"To have an ear to the ground"
Inequality, state politics, collective action, and the environment. That summarizes the academic focus of Rohini Somanathan, professor at Delhi School of Economics and Visiting Professor at the School of Business, Economics and Law at the University of Gothenburg. She combines her academic work with engagement in rural development.
"Who has political voice in the system? Who gets the benefits from development programmes? How do we create incentives to decrease solid waste? How do state policies affect poverty and inequality? These are the questions that I am interested in", says Rohini Somanathan.
Since 2005 Rohini Somanathan is a professor of Economics at Delhi School of Economics. Much of her work has focused on India and the connections between state policies and social relations. India has the largest affirmative action program in the world with half the seats in public universities and positions in federal employment reserved for castes that are considered to be socially disadvantaged. She is interested in the extent to which official classifications of disadvantage are related to actual deprivation.
"These quotas give disadvantaged groups opportunies but also create social conflict because seats in public universities and jobs in government are so scarce. Affirmative action is an example of how state policies influence the way in which people think about caste, both good and bad. Is differential treatment sustainable with an ideal of equal citizens?"
Rohini Somanathan is happy to be questioning the standard way we think about inequality as something that is out there to be measured or identity as something we are born with.
"State policies influences our identities and the distribution of income, so we have to analyze them."
Useful input from the field
Rohini Somanathan is also concerned with the acute environmental problems in India, such as pollution and solid waste.
"How do we create incentives not to use plastic bags, not to burn trash or to create and use public transport? To frame effective policies we need access to good data and knowledge about behaviour. Our role as an academic is to have an ear to the ground, to be connected with reality and use this knowledge to ask and answer interesting questions."
Rohini Somanathan combines research with engagement in development organisations. At the moment she is involved in SRIJAN, an Indian NGO promoting rural incomes and better livelihoods by introducing new agricultural practices and helping farmers market their produce.
"I go out in the field to learn about how people perceive their life situations and how they want to improve. Insights from the field are also important inputs into further research."
What are you most proud of so far?
"I don’t think I am in a position where I can say I am proud of something, but I am very happy to work in India and mentor PhD students there who then go on to teach and do research in other Indian institutions", says Rohini Somanathan.
As a Visiting Professor at the School of Business, Economics and Law she will be back in Gothenburg for a few weeks every term for the next three years. On 26 October she spoke about 'Technology and Economic Growth in India' at the annual Prins Bertil Seminar at the School of Business, Economics and Law.