Prof.T K Thomas

After almost completing a piece on two United Nations International Days on hunger and poverty just yesterday, one has rewritten this column. It was a strange coincidence and pleasant surprise later in the day to know about India born Abhijit Banerjee and his wife Esther Duflo, both professors at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology sharing the coveted Nobel Prize for Economics with Michael Kremer, a professor at Harvard University. To start with one is focusing on this great achievement.

The Nobel jury said that the award was”for their experimental approach to alleviating global poverty.” The Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi congratulated the Nobel Prize recipient with the following tweet:

“Congratulations to Abhijit Banerjee on being conferred the 2019 Sveriges Rikbank Prize in Economic Sciences in memory of Alfred Nobel. He has made notable contributions in the field of poverty alleviation.”

While it was a good gesture as Banerjee has been very critical about the NDA government’s economic policies, even as the usual inappropriate snide remarks on Banerjee reflected in the fulminations of some of the ruling party spokespersons on various channels. One of them said that Banerjee ”ran away from India”! It is sad that their comments were not in tune with that of the PM. Whatever that may be, one joins millions of fellow Indians to celebrate the proud moment of this 8th Nobel for India.

Abhijit Vinayak Banerjee was born in 1961 in Mumbai. He studied in South Point School in Kolkata and did his B.Sc in Economics at the Presidency College, Calcutta University in 1981. He completed M.A. in Economics in 1983 at the Jawaharlal Nehru University [JNU]. It is interesting that as a student of JNU, he was arrested and jailed in Tihar during a protest after students gheraoed the then vice chancellor. Of course he was later released and all charges were dropped. He obtained his Ph.D in Economics from Harvard University in 1988. He later taught at Harvard University and Princeton University. Presently, both Abhijit and Esther are professors at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and in 2011 published the jointly authored, “Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty”. The couple, the sixth married Nobel Laureate couple, have many other publications authored and edited with others. Banerjee has received many prestigious awards, a list too lengthy to be reproduced here. In 2013 he was named by United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon to a panel of experts tasked with updating the Millennium Development Goals after 2015.

The Nobel laureate couple’s research had focused a lot on India. According to reports during 2001-2004, Banerjee and Duflo along with two other researchers evaluated Balsakhi program a remedial education intervention implemented in 122 public primary schools in Vadodara and 77 schools in Mumbai, in conjunction with NGO Pratham.

Banerjee and Duflo have left their imprint on a popular incentive scheme to save power and water in Punjab. Designed in collaboration with the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab[J-PAL] a MIT-affiliated research centre co-founded by Banerjee and Duflo, the scheme virtually pays farmers for using less power-and hence, water- to irrigate their paddy and wheat crops.”Pani Bachao Paisa Kamao“ was launched last year as a pilot project by the Punjab State Power Corporation Ltd which benefited 5900 rural power feeders that catered to 14.16 lakh tube wells.

Two major international days are being observed by the United Nations on Wednesday 16th October and Thursday 17th October. Tomorrow is World Food Day and Thursday is International Day for the Eradication of Poverty. These two days coming one after the other emphasize the close connection between food and poverty. World Food Day is observed on 16th October to commemorate the founding of Food and Agricultural Organization[FAO] in 1945.

The UN General Assembly had resolved in December 1992 to observe October 17 as International Day for Eradication of Poverty to highlight how poverty hurts children’s development and in recognition of the child’s poverty as a denial of human rights.

Poverty and hunger are closely connected but are not one and the same. According to one definition “the main difference between a poor person and a hungry person is that a poor person will remain that way for a long time whereas a hungry is only in that state until their next meal. Poverty however can concur with chronic hunger, a situation whereby a person fails to find food for lengthy periods of time.”[thp.org]

Hunger and poverty continue to be major concerns for the international community. The United Nations and its specialized agencies have been in the vanguard of solving the food problem of the world and poverty alleviation. Millennium Development Goals were decided by 189 countries gathered at the UN headquarters in September 2000 and signed the historic Millennium Declaration. The first of the eight Millennium Development Goals [MDGs] to be achieved by 2015 was “to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger” . Critiquing the success of the first MDG, The Guardian concluded that “the number of people living on less than $1.25 a day has been reduced from 1.9 billion in 1990 to 836 million in 2015, although the target of halving the proportion of people suffering from hunger was narrowly missed”.

In 2015, the United Nations adopted 17 Sustainable Development Goals [SDGs] to carry on the momentum generated by the MDGs. Following the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development held in Rio de Janeiro in June 2012 and continued consultations, in July 2014 the UN General Assembly Open Working Group proposed a document containing 17 goals which was approved by the General Assembly in September 2015. This document set the ground for the new SDGs and global development agenda spanning from 2015-2030. The first two goals in the SDGs also focused on poverty and hunger. Goal 1 states, “End poverty in all its forms everywhere“ and Goal 2 is to ”End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture.”[ source: sdgfund.org]

Most of us who have grown up in homes where we have had enough food to eat, have never experienced what real hunger is. There was a large family of nine children staying very close to us. To eke out a living, the hardworking head of the family did odd jobs by dealing in petty trade in pepper, coconut and areca nut and also knitted fishing nets to sustain his large family. It was indeed a hand to mouth existence. They lived in a large house as caretakers and as a little boy, one thought they were financially alright.

The youngest son of the family was my playmate and after school and on holidays we would play in our compound and swim for a long time in the Pampa river flowing on one side of our home. On a holiday after breakfast one went to call my friend to play. “If you have finished your breakfast let’s go and play.“ The response came from my friend’s mother as one entered their large kitchen. “What breakfast? We didn’t even have dinner last night; there is not a grain at home and he hasn’t earned anything during the last few days,” she said. The scene in the kitchen was desolate. The whole family was squatting on the floor; the hearth was not lit.

Wondering why they have no food one rushed home and told mother what one saw in my friend’s home. Mother listened patiently and told me that there are people who are not as fortunate as we were and they often go to sleep on an empty stomach. She added that they would not normally talk about their poverty and deprivation as self respecting people. She asked me to call my friend’s mother and gave her food materials for a few days for the family. This was my first lesson in empathy and a realization about poverty and hunger. Mother had also advised that one should never complain about or waste food and be ever thankful to God for His provisions.

During one’s professional life, visits to some of the most poverty stricken areas, groups and slums across the country have been opportunities to see hunger and poverty in their worst manifestations. The pathetic conditions one has seen in the Dharavi slums, and ‘chawls’ in Bombay in the 1970s, the condition of the Chakma refugees in Mizoram later, the sprawling shanty towns and slums in the Jamuna Pushta area [now demolished] in Delhi and the sub human existence of slum dwellers in the ten police districts of the national capital, the squalor and deprivation of people in the Mewat region of Haryana and drought / flood hit villages across India have all been painful experiences.

It is paradoxical that we have behind the façade of islands of prosperity, oceans of hunger and poverty in all our urban areas. Despite all efforts by our country and international development agencies, hunger and poverty continue to haunt humanity. According to the latest UN report, over 820 million people in the world are suffering from hunger and FAO estimates 194 million Indians as undernourished!

It is indeed paradoxical that the crucial indices in hunger and malnutrition in the fastest growing economy in the world are much below the figures in some of the poorest countries. The recently released Global Hunger Index [GHI] has ranked India a lowly 102 among the 117 countries it has mapped in 2018. GHI has placed India in the list of 47 countries that have “serious” levels of hunger. It is indeed sad that in the GHI score we are behind Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Pakistan.

On 15th October the UNICEF released its 2019 “State of the World’s Children’’ report. 35% of Indian children suffer from stunting due to lack of nutrition, 17% suffer from wasting , 33% are underweight and 2% are overweight according to the report. The report also points out that India has the highest burden of death among children under 5 per year with over 8 lakh deaths in 2018, followed by Nigeria, Pakistan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The UNICEF report has further said that an alarmingly high number of children are suffering the consequences of poor diet and a “and a food system that is failing them”. The irony is that our granaries are overflowing and the Food Ministry wants the Ministry of External Affairs to look at the option of presenting the surplus grain stocks as “humanitarian aid to deserving countries”! Considering the figures in the UNICEF report and Global Hunger Index, is it not natural to ask whether charity begins at home or not?


The facts and views in the article are those of the writer.