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Updated: May 30, 2013 18:34 IST

Home of the Indian mind

Prashant Jha
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Integral to India's intellectual life. Photo: Shanker Chakravarty
The Hindu Integral to India's intellectual life. Photo: Shanker Chakravarty

In an engaging essay in his recent book, Patriots and Partisans, the historian and writer, Ramchandra Guha, calls the Economic and Political Weekly (EPW) ‘appallingly bad-looking’. “No journal I know is more depressing to look at.”

But Mr. Guha makes up for his unkind cut by noting EPW represents the most ‘empathic triumph of content over form’. Sixty four years after it was first established as the Economic Weekly, and almost a decade under a new editor, Mr Guha’s assessment of the journal’s pages as ‘index to the life of India’; providing the ‘most authoritative, insightful and widely cited reports and analyses’ with articles which are ‘astonishingly diverse and unpredictable’ is truer than ever before.

Editorial outlook

Just sample what two recent issues have to offer – an eight-page piece on UP’s Musahars and how their resistance ruptured old ties of dependence but established their identity in the public realm; a 12 page research article arguing that India’s boom period between 2003 and 2008 was debt-led and cyclical, coinciding with an exceptional phase in world economy; a contrarian piece by Neville Maxwell, author of India’s China War, on recent incursions; a critique of India’s ‘subservience to global finance’; a piece on impunity in Kashmir.

The editorial outlook of the journal has evolved over the decades. In the 50s and 60s, it was closely aligned with policy debates but with a broad left-of-centre view point. This gave way to more pronounced and partisan left positions in the next two decades, but after the 90s, EPW been open to well-argued, well-researched pieces of different ideological persuasions.

Aniket Alam, EPW’s newly appointed executive editor, says, “We are left-leaning, but I like calling EPW India’s premier journal for critique, open to different views.” He points out that the entire top rung of the economic policy-makers of the country – PM Manmohan Singh, Planning Commission vice-chair Montek Singh Ahluwalia, PM’s economic advisory council chair C Rangarajan, former chief economic advisor Kaushik Basu – have written for the journal. They would be considered ‘right’ on the economic policy spectrum within India, but have engaged on EPW pages on policy issues. “EPW has drawn lines only on two issues – communalism and caste, where pieces defend religious fundamentalism or upper caste supremacy.”

How does EPW find enough quality research-based articles, many of them footnote-referenced academic pieces, every week? EPW editors say there is an ‘explosion of social science writing on and in India’. A decade ago, the journal received 35-40 pieces every week; now they get as many as 75-80 ‘research articles’. A few are commissioned, but most are unsolicited. Many pieces are just not good enough; some are so exceptional that editors pick it instantly; some go for peer reviews to experts in the field. Sukumar Muralidharan, a senior journalist and a regular contributor to EPW since 1986, says, “Who does not want to get published in EPW? One does not write for it for the money. It is for the visibility, as a mark of respect to the institution. It has its own place in India’s intellectual life.”

And the house-keeping

Since senior journalist, and former economics editor of The Hindu, C Rammanohar Reddy took over as EPW editor in 2004, he has focused on getting the management, finances and systems of the journal in place. (He was travelling and could not be contacted for the story.)

EPW operated out of a cramped rented office space in Mumbai, but a one-time grant by private foundations enabled the journal to buy its own office in Lower Parel in the city. It has only seven editorial staffers dealing with author correspondence, commissioning, editing and production every week. Circulation and subscription figures have gone up to about 12,000, which include 1000 web subscribers. Archives from 1949 are now digitally available, and web exclusives are regularly put up. Readership is estimated to be at least ten times that figure, given institutional subscriptions and its long shelf-life. While subscriptions contribute the chunk of the revenue, the journal also depends heavily on banks paying ad rates to publish their annual statements – which run into 35-40 pages. Tight budgets mean that the journal has chosen not to invest in additional colour and design and keep the focus on the content.

EPW, an insider jokes, used to the ‘king of deficit financing’, ending in the red every fiscal year. But they now have ‘small surpluses’, which has helped increase staff salaries, still far below market rates. Since the journal is run by a trust, the motive is not to maximise profits, but generating a viable and professional model is essential.

A staffer says, “Several challenges remain - reaching out to different and new audiences, particularly the young; conveying information in forms which are more accessible; finding ways to monetize the net; and increasing circulation since there is definitely a market beyond 12,000 copies.” As it adapts to new times, EPW is set to remain as integral to the Indian intellectual life as it has been since independence.

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