During the COVID-19 pandemic and the lockdown, media houses and news agencies have been facing an unprecedented financial crisis. Many of them have retrenched staff and cut costs in many other ways to remain financially sustainable. With stand sales and advertising taking a beating and a general economic crisis in the country, the survival of many is in question.
Economic and Political Weekly, the much-respected journal, has also faced difficult times. However, the EPW’s financial crisis is of a different nature and is a long-standing one. It is not directly connected to the pandemic, though the lockdown has exacerbated it. The crisis is not exclusively financial or about a few individuals related to the journal currently or in the past.
EPW’s situation needs to be looked at separately and needs a more wide-ranging public debate about the relevance of social sciences, changing reading habits and the need to connect to the next generation of readers and contributors. Without such fundamental issues being debated, merely bringing in new donations or blaming a few at the helm of the affairs will remain singularly unhelpful. Only addressing the issues at a much broader level can make the journal more sustainable on a long-term basis.
EPW has been one of the unique public institutions in post-independent India. It took social science research to the common public, as much as brought general readers and their viewpoints to professional researchers. It connected professional academic to activists and also connected institutions across India, as much as it went global and offered researchers in India a rare opportunity to reach out to their counterparts across the world. Much of the credit for this needs to go editor Krishna Raj, who spent a lifetime making EPW the journal it is. Needless to say, we need such journals much more than ever before, given the general social and political climate in India.
However, EPW has been witnessing a steady decline in terms of its readership, and has not remained at the centre of public debates as it used to be for a long time. Whether discussions on the modes of production to those on democracy during the Emergency, or violence against Dalits and other minorities, many of us learnt a great deal from the pages of the EPW. It brought to us – academics, researchers, students – fact-finding reports by activists, and took a lot of effort to fish out scholars and activists working silently in various parts of India.
However, in recent times, EPW appears to have failed to catch up to the kind of analysis that is required to deal with current debates and thus, fill the gap between the old and the new. Instead, EPW, totally in contrast to its reputation, discontinued a column by Anand Teltumbde, and we have seen less and less political debates that really mattered. Now, various other online news agencies are carrying these debates, and and quicker than a journal –perhaps a printed weekly has become a dated idea in the digital world.
This therefore calls for innovated thinking where the more urgent political commentaries could be published exclusively on the digital platform and the print version can be for more specialised research articles.
EPW thus requires a new imagination, as the nature of readership has changed and the younger reader has different expectations – the relevance and methodology of social sciences itself now needs to be debated. Social sciences itself might be in need of a new episteme that could combine more professional methods with more experiential aspects. In fact, journals like EPW need to be harbingers of such innovation rather than become victims of a changing academic landscape.
The steady decline in the readership and dwindling subscription and sales of EPW are related to all these issues, and there is a need for a robust public debate in order to save this glorious institution. It often looks as if EPW is in denial of these changes and has not sufficiently invested in interrogating how changes in social sciences and reading habits are impacting its reach and relevance.
In keeping with being attentive to some of these larger issues, EPW needs to take immediate steps to make it more readable and also financially and institutionally more sustainable. The publication did attempt to keep pace with some of these changes by starting the new Web Exclusive and EPW Engage sections – online versions for covering current affairs. But with the recent developments, there seems to be confusion on whether to expand or curb online expansion, whether to put more emphasis on research-based articles or commentaries.
Among other ideas, one could think of how EPW can connect to a new generation of Dalit-Bahujan scholars. Would it be possible to think of more experiential and autobiographical accounts of experiencing caste-based discrimination in India? How much of this would be valid as ‘knowledge’ in social sciences? In fact, the current editor Gopal Guru himself initiated such a dialogue in his book Cracked Mirror, wherein he made a plea to break knowledge barriers that exist, which he referred to as ‘Theoretical Brahmin, Empirical Shudra’. We need to break this barrier in categories amenable to experience. EPW is the right kind of forum to introduce this experiment.
EPW could therefore possibly look at how social sciences, especially teaching philosophy, could be different in the Indian context. Here, EPW could open up its pages for the new generation of students in higher education to share their experiences in being learners in various universities and colleges. What kind of challenges do they face? Does the current syllabus, and teaching-learning methods and pedagogy speak to their reality? There is a need to rethink our teaching-learning skills that are unable to equip us intellectually in making sense of the fast-paced changes around us. EPW has to become a more interactive portal that can attract new generation of readers and help socialise them into reading and pursuing more professional kind of social sciences.
EPW should also play a big role in breaching the hiatus between science, technology and social sciences. We can no longer pursue social sciences without understanding the direct impact of science and technology. Much of social science learning is yet to grapple with this new reality, including the communication revolution, artificial intelligence, advances in biotechnology and the study of genetics and its impact on social psyche, family and employment opportunities, among many other such issues. But EPW has for way too long continued with an old format and emphasis on time-tested areas of research. Earlier, many of us were curious and waited eagerly for the weekly issue, now it looks jaded and predictable.
The current crisis of the EPW cannot be reduced to mere financial one, as it is being made out. It is neither about individuals. But it provides an opportunity to debate much larger issues. As loyal readers, and as concerned social scientists, we can only hope and wish that those closely associated with this journal will pay some heed to these questions.
Ajay Gudavarthy is associate professor, Centre for Political Studies, JNU. Secular Sectarianism (SAGE, 2019), a volume he edited, was published recently.