets counted correctly.

And most of the surveyors are men. So not only do they not tweak the question, they also don’t see or make visible what a woman would immediately understand.

NARLA: It makes me wonder: In 1991, when they did bring about the series of reforms, this high table, what I think Kadambari and I have been calling the Rao Camelot—I wonder if outcomes would have been different if there were more perspectives at that table. Would that have been possible? Or just speculation?

I think about in terms of for women in the last 30 years, what it has meant to live in a liberalized economy like India.

RAJAGOPALAN: What would be an example of that? What do you think a woman would have done differently at that high table?

NARLA: I imagine if certain sectors where there’s more participation by women, would they have been more focused on some kind of reform that could have been brought into those kind of sectors? In terms of real-time—because at the end of the day, it wasn’t that it was just about growing the size of the pie, but that pie needs to also disperse well enough.

If those finer nuances and keeping the project of that liberalization alive and keep it going, keep it as effective as it was meant to be in 1991—or, if not 1991, at least in the years that came after.

I’m only thinking about it speculatively.

RAJAGOPALAN: No, I think you have a point there. Let’s take, for instance, aviation, which got liberalized. There was a better ratio of female to male pilots. You see that even post-liberalization, and it really takes off (forgive the pun). When it comes to broadcasting, women apparently lead journalism and broadcasting, including “hard subjects” like news broadcasting. Even when you’re done on CNBC, you have Latha Venkatesh, who is fantastic. I mean, they are there on every day, so they’re so salient in our memory.

You’re right: There are sectors that got liberalized that really impacted women in a particular way. My favorite story from Shrayana’s book is about Gold, who is the air stewardess, and her interesting trajectory of how liberalization gives her wings. Of course, it’s not completely a happy story. All that’s gold doesn’t glitter, so there’s that issue. You can still see that there were these sectors that liberalized, whereas we never became an industrial economy like South Korea or China, or even more recently like Bangladesh, when it comes to textile and leather and things like that.

Women’s entry point into labor force participation in very large numbers tends to happen when you industrialize on a very large scale. There’s that demand-pull effect that Kadambari and I were talking about. Now all the men have gone into the workforce, and there’s this continued demand generated for labor and that’s when the women start coming in.

We see that in the developed economies: For instance, there was this big shock during World War II. Men of military age got drafted; they were all fighting the war, and suddenly you saw female labor force participation go up. Once it happens, it doesn’t reverse very easily. That’s the other thing which is very troubling in India: It’s been declining. Now we wonder what’s going on.

I don’t think your hunch is that off: that maybe if we had liberalized more sectors or different sectors, female labor force participation would have played out quite differently in India.

SHAH: Yes.



NARLA: Yes, we agree. [laughter]

RAJAGOPALAN: Wow. This is the first answer on which all of us agree. [laughter]

I have a couple of other questions. This whole thing is really depressing, first of all. We’re chirpy and happy because we like doing research of this sort. But it’s actually quite depressing. For me, the most depressing part is—other than Gita Gopinath today, who’s very senior leadership position at one of the multilateral institutions, will surely be invited at some point for policy leadership positions in India (if she hasn’t been already)—what is that space looking like today?

Do we have more women in the pool that can take leadership positions today on, for the next 30 years? Or, 30 years from now, we’re going to have another podcast where we say, “You know what? Once again, in the last 30 years, we’ve had no women occupy the position of chief economic adviser and RBI governor and so on”?

SHAH: I think in the last couple of decades, we have had more women either laterally hired or appointed in different ministries and different departments. I think Ila Patnaik is one of the most prominent examples. She was a principal economic adviser to the government. She has had a long career in the private sector after.

RAJAGOPALAN: And she was in the Finance Ministry advising them, which is really the big one.

SHAH: Yes. Also in the Economic Advisory Council. We have Ashima Goyal; we have Shamika Ravi. We had a lot of women come into—

RAJAGOPALAN: Poonam Gupta?

SHAH: Yes. She was also the former lead economist for India at the bank.


SHAH: We have all of these different women who are brought together, who are brought in from the outside. If you think about it, it’s been a very long pipeline. These are women who got their degrees 30 years ago—20, 30 years ago. Today they are making inroads at these high-level positions.

RAJAGOPALAN: No, I know what you mean. Pami Dua was a very leading professor at Delhi School of Economics when I was an undergrad and I was auditing classes during law school. Now we know that she has been in the Monetary Policy Committee. I mean, very long due and an excellent choice—but I know what you mean. It’s not like we have 30-something-year-old women who have finished their Ph.D.s and have had a few years of experience actually being offered these positions, which oftentimes happens with men.

SHAH: Exactly. When you say that—like we spoke about—that there are women in these graduate programs, this pipeline is that long. It’s only in 20, 30 years that we’ll actually see them entering these positions of power.

It is a little bit of a depressing thought.

RAJAGOPALAN: Do we have enough numbers today?

Because I remember you guys—I think this was last year, when you did that piece in Scroll on female economists and you start right from the beginning. We have everyone from Dharma Kumar to now. We have this very long list of women.

NARLA: We covered about 74—

SHAH: Seventy-seven women, I think.

RAJAGOPALAN: For me, what was amazing was what happened on Twitter after that. I was tagged on all of this, and for the next 10 days, it was just (1) female economist celebrating each other. It was like this amazing sorority I haven’t felt before.

Also, just adding on more people to the list. There’s one of my students who’s very promising: “Oh, this one should make the list.” Just the process of writing that, even though it was a nonexhaustive list from your end, brought more people to the forefront, which was really nice. Unlike Shreyas’ piece on Padma Desai, Sudha Shenoy, Isher Judge, where everyone was like, “Yes, those were the three. That’s it. You covered the entire gamut; there’s no one left out of the list.”

I think that was pretty nice about that piece that you did. What did you figure out from that list?

NARLA: I think for me, what was interesting was actually exploring the role of economists and technocrats and advisers at state government levels. That was very interesting. The fact that the Tamil Nadu government set up this advisory council—they got Gita Gopinath, Esther Duflo and everybody to be on board; I think even Yamini Aiyar at CPR [Center for Policy Research], who was brought in to advise a couple of the state governments—

RAJAGOPALAN: Gita Gopinath was also brought in by the Kerala government, I believe.

NARLA: Yes, absolutely. In fact, I think it was last year at our conference where we were having a session on what’s the future of policy in India—I think it was Bhuvana [Anand] from Trayas who spoke about the work she’s doing on regulation with the Uttar Pradesh state government. Just the fact that we—it’s one step at a time, I guess, but the fact that we are now—I think that’s where I’m kind of really excited and interested to see more participation, because in one sense, the impact will be much more intensive because it’s so much more on-the-ground, something more specific, something also context-specific.

Perhaps opens up doors for, really, talent from across the country, as opposed to being a Delhi- and Bombay-specific talent. In some sense. I mean, not to be so deductive about it, but—

RAJAGOPALAN: No, I know what you’re saying. It’s still a pretty elite group—

NARLA: It’s still a pretty elite group.

RAJAGOPALAN: But there is more diversity in that elite group. This is no longer just children of IAS officers and chief justices and things like that.  This is just a slightly broader pool of women.

No, I agree with you. That does give me some hope for how this plays out.

SHAH: I think also one of the things that was really inspiring for us when we were going through this list is: these women don’t necessarily have Twitter profiles. They don’t have—many of them actually aren’t on social media.

RAJAGOPALAN: Yes, because Twitter is so awful to women. Are you surprised that a lot of female economists are not exposing them to this venom on Twitter?

NARLA: I have renewed hope with Threads, though I have not joined yet—which I shall.

SHAH: What was really inspiring to us is that there are so many women who are doing such incredible work, but they aren’t getting recognized for it. I think what we were trying to do with that piece was just highlight the work—and it was obviously not an exhaustive list. We wanted this to be an effort where people do add on more names, where it becomes an organic platform where women’s work is recognized.

It wasn’t just about figuring out, “OK, these are the three women that you see on panels, that you see on TV.” It was more talking about the work that doesn’t get talked about. For example, Seeta Prabhu: she was at the UNDP [United Nations Development Program], I believe, and she worked with Rohini Nayyar on preparing state-level human development reports and developing the Human Development Index for India.

Now, you don’t hear these names in everyday conversations. You don’t hear them; you don’t see them on TV—but there is such important work going on, and I really think it’s important that we highlight it.

NARLA: To tie into that point about why it’s important for recognition is because (1) I think culturally we have a problem of bad recordkeeping. We have this enormous problem of institutional amnesia; we’ve tried—

RAJAGOPALAN: That’s men also, women also—but women are adversely affected because they are so few in number.

NARLA: Exactly. I mean, the fact that Sarla Grewal, who I think among all the women bureaucrats still tends to have a visibility of her name—

RAJAGOPALAN: Yes, she’s a big deal. She was covered in the newspapers.

NARLA: Exactly. But if you look at the official list of principal secretaries to the prime minister, the fact—it was shocking to me that just that period, between around ’84 to ’89, I think, if I’m not wrong, there’s no name mentioned. It’s almost as if the country didn’t have a principal secretary to the prime minister for that period.

You have all the men on the list, but for that one woman who became principal secretary.


NARLA: If you look up Delhi School of Economics’ website of prominent faculty, it has all the list of the great economists this country has produced, but for Padma Desai.

RAJAGOPALAN: Yes. That, to me, is just shocking.

NARLA: When you wrote that obit on her and you looked it up and you saw that fact that her name is not even acknowledged as a faculty member at DSE, where she spent several years before she left the country—

RAJAGOPALAN: Sorry to interrupt. The reason I wrote that obit was I actually got really angry. I was very sad when she passed away because we’ve been looking—I mean, through the 1991 Project, we’ve gotten to know so much of her work. The oral histories that we are doing is inspired by her oral history project post-fall of the Soviet Union, and so on.

The thing that really irritated me that evening was everyone—male economists, her students—just going on about how she was really lovely and gracious and graceful. I think in addition to recordkeeping, Shreyas, we have this problem of not recognizing expertise, male or female. But when it comes to women, we particularly have amnesia when it comes to expertise. When Nirmala Sitharaman shows up to give the budget speech, more is talked about how her sari is looking and it’s matching whatever.

NARLA: The briefcase; the red briefcase. Now I think it’s not a briefcase anymore: Now it’s a red cloth that’s wrapped up in some traditional format.

RAJAGOPALAN: Exactly. “Oh, is her outfit matching her briefcase?” kind of nonsense, which we never did. No one asked, “Is Manmohan Singh’s turban matching the briefcase that he carries for the budget speech?”

This kind of nonsense ends up happening, and that’s the reason I got really mad, and that’s when I started writing about her. Then, of course, they asked me to do the obit, which was a privilege.

NARLA: Oh yes, absolutely. I think even when talking about Padma Desai, I think some of her students talk about how beautiful she was back in the day and all that stuff. If you look at the body of that work, especially the Soviet economy work, the econometric work that she has done.

RAJAGOPALAN: Econometrics is one of those macho techniques. It’s not soft; it’s not economic history; it’s not qualitative. It’s a hard thing.

NARLA: Exactly. Not to say that any particular subdiscipline is better than the other, but just the fact that—

RAJAGOPALAN: No, I think constitutional economics is better. [laughter] Definitively, it is better.

NARLA: [laughs] Hundred percent, hundred percent.

RAJAGOPALAN: No, I’m kidding. But I know what you mean. Monetary, labor—these are the macho, hard disciplines. For a long time development policy, rural welfare, urbanization: this is all the soft stuff. Women can do that soft stuff. Isher Judge: Municipal finance is the least sexy thing ever. We care about balancing budgets at the union government level.

A huge part of the ’91 reforms was about getting more balanced budgets, getting fiscal deficits under control, having hard budget constraints for the union government. But suggest the same things for municipal governments and that’s all soft stuff. That’s not really macho, heavy-lifting economics.

NARLA: No. So true. [laughter]

That’s the broader, I think, perception problem. I think that just pervades almost every lived reality of being in India and living in India, or even living across the borders. Of course, now we see these big numbers coming in, but I just hope somewhere, I think, institutionally—and I do think institutionally that change can come. This has to do with clear intent.

I think talking to our reformers about how some of them very decisively wanted some better talent at the table, whether it was Mr. Ahluwalia’s efforts of keeping Ms. Sudha Pillai in the Planning Commission as a secretary when she was passed over as cabinet secretary—

RAJAGOPALAN: Yes, he was very keen to have her.

NARLA: Tying this in back with my early points, I was saying that the decision makers and people who are making the appointments are men. Of course, it brings back to the point of what even he said in your podcast, about how it’s a panel we set up and you go through the processes. All of that’s there, but there can be a definitive effort in trying to make sure—which has to transcend beyond putting in the circular announcement for UPSC exam: the bottom on every page mentions women candidates are encouraged to apply and fee for them is waived.

But it has to be something more than that. I mean, it can’t be just that.

RAJAGOPALAN: One of the things that we’ve realized when we are putting together our conferences that Mercatus organizes: Government of India pays for travel and accommodation for its employees but not necessarily its consultants. That differs based on department. A lot of the women are now brought in laterally as consultants. But that means that they will not be given opportunities to network in the same way that their male colleagues who are not consultants, but full-time employees get. Because oftentimes for these conferences you have to pay your own registration fees and travel. It can run up to many thousand rupees—it’s a nontrivial sum of money.

We offer travel stipends for our conferences, and we didn’t think anyone would take them up. In fact, actually my perception of the travel stipends was “it’s going to be young graduate students or someone who’s just finished a Ph.D.” Those are the people whose institution affiliation is in flux. Or emeritus positions. Again, people who have done a lot of work but their institutional affiliation is in a bit of flux. I thought those are the people who will end up taking up a request or putting in a request for travel stipends or making accommodations. But no: it’s overwhelmingly women. And the reason is that they are brought in differently. I think we have to fix all of this at so many levels to be able to get women to be in better networks.

The other thing is we’re just inviting women as the one person on the “manel” to not make it a—you know what I mean? Then women don’t get the same opportunity to network with enough other women. In fact, if you set up a separate women-networking event in economics, I don’t think anyone will go. It’s almost a sign of accepting that you’re different.

In the regular space for men, we just have to figure out a way to accommodate more women in those networks and those spaces. It’s a long process. I don’t think this is anything overnight.

Is there anything in all of this that gave you hope? Because most of it is just depressing.

NARLA: I’ve always admired ambition, and one thing that I’ve always seen—having spoken to some of these women, interacted with them or read about them (or through their memoirs, at least), there is a great sense of assertion of ambition. And that is so admirable, because it’s not ambition in thin air: it’s ambition in a huge context of where that kind of ambition is not encouraged.

RAJAGOPALAN: They really want to change India, and they really want to do so much good for so many people.

NARLA: Absolutely. I think that sense of assertion and that kind of clarity of what they want. I think if through more either writing about it or speaking about it—because there’s a human element to all of this as well. I think if that gets also highlighted, I think it really gives up—creates the conversation about how you can aspire to be that ambitious.

Even if you don’t even have that as a visible possibility, I don’t imagine a larger pool of the next generation of talent can even go forth if they’re not even given this sort of—the idea being that the next generation needs to know that it’s OK to be ambitious, it’s OK to aspire for more and it’s not too bad to ask for more: it’s not too bad to demand or aspire for more.

RAJAGOPALAN: On this I love how Renuka Vishwanathan just dug in her heels.

NARLA: Absolutely, absolutely.

RAJAGOPALAN: She belongs there. She has no doubt about belonging there. She’s more than qualified.

NARLA: Exactly.

RAJAGOPALAN: In fact, she’s overqualified.

NARLA: Overqualified. And so gutsy, because I’m imagining: to be in service and then to write a paper that she did with her colleague, Meena Gupta, about the problems with bureaucracy and the problems with promotion and appointment policies—to do it while in service in the ’80s, while she’s at almost a mid-senior level—to take those kinds of chances to ruffle feathers, because she believes in what she has to do. I think that is just incredible. I think she’s carried that forward over the years in the work she’s done.

Meena Gupta paper

SHAH: I completely agree with you on all those points. I think also—just, for me, reading about and writing about all of these incredible women, that has been really inspiring: to know that there are so many. Also, to note that so many are doing such great work. And the work does speak for itself. At the end of the day, we don’t necessarily think about it as, “Oh, this woman has produced this research.” We talk about the research. We talk about the work.

RAJAGOPALAN: It’s just great research. For me, actually, that is the biggest part of this. I have never thought of someone as a male or female economist except when the ladies’ room was crowded at a conference. Usually the ladies’ room is pretty sparse. I remember last year at our conference when there was a bit of a traffic jam in the ladies’ room, I said, “OK, I have put together an excellent conference, because this feels great. We’re all meeting in the restroom, not because we’re a bunch of giggling teenagers who went to the restroom together, but we’re all waiting in line.”

I remember the Economics Department, for the longest time, it was just empty. I never had to wait at—

NARLA: That’s a lovely metric.

RAJAGOPALAN: There are two or three stalls; there’s always a crowd everywhere else. There’s a line for the ladies’ room in a way that there isn’t for the men’s room. When that starts happening—

You’re talking about metrics: for me, that’s a metric. You’re right.

NARLA: Absolutely.

RAJAGOPALAN: That sort of stuff sort of makes me more hopeful.

NARLA: We do have a metric now with the recent examinations.

SHAH: Out of the top 10, I think six were women.

NARLA: Six are women.

SHAH: The top four spots—top four ranks were women.

NARLA: We can get into the whole—about “can you measure merit by ranks” and stuff, but hey, the system is—

RAJAGOPALAN: No, that’s how we’re measuring it.

NARLA: Exactly, those are the rules of the game. And by the rules of the game, clearly the women have come out in—

RAJAGOPALAN: Actually, that metric made me really happy, because earlier there was this phase in the middle when they said that women don’t perform as well in the interview as the men because it was all-male panels and it was a different kind of vibe, not very conducive—

Now women are kicking ass in the general examination. They’re kicking ass in the interview. And they are doing all of this with fewer attempts. It’s just a higher quality or caliber of women in the force relative to anywhere else or relative to the men.

That stuff makes me pretty happy.

NARLA: Absolutely.

RAJAGOPALAN: I hope all of them choose an economics track or—

NARLA: It would be nice if you get a chief economic adviser.

RAJAGOPALAN: Honestly, we have plenty of women.

NARLA: We have plenty.

RAJAGOPALAN: It’s a semi-political appointment in the sense that the union cabinet must come upon a name. I think there are enough people to choose from. Now I think it’s a question of policy fit. I also see a lot of men who would not be chosen because they’re not the right policy fit for what the government is thinking. I think now it is not as gendered, but yes, the numbers are still off. The women are not the same in number as the men.

But I am pretty hopeful about the top positions going forward. It’s really embarrassing what we have right now. So it can only improve from here, hopefully.

NARLA: That’s true.

RAJAGOPALAN: One question I had for you guys was about expert committee reports. We’ve been pulling these together. Are there any expert committee reports led by women, Kadambari?

SHAH: Now that you’re saying it, I actually just put them up on the website, and all of the pictures—


SHAH: All are men.

RAJAGOPALAN: I know because I went and looked it up today. We are literally in the process of releasing our next bit of resources in our 1991 repository. These are the expert committee reports that eventually led to the reforms or are still waiting in line to get to the reform stage at the table, and though women have participated in the committees, none of the committees have been chaired by women.

NARLA: That’s true.

SHAH: Yes, that’s true.

NARLA: We are also now in the phase where we don’t have as many expert committees anymore.

SHAH: That is true.

NARLA: That’s another funnel that is not going to be around enough to have the kind of talent we have among women economists due to the chairing of committees.

RAJAGOPALAN: The committee thing depresses me on a different margin because it’s not the same as—for instance, you were talking about how Isher Judge Ahluwalia didn’t want to come in laterally because she was offered worse pay, nothing which actually had any kind of comparable relevance to her qualifications or her experience abroad and so on. But an expert committee report doesn’t discriminate like that.

SHAH: Exactly.

RAJAGOPALAN: There should have been a Padma Desai expert committee report on industrial licensing or industrial planning. There should have been an Isher Judge Ahluwalia committee report on municipal finances and things like that or fiscal federalism. That stuff actually irritates me even more than the lack of lateral entry of women—because there it’s different. I understand they have to operate and work in a boys’ club. You can get serious female expertise—

NARLA: Absolutely.

RAJAGOPALAN: —into expert committees, because these are relatively more informal, right? They band together for a very particular cause and then they disband. All this pay disparity, rank: none of this should have really mattered there. But we decided to put in—because we are in the process of trying to fix the expertise amnesia and expert amnesia we have, all of us collectively decided we’ll put up pictures of the people who chaired the committees.

Like Kadambari said today, when she put everything on the website, I went to look at all the pictures: they’re beautiful, aesthetic. But every single one of them is a man. It’s extraordinary.

I love this project. I hope we can really sort of bring some of this, men and women, everyone into the limelight—but we don’t forget the women the way they’ve been overlooked for so long in the process.

NARLA: Couldn’t agree more. I think as long as we keep the conversation going, and we are part of projects like these that are focused on building that kind of accessible public histories, I hope we were able to just keep this going. Yes, absolutely.

SHAH: Yes. It was very important to document it to give women the recognition that they deserve. Yes, just to keep this conversation going.

RAJAGOPALAN: We will continue this conversation on the podcast and off. Thank you so much for being here.

SHAH: Thank you.

NARLA: Thank you, Shruti.

Image Credit: Shreyas Narla

About Ideas of India

Host Shruti Rajagopalan examines the academic ideas that can propel India forward. Subscribe in your favorite podcast app