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Abhijit Banerjee a Noble Laureate

Radhakanta Barik

Being a part of academic community congratulate Abhijit Banerjee getting Nobel Prize as a great scholar whose concern for poverty is there. I want to bring some similarity with Prof Amartya Sen, another great scholar a Nobel Laureate both belong to Bengal but I will argue that Abhijit belongs to Calcutta whereas Sen belongs to Bengal and India. Here the similarity ends as economists and professional scholars. Sen is the representative of the best full blown tradition of Bengal which started with Ram Mohan Roy that human intervention can improve the quality of life. That Sen worked over the 1944 great famine and gave a new interpretation regarding the famine which is a man-made not because of failure of food production but distribution of food. The famine brought great artists who made paintings over the hunger related issues. Chittaprasad’s painting of Mother and Child of the famine still haunts us.  This issue gave foundation to left wing politics of Bengal in Marxist sense. The best theatre tradition who moved away from Calcutta and went to the villages of undivided Bengal. The theme inspired the greatest Indian film maker Satyajit Roy to make a film ‘Ashaini Sanket’ on famine. The play writer Utpal Dutta to carry his yatra group to the villages. Sen could sit with all of them and share the same social experiences with artistic sensibility. Sen lives in Shantinketan, the rural hinterland of Bengal. His concern for poor made him a great economist as Abhijit. They have another similarity that both belong to scholarly family. Sen had a depth in Sanskrit and Indian philosophy could debate with his grandfather the Sanskrit Professor from Dhaka University that he would side with Arjun who had doubts regarding the Mahabharata war but not Krishna who supported the war as a final solution for a conflict among brothers and cousins. His book on Argumentative India a mixture of philosophy, history and literature. Sen belongs to the greatest tradition where politics is being taken as an effort to solve human problems which started with Bidhan Chandra Roy to Jyoti Basu all are honest and different in approaches to politics. Abhijit carries cultural capital from his parents who are economists and they worked over public distribution and women. Abhijit must have got inspired by their parents to work over the similar themes concerning human problems. Calcutta carries a professional tradition in academics, literature and art which is being carried by Abhijit. His concern for poor must have further strengthened by coming to JNU where debates do happen over every issue from Cuba, Vietnam to Iraq war. Sen carries the best progressive tradition of Bengal and Abhijit carries the best professional tradition from Calcutta. Both have another similarity both opposed the demonitisation policy of Modi. Sen oppose Modi's authoritarianism and communal-ism but Abhijit must be opposing in drawing room but not openly.

Abhijit’s biography coming to JNU must be enlightening as he compares with Delhi School Economics where finds the formal dress is being respected where as in JNU people wear Kurta and Paijama with a bag on shoulder make him feel at home with it. He opted for JNU which provides a strong foundation to Abhijit Banerjee, the Nobel Laureate in Economics Science. We used to be students of political science but because of interdisciplinary nature of each course make us to be students in Economics. Prof Pravat Patnaik and Utsha Patnaik used to draw many students from various departments of JNU. JNU had outstanding scholars from the best universities of India. Department of Regional Planning, Sociology and History and Economics and Political Science create a foundation to JNU tradition of teaching of social sciences. Each Department has the best minds of their time. Prof C P Bhambri, Prof Rasheedduin Khan from Political science, Prof Yogendra Singh from Sociology, Prof Bipan chandra, Romila Thapar, Prof Sabyasachi Bhattacharya from history and Prof Moonish Raza from Geography department created a debating environment in class rooms which encouraged the students to learn. The best library managed by Prof Girija Kumar would provide helping hand in students to collect the information from the library. Text book section in JNU is a gift to each student for learning. Teachers used to have a friendly approach to students and their problems. The best hostel facilities and cheap food and scholarships attracted students from all over India. Many poor students could study and pursue academic life which is a tough life in India because of its environment. Some of the outstanding VCs were there such as G Parthsarathy, B D Nagchaudhuri, Prof Yogindar Alagh who could spend time with students. Prof Alagh constituted committee for investigating the quality of environment of the first ten years and second ten years made a comparison which is quite illuminating. The purpose of the university is to encourage students for each discipline such as teachers, journalists, civil servants, politicians and social workers which met in the first ten years but it suffered in the next ten years. He encouraged in his term to bring back the environment of the first ten years of JNU. Abhijit is the product of the first ten years who organize their Alumina meeting every year. JNU benefited many coming from outside who came to learn from JNU environment. Many poets and writers and artists have come from JNU without being students. Today regimentation in JNU by a Vice Chancellor belonging to the RSS has pushed the university to an ordinary university which is a loss to a nation. When JNU is getting destroyed by the present government, one Nobel Laureate Abhijit Banerjee has come from the old students of it. It is like Phoenix which can't be destroyed, it will have a rebirth some other days.

It's a shame for the RSS. Abhijit Banerjee has given his views on JNU. He found that all political groups like Lohia group and RSS and other left groups were active in JNU politics which helped him to have an understanding of complex political situation. Second free space available in university campus needs to be nurtured as it helps in creating pluralism in thinking. The present regime's narrow vision has destroyed the fabric of JNU.

The Spokespersons belonging to the BJP were silent for a day to give their opinion over the issue of Nobel Laureate Prof Abhijit Banerjee and JNU. While discussing in TV channels they avoided to refer to JNU when the NDTV journalist raised a question regarding to JNU, the representative just avoided to discuss the issue of JNU. Today their members and intellectuals have come out that Abhijit is working for the King of Saudi Arabia and all these abuses are a part of their culture. She is from JNU and after joining the BJP turned her more vicious and virulent in attacking the JNU. This is her views who invents theories regarding Gandhi and Nehru. She has written a book on Gandhi and women which was a good work. But today she being the BJP leader thinks that only abuses against political opponent may give her some position in government as she aspires to be the education minister of Modi cabinet.

Poverty has been placed in Hinduism as a part of Karma of past life. In medieval and modern period people pray various deities in ameliorating their poverty. For instance there are thousands of Bhajans and Janans in the name of Lord Jagannath out of which there must be hundreds in praying Lord referred to their poverty. “He Dinabandhu, Parikar aai Bhabasagaru” (Jagannath has been renamed as Dinabandhu or friend of poor, help him or her to cross the worldly life.)  Poverty gets placed in the context of rational discourse with the rise of modernity in India during the colonial period. Nationalists started taking the issue of poverty seriously while questioning the colonial rule and its brutal exploitation system. Naroji a nationalist during the 19th century linked poverty of India with the drainage of wealth from India. RC Dutta another nationalist wrote economic history of India where raised the issue of poverty. Gandhi while travelling around India raised the question of poverty in rural India for which he abandoned his western dresses to identify himself with rural people. Poverty and unemployment have a close association for which he invented Charka for spinning which can sustain poor to survive.

Gandhi found poverty has a relation with high rent by landlords and he started two agitations against the landlords in Gujarat. The Congress leaders Nehru and left took it seriously and linked with structure of land relationship and demanded abolition of Zamindari System in the Congress manifesto in the general election of 1946. After Independence they took this issue and abolished Zamindari System. It is EMS Namboodiripad government took land reforms more seriously. Sheikh Abdul ah of J and K implemented land reforms. Left front government of Bengal went for share croppers' right over their land. Indira Gandhi gave a slogan Garibi Hatao which brought the issue of poverty into planning commission purview. She made the leading novelist Naipaul furious and he wrote in his novel “Wounded Civilisation” that this is against the basic tenents of Hinduism.  A committee of Dandekar and Rath went into it and measured poverty in terms of calories. After that many more Committees have been constituted to understand the concept of poverty. Mrs Gandhi's twenty point programme brought the question of poverty linking with bonded labour and money lending. Furthermore, many states went for implementation of PDS for handling extreme form of poverty.

Prof Amartya Sen started linking poverty with nutrition, education and health. The Planning Commission broaden the issue of concept of poverty by linking with primary education and access to health services. Then came HDI which brought the question of poverty in various states and measured it. UNDP brings out annual report on Human Development and places India at a very low position. Prof Tendulkar committee looked into poverty level which turned into a controversial one. This becomes a serious issue under the Congress government by Manmohan Singh who brought NREGA for providing hundred days work at fixed wage. Second most act regarding Right to education act for providing free and compulsory education to all. These two legislations brought revolutions in thinking in the minds of rulers. The Congress Government reduced extreme hunger and which brought India to 57th position in Hunger Index map of world. The BJP under Modi came to power India's position has deteriorated to 102 out of 117 where Pakistan and Bangladesh are ahead of us. This Nobel Prize has gone to Abhijit Banerjee on his work on poverty will make us once more to think on the deepening of poverty today in India by the present day rulers. Congratulation to Abhijit for getting Nobel Prize for his work on poverty. We will give a serious thinking to the issue of poverty in public discourse. Abhijit and his wife with Esther Duflo and Michael Kremer which brings the issue of poverty into sharp focus today where the ruling class has turned into selfish and petty.

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Oct 18, 2019


Prof. Radhakanta Barik [email protected]

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