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Boss lady #6: Krishna Bharadwaj

A formidable economic theorist who did not come from privilege

Krishna Bharadwaj (KB) was the youngest Indian economist to engage with political economy theory, specifically applying theory to understand the challenges of agriculture in India. Unlike her contemporaries, Sukhamoy Chakravarty, and Amartya Sen, her training in economics was entirely at home and this was a conscious choice. Even more remarkable is the story of her meteoric rise in the world of economic theory.

A blog I found on twitter notes — “she went through all the professional hazards of being a woman, an Indian and a theorist at that.” It was also disheartening to read that when her professional career started taking off, her marriage fell apart seemingly(?) because of professional insecurity on part of her husband, also an academic. All accounts I have read about Prof. Bharadwaj, however, underscore that her standard response was humility and kindness to all the discrimination she faced throughout her career.

KB was born to poor parents in Karwar, Karnataka in 1935. She moved to Bombay to pursue a degree in economics. Of course she topped her M.A. class at Bombay University. She even received a scholarship to pursue her PhD abroad but was convinced by her advisor to stay back in India and contribute to a sound understanding of the Indian economy. KB stayed on. She got married to a fellow econometrician and academic. She even moved with him to the US where she was pursuing a post-doc at MIT and her husband, at Harvard. During these US years, her daughter none other than Sudha Bharadwaj (yes, labor rights activist, lawyer, and unfortunately political prisoner Sudha Bharadwaj!) was born.

Shortly after the US stint and KB’s return to India as a lecturer, Piero Saffra (extremely influential Italian economist) dropped a book Production of Commodities by Means of Commodities (1960). Except, not a lot of people could figure out what it was about. The then editor of the Economic Weekly (EPW) challenged (perhaps pranked?) KB to review the book for the journal. Within a year, KB prepared such a remarkable review on the book that Saffra himself got in touch with her congratulating her for not only understanding the theme of his argument, but also extending it in meaningful ways! That is how KB gained a very influential mentor in the field of economic theory. People were shocked that the exemplary review was produced by a young scholar in India (very far away from Cambridge). KB’s stellar review earned her a visiting faculty position at Cambridge University in Economics and Politics. This was also the time in KB’s life when her marriage fell apart, but her mother and daughter remained a source of support. In Cambridge, KB was living on a tight budget. Poor housing, financial scarcity, and personal stress resulted in a bout of tuberculosis for KB.

Back in India, Prof. KN Raj and Sukhamoy Chakraborty arranged for a teaching position for KB at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, where she went on to establish the Centre for Economic Studies and Planning (CESP). She ran and led CESP till her early death in 1992.

Throughout her career, KB was offered top jobs at the World Bank and various international universities, but she remained committed to working and teaching in India. Despite being a star in the world of economic theory, the internet’s collective memory suggests she remained clear and approachable in her writing (not dense and intimidating as economic theory writing often is).

To tie it all together, KB is a clear boss-lady because a) she was a leading light in economic theory way back in the day (till today, gender representation leaves a lot to be desired in this economics sub-field), b) she faced a double burden of gender and socio-economic class disadvantage, c) she contributed to the discipline but also built institutions in India to enrich the world of economics training and research for students, d) she kept at it despite personal setbacks and health issues, and e) she seemed kind, devoid of the hubris that comes with greatness in any field.

PS: The internet is annoying. I only found that one picture of KB. There are many many more of her namesake, an Indian TV star from Bihar ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

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