On the importance and roles of think tanks, India

18 January 2011

What is the value of think tanks? In this article by Sangeeta Saxena (with a good quote to begin with “Greater than the tread of mighty armies is an idea whose time has come.”) Indians ask Indians (no donor involved) about the importance of think tanks.

The directors of 5 Indian think tank offer their views -which give this blog’s readers and me some interesting insights into the perception of the role of think tanks in India. I have picked a few quotes that relate to the links between policy and research but there is plenty more on the origins of think tanks, their business models, funding and their activities:

Air Commodore Jasjit Singh (Retd), Director, Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS), New Delhi:

Does the research in think tanks influence the policy making of the ministry of defence?

I do not try to find this out. Once we have published or discussed matters, we forward it to the ministry but do not ask them whether they have used the content in decision and policy making. That is not my concern.

What should be the role of a defence think tank?

The defence think tanks do the security related thinking for the country. It thinks 10 to 20 years ahead and suggests developments on the strategic fronts. It conveys these to the government. They create a platform for brainstorming on issues of security and strategic planning, and help the officials in decision making. These think tanks also create an awareness in the Indian elite, civil and military on matters of security, so that they can prepare themselves to be a major part of the thinking world. It creates and spreads knowledge.

Rear Admiral Ravi Vohra VSM (Retd), Director, National Maritime Foundation, New Delhi:

Do ministry of shipping, defence and industries recognise your role in maritime issues management?

When 90% of trade is dependent on sea routes, it is important to safeguard issues affecting the oceans. Harbours and security aspects are important for the nation. If ministry and bureaucrats are asked questions, there are no answers as these officials keep busy. So thinking has to be done by us. We have never attempted nor tried to question government policies which are decided by officials.

What is the role of the Indian Navy in NMF?

In a record time of one and a half months navy did a good job of getting the infrastructure ready. It was handed over to us and we also have two officers of the navy posted on our strength. We cover both civil and military maritime issues. In addition we also cover issues concerning merchant navy and coast guards. Officers of both navy and coast guards attend our round tables and seminars.

Brig. Gurmeet Kanwal(Retd), Director, Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS), New Delhi:

Last five years have seen the unnecessary mushrooming of think tanks in India. Comment.

The larger the number of think tanks we have, the better we will be as a nation.

Does the bureaucracy listen to your suggestions and conclusions on various issues?

Bureaucracy realises that there is no harm in listening to the think tanks. We give them the reports regularly. Real distinction I would like to make is that when you are in policy making and execution, you have no time to study. So think tanks become important. Things are looking up in the think tank community in India.

In USA think tanks officials get incorporated into government positions of importance. When do you see India progressing towards such a scenario?

Cross pollination of bureaucracy and think tanks is not happening in India. That is why think tanks do not get taken seriously. Politicians are blissfully unaware of their existence most of the times. But we are keeping our fingers crossed for things to move in the right direction.

Lt. Gen. (Retd) V R Raghavan Director, Delhi Policy Group (DPG) and President, Centre for Security Analysis (CSA) New Delhi:

Does DPG forward all its research to the MOD and MEA?

Sure we send every document to the ministries. They get hundreds and hundreds of documents and they go into raddi. There is no system of reading and analysing them. If it goes by name to the secretary and other bureaucrats it gets acknowledged. When highlighted centre pointers go by name to ministers or PMO we get a call.

Do you feel it is utilised at the policy making level?

Sure, we feel it is utilised at policy level. Publications are reference material and is used in research. Our objective is to influence the policy makers to think. They continuously ask us for information. There are highly competent and professional people in the ministries.

Lt. Gen. (Retd) P K Singh Director, United Services Institution of India, New Delhi:

Does USI influence policies of the government, on defence and national security?

We have tremendous synergy with government. We help in creating a tentative road map keeping national and regional interests in mind.

What is the need of having thirty odd think tanks in Delhi?

Think tanks are like sounding boards to get people from all over the world to ideate. It is good to have so many think tanks as it gives cross section of ideas and research.

I found interesting that there was a very marked focused on research -each one to his/her job: researchers do the research and policymakers and politicians should use it (or not) to make decisions. Nonetheless, their activity portfolios all include a range of active communication initiatives designed to facilitate this uptake.

And then there is the unfortunate situation that think tanks are not yet supported by India’s corporate sector (and philanthropists) -at least not at the level that Indian commentators expect.