Harvard and the US taught him the value of ‘Hard Work’, says Abhijit Banerjee

In an interview with editor and media baron Aveek Sarkar, the Nobel laureate speaks of JNU, Harvard, migration and ability of cities to attract and retain talent

Professor Abhijit Banerjee (social media)
Professor Abhijit Banerjee (social media)

NH Web Desk

“ On the one hand are the critics of Demonetisation, who talk of what people at Harvard say, and on the other is a poor man’s son, who through his hard work, is trying to improve the economy,” had said Prime Minister Modi at several of his election rallies in Uttar Pradesh in March, 2017.

“Hard Work is more powerful than Harvard”, he had declared then and claimed that Demonetisation did not adversely affect India’s growth rate.

While the PM”s barbs were directed at Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, who had sharply criticised Demonetisation, two and a half years later, another Professor of Economics from MIT in Harvard, Abhijit Vinayak Banerjee, also a Nobel Laureate, has provided a different spin by suggesting that Harvard and ‘Hard Work’ were actually synonymous.

Banerjee, in a conversation with veteran journalist and media baron Aveek Sarkar in Calcutta, spoke of his insulation in Presidency College, Calcutta, his exposure to caste and poverty in Jawaharlal Nehru University and his culture shock when he finally moved to Harvard.

The Presidency College was full of students and teachers like him and his father, also a Professor of Economics, he recalled. They all belonged to upper castes and privileged classes and were lucky to come from families which were rooted in education and culture.

It was in JNU, Banerjee recalled, that he became aware of caste for the first time and also of poverty. Suddenly he was confronted with students who were very bright but who came from very poor families and were children of small farmers. Their views on life were different than his.

“I mixed with them, played carrom with them and it was a great learning experience,” Banerjee told Sarkar.

But while JNU did not change the way he worked or studied, at Harvard he learnt how to work hard. Americans, Banerjee recalled, worked incredibly hard and America those days rewarded hard work. The United States, he said, has changed over the last 40 years and class divisions and class consciousness has grown and hard work no longer is recognised or rewarded as much.

Sarkar asked if he would agree that West Bengal has suffered because of the dominance of Brahmins and upper castes in every sphere, ranging from politics to education. Banerjee diplomatically replied that the question was worth pondering. He was aware of the Dalit movement in Maharashtra, partly because his mother happens to be a Marathi, but he did not remember hearing about a Dalit movement in Bengal.

Commenting on the beneficial effects of migration, Banerjee spoke of a Bengali who had led a secure life at home and never washed his own plate, migrating to the US, working in restaurants as a dish washer and then branching off into business, opening a chain of doughnut outlets.

There was a time when West Bengal and Calcutta attracted top talents from across the country. Scientists like CV Raman, S Chandrashekhar and KS Krishnan moved from Tamil Nadu to Calcutta because they found the city more congenial and conducive to research.

Great cities, Banerjee pointed out, do attract talent. That is why all good writers would migrate to New York and all good artists made a beeline to Paris. For a variety of reasons, Calcutta no longer attracts talent and instead the talented prefer to move out of the city at the first opportunity.

As an aside, he pointed out that besides him, two other Professors hailing from Calcutta were teaching at MIT. One of them, Nikhil Agarwal, is a Marwari from South Calcutta while the other, Shankar Raman, is a Tamilian from South Calcutta.

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