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Capital contributions

Nobel laureate Abhijit Banerjee and his team’s footprints can be seen all over Delhi, for their contributions have brought educational and health reform in the national capital

With a Nobel Prize in Economics in the kitty, MIT professor and economists Abhijit Banerjee and wife Esther Duflo have been the talk of the town. Their ‘randomised controlled trials’ to evaluate the success or failure of a government scheme or programme on the ground have been instrumental in formulating field experiments done under The Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (JPAL), a global research network of which they are directors.

Abhijit Banerjee, who did his Bachelors in Economics from Presidency College, Kolkata and Masters in the same field from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), went on to complete his PhD from Harvard University. Banerjee and his wife Duflo have been involved in various researches and projects which have had long lasting and tangible impact irrespective of the government and the political party. Their JPAL lab has been active in India since 2007 across various sectors which includes education, environment and health.

Mapping the footprints of the Nobel laureate, it turns out Delhi has always been an epicentre of his experiments and the Aam Aadmi Party government has shown an interest in the research and findings of Abhijit Banerjee and his team at the JPAL. While Delhi government implemented his idea in the education sector, the JPAL carried out wonderful initiatives in citizen empowerment, social pensions and voter information campaigns.

It also explored the question: ‘Do informed voters make better choices?’ Results of the 2008 Delhi Assembly election were analysed to map electoral behaviour when late Sheila Dikshit was chief minister and Congress was at the helm of power at the Centre and in Delhi respectively. While congratulating Banerjee for his award, Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal said, “Abhijit Banerjee’s pathbreaking work has also benefitted lakhs of children studying in Delhi government schools. One of Delhi government’s most imp education reform ‘Chunauti’ has transformed govt school classroom teaching. It is based on the model developed by him.”

Chunauti scheme

The Delhi government scheme in 2016 introduced the ‘Chunauti’ scheme wherein an attempt was made to reduce the student dropout rate and improve the quality of education with special attention to weak students. The Arvind Kejriwal led team devised a subsequent version of the scheme named ‘Chunauti 2018’ under which the weakest students were identified after mapping each one of them. A ‘special focus’ was laid upon them in order to enhance their learning levels between Class 6 and 8. The plan also divides students into groups on the basis of who can read and write in Hindi and English and solve maths problems easily. The experiment concludes with special classes for those who are weak in these subjects in government and MCD schools.

Nobel Prize winners in economics, Abhijit Banerjee (R) and Esther Duflo, speak during a press conference at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts on October 14, 2019. – A trio of American economists on October 14, 2019 won the Nobel Economics Prize for their work in the fight against poverty, including novel initiatives in education and healthcare, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said. Indian-born Abhijit Banerjee of the US, his French-American wife Esther Duflo — a former advisor to ex-US president Barack Obama — and Michael Kremer of the US were honoured “for their experimental approach to alleviating global poverty,” the jury said.”This year’s laureates have introduced a new approach to obtaining reliable answers about the best ways to fight global poverty,” the jury said. (Photo by JOSEPH PREZIOSO / AFP)

Pre-school maths

Thereafter, another experiment was done on children below five years of age. The objective was to see the impact of informal math games on preschool children’s readiness to learn school maths. JPAL lab conducted the trial on 1,540 students across 214 Delhi pre-schools between 2013 and 2015. “By the time students reach primary school, disadvantaged children often lag behind their more advantaged peers in the skills and concepts of formal math. To address this issue, researchers examined the impact of math games, played in preschools and exercising early emerging, universal and intuitive numerical and spatial abilities, on children’s learning of school math in Delhi. They found that the games led to long-term increases in children’s intuitive math abilities. The games also bolstered children’s mastery of the spatial and numerical language used in the preschools, but they did not enhance children’s subsequent learning of primary school mathematics.”

Atishi, former advisor to Delhi’s Education Minister Manish Sisodia and often credited with overhauling the government education system of Delhi, has been all praise for Abhijit Banerjee and his team at JPAL. In a statement to The Week, Atishi said “A lot of policymaking often happens on the whims of politicians and bureaucrats. For the first time, there has been such intensive research on the impact of different kinds of policies. Abhijit Banerjee and his teams work in J-PAL is commendable and it is very useful for any policy maker.”

In addition, Atishi gave details about the basic issue with the primary education system. She explained, “In Delhi, a lot of government schools start from Class 6. When a child comes to Class 6 and cannot read, what do you do? This is where the research done by Banerjee and J-PAL has really contributed, because they have extensively studied efforts to improve learning outcomes, especially the one developed by the NGO Pratham. Their research showed that dividing children into groups according to their learning levels, rather than according to their grades, improves learning outcomes.”

Citizen empowerment

Delhi government provides pensions to widows and other disadvantaged women, yet the majority of eligible women are not enrolled in this scheme. Researchers at JPAL used a randomised evaluation to measure the impact of providing information and assistance with the application process on the take-up of the Widow Pension Scheme. The study targeted 1,400 women from 75 slums in Delhi who are eligible for, but not enrolled in, the pension programme and have all — or almost all — required documents to apply.

In this Widow Pension Scheme, women who are widowed, separated, divorced or abandoned in the age group of 18-59 years are eligible to receive Rs 1,500 per month (after 60, they become eligible for old age pension). But several women never apply and a lot of them get stuck in the application process. As per the World Bank, around 33% of the women who receive this benefit of pension don’t have any other source of personal income. In spite of that, only 34% women have enrolled in the scheme in 2013. The project is still going on and results are awaited.

Targeting anaemia

In an attempt by the JPAL lab to ascertain the effect of anaemia on the growth of children and its side-effects, they conducted a study on 2,392 children of 200 pre-schools aged 2-6 years. The trial was done in 2001 and 2002. As per information, around 40% children in Africa and Asia suffer from iron deficiency, which largely affects cognitive development and delays psychomotor development.

This study evaluated the impact of a pre-school nutrition and health project that targeted anaemia in the slums of Delhi on child health and school attendance. Results illustrated that the programme positively impacted weight-gain and school attendance, particularly for groups which had high rates of anaemia.

The detailed result and policy lessons were staggering. “Large gains in child weight, roughly 0.5 kg on average, were found in the treatment schools relative to comparison schools during the first five months of the project. Average pre-school participation rates increased sharply by 5.8 percentage points among treated children, reducing pre-school absenteeism by roughly one-fifth. In JPAL’s comparative cost-effectiveness analysis, Pratham’s pre-school nutrition and health project led to 2.61 additional years of education per $100 spent,” as detailed on the povertyactionlab.org

Even at the national level, Abhijit Banerjee and his team has been associated with major policies and states like MGNREGA, Gujarat Pollution Control Board, NYAY, Government of Haryana, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, Uttar Pradesh among others and their JPAL lab has 190 ongoing and completed randomised evaluations in six countries in South Asia.

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences while announcing the award had said the winners had introduced “a new approach to obtaining reliable answers about the best ways to fight global poverty”. The academy further added that “As a direct result of one of their studies, more than five million Indian children have benefited from effective programmes of remedial tutoring in school. Another example is the heavy subsidies for preventive healthcare that have been introduced in many countries.”