D. Dhanuraj, Founder chairman of the Centre for Public Policy Research (CPPR)

3 May 2020

The Centre for Public Policy Research (CPPR) is an independent public policy organisation dedicated to in-depth research and scientific analysis with the objective of delivering actionable ideas that could transform society. CPPR is based in Kochi, Kerala State, India. D. Dhanuraj is the founder chairman of CPPR. Dr. Annapoorna Ravichander, editor at large for South Asia at On Think Tanks, conducted this interview.

Annapoorna Ravichander: How would you define a think tank?

D. Dhanuraj: Think tanks are organisations with expertise in one or more areas related to the public policies of the state. The idea is to give insights and expert views in the field of knowledge to stakeholders, as well as to the general public. Their duty lies at five levels: ideate, innovate, inform, influence, and provide insight. The activities of a think tank are similar to an academic institute, but dissimilar in the way operations are conducted or carried out. Think tanks have less time to respond to the issues and challenges emerging in their focus areas, so thinktankers should be very competitive and ready to learn new topics and content on a day-to-day basis.

AR: What were the main challenges faced in becoming the founder chairman?

DD: These were some of the challenges I faced:

  1. Setting up systems and processes relevant for think tanks
  2. Updating and keeping interest in topics of the institutions
  3. Training researchers and preparing them for bigger assignments
  4. Wearing the hat of a social entrepreneur and also of an academic
  5. Becoming involved in educational work while continuing networking activities satisfactorily

AR: What kind of support or services does CPPR (and other similar organisations ) need to meet its objectives?

DD: Think tanks in India are still fairly new. The culture is evolving. Unlike their counterparts in the western world, think tanks in India have limited patronage. This raises challenges on the sustainability front. The governments should be open to the role of the think tanks and acknowledge them, since the government is the ultimate beneficiary. The economic growth of the country may help think tanks in the long-run as more funds and philanthropists may start supporting the work done by these organisations. Freedom of expression is another essential factor that needs to be guaranteed for think tanks to be able to meet their objectives.

AR: In your opinion, what are the best ways that think tanks can work together? Are there any best practices you would recommend? 

DD: Think tanks should share their opinions and ideas amongst their network. The established think tanks should believe in co-creation of values and support in building the competency in the emerging ones. This could be done by sharing their publications and articles on the social media platforms of other think tanks. Conferences and meet-ups in the think tank communities would also be useful.

AR: How do you maintain independence from your donors?

DD: My experience is that donors don’t get into your work if the terms and references are clearly defined in advance. Instead of approaching the donors, they will be coming to you if your institution establishes credibility and publishes good quality work. This will help the think tank to take their position independently. Moreover, it depends on the value system that a management and the team cultivate over a period of time. If the value system is of openness with a transparent engagement with the donor, there will not be any avenue for the donor to intervene in your work.

AR: How do you establish your research agenda? How do you ensure policy relevance?

DD: A think tank needs a track record and competence to set its research agenda. It also depends on the competency of the team and their exposure and experience. The team should be ready to read and learn about various changes and challenges emerging in their respective fields of expertise from time to time. One can also prioritise the areas according to the larger public policy issues discussed at the local, national or international levels according to the bandwidth, expertise and interests of the team.

AR: What is your organisation’s contribution to public policy in your country?

DD: We have worked locally and nationally. Many of our policy recommendations in the last fifteen years have been accepted by the respective governments or by their departments. There are major success stores at the national and also at the state level. We have worked in more than 70 cities in India and more than 23 states on different project requirements.

AR: Where do you see the gaps in the regional policy research landscapes?

DD: There are many challenges at the regional level. One is the openness of the government in power to think tanks. Second is the data availability and its reliability. There is a gap in the number of think tanks operating in India. For a country with a population of 1.3 billion, India should have thousands of them and many of them could work on local policymaking and have a focus on the urban and rural areas. This layer is missing in India. Also, most of governments are not in favour of the consultation. Finally, higher education institutions and universities are also not performing on high standards, which diminishes the scope of local think tanks.