Indeed, most great things have humble beginnings. The journey of Abhijit Banerjee is no different. A week ago, very few Indians would have heard his name. Today, people of Kolkata and Indians, in general, are proud to call him their own. Indeed, a Nobel Prize can make all the difference. In this article, we will trace the life journey of this great economist.
It can be established that a part of Abhijit’s genius can be owed to his genes. Abhijit Vinayak Banerjee was born to Deepak and Nirmala Banerjee on the 21st of February 1961. Both his parents are noted economists themselves. Mrs Banerjee is a professor of economics at the Center of Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta. Abhijit’s father is the head of the department of economics at the prestigious Presidency College, Kolkata. We can well imagine that having such highly educated people around ensured stimulating intellectual conversations at home.
Abhijit was a bright kid and began his schooling at the coveted South Point High School Kolkata. It was during these days that moulded a lot of his beliefs on poverty. Now, South Point High School is a posh school, and Banerjee came from an upper-middle-class family. However, his paternal grandfather had built their house near one of Kolkata’s biggest slums. This led to him having a lot of interaction with the people living there. A considerable amount of his younger days was spent playing with the slum kids. What began as jealousy (at the fact that he had to go to school and they did not) eventually gave way to years of detailed research on poverty. Today Banerjee admits that the personal experience of poverty in his formative years was instrumental in pushing him in his economic research in poverty. References to the same can be found in many of Abhijit Banerjee’s books.
Post his schooling, Abhijit went on to continue with his education at Presidency College Kolkata. He got his B.Sc degree in economics from the University of Calcutta in 1981 (back then Presidency College was under the Calcutta University). It is interesting to note that with Banerjee bagging the Nobel Prize, he is the second alumnus of the college to do so. Amartya Sen, a fellow alumnus of the Department of Economics, won this honour in 1998. Known as ‘Jhima’ during his college days, even today, Banerjee is highly attached to his alma mater. Not only is he an active mentor of the mentor’s group at the college, but he has also played an instrumental role in redesigning the syllabus of the (now) autonomous university. Abhijit actively participated in the planning of the bicentenary celebrations of the Presidency in the year 2017. His contributions to the college include instituting a lecture series on economics, which he named after his father. Today, the ‘Dr. Deepak Banerjee Memorial Lecture’ has some of the finest economists of the world delivering lectures at the college premises annually.
Abhijit continued his pursuit of knowledge and went on to get his master’s degree in Economics from JNU, New Delhi. A couple of years spent here were the ones that introduced Abhijit to Indian politics. Being a Kolkata-boy, before JNU, his idea of politics was restricted to that of Left politics. JNU introduced him to Gandhians, RSS, and other facets of the Indian political scene. This helped him understand the role of politics in elevating poverty. Abhijit was never a member of the JNU Students’ Union or any other political entity of the institution. But, this does not mean that he did not realize how important politics was or that he hesitated from expressing his opinion. During one of the protests, Abhijit, along with some other students, gheraoed the then JNU Vice-Chancellor P. N. Srivastava. This led to them being arrested and Banerjee spending a good ten days in Tihar Jail. Luckily for Abhijit, he was released on bail, and charges were dropped against the students. Had it not been so, it would not be possible for him to fly to Harvard later that year and continue with his education.
Harvard University brought out the best in Abhijit Banerjee. Not only did it establish him as the ‘Abhijit Banerjee economist,’ but it was also home to some of his most influential research work. His doctoral thesis ‘Essays in Information Economics’ earned him his PhD in 1988. Most of Banerjee’s work centres around finding out how government programs are effective in improving the lives of people. A veteran in the field of development economics, Banerjee feels that field experiments help to develop casual relationships in economics. He has been working in this area for decades now, and some of his work has produced path-breaking results.
To understand this better, let us consider an example. All of us are aware of the pulse polio immunization program wherein the government provides free polio vaccinations to children under 5 years of age. Yet, it was seen that parents did not bring their wards to the polio booth. The low turnout rate at polio booths was observed in several Indian states with Rajasthan pioneering in the list. Banerjee flew to Rajasthan and initiated an experiment wherein pulses were given to parents as a reward for bringing their children to the immunization booths. The experiment was a massive success, and the immunization rate at the state shot up. Things like this led to intellectuals taking the views of Abhijit Banerjee on Indian economy very seriously.
Over the years, Abhijit Banerjee taught economics at Princeton University and Harvard University. Today, he is associated with the Ford Foundation Internal Professor of Economics at MIT.
With Abhijit Banerjee winning the Nobel Prize in Economics with his wife Esther Duflo, it is indeed a proud moment for all of us. Indeed, society cannot thank him enough for his work in alleviating global poverty. With the efforts of economists like him and the support of government bodies, the world will indeed rise to a new era of economic upliftment and equal opportunities.
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