"Amidst all the recent furore on job data, and what they do and do not mean, we have perhaps lost sight of a more basic fact: that India, in many ways, remains a “dual” economy, with wide (and burgeoning) disparities between an urbanized modern sector and a lagging rural hinterland. While it has become fashionable to argue that the old, hackneyed distinction between “India” and “Bharat” has now become irrelevant, with everyone converging towards the same modernity, the reality is that the gulf between the two—in economics and geography, if not necessarily in culture—is as stark as night and day. Indeed, this is almost literally true, as we shall see in a moment.
The spatial dimension of economic disparity in India is well documented, including in my joint research with Praveen Chakravarty, published in these pages and elsewhere. In developing our research results on intra-(as opposed to purely inter-)state income inequality, we had to reckon with the paucity of reliable district-level data on economic activity. Our solution was to deploy a novel dataset of “nightlights” luminosity, generated by satellites of the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa). At the IDFC Institute, we developed a statistical concordance between Nasa’s India-wide nightlights data and the map demarcation of districts, allowing us to develop a unique “panel” (that is, both cross-section and time-series) data set of luminosity values, by district and over time."
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