Sunday, June 20

Abhijit Banerjee’s Nobel win was a matter of time, say economists in Kolkata

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Economists in Kolkata are thrilled, but say there never was an iota of doubt that Abhijit Banerjee would bag the prestigious award one day.

“The issue was never ‘whether’ but ‘when’. He has been outstanding. His approach to development was unique. It requires great courage and even greater conviction to challenge the traditional approach. He displayed both and pulled it off with aplomb,” said Abhirup Sarkar, who teaches economics at ISI Kolkata.

He and other economists have enjoyed the debates between Banerjee and Angus Stewart Daeton, the British-American economist and academic who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2015. While the former insisted that development experiments are valuable because they force researchers to think rigorously about causality and help create an agenda for learning, the latter countered that blind trust in randomized controlled trials leads to overconfidence and lack of sufficient scrutiny of potentially bad evidence.

Sukanta Bhattacharjee, a faculty of economics department at Calcutta University, called Banerjee one of the most influential development economists in the past 20 years. “He has introduced new microeconomic policy making. Hence, the Nobel is not a surprise. He deserves it,” he said.

Banerjee, along with co-Nobel winners Esther Duflo and Michael Kremer, used Randomized Controlled Trial (RCT) to determine how best to lift people out of poverty and improve their health. The trio apply methods of rigorous medical trials — in which large number of participants are randomized to either receive a particular intervention or standard treatment and followed over time — to social interventions such as improving education.

Dipankar Dasgupta, former head of ISI, who knew Banerjee and his parents — Dipak and Nirmala, also economists — said it was RCT that set him apart from Amartya Sen. “Banerjee worked in the field of poverty alleviation through microeconomic models. RCT was a pioneering work,” he said.

Banerjee’s main argument is that RCTs force researchers to be more rigorous while Daeton argued that RCTs could tell us what worked but not what will work. Ajitava Raychaudhuri, who teaches economics at Jadavpur University, said the trio of Banerjee, Duflo and Kremer had used RCT extensively in Africa and South Asia to check the effectiveness of government subsidies and schemes. “The technique has become well accepted and has even been adopted by the World Bank to validate their projects,” he said.

Kumarjit Mandal, who teaches Economics at Calcutta University, explained the mechanism: “RCT is a trial in which subjects are randomly assigned to one of two groups: the experimental group receiving intervention that is being tested, and the other receiving an alternative conventional treatment. The two groups are then followed up to see if there are any differences between them in outcome. The results and subsequent analysis of the trial are used to assess the effectiveness of the intervention, which is the extent to which a treatment, procedure, or service does patients more good than harm.”

Another major achievement of Banerjee and Duflo was that they wrote books that were easy to comprehend and not intended only for scholars. Ranjanendra Narayan Nag, who teaches economics at the undergraduate level at St Xavier’s College and at the postgraduate level at Calcutta University and St Xavier’s University, makes it a point to recommend the book ‘Understanding Poverty’ — an anthology of essays edited by Banerjee, Roland Benabou and Dilip Mookherjee — to his students.

Ishita Mukhopadhyay, economist and senior faculty of economics department at CU, recounted meeting Banerjee in Kolkata last November. Her senior in both school and college, she said he had remained down to earth despite the fame and fan following he had acquired over the years.

Almost all economists TOI spoke to were Dipak Banerjee’s students.


Source: Times of India

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