Sanjay Kumar, Director of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies

20 March 2017
SERIES South Asian Executive Directors 16 items

Sanjay Kumar is currently the Director of CSDS. It is one of India’s leading institutes for research in the social sciences and humanities.

Annapoorna Ravichander: Could you tell us about yourself?

Sanjay Kumar: I am the Director at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) and Co-Director of Lokniti, a Research Programme of the CSDS. +My core area of research includes Electoral politics using survey method as a research tool survey based studies on Indian Youth, State of Democracy in South Asia, State of Slums of Delhi, State of Indian Farmers and Issues of Electoral Violence.

As an expert in Survey Research, I have directed various National and State level studies conducted by the CSDS including the National Election Studies, (NES) 1998, 1999, 2004, 2009 and 2014, various round of bi-annual ‘State of the Nation Survey’ and various State level studies.

My publications include an edited volume Indian Youth and Electoral Politics: An Emerging Engagement, Changing Electoral Politics in Delhi: From Caste to Class and (with Praveen Rai) Measuring Voting Behaviour in India. Other publications include: (With Christophe Jaffrelot) Rise of the Plebeians? The Changing Face of Indian Legislative Assemblies and (with Peter R de Souza and Sandeep Shastri) Indian Youth in a Transforming World: Attitudes and Perceptions. I have contributed chapters for several edited volumes, written various research reports, published articles in both international and national research journals and writes regularly for popular newspapers.

AR: How and when was the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) established? What were its key objectives?

SK: The Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) was established in 1963 in Delhi and is marked by several identifiable ‘moments’ in its intellectual and institutional evolution.

These include the Centre’s participation in debates on modernisation in the 1960s in which its emphasis on the importance of empirical research in politics and political behaviour proved to have a life beyond the moment. Some of the other landmarks in the history of the Centre are its critique of science, reason, and governmental categories, and the bid to estimate the continuing significance of `traditional’ affiliations, world-views, and social and ecological practices against the demands of modernity; and the exploration of new democratic potentials in the contemporary period.

During its first decade CSDS was known for its pioneering empirical work on Indian politics. Its founder, Rajni Kothari’s Politics in India (1970) was the first systematic and comprehensive study of the national political system by an Indian; the work also received unprecedented international acclaim. The crucial insight of this work was that there was neither an easy translation of west-centred categories in the Indian social and political setting nor was a useful link available between methodologies and the reality that they were meant to understand and explain.

At a time when social worlds seemed to be neatly divided between tradition and modernity, work at the Centre, perhaps not inappropriately, was steeped in the modernisation theory.

However, as the country’s most extensive data unit was being developed at the Centre, a healthy skepticism about some of the conclusions it was yielding also began to grow and led to a profound questioning of western modernity. The scholars at the Centre began scrutinising the fundamental cultural and intellectual assumptions underlying western social science and started a thorough search for alternative paradigms.

During this period the Centre also gave an intellectual direction to influential civil society movements through initiatives like Lokayan,+ which had a major impact on non-party politics. The Centre was among the first to warn of the dangers of a blind faith in science and technology and in particular, development-induced displacement.

In the Centre’s imagination, then, as now, India cannot be conceived or understood independently of its neighbours. The Centre was among the few places in India that continuously tried to connect with researchers in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and Nepal. It was its long-standing commitment to this engagement that made possible the studies on the State of Democracy in South Asia.

AR: What have been your main challenges as an Executive Director? How did you overcome them? What type of support and from whom did you get help?

SK: I became the Director in 2014. Prior to this I was a faculty member. The challenges faced by me on taking over as the Director of CSDS have been minor ones with the exception of raising funds for the institution. The Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR) provides us with funding for the salary of our regular faculty and staff, but it offers no regular funds for institutional resources such as the library, IT services or institutional activities such as seminars, workshops and conferences, and field work and archival research funds for faculty research. This was overcome to a great extent by IDRC TTI funding during my tenure. The Think Tank Initiative (TTI) funding immensely helped in institutional building and provide resources for continuing with our research agenda.

AR: How has the Think Tank community/landscape changed since you joined CDS? What do you think the future holds for it?

SK: I do not think that the landscape has changed much since I joined CSDS, in the last 5-7 years.

There is some shift in thematic focus; there is an emphasis on working in Indian languages at CSDS. The faculty + has been able to bring about three research journals with three different thematic focuses, one on Politics, another on media and one journal in Hindi language, the first peer review journal in Hindi language. The demand for all these journals are likely to increase in coming years.

AR: In your opinion, what is the future of the funding scenario in India? If funders like the TTI were to discontinue funding (which they will), what would be the future of organisations and think tanks like yours?

SK: The future scenario of social science funding from both state and non-state actors does not look very bright in India. The ICSSR which has been the main government funder has not revised its funding allocation for a long time and the government’s push for self-generation of funds has further restricted this resource allocation.

Foreign funding which has been the mainstay of social science promotion in India has been brought under stricter government surveillance leading to cancellation of Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) licenses (though CSDS has managed to get it’s FCRA license renewed). In general, the inflow of foreign funding has declined leading to resource crunch for conducting research.

The absence of dedicated funds at CSDS after the TTI support is over on project overheads, would lead to considerable fluctuation in and depletion of institutional resources. Thus, fund raising continues to be a major challenge and a long-term plan for approaching Indian funders and achieving self-reliance is the need of the hour for the CSDS.

AR: So do you think there are domestic funders who will be able to “pick up a the tab” –at least in the mid-term? Who are they?

SK: Difficult to answer, though there are domestic funders who could be approached for funds. At CSDS we get funds for the various projects, which is not very difficult to acquire. However, institutional support is an area that we are finding difficult with respect to funding.  

AR: How has your interaction/work with your Board members been?

SK: My interaction with Board members has been cordial and collaborative. Their advices have been quite encouraging in improving the functioning of CSDS and charting future plans for the institution. The Board members have been quite cooperative in finishing the pending agenda like introduction of Reservation for Schedule Caste (SC), Schedule Tribe (ST) and Other Backward Class (OBC) communities in faculty positions and finalising the processes for initiating fund raising with renewed vigour.

AR: Do you think the board can play a role in helping you raise funds from new funders? Are they playing this role?

SK: Yes the CSDS governing body members are prominent people in their respective fields, they could play an important role in fund raising and they are helping us in that. They have guided us how to go about doing this. They have also promised that they will help us introduce us to some possible funders, so we are very positive about our board helping in resource mobilisation.