The remarkable rise of India’s think tanks
The number of think tanks feeding into India’s public debates is expanding fast. Alexandra Katz explores the rapid advances and the growing pains of this emerging policy machine
The USA is famous for the burgeoning ecosystem of lobby groups, campaigning bodies and policy networks feeding off Washington DC’s Capitol Hill, so it’s no surprise that America houses more think tanks than any other country: some 1,835, according to research by the University of Pennsylvania. The second largest number are based in the world’s most populous country: China has 435, Pennsylvania’s researchers found. And third in this list is the UK, whose 288 think tanks sit alongside a robust media, highly active voluntary sector and powerful higher education institutes within a thriving and long-established public discourse.
The UK is set to be knocked off its third-place perch, however, as the country placed fourth has 280 think tanks – and that number has grown by 30% in just two years. Its identity may surprise European and American politicians, but it shouldn’t; for India is, of course, the world’s biggest democracy as well as its second most populous nation.
Pennsylvania’s Global Go To Think Tank Index Report 2015, published earlier this year, includes a list of the world’s top 175 think tanks – and here too the Indians make a respectable showing, with the Centre for Civil Society (CCS) ranked at 79; the Institute For Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) coming in 104th; the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER) ranking 109th; the Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) placed 111th; the Observer Research Foundation (ORF) at 118th and Development Alternatives at 136th. Others were also praised for strong track records on research, including the Vivekananda Institute of Technology, Gateway House, the Council on Energy, Environment and Water, and the Centre for Land Warfare Studies.
The role of think tanks
Think tanks occupy an interesting space in public policy formation, sitting between the official policymakers of government, the more theoretical input of academics, and the opinionated interventions of media commentators and lobby groups. Think tanks are not objective or neutral – each has its own world view and culture, and many have close links to politicians or political parties – but they do provide a space where practical ideas can be developed and research conducted outside the partisan, high-pressure worlds of government and the privately-owned media. Their funding is often dependent on government research grants or the generosity of private businesses, and their success requires an open public debate and a hungry media ready to publicise their findings – so the health of a nation’s think tanks says something about its leaders’ openness to ideas and the quality of the public discourse.
Samir Saran, senior fellow and vice president of the Observer Research Foundation (ORF), says that while India’s economic and social policy debates have always involved non-governmental experts, the current government is particularly keen to “take on board voices from outside its corridors”. Ministers are seeking input into a range of issues, he adds, from strategic and security policies to India’s position on climate change. “Social policy making and foreign policy discussions are witnessing robust think tank participation.”
Constraints and challenges
However, he notes that the sector’s growth is bumping up against a shortage of really high-quality graduates. Manjeet Kripalani, executive director and co-founder of Mumbai-based think tank ‘Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations’, agrees: there are too few people studying for PhDs in fields such as foreign policy, public policy, economics, healthcare and science, she says.
A lack of funding is also constraining the sector’s expansion. “Long-term finance without strings attached is still in dearth. Project or event funding is more readily available, but this does not allow for capacity building and investing in longer lead-time research,” Samir Saran says – so it’s difficult to find money for projects whose outcomes won’t be seen in public policy delivery for years to come. He adds that many think tanks are still dependent on the government or international agencies for funds, so they’re very sensitive to the priorities of these two actors.
Saran sees the Indian private sector as reluctant to invest in policy research and social sciences generally, but Manjeet Kripalani is more optimistic: many businesses “see value in the output of such independent research and ideas, which are very different from the paid consultants that companies have used in the past,” she believes.
Although ministers seem open to think tanks’ ideas, says Saran, the civil service is still quite “closed” – with many officials seeing “think tanks as interlopers or their suggestions as intrusive”. is another challenge faced by think tanks in India, according to Samir Saran. Civil servants exhibit a degree of scepticism about think tanks’ ideas and suspicion around their motives, he says.
The way forward
Certainly, Dhruva Jaishankar, fellow for foreign policy at Brookings India – established by The Brookings Institution in New Delhi a few years ago – argued recently in The Huffington Post that most think tanks could benefit from greater autonomy and transparency. Those institutions affiliated with the government tent to become risk-averse, bureaucratic and status conscious, he said, adding that people would be able to judge the findings of privately-funded organisations more fairly if they were more transparent about their sources of funding.
Jaishankar suggested a number of measures that could make Indian think tanks more effective. These included giving research priority over their work convening events and discussions, and focusing on quality over quantity. He and other experts point out that on top of everything, the research work conducted by think tanks should be more carefully shaped around practical applications, guiding policymaking in the present and future rather than simply analyzing the past.
According to Manjeet Kripalani, there’s a lack of public understanding of the role that think tanks can play and the difference between consultants and think tanks. She argues for more public outreach and education: “The Indian government is already reaching out to think tanks, and seeking ideas from them. It remains now for the public to participate in this institution-building, so that the ideas generated from within these institutions can be understood and beneficial for them.”
As this fast-growing think tank ecosystem becomes more established alongside India’s political and media establishments, their input into policymaking and their influence in the public debate will continue to grow. Ultimately, the outcome should – says Samir Saran – be a more effective government: “Think tanks can add tremendous value to not just the policies that are made, but also the process of policymaking and the framework of policy implementation.”
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