Millennium Post

The noble Calcutta chromosome

Growing up in the streets of Kolkata and becoming a stalwart of practical developmental economics, Abhijit Banerjee’s Nobel – that he shares with Esther Duflo and Michael Kremer – has brought the prestigious award back to the country’s eastern shores after a long, anticipated wait

A mild-mannered face peeps out of the window as a gang of slum kids in tattered, dirty clothes, scurrying through the narrow lanes of Kolkata's largest slum, gather downstairs beneath his window, calling out his name in a synchronised chorus. "Ashchi, ashchi (coming, coming)," he says with a wave, racing down to join his friends for a quick game.

He loved playing with them and was sometimes jealous that they didn't have to go to school. He grew up watching them closely – gaining personal experience from a space he shared and that honed his average middle-class values.

This intimate perspective marked the becoming of Nobel laureate Abhijit Vinayak Banerjee and eventually shaped the course of his detailed research on poverty.

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences recently awarded the Indian-American economist the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel, informally known as The Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences. Banerjee, along with Esther Duflo and Michael Kremer, has been conferred with the honour "for their experimental approach to alleviating global poverty".

58-year-old Banerjee was born in Mumbai and attended Kolkata's South Point School. He went to Presidency College, where he completed his BSc degree in Economics in 1981. Thereafter, he went on to pursue an MA in Economics from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), Delhi, which he completed in 1983. Consequently, he was awarded a PhD in Economics from Harvard University, USA, in 1988. He is currently the Ford Foundation International Professor of Economics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He has also earlier completed teaching stints at Harvard University and Princeton University.

There is a doubtless air of apparent patient forbearance in him as for years, he has had to accommodate himself to hearing a great deal of gibberish being spoken about the subject he has based his life's work upon.

But he believes: "The world is a rich enough place — but a tranche of the world's population lives in conditions that should be completely unacceptable. People who live inside garbage piles — that should not be happening. So we should not give up on the objective."

Banerjee's own city where he achieved his formal education — Kolkata — has shared a profound connection with the Nobel Prize with at least five winners of the honour boasting of links — by birth or work — with this city. He is the sixth Nobel winner to have had a Kolkata connection. And, the city has rightfully preserved the structures associated with the lives and work of these influential stalwarts.

In 1913, Rabindranath Tagore became the first non-European, non-white to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Tagore, who was largely home-schooled, reshaped Bengali and, by extension, Indian literature. Coming from one of the most aristocratic families of what was then Calcutta, he was also a cultural reformer who modified Bengali art by rebuffing the strictures that confined it within the sphere of classical Indian forms. Though he was a polymath, his literary works alone are enough to place him in the elite list of all-time greats. Tagore received the Nobel for Gitanjali, his landmark collection of poems that is full of "profoundly sensitive, fresh and beautiful verse, by which, with consummate skill, he has made his poetic thought, expressed in his own English words, a part of the literature of the West".

Professor Amartya Sen was awarded the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1998 for his research on welfare economics. Sen, who was born in Santiniketan, Bolpur, was schooled in Dhaka during the pre-Partition days. Later, he was brought back to Santiniketan. He went on to attend Presidency College, where he successfully earnt a BSc degree in Economics.

In 1930, Chandrashekhara Venkata Raman, who won the award for physics, became the first person from Asia to win a science Nobel. Raman completed his higher studies at Presidency College in erstwhile Madras and, in 1917, was appointed a physics professor at the University of Calcutta. Between 1907 and 1933, he was associated with research at the Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science (IACS) in Calcutta's Bowbazar area. It was during this stint that he discovered the celebrated 'Raman Effect', for which he was awarded the Nobel.

In 1979, Mother Teresa, an Albanian-born Christian missionary, who was known for her selfless service to the poorest of poor, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. After living in Skopje (in present-day North Macedonia) for 18 years, she had moved to Ireland and then to India, where she would eventually spend most of her life. She founded the Missionaries of Charity (MoC) in 1950, through which she served the hapless and helpless. Missionaries of Charity is headquartered in Kolkata, where Mother Teresa breathed her last on September 5, 1997.

Ronald Ross, the first Briton to win the Nobel for Medicine in 1902, had discovered the malarial parasite and proven that malaria was transmitted by mosquitoes. Ross, a member of the British-era Indian Medical Service, arrived in Kolkata in 1898, where he continued his research on the disease.

Successful micro-level field experiments, like the one that established a connect between barefoot children, whooping cough and school drop-outs in Africa, characterise the works of Banerjee and his co-Nobel awardee wife Esther Duflo who believe there can be no grand theory of underdevelopment.

Banerjee, as a man grounded both in his research methodology and personal life, drove deep into history and traced through rigorous empirical works that the zamindari system of Bengal resulted in the state lagging behind in the adoption of agricultural technology compared to Maharashtra that functioned under the ryotwari land revenue system during British India.

"Ryotwari is incentive-driven. If I produce more, a part of the excess production will come to me. But in the zamindari system, if the farmer produces more, the extra production will go to the zamindar. So, there was no incentive for the technical progress achieved by a farmer in the zamindari system," opines Abhirup Sarkar, professor at Indian Statistical Institute.

"History persists in the sense that the same mindset lingers despite both zamindari and ryotwari systems ceasing to exist long back," he adds.

This method — the Randomised Controlled Trial — was adopted by Banerjee and has been used successfully in conducting numerous practical micro-level field experiments with small sample sizes.

In development economics, there are a great number of theories discussing why people are poor. Some may hold that poverty is there because there are no institutions or markers, or because the government does not work.

However, Banerjee believes that these are all grand theories. In his economical outlook, micro problems have micro solutions, context-based solutions and problem-based solutions.

Economist Dipankar Dasgupta says Banerjee and his associates are pioneers in the Randomised Controlled Trial methodology in economic research which was earlier used in medical science and psychology.

While researching on why students were not going to school in an African country, instead of going into theories, Banerjee and his team conducted a survey. It was found that walking barefoot led to the development of whooping cough among children.

Following the Randomised Controlled Trial method, the researchers formed two groups — one was given shoes, the other group remained barefoot. It was eventually seen that those wearing shoes did not have whooping cough, were more healthy and also attended school. This became an example where no theory was needed and the solution was so very simple.

Most of Banerjee's experiments took place in various parts of India, including its remotest villages. "All were micro-level research efforts," Dasgupta adds.

During his early years as an economist, Banerjee was primarily a theorist. But his approach changed after Duflo came under his wing as a young research scholar and soon, he shifted to a purely experimental approach.

Over the years, assisted by field studies using randomised trials in India and Africa, the duo tried to make sense of what the poor are able to achieve and where and for what reason they require a nudge. Banerjee says that along with Duflo, he has been involved in about "70 to 80 experiments" in any number of countries.

At six, Abhijit knew exactly where the poor lived — little shanties behind his home in Kolkata. The children there seemed to have a lot of time to play and would easily beat him at any sport.

The "urge to reduce the poor to a set of clichés has been with us for as long as there has been poverty. The poor appear, in social theory, as much as in literature, by turns lazy or enterprising, noble or thievish, angry or passive, helpless or self-sufficient," Banerjee and Duflo wrote in their seminal work, Poor Economics, which examined the real nature of poverty and how the poor reacted to incentives.

"It is no surprise that the policy stances that correspond to these views of the poor also tend to be captured in simple formulas: 'Free markets for the poor', 'Make human rights substantial', 'Deal with conflict first', 'Give more money to the poorest', 'Foreign aid kills development' and the like."

The problem, the couple said, was that the poor get admired or pitied. They are also not considered knowledgeable and there is little that appears intriguing about their economic existence.

In perspective, the couple holds out hope that "poor countries are not doomed to failure because they are poor or because they have had an unfortunate history". What often needs to be fought, they say, is "ignorance, ideology and inertia" which in turn, can alter the course of history from an egregious past to a delightful future.

Kaushikibrata Banerjee

Kaushikibrata Banerjee

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