Conferences in Delhi


Every December, the Delhi School of Economics and the Indian Statistical Institute organize two separate conferences that I have been lucky enough to attend several times. These are excellent gatherings of Indian and non-Indian economists working in and outside India, and in all fields. The weather in Delhi is excellent at this time of the year (the photos, however, are from this past summer!) and the food is better than all other conferences that I have been to.

I am also happy to see a lot more gender-related papers being presented this year. The ISI conference has 4 sessions on gender and a plenary session by Rohini Pande on women and work in India.

The programs for this year are here:

11th Annual Winter School, Delhi School of Economics

12th Annual Conference on Economic Growth and Development, ISI Delhi








Early NASA computers (Source: NASA)

Hidden Figures: The untold story of the black women mathematicians who powered early space exploration.

What programming’s past reveals about today’s gender pay gap.

Rural Indian girls chase big-city dreams.

Donald Trump’s new anti-abortion letter should terrify you.

Making House: Notes on domesticity

Lastly, can it be summer break again, please?



  • Does Rosie like Riveting? A new NBER working paper on occupational tastes of men and women. The “results suggest that women may care more about job content, and this is a possible factor preventing them from entering some male-dominated professions.”







  • Does exposure to female colleagues reduce discrimination against them? A recent paper  in the European Economic Review examines this question in an interesting set-up. The authors “study discrimination among recruits in the Norwegian Armed Forces during boot camp. In a vignette experiment, female candidates are perceived as less suited to be squad leaders than their identical male counterparts. Adding positive information leads to higher evaluations of the candidates, but does not reduce the amount of discrimination. The boot camp provides an ideal setting for studying inter-group contact. We find that intense collaborative exposure to female colleagues reduces discriminatory attitudes: Male soldiers who were randomly assigned to share room and work in a squad with female soldiers during the recruit period do not discriminate in the vignette experiment.”


  • Indian gymnast, Dipa Karmakar, just missed an Olympic medal by a small margin. She is the first Indian female gymnast ever to compete in the Olympics. Dipa is one of only five women worldwide who have successfully completed the Produnova, the most difficult vault currently performed in women’s gymnastics. Here is an excellent article by Sharda Ugra of ESPN on Dipa, on the northeastern state of Tripura where she comes from, and on the story behind gymnastics’ unusual popularity there. Dipa doesn’t like “all the dancing stuff” in women’s gymnastics. “She would rather throw herself into a routine without any frills or coquetteish moves – just like the men in their floor exercises, minus even the music. That idea in women’s gymnastics is, however, almost heretical.”


  • The American Bar Association officially bans the use of misogynistic terms such as “honey” and “darling.” Meanwhile, a study finds that more than 50% of women in advertising face sexual harassment. It seems the Mad Men era is far from over.


  • Bridal slaves. “India has the world’s largest number of slaves, among them are an increasing number of women and girls sold into marriage.” Marriage market consequences of sex-imbalances?

People’s Archive of Rural India (PARI)


A mechanic

The People’s Archive of Rural India (PARI) is an excellent resource not only for researchers and practitioners of development policy but also for anyone interested in learning more about rural India. PARI is “a living journal, a breathing archive” that documents the “everyday lives of everyday people” through video, still photo, audio, and text archives.


A farmer

The breathtaking variety of rural India is often lost in stereotypical portrayals of the poor. It “is in many ways the most diverse part of the planet. Its 833 million people include distinct societies speaking well over 700 languages, some of them thousands of years old. The People’s Linguistic Survey of India (PLSI) tells us the country as a whole speaks some 780 languages and uses 86 different scripts…The eastern state of Odisha alone is home to some 44 tribal languages. The PLSI also reckons close to 220 languages have died in the past 50 years.”


A cobbler

In addition to this linguistic diversity, there is plenty more that needs to be recorded and that’s what PARI’s mission is. For instance, they cover artisans and handicrafts, migrant workers, farmers, tribals, Dalits, the resource conflicts in India, travelers, children, modes of transportation, sports, clothing…the list goes on. It is a crazy, awesome journalistic endeavor that is recording the good, the bad, and the ugly in rural India.


The activists

Anyone can contribute. Their stories are also “gradually turning multi-lingual, with…” volunteers translating articles in “Malayalam, Urdu, Tamil, Kannada, Telugu, Bengali, Hindi, Assamese, and Marathi.”  Check out their collection on rural Indian women here.

Photo credits: PARI




– The Spotlight series highlights the research of female economists, one at a time.-

Rema Hanna, besides being one of the nicest economists, is the Jeffrey Cheah Professor of South East Asia Studies at the Harvard Kennedy School. She is a development economist with a “special interest in understanding how to make government services “work” for the poor in developing countries. She has worked on large-scale field projects with governments and non-profits to understand how to improve safety net systems, reduce bureaucratic absenteeism, and reduce corruption.”

Rema also has several papers on environmental issues. One of my favorites is her 2014 AER paper with Michael Greenstone. “Using the most comprehensive developing country dataset ever compiled on air and water pollution and environmental regulations, the paper assesses India’s environmental regulations.” They find a large impact of the air pollution regulations, but no effect of the water pollution regulations. They “cautiously conclude that the striking difference in the effectiveness of the air and water pollution regulations reflects a greater demand for improvements in air quality by India’s citizens.”

Rema is also a Co-Director of the Evidence for Policy Design (EPoD) research program at Harvard’s Center for International Development, the Scientific Director for South East Asia at J-PAL, a Research Associate at the NBER, an affiliate of BREAD, and a faculty affiliate at the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies. She is currently on the editorial boards of the Review of Economic Studies, the Review of Economics and Statistics, and the Journal of Human Resources. Rema received a Ph.D. degree from MIT and B.S. in Public Policy from Cornell University.

For more details on her research, check out Rema’s website.



Golda Meir, Israel’s first female Prime Minister, in office 1969-1974

  • Janet Jagan, an American married to an Indo-Guyanese man, became the President of Guyana in 1997. The economist Tansu Çiller was Turkey’s first female Prime Minister; in an unprecedented move that still seems radical, her husband took her surname. This and a lot more interesting stuff in this New Yorker piece on women in politics.
  • In an effort to close the wage gap between men and women, Massachusetts has become the first state in the United States to prohibit employers from asking about applicants’ salaries before offering them a job. Companies will not be allowed to prohibit workers from telling others how much they are paid, a move that can increase salary transparency and help employees discover disparities.
  • Recently, the Indian Supreme Court permitted a woman to obtain an abortion after 24 weeks’ gestation–the law imposes a 20-week limit–on a plea that she was raped by her boyfriend on the false promise of marriage. Women’s rights organizations in India widely consider the 20-week limit imposed by the law irrational, outdated and unconstitutional. Some coverage here and here.



  • A Radiolab episode, Staph Retreat, about two female academics at Nottingham—a microbiologist and a historian—who chanced upon a 9th Century Anglo-Saxon remedy using onion, garlic and part of a cow’s stomach to cure an antibiotic-resistant superbug. Fascinating! A quick summary here.
  • Have you seen the Da Da Ding video that features Indian sportswomen? Highly recommended, especially if you love rap, but perhaps with headphones! Some enterprising folks have also made a new version that features everyday Indian women who have been “doing it anyway, for centuries. Without appreciation, without support, often, in very difficult conditions. With great cooperation. Definitely without shoes that cost more than what they earn in a month.” And, if you do not recognize the athletes in the Nike video–most people do not–meet them here. It is great that Nike chose to feature the relatively unknown sportswomen and didn’t simply go to Sania Mirza (currently ranked world no. 1 in women’s doubles tennis) and Saina Nehwal (ranked world no. 1 in women’s badminton in 2015) who are at least widely recognized in India, if not globally.
  • Pro-Life, Pro-Choice, Pro-Dialogue: Krista Tippet talks to reproductive rights activist, Frances Kissling, and Christian ethicist, David Gushee, for a more nuanced discussion of abortion rights.
  • Not gender-related per se, but here is an excellent series from This American Life that reminds us of the humanity of Muslim refugees even as the politicians, the media, and a lot of us collectively continue to stereotype and caricature them.

A bunch of us from our show went to refugee camps all over Greece. We found people falling in love, kids mad at their parents for dragging them to Europe, women doing their laundry in a baseball stadium locker room, and hundreds of people living at a gas station—sitting next to the pumps, smoking. Also: wild pigs. 57,000 refugees are stuck in Greece, making homes in some surprising locations. We hear what that’s really like.

Abortion and Sex-selective Abortion

Abortion is a hotly debated issue in the United States. Does a woman have a right to abort a fetus? Do fetuses have rights? When does a fetus become a rightful person? Do fetal rights dominate mothers’ rights, ever? Who gets to decide? And so on. The debate is essentially a moral and an ethical one, in which advocates of women’s rights typically argue that a woman has an unconditional right to decide what happens to and in her body and thus should be able to terminate a fetus if she so desires. Pro-choice groups also point out that the ability to abort unwanted children in fact also benefits children that end up being born because they are more “wanted” and also because parents have more to spend on these children due to the smaller family size when unwanted pregnancies can be safely terminated.

Like most things in life, however, there are plenty of grey areas in the abortion debate. Take, for instance, countries like India and China where parents vastly prefer having sons over daughters.* As people have fewer and fewer children, the pressure to abort girls becomes stronger if son preference does not weaken as fast as the desired number of children. China’s erstwhile One Child Policy quite clearly put this point across (although there is some academic debate about how large the contribution of the One Child Policy to sex ratio imbalance truly was).

The graph below shows the increase in the number of abortions in India during 1972-2012. Abortion was legalized in India in 1971; it is legal if the pregnancy that it terminates endangers the woman’s life, causes grave injury to her physical or mental health, is a result of rape or contraceptive failure (the latter applies only to married women), or is likely to result in the birth of a child suffering from serious physical or mental abnormalities. Consent is not required from the woman’s husband or from other family members; however, a guardian’s consent is required if the woman seeking an abortion is either less than 18 years old or is mentally ill. The law allows an unintended pregnancy to be terminated up to 20 weeks’ gestation; however, if the pregnancy is beyond 12 weeks, approval is required from two medical practitioners.


Total number of abortions in India during 1972-2012. Source: Anukriti et al (2016)

But, starting in mid-1980s, the advent of ultrasound technology and the subsequent liberalization of India’s economy meant that India started importing and subsequently producing a large number of ultrasound scanners, that enabled parents to find out the sex of the unborn child, and abort it if they wanted to. This led to a sharp rise in sex-selective abortions, i.e., abortion of girl fetuses: 480,000 girls were aborted in India each year during 1995-2005, greater than the number of girls born in the United Kingdom each year. This means that the bulk of abortions taking place in India are girl abortions.

How does one think about selective abortion of girls in the context of women’s rights? If we believe that “a woman has an unconditional right to decide what happens to and in her body and thus should be able to terminate a fetus if she so desires,” then is it alright for a woman to selectively abort a girl fetus? Some people might respond by saying that in son-preferring countries, the woman is pressured into having a sex-selective abortion and it is not a real choice that she is exercising. But what if it is in a woman’s best interest to give birth to a son, e.g., because it improves her status within the household, or because she will have a son to live with during old age, or simply because she too dislikes daughters having grown up in a pro-male society, and that is why she herself wants to sex-select? Is it okay then? Of course, these “choices” are being made in a context where women are treated poorly and are not valued as much as men, and the ultimate solution might be to have a gender-equal society, but what happens meanwhile? How do we value women’s rights relative to unborn girls’ rights?**

As I and my co-authors find in a recent paper, it is also the case in India that girls born after it became feasible to abort unwanted girls were breastfed for longer, were more likely to be immunized, and did much better in terms of survival rates than girls that were born when parents could not selectively abort. This effect is partly driven by the fact that now parents don’t need to discriminate after birth and can more effectively discriminate before birth by having a sex-selective abortion. The second reason why we find this effect, similar to the point made in the first paragraph, is that now girls are born in smaller families, so parents have more resources to take care of their daughters.

So is it ok to sex-select because it (a) allows mothers to exercise their choice and (b) also benefits girls that are born?  Well, in our paper we also find that for every girl that survived until age five (indirectly due to ultrasound through the mechanisms I described above), five girls went missing due to sex-selection. So a lot more girls were aborted than the girls who gained after birth because of sex-selection technology.

One could also think of these issues from a larger, more social perspective. What happens in the long-run when girls are aborted at a much higher rate than boys are? The research on this question is not as well-developed, but we have some pointers. The scarcity of women in society can increase the number of unmarried and childless men, who may face destitution in old age since children through marriage are the most important source of support for the elderly in countries like India that lack institutional social security. Rising sex ratios can lead to increased trafficking of women, higher prevalence of sexually-transmitted diseases, and more crime. So, both men and women are likely to bear the adverse effects of sex-selection in the future, and it is incorrect to think of this purely as a women’s issue, albeit an inter-generational one.

A personal aside: Like a lot of feminists, I find myself supporting a woman’s right to abortion in general, but am not on such a firm ground when I think about sex-selective abortions. How does one resolve this dilemma? Any thoughts?


*To be precise, it is not always the case that parents want a boy over a girl; it’s more often that families want at least one or two sons. For example, in the north Indian state of Haryana,  Jayachandran (2016) finds that although the vast majority of families want to have a son if they can only have one child, at a family size of two they prefer having one daughter and one son over having two sons.

**Note the similarities with the climate change debate.


Dowry in Rural India

Marriage is almost universal in India, and so is dowry. Despite being illegal since 1961, most Indian brides’ families pay a substantial amount of cash and gifts to the grooms’ families at the time of marriage, often amounting to several years of household income. Traditionally, dowry was considered stridhan, i.e., woman’s wealth, and it was indeed a type of premortem bequest as daughters typically did not inherit property from their fathers. Over time, however, dowry has become more of a groom-price that equates the supply and demand of brides and grooms in the marriage market.

Despite its wide prevalence, accurate data on dowry is hard to come by. In fact, even simple things such as the definition of dowry and its trend have been hotly debated in the economics literature. In a new paper, my co-authors, Nishith Prakash and Sungoh Kwon from the University of Connecticut, and I use data from the Rural Economic and Demographic Survey to examine dowry payments for 39,544 marriages that occurred during 1960-2008 in rural India. The graphs below show the broad patterns we find.

Note: The key variable we plot is the average net dowry paid by the bride’s family (in Rupees), i.e., we subtract the amount of gifts paid by the groom’s family from the gifts paid by the bride’s family. We also take into account inflation; all statistics are in 2005 Rupees.

  1. In real terms, average net dowry per marriage in rural India has remained remarkably stable during 1960-2008 and has fluctuated around Rs. 25,000.


2.  The goom’s family typically spends around Rs. 5,000 on gifts to the bride’s family whereas the bride’s family spends approximately Rs. 30,000 on gifts to the groom’s family.


3. The highest dowries are paid by upper-castes, followed by other backward classes (OBCs), scheduled castes (SCs), and scheduled tribes (STs). This ranking too has remained unchanged over time.


4. In terms of religion, dowries among Muslims are only slightly lower than among Hindus. There has been an increase in Muslim dowries since 2000, but the sharpest rise has been taking place among Christians and Sikhs. The latter changes are perhaps a reflection of the trends in Kerala and Punjab, respectively.


5. Lastly, we look at regional variation and find that the relatively flat national average hides substantial variation across states. Look at Kerala, for instance, where real dowries have been rising for quite some time and have crossed Rs. 60,000! In Andhra Pradesh, however, there has been a secular decline, while Karnataka has remained more or less stable. Tamil Nadu also exhibits a decline starting in mid-90s.



Punjab appears to be the Kerala of North India as far as dowry inflation is concerned! The neighboring states of Haryana and Uttar Pradesh have had lower dowries as compared to Punjab, though not as low as Himachal Pradesh.


Among the central-west states, nothing dramatic has happened in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan and there has been some decline in Maharashtra. Gujarat, like Haryana, exhibits a sharp increase starting in 2000.


Lastly, in the eastern part of the country, Orissa and West Bengal had much higher dowries than Bihar historically, but they have been experiencing a secular decline over time. In recent years, Bihar and West Bengal have converged on an average net dowry of Rs. 20,000 whereas Orissa stands at Rs. 30,000.



And just in case you were wondering how much you would get/ pay, here are some “dowry calculators” :-):