In the News, Politics / Globalisation

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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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

In the News

‘Outside ideas’ trickle in as think tanks set up base

| TNN | Jan 17, 2016, 04.28 AM IST

Original link is here

New DELHI: With top US think tanks setting up offices in India, the Indian marketplace for ideas is beginning to buzz. This week, Carnegie Endowment announced it would be opening its India office. It will follow Brookings Institution which has been around for a couple of years now. As the nature of Indian governance, policy-making and the international context evolves rapidly, the hope is that these outside “inputs” would help to create more “informed” decisions by government.

These think tanks are coming into India at a time when there is a flowering of Indian research organisations here. The government for long operating with brahminical inscrutability, is more welcoming of ideas, inputs and research from outside.

C Raja Mohan, founder-director of Carnegie’s India office said he envisages a triad of sectors which will benefit from the think tank – “foreign policy and security, politics of India’s economic reforms and the rapidly developing technology policymaking space.” Brookings and Carnegie, voted the top think tanks in the world, have extensive experience in producing policy inputs for the US government.

Indian think tanks too are evolving rapidly. The best known, Observer Research Foundation (ORF) and Centre for Policy Research (CPR) will inundate your inbox, and have increased their government footprint in recent years. Their playing fields mostly remain in the realm of foreign and security policy with a clutch of former diplomats and military officers taking the lead in the ideas and opinions bazaar, relying on their long engagement with government.

There are also a growing number of organisations working closely with the government in its public diplomacy outreach, holding seminars and big think-fests. The MEA-MOD sponsored IDSA and ICWA are the official organisations in this field. But this year, MEA is working with ORF to execute one of its three flagship events – the Raisina Dialogues in spring, and with Mumbai-based Gateway House for the Gateway of India Dialogues on geo-strategic and geo-economic issues respectively.

Samir Saran of ORF said the Raisina Dialogue this year would feature about 100 speakers from 30 countries, but in a few years they hope to scale it up to become a second Shangrila Dialogue (organised by London-based IISS) which prompts defence ministers and experts from round the world to flock to Singapore every summer.

ORF has also got into the pleasurable business of Track 1.5 dialogues with select countries. Saran says they now conduct dialogues with France, Australia, BRICS and now Egypt. The frontrunner in this area is the Ananta Aspen Centre which has been running the longest and possibly most influential dialogues with US, China, Israel and Turkey, Singapore and Bhutan and an India-Japan-US trilateral, which paved the way for the official dialogue that started a few years later.
The government used think tanks extensively during climate change negotiations, where, the space is filled by specialised organizations like CEEW, CSE and TERI. Saran of ORF says “some sectors need outside expertise like outer space, Indian Ocean etc. We are developing our expertise in these areas.”

 How does the government evaluate the inputs from think tanks? The foreign ministry is the biggest consumer of these ideas from ‘outside’. In the last year, foreign secretary S Jaishankar has placed additional responsibility on a virtually defunct Policy Planning division. The ministry has broken new ground by hiring consultants not employed by the government. But in the new atmosphere of the state interacting with think tanks, the experience for government has not been one of unalloyed satisfaction.

“There are some brilliant minds out there,” said an official on condition of anonymity. “But most of the research papers we see are too theoretical or academic in nature. We need them to be consistent and more policy relevant.” Giving examples from the US, he said academics like Ashley Tellis provide detailed policy inputs to the US government. “We need more of those. For this, we need research organisations to talk to government much more.” Researchers say government officials are very hard to access, and this limits their sources.

On the brighter side, foreign and security policies have many voices in the marketplace today. It’s trade, commerce etc that have very few outside think tanks providing inputs. The government has its own – ICRIER, NIPFP and Institute of Economic Growth, but in the private space there are few of the number-crunchers that governments could use.

Raja Mohan says partly this is because governments have been unusually welcoming of outside economic thinking and economists within government. From P C Mahalanobis to Raghuram Rajan, India has been very accommodating of different economic brains. However, countries like South Korea show much more is possible – their economic and trade think tanks provide crucial inputs to their trade negotiators which may explain why Korea is more willing to engage the world on trade issues, unlike India.

In the News, Water / Climate

COP21: Can India reconcile growth and environment?

Original Link is here

India is among the countries most vulnerable to climate change. But as a developing nation, it also faces a balancing act between reducing CO2 emissions and boosting economic growth. DW examines India’s role in COP21.

A factory chimney in a residential area emits smoke as haze casts a blanket over Bangalore on December 11, 2009 (Photo: DIBYANGSHU SARKAR/AFP/Getty Images)

Already one of the most disaster-prone nations in the world, India is also likely to be hit hard by the effects of global warming. The South Asian country has very dense coastal populations vulnerable to rising sea levels.

And the freak weather patterns which already taking place – such as extreme heat, drought, and the record-breaking floods in Chennai – will not only affect agricultural and food security, but also cause water shortages and disease outbreaks.

The Indian government has reacted to the growing threat by rolling out an ambitious clean energy plan. New Delhi has pledged to invest $100 billion in clean energy investments over the next five years as well as to source 40 percent of its electricity from renewable and other low-carbon sources by 2030.

Delhi's road engulf with smog-forming weather on October 31, 2015 in New Delhi, India (Photo: imago/Hindustan Times)

India is already the world’s fourth-largest emitter of carbon dioxide after China, the US and the EU


Although it hasn’t specified a cap on its emissions, the South Asian giant wants to reach 175 gigawatts (GW) of renewable energy capacity by 2022 – up from currently 38 GW – of which 100 GW will be from solar energy. In fact, at the outset of the UN climate summit taking place in Paris from November 30 to December 11 (COP21), Indian PM Narendra Modi and French President Francois Hollande launched an alliance of 121 countries to dramatically boost the use of solar power.

‘We still need conventional energy’

But will this be enough? Analysts point out that while New Delhi is well aware of the dangers posed by global warming, it also wants to make sure that any deal in Paris doesn’t restrict the country’s ability to expand its economy, with PM Modi saying that rich countries should not force the developing world to abandon fossil fuels completely.

“We still need conventional energy. We need to make it clean, not impose an end to its use,” said Modi at the start of the Paris talks, calling on developed nations to meet their commitment to muster $100 billion a year from 2020 to help poor countries cope with climate change.

Moreover, India sees itself as one of the most vocal proponents of “climate justice” – the notion that historical responsibilities as well as present-day capabilities matter greatly in shaping the climate governance regime.


 Relief efforts gear up in response to worst floods to hit southern India in 100 years

Rescue crews have been deployed to provide relief from the worst flooding to strike southern India in 100 years. Volunteers and companies are filling the gap in an outpouring of solidarity. (03.12.2015)

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“From the perspective of New Delhi, it bears little responsibility for the exponential increase in greenhouse gas emissions since the industrial revolution, and also has very little capacity to address the problem when much of the country still lives in abject poverty and hundreds of millions of Indians still lack access to electricity,” David Livingston, an associate at the Energy and Climate Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told DW.

It is precisely this balancing act between boosting economic growth and reaching environmental goals that poses the greatest political challenge to leaders of developing nations such as India – which is already the world’s fourth-largest emitter of carbon dioxide after China, the US and the EU, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA).

Hard to abandon coal

India is home to one-sixth of the world’s population, and its third-largest economy in purchasing power parity (PPP) terms, but accounts for only six percent of global energy use, with one in five Indians – 240 million people – still lacking access to electricity, according to the IEA.

But the government’s plans to lift millions out of poverty will likely to change this, as efforts to modernize and industrialize India will trigger dramatic increase in energy demand. In fact, the IEA estimates that the country’s energy demand will account for roughly a quarter of the global increase in consumption by 2040.

The problem is that coal – the key source of power in the country, accounting for around 60 percent of total electricity generation – is also a key source of carbon emissions. And due to the relatively low cost and large reserves of domestic thermal coal, it remains the key fuel source in India’s long-term energy strategy, as Rajiv Biswas, Asia-Pacific Chief Economist at the analytics firm IHS, told DW.

The IEA estimates the expansion of coal supply will make India – which has some of the most polluted cities in the world – not only the second-largest coal producer in the world, but also the largest coal importer, overtaking Japan, the EU and China in the coming years.

India moves to tackle Air Pollution

Watch video01:39

India moves to tackle air pollution

“India is a coal-focused country, and it plans to double its consumption in the next 15 years. This is the crux of the problem, given that it’s hard to imagine India substantially bringing down its emissions if it plans to scale up one of the most emissions-intensive energy resources out there,” Michael Kugelman, South Asia expert at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center told DW.

But while this may seem like a dire prospect, Livingston explains that from India’s perspective, New Delhi’s long-term climate strategy makes sense as it not only puts the country on a growth path, but also keeps per-capita emissions far below those of other industrialized countries such as the US. Today, India’s per-capita emissions are only one-third of the global average.

“The paradox here is that while India’s implied emissions growth rate to 2030 is the largest in absolute terms of all large economies, the country still ends up with the smallest per-capita emissions of all these economies in 2030,” Livingston told DW.

Around $2.5 trillion needed

That’s why the key to the climate talks in Paris will be the level of support developing countries such as India can get from the international community to lower their dependency on fossil fuels, says climate policy expert Samir Saran.

There are two ways this can happen, the analyst at the New Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation told DW: “Either the West can provide the necessary scale of finance and clean technology that will enable India to rapidly deploy renewable energy to power its development, or, the West needs to drastically cut its emissions to allow for rising Indian emissions in the coming years.”

Indian representatives at COP21 have said the country would cut back on coal if the Paris agreement ensures it receives international support that brings down the cost of expanding renewable energy.

“Solar and wind is our first commitment. Hydro, nuclear, all of these non-carbon sources are what we will develop to the largest extent we can,” Ajay Mathur, the director of India’s Bureau of Energy Efficiency, was quoted by the Associated Press as saying. “What cannot be met by these would be met by coal,” he added.

A preliminary estimate by Indian authorities suggests that at least $2.5 trillion will be required for meeting India’s climate change actions in the next 15 years. They are to be met from domestic sources and leveraging of financial commitments made by developed countries, said Indian Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar in early December. Three-quarters of that investment is expected to go into the power sector.

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivers a speech during the launching of the International Solar Alliance on the opening day of the World Climate Change Conference 2015 (COP21) at Le Bourget, near Paris, France, November 30, 2015 (Photo: REUTERS/Jacky Naegelen)‘We still need conventional energy,” says PM Modi


Bill Hare, a lead author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and founder of climate research group Climate Analytics, believes the financial effort would be worth it. The expert warns that India would be making a very risky investment for its sustainable development by going too much further into coal when the alternatives are not only cheaper and more cost effective but also place a much lower environmental, health and damage burden on the country.

“So from the development point of view, I think India has some stark choices ahead of it. If it goes into coal it will not contain its air pollution problems; if it goes into renewables, it will have a much better chance of a sustainable future,” said Hare.

There’s currently a lot of talk about liquefied natural gas (LNG) opportunities in India. LNG is not as polluting as coal and oil, and India has explored possible cooperative opportunities with Australia and other countries to allow for import arrangements, said analyst Kugelman. But this is all preliminary. “For now, coal will remain king in India. And that’s a troubling prospect for the delegates in Paris,” said the India expert.

Pivotal role in COP21

India’s role in the ongoing COP21 talks is seen as pivotal – not least by virtue of its size, stature and emissions record. “India enters this climate summit with such looming development challenges, such capacity for innovation, and on such a growth trajectory that it is an indispensable nation in any meaningful global approach to climate change”, said analyst Livingston.

An agreement without India’s participation would not only be “practically impossible” under the legal structures of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) but would also lack credibility, the climate expert added, “The country on pace to becoming the world’s largest emitter in a few decades time simply cannot be left behind,” he said.

Indian labourers prepare the flooded field for rice farming as chimneys of Kolaghat Thermal Power Plant are seen in the background in Mecheda around 85 kms south-west of Kolkata on July 26, 2011 (Photo: DIBYANGSHU SARKAR/AFP/GettyImages)

India’s role in the Paris climate talks is seen as pivotal


Analyst Saran has a similar view. “India’s role at COP21 is critical. Unless a global agreement takes into account the concerns of one-sixth of humanity, it is destined to end in failure,” he said. Without financial support and technology flows from developed nations it is likely that developing nations such as India will continue to turn to cheap, highly-polluting coal to meet their development needs.

A change in economics?

But experts say that over time, the relative economics of conventional energy and new, clean technologies will change dramatically. A recent study from MIT has shown that we can expect the cost of wind energy to fall by around 25 percent, and solar by around 50 percent, based on anticipated investment, past trends and technology cost floors.

“The implications of this are tremendous – it means that by 2030, both technologies would represent a negative cost of carbon abatement relative to coal in many areas. The logic of climate action would finally be articulated in the crude but compelling logic of economics, and this is a development that India, nor any other nation, could afford to ignore,” said Carnegie expert Livingston.

In the News, Water / Climate

‘India needs its own share of carbon space to grow’


Original link is here

With climate talks underway in Paris, DW talks to expert Samir Saran about the role New Delhi can play in the success of a global deal. Saran says that India’s concerns need to be addressed to yield positive results.

An Indian bystander watches as smoke rises from a cast iron factory at Howrah on the outskirts of Kolkata on July 9, 2008 (Photo: DESHAKALYAN CHOWDHURY/AFP/Getty Images)

DW: What role can India play in the ongoing UN climate summit in Paris (COP21)?

Samir Saran: India is the world’s third largest emitter and those emissions are only likely to grow over the coming decades. India’s population size means that unless a global agreement takes into account India’s concerns, it is destined to end in failure. The success of a global agreement is contingent on Indian participation and engagement.

India is also in the unique position of relating to both the developed and developing world and acting as a bridge between the two. Its arguments of common but differentiated responsibility strike a chord with poor countries vulnerable to climate change and its own poor, who comprise one-third of the global poverty stricken populace.

Samir Saran

Saran: ‘The success of a global agreement is contingent on Indian participation and engagement’


On the other hand, its entrepreneurial and industrial classes are throwing their weight behind ambitious action and leadership on climate change, which is increasingly matching that of developed nations, and in some cases even outstripping them.

For example, India spends more of its GDP on renewable power than US, China or Japan. India’s role at the COP21 is critical for these reasons.

How can India ensure that its economic development does not have a negative impact on the environment?

This is a false debate. The dichotomy of development and environmental impact is an orientalist concept. India needs its own fair share of carbon space to grow. There are two ways that can happen: either the west can provide the necessary scale of finance and clean technology that will enable India to rapidly deploy renewable energy to power its development, or, the West needs to drastically cut its emissions to allow for rising Indian emissions in the coming years.

As for what is at stake, we live climate change realities every day in India, whether it is rising air pollution levels in Delhi or floods in Chennai. We are acutely aware of human impact on the environment and its consequences. You won’t find any climate change deniers in India.

Climate impacts are inequitable and India’s poor are the most vulnerable to extreme weather events and natural disasters that are linked to climate change. In India there are three types of victims, those who are victims of poverty, those who are victims of climate change, and those who are victims of both. Developmental plans and economic prosperity has to be safeguarded through adequate adaptation measures and ambitious climate action in the country.



COP21: Can India reconcile growth and environment?

India is among the countries most vulnerable to climate change. But as developing nation, it also faces a balancing act between reducing CO2 emissions and boosting economic growth. DW examines India’s role in COP21. (03.12.2015)

How can India capitalize on its population growth?

COP21: China’s climate efforts far from sufficient

On a global level, if India’s renewable energy industry takes off and we are able to scale up our clean energy capacity in line with the ambitious targets outlined by the government, it will be an example to the world.

We would be the first country in the world to transition to a middle income economy without having burnt its fair share of coal. That is an example that we can then export to other countries in Africa and Asia and help them along that same path, the benefits of which will be global. So the success of climate action in India is something the world has a stake in, not just Indian citizens. Which is why, receiving adequate support is crucial.

What is New Delhi’s position in the summit? What can government offer, and what does it demand from richer nations?

New Delhi’s position at COP21 is progressive, ambitious and forward looking. For its part, India is undertaking a massive, ambitious program of clean energy expansion, with a target of 175 GW of renewable energy by 2022. To put that number in perspective, India is basically planning to add more renewable energy capacity in the next seven years than Germany has added energy capacity in the previous 200 years of industrialization.

It has launched the Solar Coalition along with France to further push the solar agenda among countries receiving abundant sunshine. India has also committed to reducing the carbon intensity of its economy and to support its adaptation needs through domestic finance. These are significant commitments and arguably we have been more ambitious than is required by the principles of historical responsibility and national capability.

Indian joggers exercise on a smoggy morning near the India Gate monument in New Delhi (Photo: ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images)

For a climate agreement to be truly effective however, developed nations need to support finance and technology flows to developing countries such as India. We need support for our clean energy targets and we need support for nuclear power.

Over the next 20 years, India also needs to borrow roughly $1.8 – 1.9 trillion for infrastructure projects. But global financial institutions increasingly don’t want to invest in India’s infrastructure. The West is directing finance away from development to climate. That’s what we have to fight for. We need the West to not stop the 20th Century financing – roads, bridges, power plants – that are badly needed here.

Samir Saran is Senior Research Fellow and also Vice President responsible for Development and Outreach at the New Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation. He specializes in climate policy.

The interview was conducted by Gabriel Domínguez.

In the News

India’s most influential think-tanks

Prashant Jha, Hindustan Times, New Delhi, Aug 16, 2015 12:30 IST

Original link is here


The US capital is known for its think-tanks. They are often aligned to one of the two parties, the Democrats or the Republicans. Each time, there is a transfer of power after the elections and a new incumbent in White House, there is an exodus and influx in these institutes as sympathisers of the winning side are brought into government and those on the losing side look out for jobs in policy institutions. This lateral movement between governments, think-tanks, and even corporates lends US polity a distinct character.

New Delhi has always been more like London, albeit more closed. With a permanent bureaucracy, UK’s government does not get affected too drastically by a change in who occupies the Prime Ministerial residence at 10 Downing Street. The permanent establishment in India – the officials who belong to the elite all-India services – continue to run the show and influence policy and advise political leadership. Historian Srinath Raghavan says, “In both systems it is more difficult for outsiders to impact policy, which is bureaucracy-driven. This is particularly true in the foreign policy space.”

India is, however, at an interesting, though rather paradoxical, moment. On one hand, power is centralised under this government. The Prime Minister’s Office is driving policy across spheres. Nowhere is this truer than in the realm of security and foreign policy, where a very limited set of powerful individuals is calling the shots. The term of the last National Security Advisory Board (NSAB), which was the only mechanism for interaction between government and experts, ended over six months ago and no one is quite sure whether it will be reconstituted.

On the other hand, the system is indicating that it is more open to outside inputs and engagement. This is reflected through three developments. One, there is the rise of the think-tank with close party affiliations. When PM Narendra Modi took office, he appointed AK Doval as National Security Advisor and Nripendra Misra as Principal Secretary. Both were closely associated with the Vivekananda International Foundation. In the past year, the India Foundation has also gained prominence. IF’s driving force is Ram Madhav, a powerful BJP leader who has been laying the groundwork for the PM’s foreign visits and engaging with foreign interlocutors. Key cabinet ministers are among its members.


National Security Advisor Ajit Doval. (HT photo/ Vipin Kumar)

Two, Indian businesses have begun investing in creating policy research institutes and think-tanks, and the government has been engaging with such outfits. The Observer Research Foundation is supported by Reliance; the Ananta Aspen Centre has a group of business leaders funding their operations. Foreign think-tanks too have begun setting up their India operations. Brookings now has an India office, which again is supported by wealthy Indian business leaders. And Carnegie Endowment is expected to set up a local office by next year.

Three, when Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar took over office earlier this year, he made it clear that a key priority for him would be reviving the Policy Planning division of the Ministry of External Affairs. He brought in a new Joint Secretary, and indicated that the division would have more resources. It could hire experts from outside the government; and it was tasked to enhance engagement with the city’s think-tanks. The government has also appointed a new head for the MEA-supported think-tank, with a brief to ramp up its operations.

The state in India has historically been more open to outside expertise in the realm of the economy. From Manmohan Singh and Montek Singh Ahluwalia to Arvind Panagriya and Arvind Subramanian, the executive has brought in experts at the highest levels. The Niti Ayog itself has been envisaged as a think-tank.

While this has not extended to the strategic affairs space, things may slowly be changing. In this context, here’s a look at the city’s premier think-tanks, their areas of work, sources of funding, and role in shaping policy and engaging in wider public debates.

IDSA – inside the national-security state
After the debacle of the 1962 war with China, the government felt that it needed outside expertise on defence and security affairs. And thus was born the Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis (IDSA). The eminent strategic guru, K Subrahmanyam, played a key role in structuring the institute’s research. A key moment in its evolution was during the debate on whether India should go nuclear. IDSA came out strongly backing the strategic choice to go nuclear, shaped larger opinion, and conveyed India’s position to the global strategic community through Track 2 dialogues.

IDSA’s president is the Raksha Mantri; its annual report is tabled in parliament; and the funding is entirely by the Ministry of Defence. Serving officers of the armed forces come for a period of two years to gain a wider policy perspective. The institute’s infrastructure is the envy of all other think-tanks in town – its vast structure built on land leased by the government in Delhi’s cantonment area includes office space, housing for scholars and staff and guest accommodation. IDSA’s annual budget is about 14 crore and it has around 60 full-time researchers and scholars on its rolls.
But the direct link with government is also a weakness. It is seen as an extension of the MOD, with little autonomy.

Brigadier Rumel Dahiya, IDSA’s deputy director general, however, counters this perception. “We are not a part of government, and I have never seen anyone impose a government line on IDSA. What happens is the government takes note of our research, which is mostly in the public domain. They may sometimes ask us for more specific papers which we provide. We also get to know the general line of thinking in government but do not have access to confidential papers and documents,” he says.

Countering the criticism that the institute should be doing more given its resources, he said, “If you compare it to foreign think-tanks, our budget is adequate but minimal. We could send a larger number of scholars for field trips for longer duration if it increases.”

IDSA’s last Director General, Arvind Gupta, a former IFS officer, was appointed the Deputy National Security Advisor last year. Since then, there has been a leadership deficit at the institute as the Appointments Committee of the Cabinet has not picked a new DG.

ICWA- the diplomatic den
Set up in 1943, the Indian Council for World Affairs (ICWA) has an illustrious legacy – the Asian Relations Conference was convened here right before independence, which set the tone for Nehru’s policy emphasis on Asian unity.

The ICWA’s budget, according to its website, is around Rs 10 crore annually. Its chair is the Vice President of India and it is often the platform where key visiting dignitaries make their public speeches. Rajiv Bhatia, a retired diplomat, who just finished a three-year term as ICWA’s director, said the council’s activities included research and Track 2 exchanges. He added that, in recent years, they had made a concerted effort to work in Hindi and to reach out to the young.

But its problem, like IDSA’s, is that it is only seen as an extension of the ministry, in this case the MEA.

Bhatia counters this. “The ICWA is not a government think-tank. It is answerable only to the governing body and the direction in which the research happens is academically sound,” he says.

A criticism that ICWA has faced is that it has become a retiring home for diplomats. Some believe that academics should lead it as they would better understand research requirements and be inclined to shape the trajectory of younger academics.

Bhatia, however, feels that as former diplomats know the broad policy framework, they also know which areas need greater research. “It is a policy think-tank and need not be necessarily run by a professor,” he says. He concedes that a serving official running the council could pose credibility issues. “Having a retired ambassador however is a good via media.”

The government has recently appointed Nalin Surie, a well regarded retired diplomat, to ICWA with a brief to restructure the outfit and enhance its output. Whether Surie at ICWA – and the new appointee at IDSA – can walk the tightrope of being government supported yet independent and whether they can shore up quality will be an important test.

ORF – between government and business
If you are on any of New Delhi’s think-tank mailing lists, your inbox would often be flooded with mails from the Observer Research Foundation with an invite to their events – the frequency of which has only increased. This is not surprising given that ORF has grown five times in the last five years, and now has a budget of Rs 25 crore. By annual spending alone, this makes it the biggest think-tank in town.


Samir Saran, Vice president ORF.

Conceived in 1991 by Reliance founder Dhirubhai Ambani as a platform for his policymakers, scholars and journalists of different persuasions to devise pragmatic solutions and a liberal regime they were comfortable with, ORF spent its first decade focused on internal issues of economy. Since 2000, the conversation has expanded and now 80% of ORF’s work is centred on engagement with the outside world.

This, says Samir Saran, the man who has driven ORF’s growth in recent years, is natural because of the interconnectedness of internal and external issues. The presence of key thinkers on foreign policy like C Raja Mohan at ORF has added to its intellectual heft.

Reliance continues to support ORF. If, in 2009, 95% of the budget was provided by the company, it is now around 65% with the foundation diversifying its sources to include the government, private corporates, foreign foundations and others. There is also a trust that the ORF reports to, which is, on paper, independent of Reliance.

This relationship with Reliance has led to a key question: is it is appropriate for private corporates to try to influence policy, especially in sectors like energy and defence where they have other commercial interests?

Saran says, “Influence is a misplaced description. It is more investing in policy research institutions. Is it our intention to keep corporate India from investing in research and public policy studies or to keep out one set of actors from the debate? Policy making must not be the monopoly of any one set of actors and in recent times, many corporations and private entities have begun to invest in this space. This is a welcome trend and the more such institutions we have, the more irrelevant this question would be.”

He adds that it is only in India that private sector participation is looked down upon, whereas in the rest of the world, the ability to engage with all actors is appreciated. “Look, be it political think tanks, private think tanks or government think tanks, the more the better. Funding must be transparent; there must be no hidden strings attached; there must be full disclosure; and the research work must be professionally conducted. The consumer of research can then take an informed decision.”

ORF’s engagement with the government has also grown over the years. It now receives project-specific funding from the Ministry of External Affairs for studies on BRICS, Russia, climate and other thematic issues. It hosts a range of Track 2 dialogues with France, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Australia, BRICS and Track 1.5 dialogues where officials from both sides are present but without a formal agenda and format. It also hosts the Indian Ocean Dialogue and Blue Economies Forum and has other projects lined up with the government.

When asked about the government relationship, and whether this kind of support would compromise its independence, Saran says, “We are acutely aware of the need to balance a proximate relationship with the government that would allow enough distance to be able to conduct research freely and yet be cordial enough so that we would be able to share insights and ideas with institutions that are best placed to make use of them.” He says their approach is different from that of activists. “We believe it is possible to be critical without being adversarial.”

CPR – between academia and policy
Few individuals evoke the kind of respect that Pratap Bhanu Mehta does in India’s public sphere. A political theorist, constitutional scholar, policy analyst and prolific public commentator whose writings are taken seriously by those in power, Mehta has a full time day job – President and CEO of the Centre for Policy Research.

Over lunch at the Malcha Marg market close to the CPR office in Chanakyapuri, Mehta says he sees the role of CPR as being an ‘honest broker in a public argument’. For him, policy impact is not necessarily the hallmark of a successful think-tank. Mehta believes that the democratic public, rather than the state, needs to be the intended audience. “There is also a difference between the government listening to you and the government agreeing exactly with what you suggest. I would not like to carry the presumptive authority that the government in a democracy must agree.”

CPR itself is somewhat distinct as it is a cross between a think-tank and a research institution. “There are people here who would have been happy in universities too but find the independent research space congenial to work.” CPR has, Mehta says, historically been comfortable with people from different sides of the argument being in the same organisation with the operating assumption that it is on good faith. There is no CPR line and scholars are free to pursue their independent interests.

The centre now has an annual budget of Rs16 crore. As an Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR) recognised institution, it receives support from the government. It also gets funding from foreign foundations and private philanthropists.

Commenting on debates around foreign support, Mehta points out that institutions like the Ford Foundation were important in creating an independent, social science intellectual system in India. “From the Law Institute to CSDS to CPR, Ford played a big role. The key is funding should not have any strings attached.”


Pratap Bhanu Mehta, president and CEO of the Centre for Policy Research.

In the realm of foreign and security policy, Mehta, former diplomat Shyam Saran, economist Rajiv Kumar, and historian Srinath Raghavan – all at CPR now – were a part of the team that drafted Non-Alignment 2.0 (2012), an influential policy document on the direction Indian foreign policy should take. Saran was the chair of the National Security Advisory Board, with Raghavan as a member till recently. Brahma Chellaney and Bharat Karnad of the centre are also important voices in foreign policy debates. CPR also has expertise in climate change policy.

India Foundation – the inner chamber
With a board that includes the country’s railway minister Suresh Prabhu, MOS for finance Jayant Sinha, MOS for commerce Nirmala Sitharaman, the BJP’s powerful general secretary Ram Madhav, BJP Rajya Sabha MP MJ Akbar, and the son of the National Security Advisor, Shaurya Doval, there is little doubt that India Foundation is today the country’s most powerful think-tank.

When the IF convenes a meeting, everyone who is invited turns up. Just last week, RN Ravi, the government’s interlocutor for the Naga talks, addressed a closed door IF roundtable. Ravi himself was a part of IF activities till he was appointed interlocutor. Often held on Wednesdays, such meetings are moderated by MJ Akbar and have been addressed by the NSA, Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar, PDP leader Mehbooba Mufti, and Walter Anderson, a scholar specialising on the Sangh.

The IF has four core events every year. The India Ideas Conclave, held in Goa, is an attempt to create a new ‘ecosystem of the intellectual right’; the Counter Terrorism Conference, held in Jaipur, saw the cream of the security establishment and global experts participate; the Indian Economy Convention, organised by Shaurya Doval, was addressed by Modi before the elections and will be held next month in Delhi; and the Dharma-Dhamma conference will bring together ‘oriental religions’, Hinduism and Buddhism, in Indore this year.

Operating out of a small apartment on Hailey Road, the line between the government, party and the think-tank is clearly blurred in IF’s case – with overlapping loyalties of members. Unlike the US, where those who join government leave positions in think-tanks, that has not happened here. IF sources claim that is not necessary as the ministers are not receiving any salaries. This overlap makes it difficult to judge exactly how it influences policy. It happens as much through the informal network – a casual chat and phone conversation – as through any structured dialogue. IF sources are keen to clarify that it is not a party think-tank. The Shyama Prasad Research Foundation is officially linked to the BJP but it is mostly dormant. So the IF is as close to an influential party-affiliated think-tank as India has seen.

For its big events, the IF collaborates with outside institutions including state governments, public bodies and private foundations. Sources claim that it has limited resources, only a few full time staffers and does not engage in primary research. HT could not access the exact annual budget of the outfit. Doval was travelling outside the country when contacted for this story.

VIF – foot in the PMO
With both NSA Doval and the PM’s Principal Secretary Nripendra Misra having been closely associated with the Vivekananda International Foundation, it is no surprise that this became the most talked about think-tank in town when the new government was formed.

Built on land provided by the PV Narasimha Rao government, the vast and spacious VIF office is located in the city’s diplomatic enclave, Chanakyapuri. VIF’s core activities revolve around international relations, defence, economy, governance and historical and civilisational studies. In the last year, among other activities, it has engaged deeply with Chinese and US delegations and had Track 2 exchanges. It hosted the British and French defence ministers, convened meetings with over 20 foreign ambassadors, and hosted many seminars on relations with Pakistan.

General NC Vij, former army chief who took over as VIF director from Doval, believes the USP of the outfit is that it has a large number of senior people who have served in government. “They bring in vast amounts of experience. They are listened to because they are not prone to flights of fancy and provide practical advice.”

When asked if the presence of Doval in the PMO means that the VIF is close to the BJP and now the government, Vij says, “Doval had a strong independent identity even before he actively led the VIF. He was, after all, Director of IB. The government needs good professionals.”

Vij points out that it is a ‘small circle’ and people know each other but categorically asserts that the VIF is ‘independent’ and ‘apolitical’. “We have no links with any party. We don’t really see ourselves as influencing policy. Our role is to throw up ideas, offer opinions, and then it is up to the government to use it or not.”

The engagement with government however takes other forms. Reports of key seminars – with the Chinese ambassador or Pakistani high commissioner – are sent to authorities with relevant recommendations. Next month, the VIF is hosting a Global Hindu Buddhist Conference on Conflict Avoidance and Environmental Protection. This will be inaugurated by PM Modi, who has made the theme of Buddhism an important element of his cultural diplomacy.

The VIF takes no money from the government. “We are funded by the Vivekananda Kendra,” says Vij. The Kendra is headquartered in Kanyakumari and depends on donations. The VIF’s annual budget, according to its annual report, in 2013-14 was a little less than Rs3 crore.

Ananta Aspen Centre – convening dialogues
The first thing that Kiran Pasricha, the executive director of the Ananta Aspen Centre, likes to clarify is that the organisation is not a branch office or an India chapter of the Aspen Institute.

Run out of Thapar House on Janpath, the Centre was initially a result of collaboration between CII and Aspen – but over the years, while it has relationships with both, it has evolved into an autonomous entity. It views itself as being primarily a convening body for discussions on diverse themes with a diverse set of interlocutors, and not as a research-based outfit. Ananta has a good relationship with the government. It convenes over ten strategic dialogues with countries like China, Japan, Singapore, Israel, Turkey, and Bhutan.

Some have become Track 1.5 in nature, because of the presence of a relevant Joint Secretary from the MEA or the Indian ambassador when it is happening outside the country. Visiting delegations also get to meet the local government, including senior ministers. And events hosted by the centre have seen high level government participation including of NSA Doval and cabinet ministers. Its current chair is SK Lambah, a former diplomat who served as the special envoy for Pakistan.

It takes no money from the government but derives its support from members of the Board of Trustees. The board includes top industrialists and business leaders like Gautam Thapar, CK Birla, Sanjiv Goenka, Naina Lal Kidwai, and Anu Aga.

When asked if this means that the centre is a medium for Indian business to push its interests, Pasricha is emphatic. “No. Our funding is not from any one business house but is diversified. Our board also includes MPs and distinguished intellectuals who guide programmes. And none or our events have been used by any delegates to push their business interests,” he says.

Revenues are also raised through a separate organization, the Ananta Centre, which is for profit. Its chair is Jamshyd Godrej. The organisation also runs leadership programmes. The combined budget of both is about Rs 5.5 crore.

In the News

Obama Discusses Cybersecurity with India

Collaboration Has Potential to Improve Bilateral Ties

By Varun Haran, January 26, 2015
Original link is here 
Obama Discusses Cybersecurity with India

Cybersecurity was among the topics discussed by President Barack Obama and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the U.S. president’s visit to India. Obama is in India as the chief guest at the Indian Republic Day parade, which was held on Jan. 26.

“It was identified as an area where there can be increased cooperation,” U.S. Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes said during a press briefing in New Delhi on Jan. 26. “The cyber discussion came up specifically in that context with the need to protect intellectual property

Obama picked up on that theme at a dinner hosted by the U.S.-India Business Council. “In knowledge-based economies, entrepreneurs and innovators need to feel confident that their hard work and, in particular, their intellectual property will be protected,” the president said.

In a joint U.S.-India statement, both leaders noted their growing cooperation on battling cybercrime and its “serious risks to national and economic security from malicious cyber-activity and agreed to cooperate on enhancing operational sharing of cyberthreat information, examining how international law applies in cyberspace and working together to build agreement on norms of responsible state behavior.”

Meaningful Dialogue on Cybersecurity

Such cooperation may be inevitable, considering that the two democracies share common values and face similar cybersecurity challenges, especially in the face of China’s potential emergence as a cyber superpower. Meanwhile, India is poised to take up a leadership role in cyberspace and become one of the largest digital economies in the world, fueled by its potential user base and its proven expertise in services and software technology. Obama’s visit may be a good place to start a meaningful bilateral dialogue on cybersecurity (see A Boost for Indo-U.S. Cyber Cooperation).

Dr. Cherian Samuel, associate fellow at the Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses in New Delhi, notes that earlier attempts at cybersecurity cooperation foundered on the twin rocks of distrust and neglect. “If anything, global mistrust on cybersecurity cooperation has only increased with the Snowden revelations,” he says.

Security experts, however, say that given most major Internet and technology companies are American, and much of the Internet infrastructure is located in the U.S., there are still many areas where meaningful cooperation is possible – particularly in law enforcement, technology and information sharing.

“Collaboration in cybersecurity has the potential to enhance the bilateral partnership, while addressing an issue of strategic importance to both states,” says Jennifer McArdle, research associate at the Arlington, Va.-based Potomac Institute for Policy Studies.

Basis for Cyber Cooperation

The benefits of collaboration are mutual. While the U.S. can benefit from India’s dynamic human enterprise and scientific talent pool, India can benefit from U.S. cutting-edge science in cybersecurity, potential lessons learned from the development of a central cyber command, and established processes and norms, particularly with regard to hardware and supply chain security.

The ability to ensure “trust” in the microelectronics that underlie critical infrastructure and military systems is of utmost importance, experts say. Samir Saran, senior fellow and vice president at the Observer Research Foundation, a Delhi-based think-tank, says India’s hardware and supply chain depend on “dubious” sources, which may carry engineered backdoors and weaknesses, will continue in order to fulfill increasing demand in the digital age.

“The U.S. needs to help India build capacity through technology transfer in fabrication, semi-conductors, etc., or U.S. interests may be at risk as well, given its close ties to India’s digital economy – soon to be one of the largest in the world,” Saran says.

Dr. Ashwini Sharma, managing director of the National Institute of Electronics and Information Technology, the HRD arm of the Department of Electronics and Information Technology, says that with the present government’s emphasis on “Digital India” and “Make in India,” it is imperative that India enlist U.S. help in better understanding the challenges faced, “especiallycapacity building of citizens, financial institutions and technical institutions in cybersecurity.”

Existing Indo-U.S. Arrangements

At first glance, it may seem that India and the U.S. have the beginnings of a robust cyber engagement. In June 2013, during the 4th Indo-U.S. strategic dialogue between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and India’s former Minister of External Affairs Salman Khurshid, both parties emphasized the need to develop stronger cybersecurity partnerships through the next iteration of consultations, cyber policy dialogue and joint working groups.

India and the U.S. had signed a memorandum of understanding on cybersecurity in July 2011 as a part of the Homeland Security Dialogue. The memorandum established best practices for the exchange of critical cybersecurity information and expertise among the respective governments, CERTs, broader cybersecurity communities and their counterparts on a range of technical and operational cyber issues.

An Indo-U.S. Cyber Security Forum was set up as early as 2002. The motivation on the U.S. side was to safeguard the interests of U.S. companies outsourcing to India. On the Indian side, the emphasis was on capacity building, research and development, Samuel says. “Five working groups were established under the aegis of the Forum,” he says. “Since then, cooperation has been spotty and episodic.”

CERT-In and U.S.-CERT currently have monthly operational meetings to address cyber issues, andperiodic meetings are held between collaborative groups such as the ICT and other joint working groups. More recently, Christopher Painter, U.S. Coordinator for Cyber Issues,traveled to New Delhi in October 2014 to meet with officials from the National Security Council and other ministries.

PIPS’ McArdle says that despite these and other measures, the Indo-U.S. cyber engagement lacks substantive progress. “There is a need to build trust, develop capacity and better align interests in the two capitals.”

Potential Action Items

Many lessons can be learned from studying U.S. cybersecurity programs, experts say. The scope of cybersecurity today entails broader issues, such as access, jurisdiction, e-commerce, entrepreneurship, information sharing, capacity building and enforcement. “There is scope for cooperation in each of these areas, but the devil is in the details,” Samuel says.

ORF’s Saran agrees there is a need for a much wider conversation than just between the information security institutions of the two countries. “Indo-U.S. cooperation in cybersecurity must entail addressing issues around Internet governance framework and the safeguarding of national strategic interests in cyberspace,” he says.

India’s interests need to be taken into account at engagements of multilateral, multistakeholder organizations, such as the GGE, ICANN, ITU and similar forums. Indo-U.S. cooperation at each of these forums must be enhanced, and joint working groups and other touch-points need to be strengthened.

The weaponization of cyberspace is another important concern, Saran says.

“With nation-states resorting to strategic cyberweapons without attribution, to further national interests, friendly countries like the U.S. and India need to formulate norms around the usage of these weapons,” he says.

Saran warns against the danger of digital/cyber non-proliferation agreements developing between key players, such as China and the U.S., similar to the arms control arrangements between U.S. and USSR in the 20th century. India may be left as a bystander if it does not get involved.

A cybersecurity program that focuses on scientific and technical engagement could reap enormous benefits for both India and the U.S.

“Designing a program that transcends rigidly delineated government-to-government programs, and builds public-private cybersecurity cooperative initiatives with academia, labs and industry could help build trust,” says PIPS’ McArdle. While India has wanted deeper scientific and technical cooperation in cybersecurity, no such program currently exists.

The current mechanisms for sourcing information are archaic and out-of-sync with the requirements of law enforcement agencies today, Samuel says. Bilateral mechanisms to enable information sharing for law enforcement purposes should be pushed from an Indian perspective.

“While the mantra of an open, global and secure cyberspace is still repeated ad infinitum, it seems like these are all mutually exclusive goals,” he says. Insecurity abounds, with a plethora of actors engaging in unchecked malicious activity. The big picture should be to work on bilateral norms to secure a borderless cyberspace, he says.

In the News

Embrace of Social Media Aids Flood Victims in Kashmir

Asia Pacific, New York Times

Original link is here

SRINAGAR, Kashmir — Early this week, as the flooding in Kashmir was entering a new and terrifying phase, the Indian Army’s public information office received a call from Raheel Khursheed, a former journalist and digital obsessive who serves as the director of news, politics and government at Twitter India. He had a proposal.

Over the weekend, floodwaters had inundated ground-floor equipment rooms for most of the region’s telecommunications service providers, crashing cellphone networks across the state. Local officials had no way to contact the federal government, or one another, or the army, which had been mobilized as part of a rescue effort. Though the army has satellite phones, they were of little help without knowing where people were waiting for rescue.

There was one place where information was flowing at a nearly unmanageable volume, and that was on social media.


Distributing relief goods in Srinagar, Kashmir, on Friday. With telecommunications largely knocked out, social media has helped rescuers locate people.

So many messages were surging into Twitter under the hashtag #KashmirFloods that on Tuesday Mr. Khursheed’s colleagues commissioned a piece of code that could winnow out those that identified stranded people. He then called the Indian Army — which has only two officers permanently assigned to monitor social-media postings — to offer the authorities a slimmed-down, organized feed that he described as “a continuously updating stream of ‘save me’s”.


More than 400 people have died in the disaster in India and Pakistan, while some 130,000 have been rescued from the flood zone, authorities said.

“We are always organizing data at Twitter,” said Mr. Khursheed, 31. “It just seemed to me to be the most obvious thing to do: How is it that we can, as a platform, make it easier for the army to do what it needs to do?”

In this week’s frantic rescue effort, one unexpected development is thearmy’s use of Twitter, WhatsApp, a messaging service, and Facebook to reach families. Twenty years ago, when social media first emerged, India’s government — like its counterparts in Beijing and Moscow — regarded it warily, as a force that could undermine state power. In the restive, majority-Muslim region of Kashmir, in particular, state authorities have been swift to block access to material they considered incendiary.

However, as this week’s rescue efforts suggest, “the government is now seeking to conduct its business through these media,” said Samir Saran, a policy analyst who worked as telecommunications executive in the early 2000s. One driver of this change, he said, is the new prime minister,Narendra Modi, who regards social media as a central link to the public. Mr. Modi’s example has filtered through the system.

“If they see a man at the top embracing this form of communication — when you have someone who is bypassing traditional media and communicating this way — that is a sign,” said Mr. Saran, a senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, a policy research group based in New Delhi. “You don’t have to be told more.”

Relief efforts continued on Friday in Srinagar, where rescue workers described watching people tie bodies to trees and electrical poles to keep them from washing away. Facing mounting public anger, Omar Abdullah, the chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir State, told NDTV, an Indian news channel, that during the first days of the crisis, as floodwaters inundated the capital, “I had no government.”


“My secretariat, the police headquarters, the control room, fire services, hospitals, all the infrastructure was underwater,” he said. “I had no cellphone and no connectivity. I am now starting to track down ministers and officers. Today I met ministers who were swept up by the floods.”

The authorities said Friday that 130,000 people had been rescued from the flood zone. More than 400 have died in the disaster in India and Pakistan.

In a near communications vacuum, 3G Internet connections remained usable, and those lucky enough to have them found themselves inundated with distress calls.

Manisha Kaul, 21, who was carried to safety on a raft on Tuesday, discovered that her telephone number had been published on Facebook. She receives five or six text messages a day from strangers, describing their relatives and asking her to let them know if she spotted them. She delivers a daily list to a search-and-rescue headquarters. “Under the circumstances,” she said, “this is the best we can do.”

At Twitter India, the goal was to prune some 400,000 flood-related messages into a “smartfeed,” something that has been done for sports, news and live events, but never for an emergency. The list of distress calls would then be sent in multiple directions, feeding into a “Person Finder” built byGoogle and provided to the army’s public information office, which had previously consulted with Mr. Khursheed about using social media.

Maj. Gen. Shokin Chauhan, who leads the office, said the stream of information was reviewed by “a dedicated team of two young officers who handle the social media,” and who were “working practically around the clock.”

He said the army had assisted about 12,000 people whose cases were reported over social media.

This week, Mr. Saran recalled that some Indian leaders had inveighed against social media as recently as February. The home minister then, Sushil Kumar Shinde, who was upset by reports that the Congress party would perform badly in parliamentary elections, vowed to use state intelligence to “crush such elements in the electronic media, which are indulging in false propaganda.”

But that resistance faded as political parties adopted social-media strategies, again as a result of Mr. Modi’s election.

The number of Internet users in India is expected to surpass that of the United States this year, according to a study released by Google India and A. T. Kearney. It also predicted that the number of mobile-Internet users in India would triple by 2017, to 480 million from 155 million. As a platform, Mr. Saran said, social media is already integrated into India’s often lively public debate.

“We enjoy it, because India loves melodrama,” Mr. Saran said. “Unless we can hear people screaming and shouting and abusing each other, we aren’t happy. We are bitter, we are angry, we are loud, and at the end of the day, everyone in his own way is loving to be an Indian.”

Hari Kumar contributed reporting from New Delhi.






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