India’s top think tanks

Education World
Publication Date: 
Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Parth on cover page of Education WorldIn its latest annual survey of the world’s top 6,603 think tanks, the University of Pennsylvania has ranked the Delhi-based Centre for Civil Society India’s No.1 in its Global Go-To Think Tank league table headed by the Brookings Institution (USA), Chatham House (UK), and Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (USA). K.V. Priya with Dilip Thakore:

Even as the year 2013 got off to a gloomy and despondent start with the national debate on gender crimes and second class status of women in Indian society generating considerable anguish and anxiety following the vicious gangrape of a 23-year-old physiotherapy intern in a moving bus coursing through busy streets of the national capital, the outcome of a largely unnoticed global survey conducted by the University of Pennsylvania has created a buzz within the small minority of globally-connected intellectuals and the social sciences research community.

In its latest (2012) annual survey of the world’s top 6,603 think tanks conducted under its Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program (TTCSP), U Penn ranked the Delhi-based Centre for Civil Society (estb. 1997) India’s No.1 (51 worldwide) in its Global Go-To Think Tank league table headed by the Brookings Institution (USA), Chatham House (UK), Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (USA), Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Sweden (4) and Centre for Strategic and Int. Studies, USA (5). Among the other Indian think tanks ranked in the survey are the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, Delhi (105), Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations, Delhi (109), The Energy and Resources Institute, Delhi (110), Observer Res-earch Foundation, Mumbai (115) and Development Alternatives, Delhi (141).

Inevitably, U Penn’s sixth annual survey released on January 28, has been conducted with the thoroughness for which US academia is globally reno-wned. Over 6,600 think tanks from 182 countries were invited to participate in the rankings and were ranked in 38 categories by 1,950 experts and peer institutions including 793 expert panel-ists, 55 current and former directors of think tanks, 150 journalists and scho-lars, 40 public and private donors, 150 civil society representatives and 120 academic institutions worldwide. Of the 6,603 think tanks invited for assessment and rankings, 171 were nominated for inclusion in the list of the global 150.

Unlike high profile American think tanks such as the Brookings Institution, the Carnegie Endowment and other well-funded institutes which attract highly respected authors, professors and elder statesmen as scholars and researchers and convene global conferences, the role and value of think tanks which conduct policy-oriented research and analyses and provide advice on domestic and international issues to governments and policy formulators to make informed decisions and build media and public opinion, is largely unappreciated in India.

The role of think tanks in society is elaborated by James G. McGann, assistant director of the international relations program and director of TTCSP at U Penn. “The world we live in can be characterised by what has been described as the ‘four mores’: more issues, more actors, more competition, and more conflict. Over the past 10-15 years, governments and civil society groups have become reliant on think tanks for ideas and advice. Today policymakers and civil society throu-ghout the developed and developing world face the common problem of bringing expert knowledge to bear on government decision-making. The chall-enge is to harness the vast reservoir of knowledge, information and associat-ional energy that exists in public policy research organisations in every region of the world for the public good,” says McGann.

Against this backdrop of the expand-ing role of think tanks in shaping legislation and public policy, it’s hardly surprising that Dr. Parth J. Shah, an alumnus of Maharajah Sayajirao, Baroda  and Auburn (USA) universities and former professor of economics at Michigan University who returned to India to promote the Centre for Civil Society (CCS) in 1997, is pleased that U Penn’s survey has ranked CCS the country’s premier think tank. “Think tanks are playing an increasingly impo-rtant role in all societies by regularly publishing well-researched and reasoned position papers on complex issues impacting the public and society, and by offering independent advice to govern-ments. Therefore I’m delighted that CCS’ high quality multi-sectoral, multi-disciplinary research studies sugges-ting policy initiatives for reforms in education, livelihoods, governance and rule of law have been acknowledged by the U Penn study. However this delight has been tempered by the awareness that although we are ranked first in India, our global ranking is 51,’’ says Shah.

Nevertheless it’s an entirely socially beneficial development that the idea of promoting, nurturing and developing specialist think tanks has struck root in India. According to the U Penn survey, currently India hosts 292 think tanks — the third largest number after the US (1,832) and China (425). And new think tanks with specialised agendas are springing up regularly. Among them, the Delhi-based Indian Institute of Dalit Studies (estb. 2001) has contributed significantly to shaping the affirmative action policies of the Central and state governments. More recently, early this year the Indian Software Product Industry Round Table, or iSprit, a think tank promoted with the objective of providing policy prescriptions to government to expand and nurture the high potential IT and ITES (information technology and information technologies enabled services) sectors in coordination with industry representative organisations including NASS-COM (National Association of Software Services Companies), went on stream.

That new think tanks have sprung up countrywide is a welcome albeit surp-rising development because govern-ment, corporate and philanthropic grants and research funding tend to be grudging. Whereas the endowment/assets of the Brookings Institution aggregates a handsome $437 million (Rs.2,360 crore), and revenue in 2012 aggregated $132 million (Rs.713 crore), CCS hasn’t been able to build a corpus and raises funds from year-to-year. In 2012-13, the society which employs 30 research and advocacy professionals, raised Rs.2 crore with the Dorabji Tata Trust and Templeton and Atlas Foundations being the main donors. “Successful fundraising is a major problem, particularly since as a matter of policy we diversify our funding sources to avoid dependence on single or dual source funding to preserve our independence. Moreover apart from research we also spend money on advocacy, i.e. educating the public including MPs, on matters of public interest and legislation,’’ says Parth Shah.

Dr. Samar Verma, senior programme officer of the International Development Research Centre, Delhi — a Canadian government initiative which supports 16 think tanks in South Asia (including nine in India) — confirms that funding and government support for policy research institutes is minimal. According to him, the Union government’s allocation for policy research institutes aggregates a mere 8 percent of the national science and technology research budget, and is steadily declining. “Policy research is at the heart of realising Nehru’s vision of devel-oping a scientific temper, and think tanks are its key drivers. Funding is abysmally low, and declining. This needs to be reversed and funding increased multi-fold,’’ he advises.

Sources within the Indian Council for Social Science Research (ICSSR), the premier government agency promoting social science research, confirm that the council’s meagre annual budget actually declined by 7 percent during the period 2005-10. Currently, Indian industry and government together spend the equi-valent of a mere 0.9 percent of GDP on R&D as against the US (2.7 percent), China (1.87 percent), Japan (3.67 percent) and South Korea (3.74 percent). It should also be borne in mind that the GDP of America and China is three fold and twice larger than of India. More-over according to Unesco’s World Social Science Report 2010, during the period 1995-2007, India’s output in terms of social science research papers was significantly lower than of China and Brazil.

Likewise India Inc’s enthusiasm for funding research and development — especially policy research — has always been lukewarm. With the exception of the Tata Group and Mukesh Ambani who promoted the Observer Research Foundation in 1990, and venture capitalist turned social entrepreneur Ashish Dhawan, few leaders of industry have shown interest in funding think tanks. In 2009 telecom czar Sunil Mittal preferred to endow the Indian School of Business and the US-based Carnegie Endowment rather than any think tank in India. Consequently, Indian think tanks are heavily reliant for project funding on western voluntary organisations and progressive found-ations such as the Ford Foundation, the Canada-based IDRC, private trusts constituted by American philanthropists such as Bill Gates, and multilateral financial institutions like the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, Rockefeller, McCarthy and Sasakawa foundations.

Ashish Dhawan, former CEO of ChrysCapital, India’s largest ($2.5 billion) and arguably most successful venture capital fund and promoter of the Central Square Foundation, a philanthropy fund established to finance “exceptional social entrepreneurs with powerful ideas” (with a reported initial endowment of Rs.50 crore), believes that in its own interest India Inc. should be more supportive of India’s under-funded think tanks. “For the country to progress, we need fresh ideas and a culture of making policy decisions based on evidence. Think tanks play a valuable role in conducting independent research studies which can — and should — be used to enrich public debates and policy formulation. Industry leaders and philanthropists would allocate philanth-ropic resources more optimally by donating 10-20 percent to think tanks of their choice and the rest for direct projects,” advises Dhawan.

Even though India’s best think tanks are minuscule by foreign — especially US — standards, the fact that they have survived and multiplied and attract high quality faculty and research scholars, indicates that there’s growing apprec-iation of the valuable role they play in shaping public opinion and aiding policy formulation processes. That the ground has been prepared by India’s pioneer think tanks is indicated by a January 29 announcement that the US-based Brookings Institution which has topped U Penn’s Global Go-To Think Tank league table for the past four years, is set to establish a policy research centre in Delhi this year headed by Cambridge-educated Vikram Mehta, hitherto chairman of the Shell Group of petroleum companies. “Brookings India will utilise Brookings’ time-tested meth-ods as the world’s leading think tank while providing an Indian perspective in the policy debate,” says Mehta.

In the pages following, we offer snapshot profiles of India’s Top 10 think tanks engaged in valuable research on issues of national importance which need support and involvement with industry and the public.

Centre for Civil Society

Promoted in 1997 by Dr. Parth J. Shah, an alumnus of MS University, Baroda and Auburn University, USA, and former professor of economics at Michigan University, the Centre for Civil Society, Delhi describes itself as “an independent, non-profit, research and educational organisation devoted to improving the quality of life for all citizens of India by reviving and reinvigorating civil society’’.

“Civil society is an evolving network of associations and institutions of family and community, of production and trade, and of piety and compassion. Individuals enter into these relationships as much by consent, as by obligation, but never under coercion. Civil society is premised on individual freedom and responsibility, and on limited and accountable government. It protects the individual from the intrusive state and connects the individual to the larger social and economic order,’’ says Shah, explaining the name chosen for this social sciences research and advocacy organisation, which has been ranked India’s top think tank for the fourth year in a row in the University of Pennsy-lvania’s Global Go-To Think Tank Rankings. In U Penn’s latest (2012) league table of 171 think tanks published on January 28, CCS is ranked 51 and is the only Indian one in the list of the top 100.

Focus areas: A quintessentially liberal ideology-driven organisation, CCS’ research, advocacy and outreach programmes driven by the “dream of a free society”, focus on education for all, law, liberty and livelihood, good governance and communities, markets and environment. The CCS board includes 17 liberal ideologues and economists including Jagdish Bhagwati, Lord Meghnad Desai, Gurcharan Das, Swaminathan Aiyar and social entre-preneur Ashish Dhawan.

“The distinguishing feature of CCS is that we are not a mere research and publishing institute but an advocacy organisation, which takes positions on public policy issues and educates the public and policy formulators, rather than merely holding closed door meetings with ministers and officials,’’ says Shah.

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