Yamini Aiyar is the president and chief executive of the Centre for Policy Research (CPR) in India. Dr. Annapoorna Ravichander, editor at large for South Asia at On Think Tanks, interviewed Yamini Aiyar as part of the of the series on South Asian Executive Directors.
Annapoorna Ravichander: Can you please tell us a bit about yourself?
Yamini Aiyar: I am a policy wonk and mother of two small children. I spend most of my time juggling (mostly unsuccessfully) between trying to be a good professional and a good parent!
AR: CPR was established in 1973. What were the main motivations for setting it up?
YA: CPR was founded with the objective of providing rigorous, scholarly, expert advice to policymakers in India. The policymaking process in a complex country like India requires policymakers to negotiate the multiple, often conflicting, needs of citizens. It also requires the ability to ask difficult questions and objectively assess evidence to make credible judgments on issues that are inherently uncertain. Finally, asking these questions and seeking answers is a role that cannot be played exclusively by policymakers and technocrats. Instead it requires a continuous, honest and evidence-based dialogue between researchers engaged in knowledge generation and the policymaking community. This is the role CPR plays.
AR: Prior to becoming the chief executive, what was your role in CPR? What was it about CPR as an organisation that attracted you to it?
YA: I joined CPR in 2008 to develop a programme that would focus on questions of governance and accountability. I built the initiative from a one-person experiment to a 35-member strong team engaged at the policymaking level and -this I am proudest of- at grassroots level. I was attracted to CPR because of its commitment to academic freedom (it offered young people the opportunity to explore their creative potential with complete autonomy) and its commitment to rigorous scholarship. There are few organisations in this country that hold these values dear. CPR is an institution that nurtures talent and ideas. This is what attracted me most to the institution.
AR: Which were the main challenges you faced at the start of your career at CPR?
YA: Converting an idea into a full-fledged programme has multiple challenges, including raising funds, getting government (which is extremely hierarchical) to take a young person seriously and building a talented team. I was very lucky to have the support of some great mentors who backed me unquestionably, were extremely generous with their time, advice and, most importantly, by joining me in collaborative projects. This emboldened me to leap to the unknown, set ambitious targets, and scale up my work.
AR: In the Indian context, what is expected of a think tank? Has the role and function changed since you first took over as chief executive?
YA: I think one of the biggest challenges for think tanks in today’s world is to remain true to one’s research and scholarship even as public discourse is increasingly sharp and polarised, often blurring the lines between critical engagement and partisan endorsement of ideas. This polarisation has made objective evaluation of policy choices confronting India today difficult, resulting in the adoption of short term and often unsustainable quick fixes. I believe it is even more important in these times for think tanks to remain true to their values as independent, non-partisan, research focused contributors to the public discourse.
AR: How has CPR coped with these challenges?
YA: We are trying! We stay true to our values even as we attempt to craft a new identity that is keeping up with changing times.
AR: What personal and professional characteristics should a director of a think tank have?
YA: Commitment, passion, a willingness to work hard and not be fazed by unexpected hurdles and, most of all, the ability to have fun!
AR: How important is it for you to excel in your career as a woman?
YA: I think it is important for me to excel in life, regardless of gender.
AR: Do you think think tanks should encourage some clauses in their employment rules like flexible working hours (especially for women), in-house gender sensitisation sessions, and include gender aspects in their vision and mission statements?
YA: Yes, of course. It is critical to ensure that the workplace builds in flexibility, gender sensitisation and other gender aspects to create a truly equitable work space. However, I do think it is important to recognise that the work place is often a construct of social norms- not a solution to it. Through our work we need to continuously engage in a public discourse on changing social norms (including in the workplace) that respect women and the multiple roles that women play both at home and in the work place. I deeply respect women who chose to be full-time parents over competing in the workforce and I believe that a truly equitable society is one that respects the importance of family as much as of the work place.