Our think-tanks are too Delhi-centric

Updated on: Dec 06, 2012
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Being in one place, they generate a predictable babble about everything, rather than help with positive policy inputs.

It is curious to see the polarisation of views and comments, when we listen to policy prescriptions and debates in the media on national issues. There is also a certain level of predictability in the views aired by various speakers.

This polarisation is to be expected between the government and opposition, but the polarisation among think-tanks and specialists is rather strange.

It is difficult to decipher what they are divided on. So, the convergence of opinions is between governments and one group of commentators, and the opposition and another group of commentators.

What is required is a move towards convergence, with broad areas of concern and agreement among participants, rather than a widening of the wedge between ‘for’ and ‘against’.

Globally, this role is played by think-tanks and they do it through research, and engaging policy makers and legislators, whether in the ruling party or the opposition. They find a common ground and provide a platform for impassioned debate.

Think-tanks in India have failed to provide the intellectual bridge between protagonists and antagonists. The failure again comes from the lack of focused research groups and research outputs, and the lack of independent think-tanks.

Another important factor is the concentration of think-tanks in Delhi. The concentration of political power in the capital city begets concentration of think-tanks in that city. This comes from access to policy and decision-makers, and information. This should lead to positive outcomes.

There is scope for constant interaction in various international and national forums, which should actually lead to convergence. But unfortunately that does not happen. This is perhaps because of the polarisation of views, leading to divisive camps, and convergence of views within the divides.

The Global Go To Think Tanks Report 2011 by the University of Pennsylvania brings out a ranking of think tanks globally. From India, only the Centre for Civil Society (CSS) is in the top 50 global think tanks (non-US).

The Institutes that figure in the Top 30 think tanks in Asia are Indian Council for Research and International Economic Relations, CSS, Centre for Policy Research, The Energy Research Institute and Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses.

The other Institutes that figure in various specialisations are: Institute of Economic Growth, Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, and Development Alternatives. This shows the paucity of think tanks in India for its size and complexity, and is also indicative of the concentration in Delhi.

Role of Think Tanks

In other countries, think tanks have legitimate role to play in legislating and policymaking. Influential thinkers and researchers from these think tanks can, for instance, be invited by the US Congress in Congressional hearings to give their considered opinions.

The legislatures commission studies on specific policy issues, or can seek ‘independent’ opinions. These thank tanks through their commissioned as well as sponsored research, provide policy inputs to decision making. These can be engaged by lobbyists as well. Think tanks may be known for adherence to a particular school of thought, but their reports are well received and respected.

They can also call for meetings and seminars to engage in opinion-making. Everybody at the end of the day is interested in influencing policy making, and these think tanks help reach a consensus. They do it in a sophisticated way, rather than through ‘my opinion’ vs ‘your opinion’, where analysis and evidence are given a go-by.

Delhi Centricism

The most contentious aspect is that most major think-tanks are in Delhi. It is to be expected that formulation of policies and laws is concentrated in Delhi, given the location of the Union Government.

But it is not necessary that the think-tanks have to be concentrated there. By virtue of being there, they feed on each other, and it is a story of action and reaction.

Today, given a policy, we know who will say what. The TV channels resemble each other. They depend on same set of specialists, and lack genuine research output or data and ground work.

There is such an euphoria around being in a ‘happening’ scenario that the analysts have to furnish quotes impromptu. So, someone from Delhi would comment on State government failure on management of the cyclone in Andhra Pradesh and move on to why FDI in retail can be a tsunami. The differentiation is lost and everybody looks alike — the policy makers, specialists, think-tanks, reporters, and general observers.

Decongest Think-Tanks

It may be worthwhile to encourage think-tanks around the country. Earlier, there were schools of economics in various States — such as Gokhale Institute of Politics and Economics in Pune, Madras Institute of Development Studies in Chennai, Centre for Development Studies in Thiruvananthapuram, Institute of Social and Economic Change in Bangalore. These institutes have helped in strengthening regional focus in research and studies.

They suffer from not being able to communicate their research findings and actively engaging in policy debates. Being away from Delhi and closer to the field, they have conducted field-based studies than relying on secondary data.

They also tend to focus more on policy implementation and not just planning and legislating.

The Economic and Political Weekly has been walking a lone path for decades, contributing to prolific generation of papers on public policy.

The Central government itself made an attempt once. It encouraged IIM Bangalore to establish its Centre for Public Policy a decade back with support from UNDP. It has evolved as an alternate think-tank on public policy through research in select areas like health, urban governance and infrastructure. It is now about more than a decade old.

For a country of our size and given its democratic system, think tanks can play a larger and effective role. These should be encouraged at each State as independent entities. There is a paucity of independent policy professionals, unlike in the US and the UK.

Like all long-married couples, think-tanks in Delhi tend to resemble each other in ways and thoughts.

(The author is Professor, Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore.)

Published on December 06, 2012

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