Krishna Bharadwaj, the Torchbearer of Economics

During her long career she illuminated many of the shortcomings of neoclassicism, and offered alternative paths

Krishna Bharadwaj, following upon the work and insights of Piero Sraffa, made substantial contributions to our understanding of what is implied in the neoclassical notion of change and its related notion of choice. (Marcuzzo 2014). Born in 1935 in a very poor family in the southern coast of India, she moved to Bombay to get her degree in economics, and there she initiated her academic career. When Production of Commodities by Means of Commodities came out (Sraffa 1960), people were puzzled by what it meant and why it was claimed by some that it marked a revolution in economic thinking. Bharadwaj, at that time a young Assistant Professor, was asked to review it; she accepted the challenge, but took her time to study it properly. After the review was published (Bharadwaj 1963) she received a praising letter by Sraffa saying you “have correctly grasped the main lines of the argument, and also guessed some of the directions in which … the criticism of marginalism should be developed” (Omkarnath, 2005, p. 463). The “guess” of the directions in which the criticism of marginalism should be developed became Bharadwaj’s lifetime research endeavor. “My association with Piero Sraffa until his death in 1983” she wrote “radically altered my theoretical perspective in economics”. (Bharadwaj 2000, p. 59)

After two years at MIT she continued teaching in the Economics Department in Bombay until 1967, when she went to the University of Cambridge as Visiting Fellow at Clare Hall. She worked on a project on Indian agriculture at Department of Applied Economics—founded in 1939, according Joan Robinson, to give Michal Kalecki a job. Once back to India in 1971, after spending one year as Visiting Professor at Delhi School of Economics, she joined the newly created Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), where she was offered the post of Chairperson in the Centre for Economic Studies and Planning (CESP). She lived and taught in JNU, with occasional spells in Cambridge, until her premature death on March 8th 1992.

After Sraffa’s death, she was involved in the work of scouring and inventorying of his papers, which allowed her to see, as it were, beyond the screen of his published writings. She could see that how individuals interact in markets and the incentives and the constraints affecting their decision making need not be conceptualized through reasoning at the margin. As it is well known, this method provides the means to measure the effects of a small (technically, infinitesimal) variation in quantities of selected variables, such as utility and cost, which are compared with the relevant prices to determine the optimum choice by individuals. However, the marginal method requires that a particular type of change be enacted, i.e. that an experiment be carried out varying the quantity of the selected variable, keeping all the others constant. Individuals are said to equate marginal quantities, found through a hypothetical change brought about by the agent or the observer, to the given prices of goods and factors. The observed changes in economic variables are said to be the outcome of the behavioral response to changes in prices and are brought about through individuals’ quantity adjustments in response to these price changes. (Marcuzzo-Rosselli 2011).

Bharadwaj supplemented important elements in building an approach, based on classical political economy, which is free from the need to employ marginal magnitudes and does not require hypothetical or potential changes to determine the resting positions of economic variables. When the notion of choice is rescued from marginal calculation, more meaningful contents, allowing for consideration of habits, customs and power relationships, become available.

Her methodology was firmly based on observation and the discovery of regularities in the particular social formation she aimed to identify. Not all changes in quantities are the outcome of the principle of substitution nor do they involve mainly allocative variations in response to changes in relative prices by optimizing agents. This alternative approach guided her analysis of the Indian economy, making substantial advance over the mainstream interpretations. The literature recognizes the importance, for instance, of her notion of “interlinked markets,” so called “because the terms of contracts in two or more agrarian markets are interlocked such that the feasible choices of the weaker party to the transaction are ex ante severely constrained” (Omkarnath, 2007, p. 396).

Four points marked Bharadwaj’s endorsement of alternative notions of “change” and “choice”: (i) changes in wages, methods of production, and social demand are not explained as “arising solely due to relative price fluctuations” (Bharadwaj 1991, p. 86); (ii) there are multiple constraints operating on the individuals, as demanders and suppliers: “these include the physical and material resources at the individual’s command as well as those systemic constraints that circumscribe his or her feasible options” (ibid., p. 87); (iii) “not all individuals are equally or uniformly placed in terms of the power to make decision or in terms of the influence their decision can exert” (ibid., p. 87); (iv) inequalities cannot be reduced to a matter of resource endowment, but must be understood in terms of the “systematic discrimination which occurs in the exchange systems originating from social distinctions such as class, caste or sex” (Bharadwaj 1990, p. 22).

In looking back to her own work, she wrote: “I have … attempted to combine my critique of economic theory and the reconstruction of the classical (including Marxian) approach with the analysis of historical change in the course of development.” (Bharadwaj 2000, pp. 62–3). With typical understatement, she claimed for herself only to have “tried to lend accuracy and sharpness to earlier critiques directed against the utilitarian and subjective basis” of supply-and-demand theories (ibid., p. 61). In fact she did much more than that; she offered concrete examples of the fruitfulness of an alternative approach. She remains a torchbearer who illuminates for us the path to follow.


Bharadwaj K. (1963), Value Through Exogenous Distribution, The Economic Weekly, August 24, pp 1450-54.

Bharadwaj K. (1990), Paradigms in development theory: plea for ‘labour-ist’ approach, Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 25, pp. 20–8

Bharadwaj K. (1991), History versus equilibrium, in Rima, I. (ed.), The Joan Robinson Legacy, Armok, Sharpe, pp. 80–103

Bharadwaj K. (2000), Krishna Bharadwaj, in Arestis, P. and Sawyer, M. (eds), A Biographical Dictionary of Dissenting Economists, 2nd edn, Aldershot, Elgar, pp. 55–64.

Marcuzzo M.C. (2014), On alternative notions of change and choice: Krishna Bharadwaj’s legacy Cambridge Journal of Economics, vol. 38, pp. 49–62.

Marcuzzo, M. C. and Rosselli, A. (2011), Sraffa and his arguments against marginism, Cambridge Journal of Economics, vol. 35, pp. 219–310.

Omkarnath, G. 2005. ‘Value through exogenous distribution’: a review article in 1963, Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 40, 459–64.

Omkarnath, G. 2007. The formation of capabilities, Indian Journal of Human Development, vol. 1, no. 2, 389–99.

Sraffa, P. 1960. Production of Commodities by Means of Commodities: Prelude to a Critique of Economic Theory, Cambridge, UK, Cambridge University Press.

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