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Wednesday, Dec 25, 2002

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One too many!

I AM at a loss to figure out exactly how to react to the opening of the Chennai chapter of the Observer Research Foundation (ORF) on December 19. Its aims and objects encompass familiar, if not stale, terrain. It aspires to "build partnerships and aid and impact the formulation of policies that would be the result of rigorous research, debate and a synergy of divergent but informed opinions for the creation of a strong and prosperous modern and global India". All the oft-repeated shibboleths are there about forging institutional alliances and undertaking collaborative studies, bilateral dialogues and joint hosting of round tables with bodies in India and abroad.

Like a moth to a candle, the ORF has been inevitably drawn to the glamorous areas of study covering Asian countries, security, economy, development and social change, politics and governance. It has been able to enlist eminent, personages to pursue its activities. It has straightaway plunged into esoteric themes such as the investigation of "political Islam" in South and South-East Asia, and exercises directed at "understanding a rising China" and "constructing a secure global energy regime." Not one issue of cosmic character has been omitted from its scope: Food, water and social security; healthcare; economic reforms; countering terrorism, narcotics and dugs trafficking; democracy and human rights — you name it, it is all there.

Only a couple of months ago, Chennai saw the inauguration of the local chapter of yet another outfit, the Delhi Policy Group, devoted to exploring the holistic concept of comprehensive security and seeking to establish that security is indivisible and conditioned directly or indirectly by everything that happens on the national and international scene. Its charter too leaves nothing to chance or imagination. To boot, the city already has a Centre for Policy Studies, an Institute for Topical Studies, an Institute for Contemporary Studies and the Madras Institute for Development Studies.

Normally, there can be no objection to as many groups conducting as many studies as they want. But I have a sense of unease on a few counts. They usually shy away from controversies and end up treading the beaten track, spewing out recycled prescriptions instead of thinking outside the box and coming out with stimulating ideas.

A kind of crony intellectualism afflicts many of them. Most depend on their domestic or foreign donors for their survival and it is a moot question to what extent their preferences influence the choice of topics and their treatment. There are no free lunches in this world and aid without strings is like an airplane without wings!

The ORF itself is funded almost entirely by the Reliance Group of Industries and although the Chairman of the think-tank, Mr R. K. Mishra, claims that it has been given a completely free hand, latent psychological inhibitions are bound to operate. That is why think-tanks should consciously broadbase their corpus by subscriptions from members rather than be beholden to a few munificent benefactors.

B. S. Raghavan

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