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Nobel laureate Abhijit Banerjee: Some personal recollections

Abhijit was one year my junior at the Centre for Economic Studies and Planning, Jawaharlal Nehru University. He had stood first in the entrance exams of both JNU and Delhi School of Economics in 1981, but chose to join JNU, because, in the opinion of his father, Dipak Banerjee and mother Nirmala Banerjee, both economists, who knew most faculty members at both places personally, the JNU centre had, on balance, better faculty that year.

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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