BARUIPUR: Busy stitching garments in a village about 60km from Kolkata, 36-year-old Rehana Bibi doesn’t have a clue what Nobel Prize means. She is also blissfully unaware that one Abhijit Vinayak Banerjee is now the toast of the town.
But years before the Swedish academy conferred the award on Banerjee, she and other residents of Mollapara village in South 24 Parganas had been awed by the noble deeds of a baro babu who had taught them the importance of saving and inspired many to quit odd jobs and turn entrepreneurs.
It was in 2012 that not one but two Nobel laureates visited Mollapara in Baruipur block. Abhijit Banerjee and French national Esther Duflo had easily mingled with the villagers, never making them feel as though they were any different. The duo were yet to tie the knot. They visited the village thrice on a CSR programme of Bandhan, then a microfinance institution, that offered poor villagers a means of livelihood.
“He came across as a simple person. He and a bideshini entered the hut, sat on the floor, had tea with muri-chanachur and spoke to us in Bengali. The difference between him and us was apparent not in his behaviour but in the things he said. He opened new vistas by making us realise the need for banking and ways to convert small capital into bigger assets. It is because of what he said that I gave up the job of a daily labourer and started my own business of stitching garments. Whatever I am today, I owe it to him and the others who had accompanied him,” said Rehana, a mother of three.
Back then, Rehana was neck-deep in debt. Saddled with a mentally challenged husband, she was struggling to make ends meet and had even stopped sending her kids to school. But Banerjee and Duflo directed her and the others towards a better way of life. The NGO — Bandhan Konnagar — provided her with a stitching machine that gave her the impetus to start a garments business. She now employs six women from the village and sells her garments at markets in Metiabruz and Garden Reach in Kolkata.
I can’t forget his generosity, says villager
Banerjee and Duflo had partnered Bandhan to apply Randomised Controlled Trials (RCTs) in villages of Bengal, Bihar and Rajasthan. Between March and August 2012, Banerjee travelled to multiple villages in South 24 Parganas, championing the model and explaining its benefits to villagers.
“I remember him (Banerjee) vividly. I was attending a meeting when he asked me why I looked upset. I told him that my daughter was suffering from an unknown fever for several days. He asked me if we use mosquito nets at home. When I told him we didn’t have money to buy one, he immediately gave money to one of his colleagues who bought a net and gave it to me. I can’t forget his generosity,” said Nasmina Mistry, 36, a resident of the same village, who sells milk and also runs a garments business.
The model Banerjee and Bandhan were then working on focused on identifying the poorest of poor in select villages, helping them start their own businesses, teaching them tricks of the trade, inspiring them to become entrepreneurs and drilling into them the need to save to increase their assets.
“Abhijit Banerjee was so simple in his approach that he could interact with the villagers and explain the concept better than us. Esther madam, too, was extremely polite and took keen interest in the work. I’ll never forget her because she had tea with potato chips, not biscuits,” said Arunava Chakraborty, breaking into a smile.
Another village that Banerjee visited twice was Fuldubi. Here, 42-year-old Noorbanu Bibi, instantly recollets the twin visits. “I don’t remember the name of the tall handsome man with a charming smile but he made me understand how I could make a huge difference by saving even Rs 5 a day. Today, I have saved enough to buy jewellery for my daughter’s wedding and still have Rs 20,000 in my bank account,” said Noorbanu, who now sells imitation jewellery and readymade garments.
“Targetting the Hardcore Poor (THP) was one of our flagship programmes and the role Abhijit Banerjee played in shaping this model is irrefutable. Even now we continue to support such underprivileged women in Bengal and help them with assets, business training and teach them the importance of saving,” said Arijit Dutta, executive director, Bandhan-Konnagar.
The NGO, which helped over 90,000 poor villagers stand on their feet across 12 states, has since wrapped up their programme in the South 24 Parganas villages where Banerjee and Duflo carried out their RCTs, but a visit by TOI seven years later found the beneficiaries leading a life less tough and more economically sound.