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Thursday, Nov 21, 2019

No coincidence that Presidency links Nobel-men

“For decades the economics department at Presidency was outstanding, unlike anything that existed anywhere in India,” says Anjan Mukherji, a former professor of economics at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU).

india Updated: Oct 16, 2019 16:47 IST
Joydeep Thakur and Poulomi Banerjee
Joydeep Thakur and Poulomi Banerjee
Hindustan Times, Kolkata/New Delhi
Abhijit Banerjee, one of the three winners of the 2019 Nobel Prize in Economics, waits to speak at a news conference at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Abhijit Banerjee, one of the three winners of the 2019 Nobel Prize in Economics, waits to speak at a news conference at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, Massachusetts.(Reuters image)
         

Is it a coincidence that Amartya Sen and Abhijit Banerjee — the two economists of Indian origin who went on to win the Nobel prize — started their journey from Kolkata’s Presidency University (college at the time; it became recognised as a university in 2010)? The answer from former students and professors is a vehement “no”.

“For decades the economics department at Presidency was outstanding, unlike anything that existed anywhere in India,” says Anjan Mukherji, a former professor of economics at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). Mukherji joined Presidency in 1961, to pursue an honours degree in mathematics. Economics was one of his subsidiary subjects.

“The admission procedure at Presidency was always selective. So only the best students came in. But the other thing that made Presidency special was the outstanding teachers,” says economist, author and former Presidency professor Amiya Kumar Bagchi, who has both studied and taught at the economics department in the institution.

Many of the past professors had studied at universities abroad, before settling down to teach here. Sir Jehangir Cooverji Coyajee, a student of Caius College, Cambridge, was one of the first of the great teachers here. “They were people who could have pursued a career anywhere in the world. But they chose to come back to and teach at Presidency,” says author and business consultant Avik Chanda.

Agrees Dipankar Dasgupta, an alumnus of the department and a former professor of economics at the Indian Statistical Institute. “These stalwarts were over-educated to teach in undergraduate courses. They only taught in the great institution because of their love for it and they did manage to take this department to an altogether different level at par with several other great colleges in the world. Many left the moment the talks started on turning this college into a university.”

Established in 1908, it was initially named the department of political economy and political philosophy. In 1932, its name was changed to the department of economics and political science. The department was bifurcated in 1960 to form two separate economics and political science departments. In 1965, a research wing was established by the West Bengal government. When the department was selected as a Special Centre of Excellence in 1972 by the University Grants Commission, the name of this wing was changed to Centre for Economic Studies. As a history of the department on the university website mentions, “traditionally, the department had emphasised on theoretical aspects of the discipline. In the last decade, in keeping with current global trends in research and teaching, the department broadened its focus to stress empirical methodologies and software based learning”.

“Economics as a science was introduced by Presidency College under Calcutta University. The department has a rich heritage, producing several stalwarts who are now highly placed in renowned institutions across the world. Even though only the administration has changed after it became a university, we still carry the legacy of the college,” said Mousumi Dutta, head of the Presidency University’s economics department.

An important part of that legacy, feel many, is the ability of the faculty to understand and encourage true intellect in the students. “In Presidency College, we were never taught what was there in the syllabus. Asking for suggestions before examinations was thought to be a crime. We were simply taught ‘economics’ in the truest sense of the term. I still remember Prof Amiya Bagchi teaching us one topic for three months – why the industrial revolution took place in England and not in any other European country. We all knew that it wouldn’t help us is any examination,” said Abhirup Sarkar, a professor of economics and an alumnus of the economics department of Presidency College. Bagchi, on his part, remembers his own professors — UN Ghoshal, Bhabatosh Datta and Tapas Majumdar. “They suggested books which were different from what was being read by most people at the time, and helped us get a clearer understanding of the subject, ” he says. “We could debate anything with the teachers and that gave us confidence.”

It was this grooming that, Mukherji believes, helped the department turn out two-three outstanding students in every batch, who went on to take up research. Sen and Banerjee are two examples. But there are others — Sukhomoy Chakraborty, Debraj Ray, Maitraeesh Ghatak... to name a few.

The professors are themselves deeply involved in research and not only the paper-publishing or book-writing kind. They were true academics, says Mukherji.

Agrees Bibek Debroy, an alumnus of the college, an economist and chairman of the Prime Minister’s economic advisory council. “Historically, Presidency College didn’t focus much on research. Therefore, you had people like Bhabatosh Datta and UN Ghoshal, who were primarily great teachers and remembered for that. Thus, irrespective of how many papers Dipak Banerjee or Tapas Majumdar ever published, generations of students owe them their understanding of economics.”