August 7, 2018

Opinion

Indian think tanks: the challenges they face

Due to the nature of their work and the fact that their main client is the government, Indian think tanks face several challenges to continue their work and to ensure they continue to engage with policymakers.+

In the article Why think tanks struggle in India (2013),+ Goyal and Srinivasan demarcate some areas considered as challenges for think tanks in India. These include insufficient funding, lack of skilled staff, and limited support from the government.

While there is a general understanding of the challenges think tanks face, there is not a lot of literature available on these. This analysis is based on the scant literature available, discussions with relevant sources and my own analysis.+

Funding support

Several think tanks in India are facing a funding crisis. Funding is often allocated to a particular aspect and does not cover operational costs such as human resources, communications and visibility activities. Think tanks also find it difficult to develop their own research agendas, as funding is almost always tied to particular research projects. Fortunately, several donors have begun to work as partners to think tanks, allowing them to use core grants freely and effectively. This has not only helped several think tanks focus on specific research topics- it has allowed them to take big steps in identifying challenging and topical issues which respond to the needs of the country.

Funder-led research agenda

Many think tanks face the challenge of complying with the needs of a funder or donor agency when designing their research agenda. This means that, often, research projects are prioritised either based on the funding received for a particular project, or on available funds (which is often rare). A lot depends on the requirements of a donor agency rather than what a think tank wants to research.

Need for appropriate staffing

Lack of funding directly affects human resources. Think tanks with limited funding have to settle with hiring staff who may not have the required background or who are not qualified to conduct rigorous research.

In some cases, think tanks are commissioned by the government to conduct studies. For example, the Centre for Study of Science, Technology and Policy (CSTEP) works on projects that are of great importance to both the national and state governments. Public Affairs Centre (PAC), a think tank based in Bengaluru, works closely with the state government. As a result, staff hiring is planned to accommodate project needs and leaves no budget for training and staff development. This results in interrupted staff development plans, capacity building activities and strategies to retain staff for longer terms.

When it comes to staff retention, think tanks face other challenges as well. The emergence of research labs and Research and Development (R&D) set-ups in corporate and niche private organisations offer researchers better and more stable employment opportunities. This results in high rotation of staff, influencing the quality of the research produced.

Lack of high-quality research

Given the nature of the work of many think tanks in India, they often interact with various departments in the government and access to data is important for some of the research they conduct. Many of these organisations depend on government departments for their data, which can be a cumbersome process. Several government departments are wary of sharing data and this hampers the quality of their research. This has now reduced considerably due to the Rights of Information Act (RTA), which allows a citizen to request information from a government department, but access to the data is still a cumbersome process.

The lack of appropriately trained and experienced staff also hampers the quality of research. To address this, some think tanks have capacity building workshops focussed on some of the basic skills to enhance the research quality.+

Stakeholder dynamics

Most think tanks are actively working with different stakeholders who can influence what research the organisation conducts. In some cases, an amalgamation of academia, think tanks and government join to work on a common project. However, the uniqueness of the working models of each of these actors sometimes lead to long and overly complicated processes.

Funding challenges and difficulties

There has been significant reluctance from the Indian government and industry to support think tanks. In an editorial in 2010, Anshu Bharadwaj, the executive director at CSTEP, mentioned the following reasons for the lack of government support:

“Seeking government support is hard for most TTs, for several reasons. First, there is a lack of confidence in the abilities of TTs to make high-quality and relevant contributions. Second, there is often mistrust about their ideology and agenda. Finally, even if the government is convinced to engage with a TT, complicated rules and procedures come in the way of providing the desired level of financial support.”+

Hence, the Indian think tank ecosystem has been nurtured significantly by foreign funders. In India, think tanks are required to complete legal formalities to receive foreign funding. Unfortunately, this is not happening across all organisations and, as a result, they miss out on potential funding from foreign agencies. From a legal perspective, Indian think tanks and foreign funding agencies operating in India need to abide by two important legislations:

  • Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA), 2010 is a legislation that requires all NGOs receiving funding from foreign (non-Indian) sources to register themselves with the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA). The legislation also mandates these organisations to submit annual financial reports, obtain prior permission for receiving funds and renew their FCRA registration. In 2015, in order to ease the process for NGOs, the government digitised the entire process.
  • Foreign Exchange Management Act, 1999 (FEMA): Legal requirement for foreign funders to obtain permission for fund dispersal. Thus, even if a funder such as USAID or Ford Foundation is supporting a project that is being carried out by a government-funded TT, it needs to register itself under FEMA.

In 2010, due to ‘lack of transparency among NGOs receiving foreign contributions’, FCRA regulations were strengthened. As a result, in 2012, the Indian NGO sector, including several think tanks, received a major setback: the government cancelled their FCRA certificates and froze their bank accounts. “Citing national security concerns, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) has placed major US-based funding agencies under the scanner and directed beneficiary NGOs to get their permits renewed every five years.” In 2014 and then again in 2015, the Narendra Modi government continued the trend by revoking the FCRA certificates of several NGOs including universities and think tanks for lack of complying with financial disclosure requirements.

How can these challenges be overcome?

To overcome some of the challenges they are facing, Indian think tanks have embarked in new initiatives to chart sustainable growth pathways for themselves.

For instance, in India, communication and outreach is a new concept. Not all think tanks have a dedicated communicator/communication team. It is only after the introduction of the PEC-PAC programme by the Think Tank Initiative (TTI) that several think tanks in India +

Gaining credibility and recognition from the government for supporting policy initiatives is a major challenge in India. As a solution, one strategy worth considering is indirect attribution: when a government announces a scheme or policy that is based on evidence provided by a particular think tank, it can start dialogues on social media and via comments on news articles stating their contribution.

Vanesa Weyrauch (2015) points out in a post on Research to Action that there are varying notions of collaboration – it is a very heterogeneous group of vertical and horizontal relationships and experiences, ranging from a tour to learn from another relationship and experience, to a tour to learn from another think tank, to co-organising an event, to implementing a joint research project.+

In today’s globalised age, no country or its government exists in isolation. Public policies in all spheres are successful only when they are in tune with the developments taking place across the globe. Thus, Indian think tanks are entering into collaborative initiatives with different stakeholders including private sector firms, industries, media and civil society organisations to act as agents of cohesion.

In the coming decades, the economic and political integration of nations is inevitable and sound, evidence-based policy research will be required for stable and sustainable development. If India is to maintain the stature it has achieved in the global platform, then research inputs provided by think tanks in every sphere of governance will be essential for formulating strong and holistic policies for the nation.


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About the author:

Annapoorna Ravichander:  Head of policy engagement and communication at Public Affairs Centre in Bengaluru, India, and On Think Tanks Editor at Large for South Asia.

Read more from: Annapoorna Ravichander

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