Economists in India – endangered species?

Shankar Acharya has a piece in BS lamenting the decline of India’s economists in policy space. AS BS has now become a paid site, one can’t freely quote from the article anymore.

So let me discuss the piece briefly. He says two things. First,  good economists have disappeared from India’s universities/colleges from 1970s onwards. Second, they have disappeared from India’s policy as well from 2000s onwards. The second is more ironical given we had an economist PM at the helm. He quotes a long list of (distinguished) names who were present both in academia in 1950s and 60s (only few of these would be familiar to today’s students) and in policy circles in 1990s and 2000s (most should be familiar).

It is puzzling why the author only laments lack of policy advisory and not lack of university teaching? Anywhere in the world, it is latter which will be a worry to most and not as much the former. One usually sees independent thinking scholars and professors in universities going onto advise the government on various matters. On the other hand, the government continues to get advisers from abroad without much problem really no matter what the author says. It is more to do with willingness of the government than anything else.

It is interesting to note that very few of policymakers were part of any university/institute teaching in India (barring giving some guest lecture/part time lectures) . They just remained economic technocrats all through moving from one designation to other. Would the behavior be same if they were based elsewhere in the west? One doubts it as university teaching and research is seen as more of a premium in most parts of the world barring India. Why should things be so different in India given how much we ape the western economic thinking?

The real problem for the author should have been endangered species from India’s universities and colleges. It is amazing to note how we had very good economics students spread across the universities and colleges. They weren’t just concentrated in select places. Now we seem to be lacking them even in select places.

One still does not understand why there is so much noise around economic policymaking in India and not economic teaching and research? Why can’t we build centres of teaching and research in economics around the country?  It will bring back issues of regional and local economies as in the past. You actually find pretty good regional research in old books dusting somewhere in the libraries. All of this has become absent as no one is engaging with those issues anymore.

If we don’t solve this, it was a matter of time before the powder to keep the second engine puffing would also dry sooner than later.

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