Women have largely been absent in India’s economic and social policymaking. This under-representation at the high table impacts the well-being of half the population, especially when an emergency like the Covid-19 pandemic strikes. With few lobbying for their interests, it is only natural that women’s issues and concerns get short shrift in a patriarchal society like India.

Is there a high table of her peers?

In nearly 75 years, India has had only two women finance ministers, Indira Gandhi and Nirmala Sitharaman, of whom only one is a trained economist. In that same time frame, there has been only one woman finance secretary, Sushma Nath, and no woman governor of the Reserve Bank of India, though a few women rose to deputy governor. The 13th and 14th finance commissions had only one woman member each – Indira Rajaraman
and Sushma Nath – while the incumbent 15th commission has none.

When crises come calling, the Indian establishment has a tendency to bring its best men together. Former Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao’s Camelot in 1991 or the current Prime Minister’s Covid-19 task forces predominantly comprised male bureaucrats, technocrats and consultants. While the debate on women in politics waxes and wanes with every election season, their grossly low presence in expert bodies and policy spaces is less talked about.

This absence at the top is symptomatic of how small the pool of women has been in the services. A recent IndiaSpend study finds that between 1951 and 2020 women comprised only 13% of all officers inducted into the Indian Administrative Services, though there has been an increase in their presence from 9% in 1970 to 31% by 2020.

When it comes to portfolios, the study found that women are more likely to be deputed to “non-glamorous” posts of cultural affairs, education, food, and civil supplies as opposed to big ticket ministries such as finance and energy.

Even in academia, which is another significant pool for the selection of technical experts, researchers say that despite forming half the strength in doctoral programmes across India’s economics departments, women hold only 29.6% of teaching positions in the top 120 Indian universities.

The larger socio-cultural setup which burdens women with household and childcare responsibilities can deter them from actively employing self-promotion tactics for visibility and professional growth.

The insularity of informal networks in academia and bureaucracy, both dominated by men, often prevent women from receiving the requisite mentoring, being in the frame for promotions, getting invited on panels and appointed to committees. These challenges are multifold for those who are also at the receiving end of pervasive caste-based barriers.

Moreover, when it comes to holding such appointments, a handful of talented and qualified women have to compete in a much larger pool of competent men to be selected. All this takes place in a society where the female labour force participation rate is only 18.6%, down from 35% in 2005.

Despite the odds, several trained female economists have broken barriers and played a role in shaping India’s economic policy. Yet, not much scholarship on economic or policy history accounts for their contribution. Taking stock and recognising their achievements is therefore essential to understand what we miss out on when institutions remain blinkered.

The 1960s onwards

When her career as a central banker did not offer enough challenge, Dharma Kumar moved to academia and established herself as a doyen of economic history, writing and editing authoritative works on India’s growth trajectory.

Her colleague at the Delhi School of Economics, Padma Desai, wrote extensively on transition economies and market-based reforms, which were path-breaking during the 1960s. Many of the reformers in Rao’s Camelot in 1991 recall that [Jagdish N] Bhagwati and Desai’s book was a major influence for pursuing trade and industrial liberalization.

While neither of them made it to government committees and advisory bodies in India, they influenced a generation of professional economists, academics and bureaucrats.

One of their students, Isher Judge Ahluwalia, would go on to extend the work of Desai on bottlenecks in the Indian economy, advocate for liberalisation reforms, partake in international delegations and encourage the country’s new urban fortunes as the head of the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations.

In her graduating class at the Delhi School of Economics, Judge ranked second only to Utsa Patnaik, who became a leading Marxist economist. Deepak Nayyar, who ranked eighth, would later forge a successful career in academia and the government, most notably as Chief Economic Advisor in the Finance Ministry in 1990-1991 under Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar and briefly under PV Narasimha Rao, and as Vice-Chancellor of Delhi University.

In the rankings that year between Judge and Nayyar were five other women. While little is known about their names and affiliations, their class also included Rohini Chand, a contemporary of Indira Rajaraman at Miranda House.

Chand, who would later become Nayyar’s partner, would go on to head the Social Development and Rural Development Divisions of the erstwhile Planning Commission in the 1980s. Mentored by rural economist Margaret Haswell during her time at Oxford, she was the first to measure poverty in terms of inadequate calorie intake, in her seminal book on rural poverty.

Parveen Talha, a career bureaucrat, attained many firsts: the first Muslim woman to join the Indian Revenue Service, the first woman to serve in the Central Bureau of Narcotics, and the first Indian Revenue Service officer to become a member of the Union Public Service Commission.

Devaki Jain, the pioneer of feminist economics in India, kick-started the process of gendering state plans while working with the Karnataka Planning Board as early as the 1980s. She was instrumental in demanding that women be involved in fiscal policymaking and not just in the formulation of budgets.

Devaki Jain discusses her memoir with the United Nations Women's agency in India.

Krishna Bharadwaj was instrumental in the revival of classical economics. On returning to India from Cambridge in the 1970s, she started the postgraduate and research programme on economics at Jawaharlal Nehru University, and over the next two decades taught generations of students capital theory and agricultural economics.

Her contemporary, Kanta Ranadive, groomed generations of students at the Faculty of Economics of Bombay University. Her writings on economics of income distribution remain unmatched. Around the same time, Sudha Shenoy infused new life into the Austrian school of economics, though much of her work was done on foreign shores.

The 2000s

At the Reserve Bank of India in 2003, KJ Udeshi rose to become the first woman deputy governor and contributed greatly to the country’s credit policies. Shyamala Gopinath and Usha Thorat followed in her footsteps as executive directors and later deputy governors of the Reserve Bank of India in the first decade of 2000s.

While Thorat spawned various efforts to encourage financial inclusion, Gopinath oversaw the management of debt, foreign exchange, and capital accounts for seven years, and served at the IMF on deputation too

Things underwent a churn in the other power centre too. In 2007, the Planning Commission set up the Feminist Economists Group under the chairpersonship of Syeda Hameed, who also steered the committee on the National Health Policy 2002 and served for ten years as Member of the Planning Commission.

This group comprised of Devaki Jain and several feminist economists like Nirmala Banerjee, Gita Sen, Ratna Sudarshan, Padmini Swaminathan (who was also Chair for Regional Studies at the Reserve Bank of India), Yamini Mishra (who worked on gender budgeting); Rohini Nayyar and other rural economy experts like Aasha Kapur Mehta, Bina Agarwal and Madhura Swaminathan; development-focused scholars such as Jayati Ghosh, Mary E John, Indira Hirway, Jeemol Unni, Mridul Eapen; labour and marginalised groups-focused scholars such as Renana Jhabvala (who worked on issues of informal women labour) and Ritu Dewan (who was also the first woman Director of the Department of Economics at the University of Mumbai), among others.

This group represents the first and only such effort in bringing together India’s most accomplished economists in gendering state policy. Thanks to their efforts in shaping the 11th and 12th five year plans, the state recognised women not just as a social group but as “important agents of economic growth and change” and included gender as an important criteria in policy consideration across sectoral plans.

Seeta Prabhu, who was introduced to Rohini Nayyar by Indira Hirway, would later head the Human Development Resource Centre, under the United Nations Development Programme. She would work with Nayyar in preparing state-level human development reports and developing the Human Development Index for India.

In the following decade, women finally entered the citadel. Ila Patnaik made her mark as Principal Economic Advisor to the Union government. After a long career in teaching at the Delhi School of Economics, Pami Dua was appointed as a member of the first Monetary Policy Committee.

Ashima Goyal served as a member of the Monetary Policy Committee and Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister, and Shamika Ravi was a member of the Economic Advisory Council. Poonam Gupta, former Lead Economist for India at the Work Bank, became the Director General of the National Council of Applied Economic Research and is presently on the Economic Advisory Council. Rupa Chanda, former IMF economist and current Director of the Trade, Investment and Innovation Division of UN’s Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, is part of the Economic Advisory Council’s working group on sustainable development policy.

Ashwini Deshpande carries forward Jain’s legacy by working on the intersection of caste, gender, regional disparities and income inequality. Lekha Chakraborty championed the institutionalisation of gender budgeting, while Saon Ray furthered scholarship on international trade and industrial economics. Rukmini Banerji’s pioneering work on learning outcomes has triggered a rethink in education policymaking, fuelling the efforts of academics like Nobel Laureate Esther Duflo.

Susan Thomas helped shape the new bankruptcy law and Pranjul Bhandari has worked extensively on financial markets. After a stint in the Economic Advisory Council, Prachi Mishra headed the Strategic Research Unit under Raghuram Rajan’s governorship at the Reserve Bank of India. Rupa Rege Nitsure, as a member of the central bank’s Urjit Patel Committee, worked on revising and strengthening monetary policy.

Following the path of Desai, who later forged a career in the West, Gita Gopinath and Rohini Pande have made impacts through academia as well as policy through multilateral development organisations. Bishnupriya Gupta, Rinku Murgai, Lakshmi Iyer and Reetika Khera have also made wide-ranging contributions to Indian economic thought and development economics.

Women economists have also been making strides at the state and local levels. Vini Mahajan was the first woman Chief Secretary of Punjab. In Maharashtra, Sujata Saunik is Additional Chief Secretary at the Department of General Administration. Both have helped improve their respective states’ infrastructure and public health system.

Tamil Nadu’s chief minister is guided by an Economic Advisory Council that includes Esther Duflo. Yamini Aiyar, as the President of Centre for Policy Research, has driven conversations on public finance, federalism and bureaucracy, and advised Punjab and Rajasthan’s chief ministers. Sarada Muraleedharan, the incumbent Additional Chief Secretary to the Kerala government, previously led the Kudumbashree Mission, the state’s poverty eradication and women empowerment programme.

Sonia Sethi, an Eisenhower Fellow and former Additional Director General of Foreign Trade, is spearheading, among other projects, Mumbai’s Metro rail as Additional Metropolitan Commissioner in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority.

Demographers Leela Visaria and Sonalde Desai contributed immensely with their interventions. Visaria, former director of Gujarat Institute of Development Research, coordinated a network of non-governmental organisations for over a decade in collaborating with policymakers on gender-sensitive population and health policy issues whereas Desai created the robust India Human Development Survey dataset which has informed socio-economic studies since 2005.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but demonstrates the breadth of talent, ideas and well-established contributions that women have brought to the high table.

The future

New voices continue to be on the rise. Radhicka Kapoor, Kanika Mahajan and Farzana Afridi’s research underscores much-needed labour reforms, particularly on the measurement of employment/unemployment and female labour participation. Also studying female labour, but one entangled with love and leisure, is development economist Shrayana Bhattacharya.

Shruti Rajagopalan is the first to apply ideas of constitutional economics to the Indian constitution and political economy. Rajeswari Sengupta examines various macroeconomic issues, while Renuka Sane is working on consumer protection in finance and has forayed into policymaking.

Vaidehi Tandel is doing important intersectional research on land markets, housing reform and urban governance. Aditi Roy Bhowmick is helping enable a data revolution, collating and publishing open and robust data. Bhargavi Zaveri-Shah and Pritika Hingorani, though not traditional economists, are opening new avenues in financial regulation and city planning respectively. These are merely a handful of emerging names.

Then there are those at the forefront of working for more inclusion in economics and policymaking. Prerna Kundu and Prashansa Srivastava, co-founders of Women in Econ and Policy, and Aditi Priya and Aarushi Kalra, who set up Bahujan Economists, are platforming and mentoring budding talent in the economics discipline, primarily those from historically marginalised communities.

The Sona Mitra-led Initiative for What Works to Advance Women and Girls in the Economy is dedicated to evidence-based policy recommendations in addressing entry barriers for improving the participation of women in the economy.

Studies on the impact of increasing female representation in political posts and policy offices show better provision of public goods, especially in matters of education and health – which is one good reason among many why more such women who can reshape and reimagine India’s economic future, and don technocratic roles, need to come through the system. The dearth of institutional imagination and opportunities should not short-change them.

Further, higher numbers in female representation can be a means to combat societal biases which continue to be pitted against female leadership. If more opportunities elude women, warding off bias against their competency will be moot. Undoing some of the entry barriers and giving due recognition is therefore imperative.

Kadambari Shah and Shreyas Narla are policy researchers. They would like to thank Niranjan Rajadhyaksha, Dhiraj Nayyar and Prem Panicker for feedback and suggestions. They are also grateful to Sneha P, Yash Kirkire, and Gayatri Chandrasekharan for their comments.