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Devaki Jain's adventures in feminist economics

Devaki Jain’s candid account of her life and work affirms her stature as a trailblazer among gender economists in India

Much of Devaki Jain’s research has profound implications for development policy. raj k raj/hindustan times
Much of Devaki Jain’s research has profound implications for development policy. raj k raj/hindustan times

Devaki Jain walked across the country with social reformer Vinoba Bhave to persuade landlords to voluntarily give land to the landless. She toured Bihar with socialist leader Jayaprakash Narayan during a terrible famine. She helped Minoo Masani write one of the earliest critiques of Nehruvian economics. She challenged a young Amartya Sen on Marxism. She went from Oxford to London on a motorcycle to attend a protest by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament headed by British philosopher and polymath Bertrand Russell. The celebrated feminist writer Gloria Steinem and she became friends well before the latter became famous. She had dinner with civil rights activist Rosa Parks. She worked closely with Tanzanian leader Julius Nyerere in the South Commission.

Such vignettes from an extraordinary life shine through her autobiography. The Brass Notebook complements two other recent books by Jain, The Journey Of A Southern Feminist and Close Encounters Of Another Kind: Women And Development Economics. The latter two are collections from her professional work, while the first is an endearing tale of an examined life.

The same sense of adventure that runs through her personal life has informed her research work as well. Jain at times wonders whether her unusual approach has led to fewer journal publications that economists in academia so value. It has surely not diminished her impact. Jain embodies the idea of an activist scholar—an economist who travels to see for herself, who believes that knowledge should lead to action.

Feminist economist Ritu Dewan, a former director of the Mumbai School of Economics and Public Policy, told me that Jain is one of the pioneers of gender economics in India, showing the way for many who have followed in her footsteps. Jain herself writes evocatively about the need to think about economic development as if women mattered, especially in a paradoxical culture “that venerated its goddesses but killed its baby girls”.

Much of her research has profound implications for development policy. For example, the light she has shone on the unequal distribution of resources within a household. Food is first made available to men and only then to women, which means that food security should be seen not only through the lens of a household but also of the individuals within it. Elsewhere, development economist Bina Agarwal has shown how unequal access to property rights is the single most important economic factor explaining the gender gap in countries such as India.

“Inequalities within inequalities, injustices within injustices, poverty within poverty,” Jain writes. Be it on gender or the informal sector, Jain puts a lot of stress in her writing on definitions, measurement, context—simple truths that are often missed by younger economists who are eager to run statistical programmes without first understanding the data.

However, this is not a book about economics alone. Jain writes in a refreshingly honest manner about her childhood, her romances, her anxieties, and, most of all, the years she shared with her husband, the Gandhian economist L. C. Jain. Among other things, he worked with the Indian Cooperative Union that was at the forefront of an unusual experiment at Faridabad, near Delhi. Here, 50,000 refugees from Pakistan were partners in cooperative industrial enterprises built in a barren landscape.

Jain also writes bluntly about her experience with predatory males—an uncle, a famous poet, and an even more famous economist. This continues to be the lived experience of most Indian women. There are also flashes of wit, as when she writes about her pretentious contemporaries in 1950s Oxford: “The most ridiculous or laughable…were the Indian men dressed in waist-coated suits, carrying umbrellas and talking with the stuffy, huff-huff accents of the public school students.”

Every life is unique, but there are discernible patterns as well. The generation of Indian women that came of age in the middle of the previous century had to negotiate complex social change. Despite the fact that she was born into an elite family, Jain faced pressure to get married at the age of 18, walked out of her parental house to be with a man who was not from the same caste, and had to keep her marriage a secret so as not to jeopardize the forthcoming marriage of a sister. Her two stints at Oxford were not easy either. She washed dishes to get an education, and those were years of freedom as well as anxiety.

The book also gives tantalizing glimpses of the talented yet narrow elite in Nehruvian India. Even the dissenters were within the charmed circle, at least in New Delhi. Jain writes about how her brother would comment on the friendly networks of Chanakyapuri and Pandara Road intellectuals. There is no doubt that these networks had a lot of cerebral firepower, and people such as K. N. Raj, Amartya Sen, Sukhamoy Chakravarty, Lovraj Kumar, Dharma Kumar, P.N. Dhar, Pitambar Pant, Raj Thapar and Romesh Thapar feature in this story.

In the late 1960s, in a special issue of Seminar, the influential journal edited by the Thapars, Jain had called for a new panchkanya. The Hindu tradition worships five icons of feminine virtue from our epics, as role models. Jain argued for a new quintet to celebrate female rebellion rather than female piety—the philosopher Gargi rather than Sita, the courtesan Amrapali rather than Mandodari.

Three brilliant Indian women economists have written their memoirs in recent years—Padma Desai, Isher Judge Ahluwalia and Devaki Jain. These years have also seen welcome debates on two issues: Women in economics and women in the economy. Jain has been a trailblazer on both fronts.

Niranjan Rajadhyaksha is a member of the academic board of the Meghnad Desai Academy of Economics.

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