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Mumbai Notebook

By Anil Dharker

10th January 2020

You could sense the frisson of excitement when Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo walked into Rendezvous at the Taj Mahal Palace hotel. You might have done outstanding work recognised the world over by your peers, but the layman will not have heard of you. However, get the Nobel, and you become a house-hold name. So it must be with this husband and wife team.

The Economist had a rather good take on this: “When Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo were awarded the Nobel prize for economics, French media crowed that a Frenchwoman had won it; Indian media that an Indian-born economist and his wife had done so… The parochialism of the headlines bears out one of their book’s central observations.”

The book referred to is Good Economics for Hard Times which we at Literature Live! launched in Mumbai. The book is wide-ranging, addressing some of the world’s biggest problems, from climate change to immigration to trade. One of their observations, particularly relevant in these xenophobic times, is that immigrants do not actually take away jobs from locals: they either do jobs locals won’t do, or become entrepreneurs and then, employers. Abhijit was quite vocal about his opposition to the proposed NRC and the CAA bill, seeing them as resulting in immense hardship for the poor who will become targets for extortion from the lower bureaucracy.

Coincidentally, that morning’s newspaper carried a story of parents trying to get a birth certificate: they were told to pay a bribe of Rs 20,000 for a fast-track result in 2 months, or Rs 15,000 if they were prepared for a 6 month wait. Also in the news was a high-ranking BJP politician who claimed that most Indians who won Nobels  were Brahmins (including Abhijit Banerjee)! You wouldn’t expect a caste-boasting politician to draw the obvious conclusion: that if indeed it was Indian Brahmins who won most of our Nobels, it spoke of exclusion of other castes (especially ‘lower castes’) in generations of social and educational systems.

Banerjee and Duflo had already made a name for themselves with an earlier book, Poor Economics (this wasn’t an adjective to describe their field, but a path-breaking perspective on poverty). Their work starts with the assumption that the world is far more complex and difficult to understand than conventional economic models assume, which is why they concentrate on randomised controlled trials to answer real-life questions. One of these is that it takes a lot for people to emigrate from their homes, whatever the hardships they face, and the second is how the poor prioritise their time and resources. A fascinating example was that the rate for children being immunised went up if an incentive like a bag of lentils was attached to the inoculation. It’s not that life is cheap, but that lentils are expensive.

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‘The Spirit of Mumbai’ is often invoked when talking about the stoicism with which Mumbaikars take natural and man-made calamities in their stride and carry on with their lives as if nothing much has happened. While this may be considered admirable in a way, it can also lead to complacency and a sheep-like acceptance of whatever happens to them and the city.

But things are changing : bandhs, morchas and the like were always organised by trade unions or similar organisations. However, recently something remarkable has happened – spontaneous and unorganised gatherings of people, most of them non-activists, have begun to suddenly erupt on the streets. Kashmir’s Article 370 abrogation, Triple Talaq legislation and Sabarimala entry for women brought people out of their homes and on to the streets to protest. But these were small, local efforts, and therefore did not garner too much attention. However, the CAA-NRC issue has been quite, quite different: there was an outpouring of people young and old (with a preponderance of students), who came out first to August Kranti Maidan (where the call of Quit India was first given), and then at the Gateway of India, where the protest turned into an all-night vigil.

The present dispensation in Delhi feels they know all the answers, and are therefore quite averse to listening to other opinions. But these young voices, with views expressed quietly and peacefully, are not driven by any political parties. They should be listened to because they speak not of ideology but of ideals.

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Dindoshi is located in the suburbs of Malad and happily stays out of the news. That doesn’t mean it’s the boondocks: it houses, to start with, the largest IT Park in Mumbai in a ten-storey tower block. It also has the Oberoi Mall, said to be the city’s biggest and busiest.

However, recently it did get into the news, albeit in a small way: at its city civil and sessions court, a security guard donned advocate’s clothes and walked into a busy court-room where a hearing was in progress. “It is Krishna Jayanti!” he shouted and flung a flute at the magistrate. The flute missed its mark, hitting instead the court’s steno-typist, who presumably heard a jumble of discordant notes.