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Business News/ Mint-lounge / Mint-on-sunday/  EPW at 50: A chronicler of India's ideas

The Economic and Political Weekly completed 50 years of its publication on 20 August 2016. To be sure, the original project is in its seventh decade. The Economic Weekly started by Sachin Chaudhuri, which later became the EPW, started publication in January 1949. 

Today, EPW is estimated to have a readership of more than 100,000, something unimaginable for an academic journal, especially outside the West. It is one thing to survive as a Monthly Review or a New York Review of Books, and another thing to gain prominence and reverence worldwide as an Indian journal.

One can expect to see a lot of pieces celebrating the EPW’s phenomenal journey. The journal itself has planned a series of articles by people it calls the "EPW Community". Among other initiatives planned are bringing three volumes (1947-1965; 1966-1991; and 1992-2016) on India by selecting from its pages, and a documentary on the journal’s story against the background of an evolving India. (The documentary idea is probably inspired by The 50 Year Argument, directed by Martin Scorsese and David Tedeschi to commemorate 50 years of The New York Review of Books.)

Nostalgia and legacy aside, is the EPW relevant even today? Ironic as it may sound, using the demand-supply framework (a basic concept in economics) to analyse the question would suggest a big no.

Knowledge-seeking in the academia has seen a revolutionary change after the advent of the Internet. The latest findings are just a click away today. Gone are the days when a journal delivered through post was the gateway to academic research and debate. 

While technology has equalized access, the old hierarchies remain. To be considered by the high priests of economics, one must publish in an international journal. On the supply side, the journal’s still priced extremely low in comparison to others. The salaries paid to its staff are far from competitive, even though they improved a great deal under the previous editor, C. Rammanohar Reddy. 

So, what has kept the tempo going? Many things.

The EPW is not just about a benign exchange of ideas. It held a lot of influence in India’s policymaking circles once. Over the past few months, India has seen a lot of drama regarding the relationship between the government and the Reserve Bank of India (RBI). In 1956, finance minister T.T. Krishnamachari nixed a decision of the RBI governor Benegal Rama Rau. The journal carried an angry editorial suggesting that the RBI governor should resign to preserve his self-respect. Rama Rau quit within 24 hours of its publication.

The times have changed, for sure. But the EPW’s importance in the eyes of India’s intelligentsia remains intact. Historian Ramachandra Guha captured it best in a 2004 piece written after the death of EPW editor Krishna Raj: 

“The little men who now rule India may think they can afford to disregard the Economic and Political Weekly. For the rest of us, however, it remains indispensable… I have myself fought with the EPW twice, on account of its seeming bias towards the Marxists. Both times, I swore not to write for the journal again. Each time it was I who sued for peace. The EPW could comfortably live without me. But I cannot now live without the EPW."

Guha is not the only one who has confronted the journal’s left-leaning editorial line. A heated debated ensued on the issue, starting with a letter by Cambridge historian Dharma Kumar titled “Hegemonised", published in the journal itself in the 1990s. Later that decade, Raj himself shifted his ideological position. EPW deputy editor Bernard D’Mello’s commentary in a recent issue acknowledges this. 

While many would still charge the editorials of being left-leaning—a charge which the editors would probably not refute—few would deny that the journal has carried some of India’s most important economic debates. Be it an intra-left debate on the mode of production in Indian agriculture of the 1970s, articles on the industrial stagnation of 1970s, which appeared in the 1980s, or a more recent debate on poverty estimation in the last decade, EPW is where a young student of economics would find them all. 

The tradition continues even today. To take an example, EPW published Arvind Panagariya’s controversial article on genetics rather than malnutrition being responsible for India’s children being stunted and underweight.

It also continues to receive support and admiration from a wide galaxy of social scientists in India and abroad. The rainbow coalition of academics signed a letter calling upon the journal’s trustees to reconsider their decision of excluding Rammanohar Reddy from the journal’s 50th year celebrations is a testimony to the EPW’s role in nurturing and maintaining a vibrant academic debate in India. Those familiar with the ways of the academic world would know that most journals are embedded in a particular ideological standpoint.

There is more to the EPW than just intense (and often esoteric) academic debates. The journal has always ensured that its pages do not become a preserve of ivory-tower intellectuals. It has always been open to activists, bureaucrats and even political leaders. 

Details of problems with India’s new GDP series would be presented alongside a fact-finding report from a place where excesses have been committed while acquiring land. To describe the EPW as a Trojan horse which has been helping the voices of India’s toiling masses sneak into sanitized spaces of global academia and policymaking would not be an exaggeration.

Last but not least is the platform it provides to young researchers in finding an audience for their work. An anecdote would be useful here. In 1963 a 28-year-old economist teaching in Bombay University reviewed Piero Sraffa’s book Production of Commodities by Means of Commodities: Prelude to a Critique of Economic Theory in the pages of the Economic Weekly. 

Sraffa, who was one of the biggest names in economics then, was so impressed with the review that he got the author, Krishna Bhardwaj, to come and join the applied economics department in Cambridge, where she completed some of her seminal works in economics.

Bhardwaj came back to India in 1971 to teach at the Delhi School of Economics. Later she joined Jawaharlal Nehru University and set up the economic department in the university in 1973. This author went to study economics in that centre more than four decades later. 

Showcasing today’s young talent, who would grow into institution-builders of tomorrow, is what makes the EPW relevant today and a chronicler par excellence of the idea of India.

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Updated: 01 Oct 2016, 11:26 PM IST
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