Month: May 2016

The remarkable rise of India’s think tanks

Global Government Forum

By on 26/05/2016

Original link is here

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.

Manjeet photo-min

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.

Samir Saran, senior fellow and vice president of the Observer Research Foundation (ORF)

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.”


Leading the boom

Within India’s glowing constellation of think tanks, these are some of the biggest and most influential.

The government-affiliated Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA) and Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), one of India’s oldest think tanks, focus on strategic issues such as foreign policy and defense, national and international security.

The National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER) started in 1956 as a public-private partnership, and remains the largest and oldest policy research institute dedicated to supporting India’s economic development through applied economic research.

Another leading government economic policy think tank, the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER), focuses on areas such as macro-economic management, trade openness, financial sector liberalisation and regulation, WTO-related issues and regional economic cooperation.

The Centre for Civil Society (CCS) which has been ranked India’s top think tank for several years in a row in the Global Go-To Think Tank Rankings, is a social sciences research and advocacy organization that advances social change through public policy. Focusing on education for all, law, liberty and livelihood, good governance and communities, it promotes choice and accountability across the private and public sectors.

The Centre for Policy Research (CPR), established in 1973 in Delhi, is known for its influence within government, academia and the media. It ranked 38 out of the 100 Top Social Policy Think Tanks listed in the Global Go-To Think Tank Index Report 2015. CPR focuses on areas including economic policy analysis, environmental law and governance, law, regulation, urbanisation, international relations and security.

Founded in 1990 with the support of Reliance Industries, India’s largest business conglomerate, the Observer Research Foundation (ORF) is today one of the leading think tanks providing non-partisan research across government, business, academia and civil society. Previously focusing mainly on internal economic issues, today its mandate extends to security and strategy, economy and development, governance, environment, energy and resources.

The majority of Indian think tanks are located in Delhi. However, a few globally-minded organizations have emerged outside the capital in recent years. These include Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations in Mumbai and Takshashila Institution in Bangalore.

Founded in 2009, Gateway House emerged as one of the leading privately-managed foreign policy think tanks, providing research in a niche area of scholarship: the intersection between geo-economics and geopolitics. It tries to create bridges between business and foreign policy, debating India’s role in global affairs and giving the country a global voice.

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See also:

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About Alexandra Katz

Originally from St Petersburg, Russia, Alexandra Katz is based in Mumbai, India. She has more than 10 years of experience as a reporter and editor, and specialises in business, sustainable development, policymaking and social issues. She previously worked in Russia and Bangladesh, and recently completed her second Master’s degree in Political Science at the University of Mumbai

Policy short-sightedness exacerbates India’s water crisis

6 May 2016, the interpreter

Original link is here

While droughts can be written off as an ‘act of god,’ the fact that the ongoing drought in India has acquired its current intensity is a reflection of the sorry state of economic governance and planning in this country.

This state of affairs has its origin in four structural problems that plague India’s political-economic system at large, and are of immense consequence when it comes to managing India’s water:

  1. The continued use of government-mandated support prices and subsidies for farm produce and farmers.
  2. The de facto orientation of infrastructure projects towards industry, and not for lifeline support.
  3. The perverse effects of the rural employment guarantee schemes.
  4. The absence of innovation and finance around fresh-water recycling, desalination, and river-linking schemes, as well as the continued dominance of revenue expenditure over capital expenditure for the rural sector.

The negative externalities of agricultural subsidies

India is the second-largest producer of sugar in the world after Brazil. Last November, India’s cabinet approved a US$173 million subsidy for sugar cane producers supplying mills that export sugar and produce ethanol. This subsidy would, in effect, make sugar and ethanol produced in India cheaper relative to other countries, and thus make it more competitive at a time when the global commodities super-cycle is at an all-time low.

Such subsidies, along with mechanisms like government-guaranteed minimum support prices for agricultural products, incentivise producers to cultivate commodities that are natural-resource intensive. It is not an accident that Maharasthra, India’s biggest sugar-producing state, finds itself hit the hardest by the current crisis. The drought in the district of Marathwada, a region which accounts for 25% of the state’s sugar output, is the worst since 1972.

Temples for the few, and the lucky

India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, once called dams the temples of modern India. It now transpires that these temples only serve a select few through a system of rent-seeking and patronage. The Jayakwadi dam in Maharastra is one of the largest of its kind in Asia. It was created in 1965 with the express purpose of providing relief to the drought-prone Marathwada district. Instead it seems, as India’s Agriculture Minister has claimed, that the biggest beneficiary of this dam is the sugar industry. Meanwhile 89 irrigation projects in the state have been on hold for more than 20 years.

It is not uncommon in India for these projects to be approved to placate certain sections of the population. Synching the approval and completion of lifeline projects to the electoral cycle leads to the kind of unmitigated disaster India is witnessing today. This electoral pandering, coupled with abysmal short-sightedness, leads to a situation whereMaharastra has 1845 dams (35% of all dams in the country), yet only 18% of agricultural land is irrigated (compared to the national average of 47%).

Wither rural employment guarantees?

But construction of dams and other large-scale irrigation engineering projects is only part of the solution. A sustained effort must be made to renew and rejuvenate traditional water bodies and harvesting systems.

The previous government’s much-vaunted rural employment guarantee (MNREGA) scheme took as its goal the provision of employment to the rural poor by directing surplus labour towards infrastructure projects. In principle, MNREGA should have been the perfect vehicle through which traditional water works could have been maintained. Instead, MNREGA has distorted labour markets by disincentivising rural industries and jeopardising the income potential of the most vulnerable. Meanwhile, the scheme continues to bleed money. In 2006-07 (the first year of the scheme’s implementation), MNREGA allocation stood at US$1.53 billion. By 2010-11, the heyday of last government’s populism, it had reached an astonishing US$6.2 billion. The Modi Government seems to have fallen for the same trap: MNREGA’s budget estimate for the current financial year stands at US$5.8 billion.

The sad fact is that despite India’s considerable success in achieving food security (through the Green Revolution), very little effort has been made since to push India’s agricultural products up the value chain, which would have increased rural income as well as reduced the vulnerability of India’s farmers to climatic shocks such as the ongoing drought. Instead of infusing private capital and public infrastructure into the sector, a system of patronage through doles and waivers continues, which seriously compromises the very people it ostensibly seeks to protect. The archaic mechanism of minimum support prices continues to drain the exchequer while insufficiently contributing to the laudable goal of subsidising food. In 2011-12, the procurement subsidy accounted for 85%1 of all food subsidy. Under the Modi Government, this has come down to 43%2, a worthy first step.

Meanwhile, rural capital expenditure has fallen from US$71.3 million3 in 1999-2000 to a measly US$9 million4 in 2015-16. The sharpest drop happened between 2006-2007 and 2008-2009, from US$49 million5 to US$14.6 million6 — not surprising since between these two years, MNREGA allocations jumped three times. Even in irrigation and flood control, revenue expenditure growth overwhelmingly dominates capital expenditure growth: between 1998-1999 and 2015-2016, the former grew by 21%7 while the latter grew by 4%8 .

The need for large-scale innovation

A key challenge of a rapidly growing urban India will be the sustainability of its cities.

Modern India has never shied away from espousing faith in technology to meet its national challenges – a legacy of Nehru’s vision. However, as is the case with most ambitious national projects, the time-lag between announcing a vision and actually implementing it is often unacceptably large. An ambitious project to link 37 of India’s rivers in the north and the south is a case in point. First announced in 1982 by then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, this project had laid dormant for more than 33 years, to be once again taken up by Prime Minister Narendra Modi last year. But opposition remains rife, from the usual coterie of nay-sayers who have a vocal anti-technology stance in the name of environmentalism. This view carries political weight in India.

It is estimated that India’s water demand will rise to 1180 billion cubic litres by 2050, more than 1.6 times the current consumption. The increase in demand for fresh water will be exacerbated by the dwindling water table. A government that plans for the future ought to incentivise the entry of the private sector into large-scale desalination plants that caters to cities along the coasts. For this to be commercially viable, the target cities should be empowered to generate more revenue. Industrial demand for fresh water is increasing at 8% annually while India’s large cities alone generate close to 40,000 million litres of sewage every day. Recycled water can also be directed towards agriculture as Israel does with 86% of its waste water contributing to farm irrigation.

If the government’s ambitious renewable energy targets are an indication of national will, large-scale deployment of desalination technology may not be out of reach.


Based on calculations derived from Yearly Account of Department of Food And Public Distribution 2011-12 and Food Subsidy, Expenditure by Broad Categories, Expenditure Budget, Union Budget 2012-13.

Based on calculations derived from Yearly Account of Department of Food And Public Distribution 2014-15 and Food Subsidy, Expenditure by Broad Categories, Expenditure Budget, Union Budget 2015-16.

Based on calculations derived from Expenditure budget for Ministry of Rural Development (Department of Rural Development 2000-01 + Department of Land Resources 2000-01) and Ministry of Agriculture (Department of Agriculture Cooperation 2000-01 + Department of Animal Husbandry, Fisheries and Dairying, 2000-01).

Based on calculations derived from Expenditure budget for Ministry of Rural Development (Department of Rural Development 2016-17 + Department of Land Resources 2016-17) and Ministry of Agriculture (Department of Agriculture Cooperation 2016-17 + Department of Animal Husbandry, Fisheries and Dairying 2016-17).

Based on calculations derived from Expenditure budget for Ministry of Rural Development (Department of Rural Development 2007-08 + Department of Land Resources 2007-08) and Ministry of Agriculture (Department of Agriculture Cooperation 2007-08 + Department of Animal Husbandry, Fisheries and Dairying 2007-08).

Based on calculations derived from Expenditure budget for Ministry of Rural Development (Department of Rural Development 2009-10 + Department of Land Resources 2009-10) and Ministry of Agriculture (Department of Agriculture Cooperation 2009-10 + Department of Animal Husbandry, Fisheries and Dairying 2009-10).

Calculated using Budget Provision by Heads of Accounts- Revenue 1999-00 and Budget Provision by Heads of Accounts- Revenue 2016-17.

Calculated using Budget Provision by Heads of Accounts-Capital 1999-00 and Budget Provisions by Heads of Accounts- Capital 2016-17.

Photo by Nitin Kanotra/Hindustan Times via Getty Images.