Interview Insights: Dr Keshab Das

Dr Keshab Das is a professor at the Gujarat Institute of Development Research, Ahmedabad, India.  He holds M.Phil. (Applied Economics) and Ph.D. (Economics) degrees from the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi (through the Centre for Development Studies, Trivandrum).  He is a recipient of the VKRV Rao Prize in Social Sciences (Economics) for the year 2004.

Sir, what are your primary research interests? What drew you to those areas?

My research focuses on issues in local and regional development; industrialisation strategies; informal sector; MSMEs, clusters and global production networks; innovation at the margins; labour; basic infrastructure; and politics of development.

My interest in micro and meso level dynamics and understanding the processes responsible for exclusion or persistent neglect of certain people or areas drew me to these aforesaid areas of research. Moreover, studying these processes/dynamics requires one to adopt an interdisciplinary approach, which often proves very helpful.

“The real test is not whether you avoid this failure, because you won’t. It’s whether you let it harden or shame you into inaction, or whether you learn from it; whether you choose to persevere.” – Barack Obama.

Sir, can you share a life experience or anecdote where you used your failures as stepping stones? How would you encourage your students to take failures in the right stride?

No failure or success is the last one. Having done extremely well as an Intermediate Science student and with offers for doing BTech in two prominent institutions in India, I had decided to shift out of the science discipline. This was considered a wrong/imprudent step by many. I never ever regretted that decision as I moved on with Economics (an ‘Arts’ subject) and often thought myself lucky to have been a student of science; my favourite subject being Geology. In fact, I have written a few papers concerning the mineral economy and my PhD work dealt with the political economy issues in mining and mineral-based industrialisation. I think, you need to follow what makes you happy and also enables/equips you better to be of help to those less fortunate.

What, in your opinion, does Economics have to offer to captivate the mind of a beginner?

It would be good to introduce the subject with real-life events and describe the interconnectedness of these at the micro, meso and macro levels. The abstractions (especially in the neoclassical tradition) could be introduced at a subsequent stage when the student grasps the central purport of the discipline. To suggest that most or all economic issues could be modelled (even if technically that might be feasible) would be a problematic beginning that clouds a broader thinking of possibilities/factors non-economistic in nature. As a continuum, discussions around informality, positive discrimination, society-nature-economy interface and collective strategies for development need be introduced with umpteen examples from developing and developed economies to make the subject vibrant, interactive and innovative.

How can we, as students, learn to bridge the gap between theoretical knowledge and the practical applications of the theories and ideas that we learn in the classroom?

The most interesting way to teach, I think, is by providing as many examples not necessarily from the academic world but also from unusual sources, say, films, novels, archival records, experiences of civil society organisations, protests, and so on. It is important to create an ambience of fearlessness and fellow-feeling so that students and teachers could interact freely and, if possible, informally, mainly through the question-answer route. Examples from contemporary events/developments often help younger minds to relate theory to practical applications; in that process one could develop a healthy critique of the theories as well.

What is one superpower you would like to have?

To be able to appreciate multiple viewpoints and identify possible ways to assimilate the best of most or all.

How would you describe your teaching style in one word?

I have been a full-time researcher and have limited teaching experience. My teaching style may be described as ‘interactive’, I think.

What is the best book you would recommend?

Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny by Amartya Sen. This book contains insights into how obsessions with a micro/singular identity distort rational thinking and compassionate action both at the individual and societal levels.

What other subjects do you like aside from Economics?

Geology and Critical Geography.

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