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The Tuesday Interview | ‘Growth alone won’t address inequalities; address taxation, society’s conservatism’

The pandemic has brought out a lot of its costs. It is becoming clear that you cannot measure recovery solely with employment, Rohini Pande told DH
Last Updated : 17 January 2023, 12:47 IST
Last Updated : 17 January 2023, 12:47 IST
Last Updated : 17 January 2023, 12:47 IST
Last Updated : 17 January 2023, 12:47 IST

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Rohini Pande’s research has consistently drawn on the State-citizen relationship in the context of public policy and implementation. The Henry J Heinz II Professor of Economics and Director of the Economic Growth Centre at Yale University has, in her more recent work, studied regulatory frameworks in climate action and citizen empowerment in ensuring greater accountability from governments. In Bengaluru to receive the 14th Infosys Prize under the Social Sciences category, she spoke with DH’s R Krishnakumar about the future of India’s democratic institutions, its social and economic imbalances, and its women in academia. Excerpts

What does the Infosys Prize mean to you and for Indians looking at careers in the social sciences?

I’m deeply honoured to receive the prize. I grew up in India, and I work on India, so this is very special. I’m only part of the work that I do in collaboration with many others. I’m grateful that their research, which involved a lot of data collection, is also being recognised.

In a meritocratic system, you would hope that there is no need for awards—why do we pick out one person when so many others are doing good work? I almost justify these awards by leveraging them to support social sciences and encourage a greater presence of women in academia, both in India and internationally. Prizes like this help many people to feel that they could work on things that are eclectic, that if they are not like everyone else in the room, that is fine. If there is a group I would want to reach by virtue of leveraging this prize, it would be them.

India, ambitious about a global leadership role, is also grappling with its internal disparities.

The biggest challenge India faces is linked to inequality. For the longest time, and to some extent correctly, we saw economic growth as being critical, but I think we failed to notice what it was doing to inequality. If you want inclusive growth in terms of strengthening the tax system, it did not happen sufficiently. The pandemic has brought out a lot of its costs. It is becoming clear that you cannot measure recovery solely with employment because there is a lot more household debt.

I study women in labour markets; there, they tell you that rural employment among women has rebounded. It could be seen as a good thing, but a lot of it looks like distress employment. People have also gone back to agriculture, which is unusual for a country like India. We need to ask where they are going to land. We need to be thinking about recognising distress and the importance of taxation, especially at higher levels of income.

You spoke about leveraging awards. Are social sciences a rewarding career option in India?

If you look at the young, leading scholars from India who have made a mark internationally, many of them had not done under-graduation in economics but had been to the IITs. It shows that economics is not really seen as part of STEM education in universities. Students are not sufficiently trained in the foundations to be competitive enough to get into strong graduate schools. We need to find ways to strengthen the UG curriculum to make it comparable to the curricula students go through before they enter graduate schools internationally.

That matters also because there is this whole other issue of women and STEM in India. The IITs do not have a lot of women, so it is not like that path is going to bring them in.

How do you see the role of India’s democratic institutions evolving?

The right way to strengthen democratic institutions is by building transparency. There have been strong interventions, like the RTI, but we never really moved toward creating good public disclosure systems. From my work on regulatory systems in the environment and, specifically, climate change, I can say that there are issues that India has to consider seriously. We have commitments on climate financing and reducing carbon emissions. Now, to get that financing, we need credible mechanisms to meet these commitments. That, again, pertains to transparency.

Where are these commitments in conflict with India’s energy needs? Is the balancing act a challenge?

It is, but in some ways, it is also an opportunity. Unlike many rich countries, we are still making a lot of investment decisions. Urbanisation is going to increase hugely over the next few decades, and we are in a position where these choices can still be made: how much should we invest in public transport? Or (from the citizen’s perspective), do I buy the car, or is the Metro good enough? It is not like we are stuck, like in the US.

You have studied the reach and limitations of emergency cash payouts to poor women in India.

We had analysed the emergency COVID relief cash transfer programme (in 2020) targeted at poor women. The belief was that under the PMJDY, bank accounts had been opened for all these women, but surveys showed that even if women may have had these bank accounts, they were dormant, the account holders were unaware of them, or they required permission from someone in the household to go alone to a bank. There was the additional issue of these women being subjected to harassment through their phones.

All this shows that announcing programmes and policies is not enough. It is also important for the state to find ways to engage with informal institutions, address conservatism in society, and express intent to push against it.

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Published 16 January 2023, 17:18 IST

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