Lucknow lessons, and the maze of public relief

Abhijit Banerjee, co-founder and co-director of the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL), writes in his monthly column on food and economics about a recent trip to Lucknow, where his visit to the Bada Imambara, a 1780s prayer hall, provoked thoughts about food-for-work programmes, devastating famines during the British colonial period in India, and the ideology of 'rational charity' and stringent aid programmes designed to keep the 'underserving out'. He concludes that maybe we should consider relaxing attitudes on keeping the undeserving out, so as not to exclude those in real need.


When I was growing up, we all knew families that were on the way down. Once prosperous or even wealthy, undermined by a generation or two of profligacy and self-indulgence. The impressive house was falling apart, the latest round of repairs being held up by fights between the brothers (“who left the tap running in the bathroom?”). The 1950s Austin or Chevrolet still stood on its rusting wheels in the garage, mostly because it was too hard to accept that there would be no more family jaunts. The few old family retainers that remained could recall the daily ten-course dinners for 25 in the main dining room. Now, the siblings and their families ate separately behind closed doors, perhaps to conceal just how frugal their meals had become.

I thought of those days and those families when I was in Lucknow recently. We decided to visit the Bada Imambara in the two hours before the flight. This is an enormous prayer hall from the 1780s, sponsored by the then Nawab of Awadh, Asaf-ud-daula, in response to a terrible drought and resulting famine. It was a food-for-work program — anyone who came for work on the building project got some basic provisions.

The Times of India