The Economic and Political Weekly (EPW) is an institution that invites incredulity. It really ought not to exist — indeed, nothing like it exists elsewhere in the world. Published by the Sameeksha Trust, its legal parent and guardian, the EPW defies every tenet of modern publishing. It is a hybrid academic-cum-general reader journal that is not backed by regular grants or commercial financing. It influences several social science disciplines, but has no formal place in the academy. Though leaning leftwards, it often opposes the established left, and (since the mid-1990s) has hosted a wide range of opinion on economic policy. The sheer volume of its output is astonishing: It has published 50 issues every year without fail for the past five decades, covering in one month what an academic journal would in a year. If you believe indices like Scopus, the EPW ranks second among 187 journals in Asia, and first in India; globally, it is ranked 17th (among 951) in “Sociology and Political Science”, and 37th (among 881) in “Economics, Econometrics and Finance.”
Three key factors have sustained this miracle: First, editors who devoted their lives to the journal; second, a dedicated and hardworking staff; and third, the “EPW community,” a large local and global group of well-wishers who help the journal. The decisive feature all three share is that they are motivated by something more or other than money or personal gain. Salaries at the EPW have always been well below market rates, especially for the editor and senior editorial staff, while community help is gratis. This is not an institution regulated by the usual commercial or bureaucratic incentives, but by the structural centrality of the editor’s role. While others have also played their part — generous donors, loyal advertisers and subscribers, and, of course, supportive trustees — the EPW’s remarkable resilience is mainly due to the unique synergies nurtured by successive editors.
But there are signs that the journal may be headed for a mid-life crisis. Plans for the 50th anniversary celebrations fell victim to a jurisdictional dispute between the Trust and the then editor towards the end of 2015. Then last month a newly appointed editor resigned in the wake of the controversy surrounding the Trust’s decision to retract a published article that had been served a legal notice from a powerful industrial house. Regardless of the merits of these episodes, their nature and timing raises a more crucial question: Is the Sameeksha Trust, a body that previously provided quiet oversight, now seeking a more active role in the management of the journal?
On the face of it, this is nothing to worry about. Unlike other contexts (like Indian cricket) where the bodies controlling public assets inspire cynicism and despair, there are no villains here. Since its inception, the Sameeksha Trust has included some of the most respected names in academia and public life. The current incumbents, too, are eminent intellectuals in their own right, and some are longstanding members of the EPW community. This set of trustees is in no way “less qualified” than any alternative set of names that could be proposed. An interventionist Trust provokes concern not because of its composition, but because of its legal status.
Unlike its sibling in law, namely the “society”, the “trust” is not a device designed for democracy. As per the Bombay Public Trusts Act 1950, the statute that it is registered under, the Sameeksha Trust is — by design — a law unto itself. Its trustees may hold office for life and appoint their own successors. They thus form a closed, self-governing group whose only effective form of accountability is the annual filing of audited accounts and income tax returns. Yet the Trust has comprehensive and exclusive ownership rights over the EPW. If these draconian powers did not cause concern earlier, it was because the Trust was careful to maintain a low profile. In effect, it played the judiciary in relation to the executive role of the editor. But if the Trust now believes that it needs to take a more hands-on role, then it must voluntarily provide for reasonable checks on its own authority.
These issues are not new and have been discussed before in the EPW community, and presumably also in the Trust. According to clause 29 of the Sameeksha Trust’s original deed, “The Trustees may from time to time make such rules and regulations for managing the affairs of the Trust not inconsistent with the main objects of the Trust as they may think fit and may from time to time add, alter and vary the same.” There are thus no legal obstacles to self-initiated reform, but the law also ensures that the Trust cannot be forced to act. Meanwhile, the superhero editors that the EPW has been lucky to have are a dying breed, and would anyway be allergic to close supervision. Institutional innovations are urgently needed to sustain this “impossible” journal without eroding its editorial autonomy or erasing its uniqueness.
The absence of initiatives for reform from the Trust despite these looming imperatives is definitely worrisome. For unlike the proverbial voter faced with an unresponsive government, the EPW community cannot wait patiently for the next election because there is never going to be one.
The EPW is one of India’s most important intellectual institutions. It seems fitting therefore that its current crisis forces us to ask, yet again, the most intractable questions that our public institutions face today. Can institutional practice rise to a level where it can redeem the inherited flaws in institutional design? Are formal structures of accountability worth fighting for even when we know that they cannot guarantee substantive results? Can mere mortals ever succeed in detaching the person from the office? Are public debate and dissent obsolete in the age of alternative facts? Can miracles survive being named?