Nobel laureate Prof. Abhijit Banerjee shares why India must work towards regaining its intellectual leadership

We need a culture where being wrong is acceptable, but being willfully blind isn’t - says Prof. Abhijit Banerjee

“India is one of the bravest adventures in state-building that we know of,” Prof. Abhijit Banerjee, Nobel laureate and Ford International Professor of Economics, said at the opening plenary of The/Nudge Forum (global edition). Held on India’s 74th Independence Day, the 24-hour-long event brought renowned global and local academicians, policymakers, grassroots workers and ecosystem leaders together to deliberate and discuss India’s development.

In his opening plenary, in a conversation with Maneesh Dhir, Board Member, The/Nudge Foundation and former MD of Apple India, Prof. Banerjee walked through the seminal moments in India’s development journey, current challenges and opportunities to effect inclusive and sustainable growth.

Prof. Banerjee noted that back when the concept of India was being proposed, there was a lot of negativity “though not entirely unreasonable”. He drew attention to leaders like Winston Churchill who had stated India was merely a geographical expression and predicted that without the British, the country would quickly fall back into the barbarism and privations of the Middle Ages. He also quoted Robert Alan Dahl, the 20th century leader in democractic theory, who remarked that India is a leading contemporary exception to the democratic theory.

“After all, we were a nation of hundreds of languages, 22,000 dialogue dialects, many religions and so many sources of disagreements and conflicts. Add to that the fact there's a long history of caste-based oppression, one of the most brutal systems known to man. And, because of these factors you understand why people were holding their breath when the India project was mooted. For a long time, the common notion was that this project was going to collapse. And yet, after 73 years. We know that this hasn't happened. We are still a nation, still a democracy,” Prof Banerjee said.

The highlight of Prof Banerjee’s address was the focus on India’s intellectual heritage and the need to regain its leadership. He noted that in 1953, the then Premier of China came to India and spent considerable time at the Indian Statistical Institute to understand how India conducts its surveys and see how it could be replicated. “ India was an intellectual leader in rigorous policy-thinking. We had people like C. R. Rao, Raj Chandra Bose, Samarendra Nath Roy, who were the top people in the field.” His list also included noted academicians like Andrey Nikolaevich Kolmogorov, J. B. S. Haldane, who made innovative contributions to the fields of statistics and biostatistics and spent years at the Indian Statistical Institute.

Further, he highlighted that the National Sample Survey (NSS), rolled out in 1950 to collect information through sample surveys on a variety of socio-economic aspects, was the first-of-its-kind effort and remains a model for household surveys globally. He also hailed the Central Statistics Office (CSO) for its extensive work in computing GDP.

Speaking about India’s contribution to empirical research in development economics, Prof Banerjee explained that the integration between economic thinking and practical policy-thinking was happening in India as much as it was on a global scale and noted that Amartya Sen, Jagdish Bhagwati, T. N. Srinivasan, Dr Manmohan Singh, Padma Desai, and Raj Krishna were some of the leaders doing extensive research in the policy space in the early days of India.

But, Prof. Banerjee pointed out that India, today, has lost the kind of intellectual prowess we had decades ago. While the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) by Pratham, the National Food Security Act and National Rural Employment Guarantee Act were remarkable efforts in recent times, they were largely exceptions. He also stated that the efforts in building the Aadhaar infrastructure, even with its imperfections, is appreciable because of its conceptual foundation to transform welfare payments. The recent Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana has also been transformative and innovative, he said.

Prof. Banerjee also articulated the current setbacks in policy research. “The National Sample Survey, which was heralded as pioneering, is no longer available. The government has dismissed data on unemployment and poverty when it indicated a rise in numbers. Also, there are constant revisions in the way GDP data is being computed to the point where the former chief economic adviser, Arvind Subramanian postulated that the growth rate is probably half of what is being claimed. So, we are in a place where there is little hard information about India coming out and that’s frightening.” While some of this is because of genuine problems in the NSS and CSO, which should have been addressed many years ago, successive governments have had a lack of prioritisation Prof Banerjee added.

Prof Banerjee held that the lack of “a culture of scientifically informed policymaking” was also evident in India’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The lockdown was enforced too quickly and opened up too early and that led to bad outcomes. He lamented that the government didn’t think enough about migrants. “Partly because we know so little about migrants. There is no survey that gives data about migrants.” This, he cautioned, was a sign that the country is not keeping up to its commitment to knowledge-based, science-based policy-based thinking as it was in the early formative years.

Delving further into the need for having data, Prof Banerjee noted the government must not constantly question the motive or counter information.

“We need leadership at all levels to be asking questions and the right kind of questions. We need a culture where being wrong is acceptable, but being willfully blind isn’t. If we want India to go back to being an intellectual hub, we need to engage with these ideas.”

Later, in a conversation with Maneesh Dhir, Prof Banerjee spoke about the current crisis and how it exposed the fragility of our systems, both economic and social, especially around the lives of migrants, the role of small nudges or meaningful interventions in furthering the development agenda and what it will take to motivate India’s youth.


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