Abhijit came with a reputation for brilliance, but he was not a nerd by any stretch of the imagination. He was a fun-loving young man, with thick glasses, no doubt, who had read widely and probably understood most of what he read, unlike many others who also are widely read at that age, was fond of good food, good drink, music and films, and kept avidly abreast of all the gossip and had plenty of time for most aspects of campus life, including JNU’s frenetic student politics.
Abhijit was not a member of any political organisation, but was politically aware and engaged. He had mild contempt for the organised left then dominant on the campus but treated the other outfits on the campus with unconcealed derision, and voted mostly for candidates of the organised left.
In 1983, there was a protracted student agitation on the JNU Campus that culminated in a sit-in at the residence of the vice-chancellor, PN Srivastava. After two days, the police were called in. They arrested students and bundled them into vans. Now, considering the kind of brutality that the police is capable of in India, the police action in JNU was pretty restrained. But some students were beaten, and Abhijit chose to actively defend one such student. He was among the 400 odd students who were arrested and sent to Tihar jail. Of course, all were released on bail after a few days, and the charges were dropped, after a year-long legal-cum-political campaign by the JNU Students’ Union.
While the jail authorities were indulgent towards JNU students – we were allowed to cook our own food, but with the standard rations meant for jailbirds — it was probably at Tihar that Abhijit got his first literal taste of the kind of food the poor eat. Abhijit is the first former inmate of Tihar to get a Nobel prize, and probably will be the last.
Abhijit was quantitatively gifted. Maths runs through economics in general. One course, taught by Prof Anjan Mukherjee, Linear Economic Models, was high-level mathematics adulterated with a smattering of economics, and had a textbook by David Gale that contained abstruse algebra and tough exercises to solve. The solution to one problem had proved elusive after much struggle inside the library, till it suddenly chose to offer itself up as an epiphany in the middle of polishing off some French Toast at the canteen. The satisfaction this offered had to shed its smugness when it turned out Abhijit had worked that problem out in his head.
Abhijit left for Harvard, where his PhD was for some papers in the area of information economics. He turned to developmental economics later.
Abhijit Banerjee and his partner in work, life and the Nobel award, Esther Duflo, as well as the third Nobel awardee, Michael Kremer, use their skills in economic theory to design precise experiments to identify what sort of action would most effectively tackle different aspects of poverty, deficient schooling, failure to invest in preventive healthcare, failure to adopt fertilisers in farming. The Poverty Action Lab at Jaipur, of which Abhijit is a director, continues with work of this kind.
Abhijit Banerjee is not affiliated to any political party, but is a committed democrat and liberal. He has signed the petition that 108 economists produced, on the government’s data policies. He was one of the consultants to the 2019 Congress Party manifesto’s Nyay Scheme of income transfers to the poor.
His association with JNU and record of political engagement there both demolish the notion of JNU as a den of anti-nationals and the ideal of the good student as a politically aloof bookworm.
Abhijit is a warm person with a keen sense of humour. Keen can draw blood, naturally.
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5 Comments on this Story
Rabindra Nath Roy402 days ago
Not competent to comment on the life of Abhijeet Banerjee, except that had he not been to Harvard and further on to work at MIT and taken to the citizenship of USA was all the situations available to him, had he remained in India somewhere or there about, I for myself doubt very much. However, he gives a sense of hope while hopelessness is all pervasive, except those who think India would be VISHWA GURU.
Ekambaram Ravishankar405 days ago
Good to get an inside insight of the most popular name of last few days. Also get an insight into why we see such good quality articles from the author, by knowing the author''s background and exposure. Kudos !!!
abe c407 days ago
Fiends of wishes perceive facets of Elephant''s in room like Judges to err on side of Political correctness? if Economics of
wants & preferences for maximized profits see Expanding markets as universe not Societal welfare & Good governance if
Crowns lite not Commoner reductions further lead to Population''s entropy as misery unlike Incarcerations spree on belated
opportunists to hide Govt self deceptions unless Courts reserve for last term as Opponents shadow to raise alarms in first!
Filials on works frame of Society''s contracts basis of Individuals restrained over Bhaktlok free-Interest braggarts! if singular
Life-sparks not just Parental jagarans like Cromwell until Gandhi or from Hatcheson-Hume to Smithsonian as Montesquieu to
Rousseau sown underground seeds to sacrifice for bountiful lives Internet millennials too care platform of inclusive diversity
lest imprison rest of World''s to allow freedom of choices else Brexits & Climate disasters too late even to pay off security?