1. Tell us about your work at the World Bank?
Majority of my work aims to create, collate and curate knowledge to inform administrative decision making and social policy debates. The job role entails understanding how best to leverage and translate evidence on solutions into effective action by governments and other development partners. As a result, I spend a fair share of time collaborating and working closely with academics, programmers, consulting firms, civil society groups and government administrators. Each of these communities of practice has different incentives, each has different questions, and each understands “knowledge” or “data” very differently. Navigating these complexities and differences in approach has been a steep learning curve.
Working in concert with vastly different groups is a profound privilege, exciting and frustrating. For academics, stringent technical standards remain paramount but governments seek speedy and actionable feedback on program performance. Administrators’ need politically and managerially viable solutions, which can be embedded in their daily decision making cycles. While researchers and civil society groups produce reams and reams of valuable information, firms build large information systems – translating all this information into insight remains critical. Ensuring rigor and relevance for public action is a tight ropewalk. Technical feasibility and rigor may not speak to the political and social realities of the world of administrative action. But helping bridge these gaps while addressing core problems in how welfare programs are delivered is a challenge and a stupendous source of personal and professional growth.
2. What first inspired you to work in the development sector?
As cliché as it may sound, the one who inspired me to work in the development sector is my mother. Her trials and tribulations as an Indian woman in the labor force, her efforts as a social worker helping residents and refugees navigate cumbersome government processes while applying for basic services and health care and her long hours as a care worker have always served as my inspiration. As a child, I spent many after-school hours beside my mother, and watched her provide care, relief and counseling. On most days, I would find long queues of disgruntled faces outside her office and home. Looking back, these early encounters with social work, red tape and the rigid division of household labor engendered my interest in unpacking female labor force issues, local bureaucracy and welfare.
3. Tell us more about your experience of studying at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government?
Through its economics-centered coursework, the Masters in Public Administration (International Development) gave me sight. As dramatic as that sounds, what I mean is fairly simple: the program, with its focus on analytic rigor, administrative and political feasibility, equips its students with tools to systematically diagnose and unpack a problem, as opposed to rushing towards an easy and glib solution. In particular, the course’s Second Year Policy Analysis (SYPA) exercise allows you the space to build and flex such analytic muscles. Where earlier I only saw chaos, incompetency and corruption in the space of social policy, my training in organizational design, contract theory and public administration ensured I started to see incentive, incompatibilities and patterns.
Such frameworks continue to help foster clarity in my current work. Most importantly, I met friends and mentors who continue to provide support, criticism, wisdom and wisecracks. I’ve been fortunate to continue working with my academic advisors as co-authors and peer-reviewers. Some of my professors will remain advisors for life!
4. Did you consider living abroad or were you clear that you wanted to move back to India?
My work and interests have always been anchored in India, and I was always clear that I wished to be based in Delhi. But, honestly, I struggle with this question. And this has been a deeply personal struggle that many of my friends deal with as well. While professionally, the past decade has been a very exciting time to work on welfare in India, being a single working woman in India is far tougher than life in Indonesia, UK or the US. India has mostly modernized for its men. For women, patriarchy remains rampant. As a working woman, you traverse this tightrope between markets, modernity and ‘maryada’ alone; frustrated by your newfound freedom while tethered to tradition.
With a quarter women in the workforce, India is second from the bottom in the share of women who work amongst G20 countries, we’re next to Saudi Arabia. The share of working women has been declining in India since 2004. This is a harsh environment for women who want to work and be financially independent. Young female professionals have to navigate a tough and masculine job market, constantly keeping track of deadlines and dishes, bearing the burden of housework with limited help and being bombarded with unrealistic social expectations on how they should look and behave. Add to that, the indignities of finding a flat as an unmarried woman, dating men who are uncomfortable with women who earn more than them, being unable to move around freely or securing safe means of transport. Being a working woman in India requires more investment and grit than life abroad. I’ve been fortunate to have a job that allows me to hire a domestic worker and pay a neighborhood premium so I can live in a safe and comfortable environment. A few of my friends have found partners, who actively help at home; these supermen are few and far between. Majority working women in this country don’t have such luxuries.
Basic services, dignity, finding time to oneself and independence need to be bargained for. I am not fetishizing the west; other countries have their own problems. But the data clearly tells us that being a working woman, especially a single working woman, in India implies being part of a troubled minority. Despite this, I am keen to continue working in India as I find the work demanding, rewarding and challenging. And I feel a strong sense of sisterhood with fellow working woman here. But there are days when I feel like escaping a life of incessant negotiation.
5. You’ve worked on a range of issues that are different but interconnected. How has your past experience informed your present work?
My past and present work remains at the intersection of activism, academia and administration, hoping to help translate knowledge into tractable and sustainable government action, particularly in high poverty and low capacity institutional settings. But my first supervisor not only taught me technical skills, she taught me core professional principles -- patience, the importance of deliberation (no matter how time consuming or slow) and consideration. I found the best teacher at the Institute of Social Studies Trust (ISST), where I worked with the great feminist economist Ratna Sudarshan, who recruited me to work on research projects in collaboration with labour unions such as SEWA. ISST was part of a coalition providing inputs to the national government on the design of social protection policies and programs for informal economy workers. I was a small cog in the wheel, my role entailed data analysis, survey design and supervision of primary data collection. Here I was, barely in my twenties, working with students, unionists and activists to gather information on working conditions and wages of women working in the Indian economy. This granular exposure to the research and policy process from the perspective of an activist coalition made me realize the power asymmetries in the way people’s experiences of policies are communicated and validated.
As a result, in my present work, I try to ensure that our results, project design and guidance to government and other partners checks the privilege of “experts”, what Will Easterly famously calls the “tyranny of experts”. I am always skeptical of spreadsheets, survey results and STATA files unless these resonate with the way grassroots practitioners and implementers frame and understand their local contexts, capacities and concerns. This is challenging, given that deliberating on problems and evidence with diverse stakeholders takes time and effort.
6. You have an upcoming book on Shahrukh Khan. We are intrigued - Tell us more!
The writing started as short diary entries. In my darkest teary-eyed moments of heart-break, and there have been countless, Shahrukh always appears. Arms wide open, mocking the sham of my filmy fantasies and expectations. His image serves as a constant reminder of how far I’ve travelled -- chronically dissatisfied with the men I keep trying to be worthy of. I am tired and I am dissatisfied, but as I learned in the past decade—I am also not alone. From the drawing rooms of Lodhi Estate to the fields of Latehar, across diverse classes and communities, Shahrukh appears as recourse in many teary-eyed moments triggered by the drudgery and ignominy of being a working woman in modern India. While his image may serve as mere escape in the plush homes of Lodhi road, indulging in fandom becomes protest amongst poor and working class women. The ability to watch films and buy iconography independent of the family is a freedom bestowed by employment.
As real men disappoint women, Bollywood icons become more salient. Shahrukh starts to embody all the elements real men are missing - Daydreams, posters and cinema tickets signal hidden peeves and protestations. Saddled between expectations, exhaustion, desperation and dissatisfaction, constantly yearning to be free, lies an entire generation of lonely young working women. And the book tells the story of eight such working fan girls; I’ve known these women over a decade. The hope is to show the reader how women's hopes for freedom and dignified treatment are embodied by Shahrukh’s imagery in contrast to their actual lives, so a look at working women's lives using SRK as a lens.
Over the years, I’ve come to understand that the actor in question, despite my own obsession, was simply happenstance. Fan girls started using selected sections of his cinema and imagery as an entry point into traversing trickier terrain – talking about unrequited expectations of reciprocity from men in spaces of marriage, money and intimacy –and challenging the predetermined trajectories of their emotional and sexual lives. It’s been ten years in the making! The book is called ‘Desperately Seeking Shahrukh, do look out for it next year.