India center event tackles the country’s economic policy challenges and opportunities

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Gathering of people, standing on a terrace, with the ocean in the background, from the May 9, 2024 21st Century India Center event

World-renowned India experts gather at UC San Diego to exchange ideas on what’s ahead in the next 25 years

India’s emergence as a global powerhouse presents a unique landscape for research and policy development. And the 21st Century India Center, housed at the UC San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy (GPS), is looking to tackle the country’s most salient policy challenges through research, education and action.

In a signature event, the center explored the opportunities and challenges for India’s economy in the next quarter century. 

“We can’t tackle any of the grand challenges that we face globally today — whether it’s preventing and dealing with pandemics, building prosperity and justice for folks who have historically been left behind, mitigating and adapting to climate change, harnessing new technologies, ensuring regional and national security  — without an essential role for India,” said Achyuta Adhvaryu, professor and center director. 

Adhvaryu added that understanding India, its economy, its government, its policies and its people is of vital interest, not only for India but also for the world order, and especially for the U.S.

India’s ongoing transformation

The first part of the event brought together a number of economists to discuss current trends in the Indian economy. 

Andrew Foster, professor at Brown University, explored the oft-discussed structural transformation in the Indian economy and, though the term is frequently attached to research on India, whether there has truly been a shift in productive relationships.

He used the example of agricultural development, asking whether initiatives aimed at supporting farmers in India are leading to meaningful progress.

Caroline Freund, GPS dean and internationally recognized expert in trade and economic development, acknowledged that protectionism has hindered India’s global trade, thanks to the country’s high tariffs and increasing anti-dumping measures. 

“India is a really poor performer when it comes to trade,” Freund said. “But U.S.-China decoupling is a huge opportunity for India — India’s benefiting already, but it could gain more.”

Seema Jayachandran, professor of economics and public affairs at Princeton University, focused her talk on the gender gap in India and working toward equity with historically disenfranchised groups in education, the workforce and intimate partner violence. 

“We’re going to need more growth, but we’re also going to need policies attacking these disadvantages for girls and women,” Jayachandran said. “How do you also change the underlying attitudes and gender norms — the hearts and minds, so to speak — that led to these problems in the first place?”

One recent indicator of continued rapid growth in India is in the financial sector. The use of India’s Unified Payments Interface (UPI) has revolutionized digital payments, particularly for small businesses, explained Emily Breza, professor at Harvard University, though many concerns remain about privacy and equitable access for women.

“UPI has made it possible to have free, instantaneous payments — all you need is a bank account, a mobile phone and to link the two, and then this is fully interoperable with any other bank account on the platform,” Braza said. 

The final speaker, UC Berkeley professor emeritus Pranab Bardhan, explained how good governance can play a pivotal role in shaping India’s economic trajectory. Bardhan urged policymakers to prioritize citizens’ rights and welfare policies for inclusive development.

Promising pathways forward for India

The second part of the event featured a keynote address from University of Chicago professor Michael Kremer, co-recipient of the 2019 Nobel Prize in Economics. 

Adhvaryu described Kremer as a visionary leader in development policymaking, embodying the very best in the profession. 

“He has fundamentally shaped our understanding of the processes of development and how public policy can best be leveraged to effectively improve economic growth and wellbeing in low-income countries,” Adhvaryu said. “He has been instrumental in creating a number of institutions that have completely changed the culture around the importance of impact evaluation and rigor for development practitioners around the world.”

Kremer spoke about his involvement in Development Innovation Ventures, a unit of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and how a number of applications for funding through that program were awarded to projects in India. 

“If you’re a research or innovation funder, it looks like funding India makes a lot of sense,” Kremer said. “Obviously part of that is because it is a big country, and so there’s a lot of opportunity to scale.”

Kremer spoke further about the response of the Indian state on innovations grounded in evidence-based policy, framing it through the lens of specific projects, such as one that worked to provide clean water to populations in rural communities and the educational outcomes for children dewormed through a public health initiative. 

Projects inevitably face a number of complications — structural, governmental, cultural and more — specific to the areas where they are launched, but research-backed solutions offer promising pathways forward for India, Kremer explained.

“The fundamental political economy problems persist, and while there are lots of workarounds, there are other things that can be done and more progress that could be made,” Kremer concluded.

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‘Accelerating India’s Development’

For the final part of the event, Karthik Muralidharan, Tata Chancellor’s Professor of Economics at UC San Diego, summarized key takeaways from his latest book, “Accelerating India’s Development: A State-Led Roadmap for Effective Governance.

Adhvaryu introduced Muralidharan and his work, describing him as someone whose work has had profound impacts on India’s policymaking.

“He has worked tirelessly over nearly two decades on how to improve the delivery of basic education and healthcare services and public safety net programs to low income individuals in India,” Adhvaryu said. “But beyond his pathbreaking academic work, he has sought to drive systemic change, particularly in the bureaucracies of Indian states, which affect the ways that millions upon millions of individuals access basic public services.”

Muralidharan is also the co-founder of a nonprofit organization called the Center for Effective Governance of Indian States, which is already embedded in the ministries of several large state governments, creating long-term, positive impacts in how these organizations function. 

Muralidharan explained that the book consolidates his career’s work in this area and proposes a roadmap for India to achieve its effective governance goals.

“The reason I wrote this book is really because academic economists don’t normally write books — we do individual papers, and in doing those papers, you learn so much that doesn’t show up in the final draft,” Muralidharan said. “And so once you have a body of work, there are dots worth connecting.”

With a focus on data, personnel management and public finance, India can build a more effective state for inclusive growth, Muralidharan concluded.

Muralidharan thanked the center for the opportunity to speak about his work.

“I’m delighted to see UC San Diego make this commitment to India by creating this center,” Muralidharan said. “We’ve had a bunch of faculty working on India, but the center brings us together in a way that showcases not just the scholarship but the way that research connects to policy in practice.”

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Virginia S. Watson is the Assistant Director of Communications for the School of Global Policy and Strategy. She has spent her entire career in editing, writing and design, both in industry and higher education. She holds a master's in technical and professional communication from Auburn University and a B.S. in journalism from Troy University.
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