Looking Back at a Hundred Years of Research in Indian Economics

The Indian Journal of Economics, which was founded in 1916, well before independence, played a crucial role in highlighting the achievements of Indian economists.

The contributions of present-day home-grown Indian economists are not adequately appreciated by the establishment today. It is important to stress that India has a long tradition of work on Indian economics. I believe there were not many countries at India’s level of development in the period before independence that had such a thriving community of economists. They made original and pioneering contributions to environmental economics, macroeconomics, planning and employment analysis and many other fields.

Unfortunately, these contributions remain either unknown or are forgotten. Not many know, for instance, that the Indian Journal of Economics (IJE), founded in 1916, recently completed a hundred years of its existence. For a technical journal to continue to exist after a hundred years is a truly spectacular event.

The IJE was founded in Allahabad University by the first professor of economics at that university, Herbert Stanley Jevons, son of the famous economist, William Stanley Jevons. Herbert, the son, was the editor from 1916 to 1922, before he moved to the University of Rangoon.

The journal underwent several vicissitudes over the 1920s and 1930s, but established itself as the premier journal of economics in India. However, by the 1950s, it had lost this status, as several rivals entered the scene, including the Indian Economic Journal, the Indian Economic Review and the Economic Weekly. Apart from this, some journals devoted to business and commerce also emerged.

An important reason for the pre-eminence of the IJE was that from the early 1920s to around 1950, it was not only the journal of the University of Allahabad, but also the journal of the Indian Economic Association which had been formed in 1917. In its early years, the IJE was the forum where many of the important works of Indian economists appeared. Several of these were remarkably original for their time and some led to strong critiques and rebuttals in the pages of the IJE.

The IJE published a wide variety of articles. Some were distinctly original, while others were not. While there were several expatriate contributors to the early issues, over time more and more of the articles were by Indian economists, working in the Indian universities and colleges and in government. A number of the papers that appeared in the IJE had been read at the annual conferences of the Indian Economic Association where there had been lively debates on them.

Several of these and other contributions have been discussed at length in my book, Towards Development Economics: Indian Contributions, 1900-1945, and in my paper entitled, ‘The Indian Journal of Economics: Looking Back at the Early Years’ published in the special centennial issue of the IJE (Vol. XCVI, No. 383, April, 2016, pp.621-635.)

The IJE was not the sole outlet for original work on Indian economics. Many original contributions appeared in the form of books; a few in other journals, and at least one remained unpublished until after independence. I would cite just a couple of examples. B.R. Ambedkar published a highly original paper on industrialisation as the solution to surplus labour and the Indian agrarian problem. This appeared in the short-lived Journal of the Indian Economic Society in 1918. Around 1949, A.K. Dasgupta in his lectures at Lucknow University anticipated the work of Arthur Lewis on surplus labour and transfer of labour from agriculture to non-agriculture.  This, however, appeared in published form many years later in the Economic Weekly in 1954. (For an extended discussion, see my ‘Indian Antecedents of Disguised Unemployment and Surplus Labour’, Indian Journal of Labour Economics, Vol 51, No. 1, 2008.)

Among the important papers published in the IJE before independence, I would single out four papers, all of which are reproduced in my book. I am confident others would come up with other lists.

  • In 1934, Radhakamal Mukherjee published a highly original paper on the ‘Broken Balance of Population, Land and Water’ dealing with the ecological problems of the Gangetic valley. This was long before environment economics became part of professional and popular discourse.
  • In 1935, Gyanchand in his paper ‘The Essentials of Economic Planning for India’, questioned the then current euphoria over economic planning. He pointed to the futility of achieving redistribution with growth in a colonial setting. This paper was a precursor to the debates after independence on the relevance of trickle-down economics and whether growth by itself would lead to better redistribution.
  • Again, in 1935, P.J. Thomas in his paper, ‘A Plan for Economic Recovery’, used the employment multiplier of R.F. Kahn to plead for public works in the context of the 1930s depression in India. He estimated that four men newly employed in public works would lead to three or four more secondarily employed. Unfortunately, the government in India was tied to conservative finance and did not give up its belief in balanced budgets.
  • What was perhaps the most original paper published in the IJE in 1938. This was V.K.R.V. Rao’s paper, ‘The Problem of Unemployment in India.’ It was the earliest attempt to apply Joan Robinson’s concept of disguised unemployment to a less developed country.

There were several important issues on which sharp differences of views were expressed in the journal by different Indian economists. Their brilliant arguments and counter-arguments leave one in no doubt that economics was live and had taken deep root in India. Several of the economists who wrote in the IJE, like B.P. Adarkar, B.R. Shenoy, Radhakamal Mukherjee, Jahangir Coyajee, V.G. Kale and A.K. Dasgupta, were well known in Europe and the US. Several had published books and articles in international journals. Through the IJE they work reached a much larger, Indian, audience.

Unfortunately, many of the past issues of the IJE are no longer easy to procure and read. I was fortunate enough to be able to read many of the old numbers at the Joseph Regenstein library of the University of Chicago. I cannot stress the importance of getting all past issues digitised before they disintegrate or disappear.

There is no doubt that after independence Indians have made a name for themselves in the field of economics by their original contributions in a variety of fields. However, this should not obscure the contributions of Indians to economics well before independence. We should also acknowledge the role of the IJE in the development of Indian economics over the last hundred years.

J. Krishnamurty is a visiting professor at the Institute for Human Development, New Delhi. He was formerly a professor at the Delhi School of Economics and an official of the International Labour Office.