Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo interview: ‘India’s policy frame is not focused on inequality’

On the occasion of the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL)'s 20th anniversary celebrations in India, co-founders and co-directors Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee spoke to The Indian Express about the most important policy challenges facing the country, including the lack of recent and reliable consumption data, the successful, yet slow, adoption of simple solutions to improve basic education at a national scale, employability, children's health and the social mobility crisis. They also share their perspectives on the pitfalls of focusing on solving inequality rather than poverty, without articulating specifically what aspect of inequality one is trying to solve, and for what reason.


QUESTION 1: There are two dramatically different views about poverty eradication in India at present. One view is that India has eliminated all extreme poverty. The other view is that poverty has gone up post-COVID. What has fuelled this debate is the fact that we don’t have official data on poverty since 2011. What is your view on extreme poverty in India?

Esther Duflo (ED): As you note, the data is not there. It’s very difficult to answer these questions in the absence of data. And it’s something that will eventually make it difficult to have an appropriate policy response because it’s really necessary to know what is going on to be able to address the problem. But we are not, at least I am not, better placed than the next person to give you a sense of what might be going on in India on the poverty front since data has not come out for so long.

Abhijit Banerjee (AB): I don’t know what could we say. Even the (other) data sets that are available, diverge. That is often the reason for an authoritative survey that’s credible, and politically insulated, to exist. That’s why every country needs those things.

ED: India has a long tradition of excellent infrastructure with the national sample survey organization — with the flagship survey, the NSS — but also with various surveys. So we kind of go from having very, very regular data with a consistent sampling frame to this state of affairs, where it’s hard to say.

India Express

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