Faculty Profile

Nonpartisan Perspective

Though a native of India, Devashish Mitra has developed an independent — and thus influential and globally recognized expertise — on that nation’s economy.

Devashish Mitra
Economist Devashish Mitra

The year 1991 was a watershed time for the economy of India, as the new prime minister at the time, Narasimha Rao, departed from decades of protectionism and began liberalizing the economy—in particular, opening up to foreign trade.

That year Devashish Mitra, a 24-year-old native of Delhi, moved to New York to pursue a PhD in economics at Columbia. Focusing on international trade, he naturally applied what he was studying to the changes occurring back in India.

“I was thinking about the isolationist trade policies that were in India when I was growing up,” Mitra recalls. “Everything had to be produced in India, and there were restrictions on imports or even getting foreign exchange.” Through a contact at the World Bank, he gained access to a trove of data on several thousand Indian firms, through which, he says, “I was able to see how trade reform was affecting their productivity.”

That research, in addition to influential theoretical work on the political economy of trade policy, fed into Mitra’s dissertation and, ultimately, a career as an economist specializing in the interface of politics and economic policy. In a series of influential studies of India’s economy in the 1990s and 2000s, Mitra demonstrated that trade liberalization—contrary to claims by other economists at the time—led to both increased productivity and significant reductions in poverty.

Mitra joined the economics faculty at Maxwell in 2002 and has served as a Gerald B. and Daphna Cramer Professor of Global Affairs since 2005. His research projects extend beyond India—from the United States to Turkey and South Korea. He is a research fellow at the IZA Institute of Labor Economics in Germany and has been a consultant to the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, the Institute of Policy Studies, and the Latin American development bank Corporación Andina de Fomento.

But his work on India gained the widest audience when, starting in 2012, Mitra began writing op-eds for Indian publications on economic issues. “He practices the art of explaining a complex argument to a nonspecialist, but intelligent, audience with great success,” says Arvind Panagariya, a former cabinet minister in India and currently an economics professor at Columbia. “Very few economists are able to take their technical knowledge into public policy space as effectively as Devashish.”

A cover story in India Today in 2014 even named Mitra as one of three scholars who in the coming decade would “influence the direction of the Indian economy.”

“Very few economists are able to take their technical knowledge into public policy space as effectively as Devashish.”
Arvind Panagariya, Columbia University

Since the election of Narendra Modi as prime minister in 2014, with promises to continue economic reforms, Mitra has noted mixed results from changes to India’s bankruptcy laws and a move to a national goods and services tax (which came with some teething and implementation problems). In the realm of trade policy, though, Modi has reverted to protectionism.

“Recently, we’ve seen a rolling back of trade reforms that have taken place over a 25-year period. During that period, India’s growth rate went up to 8 percent or even higher in some years, and there was a lot of poverty reduction,” says Mitra. Even before the pandemic, India’s growth rate had fallen to below 5 percent.

At the same time, India has seen a surge of Hindu nationalism and religious conflict, in particular stoked by a new citizenship law that, critics say, discriminates against Muslims. These divisive issues, Mitra says, have sidelined economic policy. “Political and social stability is a necessary condition for growth and development,” he says. “Right now, producers and consumers all are operating in an unstable environment. So it becomes difficult to get the kind of investments that could start stimulating growth again.”

Mitra maintains close ties to India. His parents and brother are still in India, and he visits at least once a year. But he has now lived in the United States for nearly 30 years, and he believes this outside perspective benefits his work.

“With economic analysis in India, some authors feel they have to defend whatever the Indian government is doing at all costs, while many others are always critical of everything the government does,” he explains. “I’m neither a supporter of the government, nor have I any interest in trying to put down the government. I can be totally nonpartisan and do a very clinical analysis.”

By Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers