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There was not another couple in the world on Monday who (in league with the Harvard Professor, Michael Kremer) reached the pinnacle of their academic glory in the manner this one did. Kremer will share this year’s Nobel Prize in Economics with Abhijit Banerjee and his wife, Esther Dufflo, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The Nobel is much too important an award to lend scope for a provincial spin. Without delving into such parochialism as another non-resident Bengali economist ~ after Amartya Sen who won the prize in 1998 ~ joins the exceptionally rarefied circuit, it is a proud moment for India in the wider canvas.
And not the least because this year’s award will bear on the country’s growth and development. The three economists have pioneered on-the-ground experiments to discover the most effective ways to tackle poverty in the developing world. The Swedish Academy of Sciences said they were awarded the Sveriges Riksbank prize in economic sciences, given in memory of Alfred Nobel, for research findings that have “dramatically improved our ability to fight poverty in practice”. Indeed, it is the “poverty in practice” that is direly manifest in India. Profound, therefore, is the significance of their findings for the country and the subcontinent as a whole, not to forget the grinding poverty in sub-Saharan Africa.
At 46, Duflo is only the second woman to win the Economics prize and the youngest in the 50-year history of the award. And yet with remarkable modesty, she has expressed surprise over the award, especially as “it was usually bestowed on older, more experienced academics”. Most importantly, a woman has been recognised by the Academy, “showing that it is possible for a woman to succeed and be recognised for success I hope is going to inspire many, many other women to continue working and many other men to give them the respect they deserve.”
Thus has she underlined the gender inequality that has historically impeded development. No less momentous has been the work of husband Abhijit Banerjee of Kolkata’s South Point High School and Presidency College and Michael Kremer. Banerjee’s Kolkata roots are merely incidental, however. Fame knows no frontier. Pre-eminently, the experimental research methods now entirely dominate development economics. The winners have underscored the need to adopt new approaches in the fight against poverty that were based on field trials rather than prejudice or the failed methods of the past.
The Academy has underlined the fact that “as a result of one of their studies, more than 5 million Indian children have benefitted from programmes of remedial tutoring in schools.” With 700 million people around the world still languishing in extreme poverty and many children leaving school without basic education, the studies of the three have identified the causes of poverty to draw conclusions about the effects and implement policies that are cost effective. Altogether, it has been a “celebration of ideas”, to summon the words of another distinguished economist, Kaushik Basu. This newspaper salutes the trio for their signal efforts to rescue humanity from the perilous path.