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Mocking Abhijit Banerjee's work ethic is bad form, govt must seek Nobel winner's counsel instead

Dinesh Unnikrishnan

Every country celebrates its top scholars, their valuable achievements in respective areas and hard work, without judging them based on their political leniency, personal life and ideology. What matters most is their work and professional track record. Of all the achievements, winning the Nobel Prize is a decisive reason why someone's work should get closer attention and be a guide for future generations. This should have been, logically, the response when Indo-American economist and academician, Abhijit Banerjee won the prestigious award for his long years of arduous research in the domain of poverty alleviation.

But what happened instead?

One of Narendra Modi's senior Union Ministers, Piyush Goyal questioned Banerjee's professionalism calling his thinking "left-leaning" and saying that the same is rejected by the "people of India." Not long after this, the BJP's national secretary and the party's former West Bengal unit president Rahul Sinha mocked the economist's credentials asking "whether having a foreigner as the second wife was a "degree" for getting the Nobel."

These comments are, to say the least, unfortunate. India has always respected its scholars and celebrated their achievements. Letting senior ministers in the Union government and top leaders of the ruling party launch personal attacks on them will send a wrong signal to the outside world about how we treat our achievers, especially someone like Banerjee who has dedicated his life doing research on poverty alleviation.

In his interview to NDTV, Banerjee responded to the personal attacks on him by Goyal. Banerjee said Goyal was questioning his professionalism and stressed that he is non-partisan in his economic thinking.

Goyal had said that Banerjee assisted the Congress party in formulating the idea of Nyuntam Aay Yojana, NYAY, scheme which promised to give Rs 72,000 annually to each of the 20 percent families in the poorest of the poor category.

"If the BJP government, like the Congress party, had asked what were the numbers on the fraction of people under a particular income, would I have not told them the truth? I would have told them exactly, I would have been as willing. In terms of being a professional, I want to be professional with everyone," Banerjee said in the interview.

NYAY was suggested as one of the ways to empower the bottom of the pyramid. A section of economists had hailed this proposal based on the idea of a minimum income for all or Universal Basic Income. Banerjee was part of the school which supported this idea as one of the measures to alleviate poverty in Asia's third-largest economy.

The fact that an economist of international repute and a well-known academician like Banerjee had to come to a point to explain his professionalism and vouch for his nonpartisanship in economic thinking to his own country, is a shame for all Indians. Discrediting the work of the Nobel laureate with a proven track record in the important subject of poverty alleviation shows India in poor light, that too in a country where around one-third of its population is living in poverty and where millions of youngsters battle unemployment.

It is, by now, well-known that the country's economy is a big mess with growth slowing to a seven-year low and unemployment rising to 45-year high levels. Industries are fighting a severe demand slump on account of erosion in consumer confidence to multi-year lows. At such a time, the only wise thinking any government should be doing is to study the work of Banerjee and other reputed scholars to find ways to fight poverty, arrest economic slowdown and get back to the path of growth.

What does Banerjee think about the Indian economy?

Instead of calling him "left-leaning", the government's top ministers should listen to Banerjee's words closely and wake up to the real situation to find solutions. "The Indian economy is going into a tailspin; it is the time when you don't worry so much about monetary stability and you worry a little bit more about demand," Banerjee said at a presser post-the Nobel announcement.

It is this statement that should get maximum attention, debated because India's growth is slowing at a worryingly faster pace. Most international agencies are vying each other to dish out the most pessimistic outlook for the year in progress. Moody's has projected a 5.8 percent GDP growth for this fiscal.

In his comments to Raghuram Rajan's O P Jindal lecture on the economy of India, Banerjee said the growth of the economy has slowed massively, investment has collapsed and public borrowing (if properly added up) is 9-10 percent of the GDP. Also, quoting National Sample Survey (NSS) data, Banerjee said average consumption expenditure at current prices fell from Rs 1,587 per person per month (ppm) in 2014 to Rs 1,524 ppm in 2017-18 in rural areas, while in urban areas it fell from Rs 2926 ppm in 2014 to Rs 2909 ppm in 2018.

Banerjee has been largely unhappy about the Narendra Modi government's policy responses to the economic slowdown suggesting that both the Goods and Services Tax (GST) and demonetisation contributed to the current state of the economy and institutional weakness didn't augur well for the economy. Along with these factors, private investments collapsing and exports shrinking have been cited as worrying signs. He also observed that overexpansion of the real estate sector is the harbinger of the crisis in the non-banking finance companies and banks.

A big demand deficit in the low-income groups added to slowdown woes. In the short run, the government needs to make all efforts in getting money in the hands of people and raise MGNREGA wages, the economist argues. Also, the government should sell the public sector banks instead of trying to fix them; monetary policy needs to be relaxed and the rupee should be allowed to slide, he said. Banerjee's biggest demand is to strengthen the institutions.

Over years, Banerjee, along with his wife Esther Duflo has done commendable work in identifying reasons for poverty on the ground through the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL), which they co-founded with Sendhil Mullainathan in 2003.

There are several areas where the Indian government can use Banerjee's expertise, especially when it comes to reviving the fractured informal economy. India has a list of world-renowned experts who took up key jobs in the government at some level, but left halfway including the likes of Arvind Subramanian and Gita Gopinath. We should have a better plan to retain our talents for the country's benefit. It is important that the government seek Banerjee's counsel along with other scholars at a time when there are hardly any signs of recovery and worries are only getting worse.

Also See: Economists couple Abhijit Banerjee, Esther Duflo share Nobel with Michael Kremer: Indian-American a champion of free institutions for strong economies, poverty alleviation

Indian-American Abhijit Banerjee, wife Esther Duflo and Michael Kremer win 2019 Nobel Economics Prize

'Indian economy on shaky ground,' says Abhijit Banerjee after winning 2019 Nobel Prize on Economics

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