Dr. Annapoorna Ravichander, editor at large for South Asia at On Think Tanks interviewed Gurucharan G, director at Public Affairs Centre (PAC) in Bengaluru, as part of the series on South Asian Executive Directors.
Annapoorna Ravichander: Can you please give us a brief background about yourself before becoming the director of PAC? How did you get into the world of think tanks?
Gurucharan G: I was a civil servant all my professional life and had spent over 38 years in public governance and the public sector, across different domains. As a member of the prestigious Indian Administrative Service (IAS) I had the privilege of serving in the higher echelons of the government of India as well as the state government of Karnataka, retiring as Secretary to the Government of India. This had given me the unique opportunity of a ringside view of development praxis – policy making and programme implementation – and the experience of working closely with the communities that I was posted to serve. Striving to improve the quality of governance to improve development outcomes became the dominant work ethic in my professional life. It is with a deep sense of satisfaction that I look back on the journey that has taken me through the backward by lanes of rural India, the dusty potholed streets of cities, and the corridors of power. This first-hand experience has been invaluable.
Following my retirement from government at the end of 2016 I decided to remain actively engaged in public governance, but this time as a non-government actor. I wanted to approach the development process bottom-up from the perspective of the community. A couple of years prior to my retirement Dr. Samuel Paul, the founder of Public Affairs Centre (PAC), had suggested that I consider taking up the responsibility of leading the centre. But at the time I was in the midst of important assignments in the federal government and had to decline the offer. Serendipitously, two years later while I was poring over the Economic and Political Weekly (EPW), by far my favourite serious reading, I stumbled upon an advertisement calling for applications for the position of director at Public Affairs Centre. I applied, was interviewed, and was selected. In my role as director, I provide strategic leadership to a talented young team engaged in action research centred around the sustainable development agenda 2030. Our focus is on working with the community at the last mile.
AR: What have been the biggest challenges you have faced or expect to face? How are you addressing them?
GG: Two principal challenges are central to our work.
The first is to understand the patterns of exclusion emerging in India’s development path. Doubtless, India has made remarkable all-round progress on human development and remains one of the fastest growing economies. Yet, large swathes of poverty – of health, education and livelihoods – persist. This remainder represents the hard end of the development challenge. To understand why exclusion occurs and how – understanding the structure and agency issues – is a necessary condition to make meaningful interventions if we are to leave no one behind and achieve the SDG goals in substantial measure.
The second is to enhance community agency – the capacity to participate in development governance not as mere beneficiaries but as equal partners. How to democratise development by raising awareness, informed advocacy, and outcome-based action in the communities that we work with represents a strategic objective of action research.
Our experience teaches us that evidence based and community led action research is critical to make interventions that can be the basis for a step change in the power relations in the community. We recognise the importance of data analytics in development. Our primary thrust is therefore on open data research using government data and partnering with governments. The second is to reinforce the principle of subsidiarity by working with the community to strengthen community-based organisations in the human development sectors – health, education and gender.
AR: Funding from TTI is coming to an end soon. How is this going to affect PAC? Are you ready for “life after TTI”?
GG: The Think Tank Initiative was intended to be strategically aimed at building organisational capabilities for medium to long term sustainability. Hence, in PAC we targeted two key outcomes – enhancing research quality and policy engagement. This has helped strengthen the breadth and depth of the work we do and also frame our research to cater to a diverse set of projects partnering governments, international organisations, and think tanks. Our ability to influence policy is growing. We have begun our journey on a sustainable path of becoming a credible and influential think tank and the TTI has played the catalyst in this process.
AR: What do you think are the main roles of think tanks in modern India? What is the context in which think tanks operate in India? Is it conducive to your work?
GG: Think tanks have an important role in any society, but this role is sharply enhanced in developing societies. In essence, a think tank must do three things at all times: speak truth to power, give voice to the community to hold the state to account, and help improve the quality of governance for better development outcomes.
India is at heart a liberal democracy and a plural society. India has a progressive constitution that provides the basis for individual freedoms. It also casts responsibility on the state to ensure liberty, equality and justice for all. While in practice there may be some instances of transgressions of these principles, as a society of over 1.2 billion people of different languages, ethnicities and faiths, India is an exemplar of the freedom and considerable space provided to non-state actors to engage constructively in the development space. PAC partners with diverse stakeholders including governments and we find the action research process and the environment that circumscribes our work conducive and open.
AR: What are the biggest challenges and opportunities for think tanks in India today?
GG: The biggest challenges for think tanks in India today are to produce high quality impactful research, with insights that can be transformational, and adding new knowledge to the human development discourse. In many ways, this will determine which think tanks remain relevant and which will fall by the wayside. Much of the dominant discourse at a global level has been led disproportionately by think tanks and researchers from the global north, often, I dare say, with less than credible knowledge or understanding of the realities on the ground. This is beginning to change. Exceptionally good research is now emerging in the global south and particularly from India. At PAC, we aspire to be at the frontiers of this process of change and build on this enormous opportunity before us.
AR: In your opinion what does the future hold?
GG: From a community perspective, I see the role of the state in the development process diminishing across the world. This will mean greater responsibilities will have to be shouldered by the market and the community. From a sustainability perspective, we are beginning to see the far-reaching consequences of ecological degradation and climate change manifesting in extreme climate events that are jeopardising the lives of millions of people. Local action to address global problems is no more a choice but an imperative. Finally, the pace of technological change is transforming life and our world as we know it.
The principal question of the future is emerging at the intersection of these three grand processes: how do we ensure and sustain an equitable, just, and humane society. How we address this question will in substantive ways determine the future of mankind.