Ashwini Deshpande interviewed by Scroll.in

We were lucky enough to get the chance to speak with Alex Thomas on Friday, and the video of the conversation should be up on YouTube soon enough. In a wonderful coincidence, Scroll.in published an interview with Ashwini Deshpande just a day later. It is a coincidence (to me) because Alex’s textbook is the first macro textbook that I read that speaks extensively about caste, gender and ecology.

Who is Ashwini Deshpande? An economist, currently with Ashoka University, Ashwini Deshpande has been working for a while on the economics of discrimination and affirmative action. The interview, conducted by Rohan Venkat, is a fun and instructive (and what a rare combination that is!) read on both the arc of Ashwini Deshpande’s career, and also on the work that she has done, and is currently doing.


Here’s an excerpt from a different source, before we get to the Scroll interview:

There’s a lovely new working paper by Ashwini Deshpande and Jitendra Singh on female labor force participation in India. We talked a little bit about this last time. Our last conversation was about the honor-income tradeoff, how there are all these things at home that are holding women back: public safety issues, child care issues.
They find something quite remarkable, which is that they don’t find much evidence of supply-side demographic characteristics, like household income, structure, motherhood or timing of childbirth, et cetera, to be very significant in the labor force participation. In fact, it has an effect on the level, but it’s not like the timing of the childbirth—you see this big drop-off and then they come back to the labor force and so on. They find that it’s mostly demand-driven, that actually female labor force participation is so low in India because the demand for women is very low.
There’s a second finding that they have. It’s bad news for India going into the immediate future, which is adverse economic shocks actually make this problem worse. Because a lot of the lack of demand or the fallen demand for female labor is because they’re getting displaced by the employment of male workers.
They find that when there’s an economic shock, like demonetization or current COVID constraints and things like that, you see women being driven out of the labor force.

https://www.discoursemagazine.com/culture-and-society/2021/09/16/ideas-of-india-female-friendships-and-fraternal-capital/

Why this excerpt? Well, as a young student, you often get to hear that economists are working on topic “x”, or feature “y” – and when you start to read the work itself, one tends to miss out on asking the big picture questions. This exceprt, I think, helps you focus on just that: the big picture question.

What is the big picture question, you ask? Simple: is women’s participation in the labor workforce so low because the supply is low? Or because demand for labor supplied by women is low? Or both? And how does one go about answering this question? So yes, the age at which women get married, how much education they receive, and cultural impediments to they working are all factors to be considered – but hey, maybe there just is a preference to hire males instead of females as well?

It goes without saying: read the paper, but this should help you read it better 🙂


The first part of the interview is about how Ashwini Deshpande got into this field of research, and is useful reading to understand the role of “luck” in the development of your research interests, and also to understand the resistance to change in terms of new research areas for economics twenty to thirty years ago.

There are a lot of interesting points in the interview, such as, for example, problems with recording women’s work better than is done right now (and what happens if it is not recorded correctly). There’s stuff in there about the lack of meaningful linkages between women’s education levels and the jobs that ought to become available as a consequence – and this could be because of (a lack of) sanitation, and increased mechanization on farms, among other things.

The interview is also useful reading because it introduces you to the so-called “Indian enigma“. (Please read “Where India Goes” if you haven’t already, and here’s an old review of the book on EFE.)

Here’s a chart from her paper that posits a different explanation (I’ve copied it from the Scroll interview, but it is from the paper as cited below):

UC: Upper Caste, SC-ST: Scheduled Castes, Schedules Tribes, OBC: Other Backward Classes. Credit: Ramachandran, Deshpande, The Impact of Caste: A Missing Link in the Literature on Stunting in India

We found that regions where the self-reported practice of untouchability was higher, the child height for upper caste children was unaffected, which means that, for example, Brahmin children were not shorter, compared to regions where untouchability was lower. But the average height of Dalit children was shorter in areas with higher practice of untouchability, compared to heights in areas with lower prevalence of untouchability.
That gives us a mechanism about how stigmatisation and social ostracism might affect child height. The fact that you have to be at the end of the queue in terms of receiving social services, maybe you get excluded actively. There’s a whole set of social and economic processes which either completely exclude these children or put them at the end of the queue.
What this suggests is that the greater prevalence of societal discrimination is associated with a worsening of the stunting problem.

https://thepoliticalfix.substack.com/p/interview-ashwini-deshpande-on-the

Now, you may agree, or you may disagree with her assessment – and that, of course, is more than absolutely fine. The idea, especially if you are a young student starting out on a voyage of discovery in the field of economics, isn’t to either form or change your opinion. It’s awesome to have opinions, and it’s awesome-r to have it change because of something you read or learn. But for the moment, to be informed about this body of work, and to go through it, would be a very good place to start.

As Ashwini Deshpande herself says in the interview:

Sometimes no number of facts can make people change their minds. Some people already have their minds made up. But such people are at the extremes. I believe a very large number of people believe in something because they don’t know better. They’ve just never been exposed to another way of thinking, another way of looking.
The idea is to expand that community of people. Reach out to the people who believe in something, maybe very strongly, but that’s only because that’s all they’ve ever heard. What CEDA is trying to do is to create an evidence base which is accessible. You can always produce evidence that is so obscure and so difficult to understand that nobody would want to engage with it.
But what we are trying to do at CEDA is, through pictures, through little data narratives, through short pieces, to summarise issues in a way that a lay person will find accessible. It’s like a ball that you set into motion, and hopefully it will spread to more and more people.
The more the number of institutions or portals that allow people access to data and debates in a democratic manner, the better.

https://thepoliticalfix.substack.com/p/interview-ashwini-deshpande-on-the

There are some great recommendations at the end of the interview, both to read and to view, and if you haven’t consumed them already, you have your work cut out for you.

If you are interested in reading more about Ashwini Deshpande, here is her CV, here is her faculty page, and here is her Twitter profile. A word of advice: do not click open her Twitter profile if you are feeling hungry. You can thank me later. 🙂

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