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Monday, December 06, 2021

UPSC CSE: Choose Economics as optional only if you have interest in subject, says AIR 17 Sarthak Agrawal

For those from other fields who are considering opting for economics, I have some brief advice. Jump in only if you have a deep and sustainable interest in the subject.

New Delhi I |
Updated: November 10, 2021 7:00:06 pm
UPSC, upsc mains optional, upsc economics optionalA few weeks before the exam I tried to memorize data and statistics that were relevant to different parts of the syllabus. (Image credits - Sarthak Agrawal)

I didn’t think much before choosing my optional subject for the Civil Services Examination, 2020. Holding a BA (Hons) from SRCC and an MPhil in Economics from Oxford, it was a no-brainer, not to add the fact that I was working as an economist with a London-based research institute while I prepared for the examination. 

For those from other fields who are considering opting for economics, I have some brief advice. Jump in only if you have a deep and sustainable interest in the subject. One of the two papers will be quite technical that some people may find a bit unsettling. A good way to test your interest in the subject is looking at Hal Varian’s Intermediate Microeconomics and Dornbusch and Fischer’s Macroeconomics textbooks. Also, read relevant op-eds in leading newspapers and Economic and Political Weekly (EPW) articles on the side and see whether you enjoy engaging with them.

A quick point on the booklist for Paper 1 – Students often refer to bulky books written for UPSC aspirants. Although I bought them, I couldn’t spend more than a few days reading the material. They are shabbily written and do a disservice to the beauty and nuance of the subject. Instead, I referred to my Delhi University reading list and only studied topics from those books. Economics can be somewhat difficult to understand for those who haven’t been exposed to its intricacies before, which is why I suggest referring to the best books for the theory paper at least.

For Microeconomics, Hal Varian’s and Nicholson and Snyder’s books are excellent. Macroeconomics and money can be covered from Blanchard and Dornbusch and Fischer, with Froyen being a fine companion. For international economics, you can refer either to Krugman or Salvatore. I had a look at both and preferred each one for different topics. And lastly, Debraj Ray will be very useful for the ‘growth and development’ portion of the exam.

Of course, correlate the contents of these books with the UPSC syllabus and only study those topics that overlap. A simpler solution is to just cover the DU undergraduate syllabus for Introductory and Intermediate Microeconomics and Macroeconomics, Public Economics, Development, and International economics. You’ll find readings for almost all topics in the syllabus here, including on environment and welfare. Finally, explore Google Scholar collections for resources on the remaining items like the basic needs approach and alternative distributive theories that are very dated concepts. 

I neglected Economics until the very end and didn’t spend more than a fortnight preparing for this paper. This also showed up in my results – I only scored 109/250 – but on a time-value basis, it was a wise decision that in hindsight worked quite well for me. I used the time it freed up to prepare for General Studies (GS) in which I had a relatively weak base. This year’s paper had some fringe worthy questions thrown in too, but that’s just how Economics 1 operates.

In contrast, I devoted plenty of time to prepare for Economics 2. Uma Kapila’s Indian Economy: Performance and Policies is a good starting point. However, what helped me fetch a decent 137/250 score was reading scholarly articles published in reputed journals like EPW, glancing over latest working papers by researchers at IGIDR and going through proceedings of academic events like NCAER’s India Policy Forum. For the benefit of future aspirants, I have linked the ungated, freely available versions of all the 150-odd research papers I referred to on my website, grouped by topic: https://agrawalsarthak.wordpress.com/economics-ii/.  

Critically engaging with op-eds, blogs and articles on economic issues occupied the rest of my time. Indian Express’ Explained section is fast becoming the #1 resource for UPSC aspirants. Moreover, it is impossible to miss Udit Mishra’s excellent weekly posts. If you can learn to write economics like he does, Indian economy will seem like a cakewalk. Vision IAS has a fine annual current affairs compilation too. Finally, referring to previous year papers is crucial – I could easily find CSE papers going as far back as 2005 – and students can also have a look at Indian Economic Service (IES) papers although those tend to be somewhat simpler and more factual.

However, make sure you read different perspectives while preparing for the Indian economy, and especially the pre-Independence portion that is (strangely) becoming quite important. For the latter, I again referred to my BA (Hons) syllabus, where we studied a semester-long course on India’s economic history. Later, I deliberately sourced writings by scholars on either side of the ideological divide and after carefully scouting through these papers, I synthesised the evidence and tried to arrive at my own opinions. I think having an evidence-driven stand is very important for Economics 2 so don’t feel the need to dither if you can defend your viewpoint using data and theory. 

A few weeks before the exam I tried to memorise data and statistics that were relevant to different parts of the syllabus. Besides remembering things verbatim, having a ballpark idea of various economic indicators is also quite useful. This will automatically happen when you read economics news regularly – you don’t necessarily need to refer to a business newspaper; The Indian Express is good enough. While preparing, I also made a bibliography of various papers I referred to – along with the key empirical or theoretical contribution of each one of them – and cited them liberally throughout my Economics 2 responses just as one does while writing an academic essay.

Besides sprinkling data in my answers, citing scholarly research, and taking a firm stand where necessary, I tried being concise in whatever I wrote. This is different from how one attempts GS papers, for instance. Keeping all these things in mind can help you fetch good marks in the Economics optional papers but more importantly reading well-written books and cutting-edge papers will help inculcate a deep interest in the subject that will survive long beyond your UPSC days.

(The author is AIR 17 in UPSC Civil Services 2020 and is a researcher at the World Bank)

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