Bina Agarwal is a Professor of Development Economics and Environment at the University of Manchester, UK. Prior to this, she was the Director and Professor of Economics at the Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi University. Agarwal has written extensively on land, livelihoods and property rights; environment and development; the political economy of gender; poverty and inequality; legal change; and agriculture and technological transformation. Her best known work is A Field of One's Own: Gender and Land Rights in South Asia (1994)—which won the AK Coomaraswamy Book Prize, the Edgar Graham Book Prize and the KH Batheja Award.
In 2005, she spearheaded a successful campaign for the comprehensive amendment of Hindu Inheritance law in India to make it gender equal. Agarwal received a Padma Shri in 2008 for her contributions to education.
Samira Bose, an intern at The Caravan, spoke to Agarwal over email following the launch of "Gender Challenges," a three-volume compendium of Agarwal's selected papers, written over three decades on 5 January 2016 in Delhi. They discussed her work, the intersection of gender and economics and her conversation with Amartya Sen at the launch.
Samira Bose: What led you to research rural economy? What were some of the issues you focused on?
Bina Agarwal: In the mid-1970s, as a doctoral student, I wanted to work on a subject of contemporary interest and policy relevance. India was largely agrarian then, so the rural economy was an obvious choice. The green revolution was at its height and there was a major debate on the appropriateness of farm mechanisation in a labour surplus economy. Most studies favoured tractorisation, arguing that it added to output without displacing labour. But this argument rested on a flawed methodology, since the studies simply compared tractor and non-tractor farms without controlling for the effect of other factors, such as fertilizer use and irrigation. I disaggregated the effects of mechanisation by operations and crops, using Cost of Cultivation data for Punjab and found that once you controlled for other factors, tractors did displace labour while adding little to output.