More on think tanks in India, what are they like?

25 August 2014
SERIES Think tanks: definition and terminology 17 items

Having read Enrique’s post “Think tanks are on the agenda in India: Skills, Scale and Speed” I couldn’t help sending him an email right away saying how much I liked it and how interesting it was to observe the change in the BRICS and how this affects the international balance of power. We have very interesting times ahead. As a follow up on that blog I offered to share some findings from a (pretty descriptive) study I carried out last year on economic think tanks in BRICS. I will focus here on India first (this blog post is just a summary of the main points, to access the full study please get in touch with me).

Origin and type

In India, the responsibility to shape public policies has traditionally been with the Planning Commission. This organ has been the traditional source of knowledge for economic decisions and agglomerated researchers that returned to India after studying abroad. During the sixties, the Ford Foundation came forward to strengthen and create new institutions (for example the Institute of Economic Growth was created in these years). During this phase, the government also started funding institutions and the influence of the Planning Commission declined. However, the new organisations were financially dependent on the government and the Commission. As a reaction, in the past 25 years, a new generation of institutions has emerged, claiming autonomy from government funding.

As for the types of organisations, all but one are (formally) independent think tanks: the exception is TERI which is a university centre. The almost complete lack of relevant university research centres can be explained because during the second phase of emergence of think tanks, the Planning Commission favoured the establishment of new research centres outside universities. It was considered that universities in India were not yet at a level of competence suitable for policymaking, according to Mathur.

Core economic themes

Out of the 15 scanned think tanks, only one is entirely dedicated to growth topics and one other to macroeconomic policy. The variety of economic topics within the surveyed organisations is very wide. They mainly are generalist organisations with a few areas dedicated to research in economic topics. What stands out is that out of the 15, two organisations are focused entirely on fiscal policy and two are dedicated to Energy. Others touch lightly on labour and environment . Scenario Planning is also a focus.

There are a few leading think tanks in general economic topics:

Governance: Think Tanks in India usually have a board or committee that works as an advisory group and makes the final decisions. Usually board members are external volunteers.

Structure: Think tanks in India are large compared to organisations in other regions: the minimum staff is around 25 people and the range goes up to 80 people (in Brazil for example, think tanks have generally less than ten people). The budget ranges from half a million US dollars, to USD 3m. Most of them do not depend on a single source of funds. They mainly receive donations from the central Government and some receive funds from the private sector. TERI for example has been largely funded by TATA group, one of the leaders of Indian economic growth. Traditionally, organisations received funds from international cooperation; however, the tendency in the recent years is to focus more on domestic funding. This shift is a challenge for Indian organisations. More than 70 per cent of top businesses in India are family-run with a small number of them dominating the economy. The economic process the country is going through may change the way organisations fund themselves, but the situation is still too fluid to draw any conclusions.

What do they do? A function, common to all of the think tanks reviewed, is to provide space for debate. Development Alternatives, for instance, has contributed significantly to forming opinions and shaping the debate around Green Economy at Rio 20+. They also give advice. For example, Indian Council for Research and International Economic Relations (ICRIER) advises government on what the role of India should be in the G-20. As in the case of Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability (CBGA), they can be very critical of government and usually synthesise and represent what other civil society organisations want to express, bringing different actors to the table. Other functions these organisations have, is to audit other political actors. CBGA audited the government on issues covering rural employment, water supply and the Non Lapsable Central Pool of Resources (NLCPR). Transfer of staff from think tanks to Government is one way to professionalise public sector staff. At another level, they provide researchers for specific projects.

They fulfil their roles by doing research and publishing the results. They also present them in public or private meetings. Some also produce continual data to use for indicators, such as Public Affairs Centre’s urban indicators. They are strongly engaged with media.

Influence and communications: Many of the institutions no longer command the status and prestige they once had. In general, policy-makers might listen to what they have to say, but this does not necessarily mean they base their decisions on the evidence produced. However, there are some specific cases in which outputs where picked up by policy-makers. For example, in the case of CBGA, they informed fiscal policy based on their expenditure reports (before that expenditure was estimated but not based on data).

It seems that a popular way to influence policy is when think tanks are working jointly with policy-makers, that is, when organisations get a contract for a specific task. This is more and more the case not only in India but in South Africa and Brazil as well.

It is difficult to establish whether these organisations plan communications strategically. The common and traditional way of interacting with policymakers is through the publication of research and invitations to events, but as far as we can state here, it does not seem there is a strategic and constant interaction with decision-makers. Researchers rarely discuss findings and recommendation with them, and there is a lack of debate about findings. The exception can be seen in the case where directors working in a think tank also have a position in government, as in the case of the National Institute of Public Finance and Policy (NIPFP), where the Chairman is also Chairman of the Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister; the Reserve Bank of India also has a professorial chair at NIPFP for advancing research frontiers. In these specific cases there is quite a lot of rotation between workers in the think tank and in government.. Another strategy is to appoint parliamentarians as advisors on board until they become ministers. In this way there is a link developed that allows an entry point to decision-makers.

As in South Africa and Brazil (and in the rest of the world), personal relationships matter. Connections between top management and senior parliamentarians often serve as an entry point to create demand around an idea. Dedicating time to networking is a key element of the management team or directors’ time. In the cases of long lasting organisations, there is a legitimate and trusting relationship with policy-makers developed over the years. For some, communication with the private sector is key and helps influence policy-makers and ultimately shape public policy. Although these organisations have not had a conspicuous impact on debate and policy, they have made government aware of the value of research for policy and programme development.

Who do they relate to? Relationships in India are evolving. While traditionally think tanks had a strong tie to international organisations – which mainly provided funding – there is now a tendency to develop stronger relationships with local government, other Indian organisations and local companies. Although the supremacy of international organisations is still clear, the interviews captured that this situation is evolving, given India’s economic growth. It is interesting to see as well the lack of relationships with regional organisations.