The B R Ambedkar School of Economics (BASE) was inaugurated by the President of India Pranab Mukherjee, himself a practitioner of economic policy, on April 14, 2017, in the Banquet Hall of the Vidhana Soudha in Bengaluru.
The invitation to the ceremony listed a galaxy of political leaders. The ceremony took place, not in an academic campus, but in the banquet hall of the state secretariat. Clearly, The government was celebrating something important.
The Government of Karnataka had registered a Society, creating the basic organisational structure for the school-to-be. Anup Pujari, recently retired from the Indian Administrative Service, and a consummate economist and administrator, has been appointed Director.
It was in the London School of Economics (LSE) that Babasaheb Ambedkar earned his second doctorate, in economics. The state is honouring his memory by taking inspiration from the institution in which he flourished.
The LSE is not narrowly concerned with technical economics — though it excels in it — and it encourages research in the social sciences broadly understood. The BASE will also concern itself with the social sciences, we are told. This is good news.
The Delhi School of Economics, also set up on the LSE model, by VKRV Rao (who also established the Institute for Social and Economic Change in Bengaluru) has become a beacon of economic learning in India. And, like the LSE, it has evolved over time. Today, its graduates are keenly sought after by banks and consulting companies.
What then should one expect from the BASE? This would obviously depend on where we stand. If we are politicians, like the galaxy that graced the inauguration, one would expect it to begin teaching right away. That is the way to immediate electoral gains.
One would expect it to admit students, promising them a world-class education at the undergraduate and postgraduate levels. In my view, this may lead to serious problems later on.
The reasons are simple. If teaching is to start right away, then the curriculum will be copied from some other institution. There is no time for critical thought and original design. The BASE will become just another college. That is not what it should be.
The BASE should take its time in building its faculty, and give them time to design a challenging, original course relevant to Karnataka and India. That is a big task. But why should we ask less? Ambedkar would only expect more.
The government order setting up the BASE has made plenty of money available. This will make contractors salivate. Rather than be in a hurry, the authorities of the BASE should look at similar institutions that have made a name for themselves — like the Centre for Development Studies in Trivandrum — and work on an environmentally sustainable campus that will reflect its mission. There are many innovative architects who can do a great job in Bengaluru. This, too, takes time. Till then it can, and should, work out of leased premises.
For such an institution to thrive, it should be residential. Faculty and students should be on campus. It should interact freely with other institutions. This is all the more reason to take time in working on design. How big should the faculty be? What should be the mix of disciplines? Will historians finally be given pride of place, as they should be, in the BASE?
Ignite original thinking
What should the underlying vision of an institution named after a statesman scholar like Ambedkar be? It should certainly reflect his concerns as well as be relevant for a modern India. It should inspire young minds and ignite the spirit of original thought. Again, Ambedkar himself would expect nothing less. And nothing less would honour his name.
The key focus of the BASE should be on reducing inequality and eradicating inequity. In an age of economic growth and accompanying increased inequality, this may not find favour. But Ambedkar warned of the consequences of universal franchise in an inequitable country. He pointed out that the caste system is a division, not of labour, but of labourers.
To quote from Annihilation of Caste, “As an economic organisation, Caste is therefore a harmful institution, inasmuch as it involves the subordination of man's natural powers and inclinations to the exigencies of social rules.”
What is the ideal kind of society? Ambedkar is clear. “What is your ideal society if you do not want caste, is a question that is bound to be asked of you. If you ask me, my ideal would be a society based on Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. And why not?”
And it is this ideal that I think the BASE should work towards. It will be difficult, and even unpopular. Independent research and study of economics and the social sciences in this new institution can enrich the world. Whether the BASE has the time, inclination and courage, time will tell.
(The writer is Professor and Vice Dean, Jindal School of Government and Policy, Sonipat)