Pivotal poverty study wins Abhijit Banerjee a Nobel
Banerjee, who was raised in Kolkata but is now a US citizen, becomes only the second person of Indian origin to win the Nobel prize for economics (after Amartya Sen in 1998).Updated: Oct 15, 2019 01:05 IST
Abhijit Banerjee, Esther Duflo and Michael Kremer won the 2019 Nobel prize for economics on Monday for pioneering research into determining what works and what does not in efforts to combat poverty, improve health and expand education programmes.
The three showed how poverty could be addressed by favouring practical steps over theory, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said, crediting their approach for a transformation in development policies.
Banerjee, who was raised in Kolkata but is now a US citizen, becomes only the second person of Indian origin to win the Nobel prize for economics (after Amartya Sen in 1998), and the first since Kailash Satyarthi who won the Peace prize in 2014.
The Nobel prize “reflects on the fact that somehow while we often pay lip service to the welfare of all, this is something that not always [is the] immediate focus of a prize like this,” said Banerjee in an interview to NobelPrize.org.
“It’s wonderful to get this prize. The prize is not for us, but for the entire movement [poverty alleviation]. It’s a movement that we happened to be at the beginning of,” he said at a news briefing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he and Duflo — the two married in 2015 — are professors.
A total of nine people with Indian citizenship or of Indian origin have won a Nobel prize.
“He is very much an Indian. He was reluctant to change his citizenship,” Banerjee’s mother, economist Nirmala Banerjee, told NDTV at the family’s home in Kolkata.
“I knew it was too ambitious to think [that he would win a Nobel] but I had a hunch, especially since he turned his focus on poverty... But I didn’t expect him to win it so early,” she told HT in an interview.
Banerjee, Duflo and Kremer will have an equal share in the $918,000 cash award. French-American Duflo at the age of 46 is the youngest ever to win the prize in the field of economics and only the second woman, after Elinor Ostrom in 2009.
“Without spending some time understanding the intricacies of the lives of the poor and why they make the choices they make... it is impossible to design the right approach,” Duflo told a news conference held by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, who awarded the prize.
The three winners — Banerjee, Duflo and Kremer, who teaches at Harvard — have worked together to study and fight poverty.
Insights from their research have been applied in several Indian programmes, most notably in immunisation drives and assessing learning levels among schoolchildren in regions such as Rajasthan and Bihar.
For instance, Banerjee and Duflo found that providing more textbooks, school meals and teachers didn’t do much to help students learn more — making the schoolwork more relevant, working closely with the neediest students and holding teachers accountable – by putting them on short-term contracts, for example – were more effective in countries where teachers often don’t bother showing up for work.
The winners’ recommended programme of remedial tutoring is now benefiting 5 million Indian children, the academy said.
Kremer and others found that providing free health care makes a big difference: Only 18% of parents gave their children de-worming pills for parasitic infections when they had to pay for them — even though the heavily subsidised price was less than $1. But 75% gave their kids the pills when they were free.
The World Health Organization now recommends that the medicine be distributed for free in areas with high rates of parasitic worm infections.
In 2003, Banerjee founded the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL), along with Duflo and Sendhil Mullainathan, and he remains one of its directors. He also served on the UN Secretary-General’s High-level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda.
At the news conference at MIT, Banerjee and Duflo recounted the phone call from the Swedish committee. Banerjee said the Nobel committee asked about getting one of the married partners on a conference call, but “they said they wanted a woman, and I didn’t qualify” — so he went back to bed.
The two added that they’re among about 400 experts worldwide who are focused on understanding what causes poverty. “It’s going to be a little easier to penetrate the many doors that are open to us,” Banerjee said, with Duflo adding that the fate of the planet’s poor had noticeably improved with the award.
The laureates were praised by Indian politicians, with two opposition leaders saying that they had relied on their work for policies they implemented or planned.
“Congratulations to Abhijit Banerjee on being conferred the 2019 Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi said. He also congratulated Duflo and Kremer for wining the prize.
Congress leader Rahul Gandhi said Banerjee had helped the party conceptualise its “Nyay” scheme to help remonetise the economy, and Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal said Banerjee’s “pathbreaking work” helped hundreds of thousands of children in Delhi government schools.
“One of Delhi govt’s most imp education reform ‘Chunauti’ has transformed govt school classroom teaching. It is based on the model developed by him (sic),” Kejriwal said in a tweet.
In March, Banerjee joined 107 economists and social scientists in seeking an end to political interference in India’s statistics institutions, saying the integrity of economic data must be protected after allegations that growth had been inflated and figures showing unemployment at a 45-year high suppressed.
On Monday, Banerjee spoke on the state of India’s economy. “The economy is doing very badly in my view.”
He cited the dip in average consumption in urban and rural India between 2014-15 and 2017-18 to add “that’s the first time such has a thing has happened in many, many, many, many years... that’s a glaring warning sign”.