I realised that economics only has problems, with no universal formulas or easy solutions.



Early Life

I grew up in an extremely cloistered, protected environment because my family was based out of Kuwait, which is one of the more conservative of the Middle Eastern countries. As a young person growing up, I didn’t have the kind of freedom that similar people of my age would have had in a country like India. My father worked at the Public Works Department as a draughtsman on the design of buildings. My mother was a biology teacher. I have three younger sisters. At the Indian School in Kuwait I was a good student, in terms of getting marks. But I was argumentative and wanted answers to everything, even those things that were to be taken for granted. I had a book on 100 greatest personalities which had everyone from Jesus Christ to Madam Curie. Sandwiched between Christ (#1) and Prophet Mohammed (#3) was Issac Newton. I was fascinated by Newton because it seemed that his way to fame and glory was through the path of research, establishing facts that could not be disputed. I decided I must do research too. But people told me that there is no career in research, you need to be practical and get a job. And the only career choices for good students of those days were medicine or engineering. Which is where civil engineering at IIT came in. As one of my relatives put it, “There will always be the need to build roads, bridges and homes.’’

Life at IIT Bombay

IIT taught me about winning and losing. Before coming to IIT, I was an academic star. Here, I was barely able to hold my head above the wa- ter. And I wondered, is there something wrong with me? I remember an uncle of mine asked me, “Are you on drugs?” But no, IIT grading was just hard. So there were times when I failed and I learnt it’s not the end of the world. IIT gave me a sense of freedom. I learnt to ride a bike, travel late night in local trains. It taught me how to be a much more well-rounded individual, thinking big thoughts. There were many conversations which I think were guides on how to live life and how to do research that played out over the long horizon of my life, not just the years that I was at the institute. The freedom to explore everything was all-pervasive. I remember that we once loaded a program in the computer lab which mimicked the login and password screen but which locked the machine. There was mayhem for a while, with users going crazy, wondering how to get in. After it was discovered, the person running the lab shrugged it off as a harmless prank. IIT was a space to grow up, being guided by sage and seasoned mentors. Professors like Dr. Pathak of the Computer Science department and Prof. Shevare at the Aeronautical department treated us not like children but as young adults. We learned how it was always important to apply the mind in all situations, and that developing judgement was a critical part of growing up. I once worked as a Teaching Assistant (TA) for Prof. Pathak. He hauled me up because I gave all groups either a 10 or a 0 in their assignments, pointing out that may be the easy path for me but that grades had to reflect the more nuanced aspects of the work that was done. It was a lesson I will never forget.

The Big Switch

In civil engineering, we learned how to build roads, buildings and bridges. But then, in the library there were reams and reams of volumes to help you figure out the right thickness of steel girders and the width of the right thickness concrete columns for the actual structures, where all our careful calculations were scaled up by a safety factor of 3! I thought, naively, that civil engineering has a solution for everything with little innovation to be found. So if I wanted to go into a life of research, I needed to look for a new domain. We had elective classes at IIT where Prof. Bidkar introduced me to economics research. And I realised that economics only had problems, with no universal formulas or library lookup solutions. I concluded that I need to be an economist and joined the PhD program at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. But as a B.Tech., I had to make up by taking all the undergraduate economics courses I had missed. In a couple of years, I had done enough courses to get a master’s in economics and start the PhD program. I met my future husband Ajay at IIT; his sister, Sadhana, was my batchmate. Ajay’s father was an economist, and he himself is a walking, talking wikipedia on the subject. It was yet another reason to spend time together, talk, argue and bond. When he graduated from IIT, he was admitted to the economics program at USC. A couple of years later, I joined him there as well.

Professional Journey

I have always been an academic. After getting my PhD in economics, I presented my paper at the Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research in Bombay. And the director, Dr. Kirit Parikh, offered me a job after that. Teaching and doing research at the IGIDR was what I did for the longest time. My research work is in finance and markets – the mi- crostructure of financial markets including institutions, laws and who are the users of markets, household finance, finance and firms, government contracting and understanding how courts work. It started off as technical, academic research, and has today become a mix of policy and quantitative research. As an academic in Bombay, I could explore both the edges of what was known in my field, as well as get it tested against other academics, experts working in financial firms and policy makers who were constantly thinking about new developments and reforms in India. The most recent policy engagement was being a member of the Bankruptcy Legislative Reform Committee set up by the Ministry of Finance in 2014, chaired by Dr. T. K. Viswanathan, who was previously Secretary in the Ministry of Law and Justice. I led a group of economic and legal scholars in drafting a bill that the committee submitted to the Ministry of Finance in 2015. The committee’s draft was enacted as the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code in 2016. This was a sea- change in how insolvency – the failure to repay a loan – was resolved all over the country. This code is a single law across India for both individuals as well as companies, setting the legal process to be followed when a loan repayment has failed. I was also a member of the Working Committee of the Ministry of Corporate Affairs to build the Insolven- cy and Bankruptcy Board, the regulator for this code.

Challenges as a Woman

I have spent a large part of my working life in the field of financial markets. Like all other areas, there is a strong gender bias, which was stronger in the late 1990s, relative to the more recent period of 2022 when there have been several policy efforts to correct for the bias through legal and regulatory interventions. But finance is also a technical area with a mix of maths, stats, computational and finance knowledge. When there are such objective requirements, it can be easier to overcome gender biases because the knowledge can be more visible than in other softer sciences. I had developed a lot of the technical computational and statistical skills of finance during my PhD. These helped establish my role when I was interacting with the industry and policy makers in the financial sector in India. In the mid-90s, financial markets were a small part of the economic landscape in India and tangible skills were highly valued, particularly in the academic and research domain.

Advice to Young Women

Firstly, learn your subjects well. Constantly challenge yourself that if you were given the chance, what is the solution that you would propose and don’t stop yourself from asking that question just because you are young, you don’t have that job. STEM gives you the tools and the discipline you need to chase down a fact and make it defensible before you put it into a policy. But remember, we are living in a society. So try to understand the people. Read literature, history and philosophy because that’s going to define the context in which you will apply tools.