Sonalde Desai is a Distinguished University Professor at the University of Maryland College Park, as well as a Professor at the National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER) in New Delhi. At NCAER, she also serves as founding director of the National Data Innovation Centre. Desai was elected the 2022 President of the Population Association of America and is well known for her wide-ranging research on inequality, gender, and India. Since its inception in 2003, Desai has also directed the India Human Development Survey (IHDS), India’s only nationally representative panel study covering all ages and regions.
Desai grew up in a small town in the Indian state of Gujarat, later moving to Mumbai with her family. She drew inspiration and a commitment to the world around her from the activism of her parents who were part of the Indian independence movement. Desai describes her mother as a gender troublemaker who successfully fought to attend medical school and bravely ate alone at restaurants in 1970s Mumbai. Desai’s father had a 30-year career as political journalist and another 30-year career as an activist, including years spent in jail as a political prisoner.
After completing her undergraduate degree at the University of Bombay in 1978, Desai moved to the United States. She completed a masters at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio and then moved westward for a PhD at Stanford University. Before becoming a professor at Maryland, Desai gained substantial experience in the broader demography profession. She was an associate at the Population Council, a postdoctoral fellow at RAND and the University of Chicago, and a visiting scholar at the Max Planck Institute. Desai joined the University of Maryland in 1994 and has been part of the Department of Sociology and Maryland Population Research Center for nearly three decades.
Early in her career, Desai focused on the dynamics of women’s employment and children’s well-being. Much of her research provided reassurance for concerns about the potential adverse effects of mother’s employment on children and the limitations of family responsibilities on women’s employment. In her first article, she found adverse effects of mother’s employment on young children’s intellectual development was limited to small impacts on boys in high income families. Later, she cautioned women’s formal employment does not always increase children’s exposure to alternative care – women entrust their children to others’ care to accommodate substantial domestic workloads too. Desai also sounded a note of caution for those who saw women as the key to children’s health and development more broadly. In an influential article, Desai showed the seemingly strong relationship between maternal education and child health is modest, and often not statistically significant, once community context is taken into account. She followed this now classic article with a reflection piece that delved into the broader feminist dilemma of making efficiency arguments for women’s inclusion in development policy.
In 2003, Desai shifted from data user to data producer. In collaboration with Reeve Vanneman and colleagues at NCAER, she began the India Human Development Survey (IHDS) with funding from the National Institute of Health. IHDS began as a nationally representative survey of over 41,000 households located across India, including interviews with household heads and ever married women. It also provided contextual data on communities, schools, and health services. After the first wave in 2004-05, Desai and her collaborators collected a second wave of data in 2011-12 – turning the IHDS into India’s only panel data source covering all ages and regions. IHDS is now one of the most used social science data sets and boasts over 9,000 users – many of whom eagerly await a third wave of data being collected in 2022-23. Armed with rich data from IHDS, Desai’s research expanded to address educational inequalities, poverty, migration, and caste. She also retained her focus on gender and health, completing influential work on women’s empowerment, age at marriage, and children’s health.
Desai also stands out as a bridge across research, social action, and policy arenas. She regularly authors articles and editorials in newspapers, including Indian Express, The Hindu, and Economic Times. She shares her insight with the public on core population issues, like the demographic dividend and sex ratios, as well as policy issues, such as caste quotas, poverty, and data infrastructure. Desai also served on technical advisory committees and advisory boards for a wide range of institutions, including the Census of India, the National Academy of Sciences, and the Reserve Bank of India.
Finally, it is important to mark Desai’s contributions in maintaining a strong Indian presence in demography – as a scholar and a mentor. Through her work on IHDS, she provided data that is the foundation of a remarkable number of articles on India appearing in journals in demography, as well as in sociology and economics. She contributes her own work to Indian and American academic circles by publishing in Indian-based journals, like Economic & Political Weekly, and US-based journals, like Demography. She also forged productive collaborations among social scientists based in India and the US. Desai has also mentored many Indian and American students and junior scholars, several of whom are listed below. She has a deft touch in knowing when to give a push, when to provide space, and offering just the right advice when guidance is needed. This generous mentorship helped many advance their careers in academia and policy in the US, India, and beyond. It is fitting that as India became the largest population in the world, Sonalde Desai became the first Indian President of the Population Association of America.