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A peek into what some Indian Nobel Prize winners did with the award money

Nobel Prize award ceremony
Much has been written about Indian-American Abhijit Banerjee being awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics, along with spouse Esther Duflo and Michael Kremer. Their research through randomized control trials, support and criticism of their thesis, Banerjee’s visit to India and his thoughts on the Indian economy and the Modi government’s economic policy, have been extensively covered, to an extent that may be considered overkill.

What has not been mentioned or written about, though, is how the winners this year plan to utilise their prize money, something which has been of interest in the past with other Indian or Indian-origin Nobel Prize winners.

Each year, the Nobel Foundation decides on the cash prize awarded to each Nobel laureate. The cash prize is 8 million Swedish Krona, which is about $1.1 million or €1.16 million. If multiple people have been awarded for the same prize, then the prize money is distributed between them. This year, Banerjee, Duflo and Kremer will share the prize money equally. None of them have been reported to mention what they plan to do with it.

Past winners such as former US President Barack Obama and former Finnish president Maritti Ahtisaari donated their prize money to charities. Others like Grameen Bank founder Mohammed Yunus used the money for an eye hospital and for providing affordable food to the poor.

However, some do like to spend the prize money on the good things in life. Paul Nurse, who won the Medicine Nobel in 2001, bought a new motorcycle and a share in an aircraft, while the 1993 Nobel Prize winner for Medicine, Richard Roberts, set up a croquet lawn in front of his house.

Franco Modigliani, who won the Nobel Prize in 1985 for his work analyzing stock market values, used the money to upgrade his sailboat. And then there's Günter Blobel, the 1999 Medicine Nobel winner, who gave almost all the prize money to the city of Dresden in Germany so that it could be used to restore its cathedral and build a synagogue, as per an article in FirstPost.

So here is a primer of what Indian Nobel Laureates did with their prize money.The list does not include Har Gobind Khorana, Subhramanyan Chandrashekhar and Venkatraman Radhakrishnan, three Indian-origin winners, as there is no account of what they did with the prize money.

Rabindranath Tagore: India’s first Nobel Laureate, and the first non-white, non-European winner of the prize, Tagore was awarded the Nobel in Literature in 1913 for his seminal collection of poems Geetanjali. Publicly available records state that Tagore used the prize money to set up the Vishwa Bharti University in Shantiniketan, West Bengal. The town itself was developed by his father Devendra Nath Tagore.

The University has often been touted as Rabindranath Tagore’s dream project. It was set up as a college developed from a school (Patha Bhawan) which Tagore had started earlier. After independence, it was given the status of a university.

C V Raman: The first Asian and non-white individual to be given the prize in science, Raman was awarded the 1930 Physics Nobel for discovering the evidence of the quantum nature of light by observing the scattering of light, an effect that came to be known as the Raman Effect.

There has been some controversy regarding the prize money he was awarded, and the award itself, with some stating that he should have been given the prize along with collaborator K S Krishnan and some Russian scientists who had worked with him. It is said that the committee that chose the awardees for that year were aware of the joint efforts being made in discovering the Raman effect, but decided it was Raman’s work mainly that needed to be recognized. While Raman did mention Krishnan in his acceptance speech, he didn't share the prize money with him or anyone else.

Mother Teresa: Mother Teresa, or Saint Teresa of Calcutta as she is known by the Catholic Church, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 for her work with the poor and destitute through her charitable organization, the Missionaries of Charity. She accepted the award, but refused the conventional ceremonial banquet for laureates, asking that the banquet’s cost be given to the poor in India. She is also said to have used the prize money for her organisation.

Amartya Sen: Sen was awarded the Economics Nobel in 1998 and Bharat Ratna a year later. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for pathbreaking work in developmental economics. It is not known if he used the prize money for any research or charitable purpose.

Kailash Sathyarthi: For his work with orphans in India through his NGO Bachpan Bachao Andolan, Sathyarthi was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in 2014, an award he shared with Malala Yousafzai. Though he has chosen to remain away from the spotlight and has not shared what he did with the prize, there have been reports that he donated the money to his NGO, which works towards freeing children from slave-like conditions. He has been active for the fight against child labour and children's rights to education in a wide range of other organisations. 

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