In the last few years, one of the American Universities has been publishing an index of leading think tanks and research institutions at the global level. While the index has been questioned by many in terms of the parameters used, it provides a usual indicator of where think tanks and research institutions are placed.
What is significant in this index is the huge gap in terms of how many think tanks from South Asia figure in the top fifty at the global level. While there are hardly few Research Institutions and Think Tanks in the global list, the Asia list is dominated by China and some think tanks/research institutes from New Delhi. What is surprising is the absence of think tanks and research institutions from the regions – from J&K to Kerala and from Rajasthan to Nagaland.
Why are they missing? Are they missing because there is no space for such institutions in the regions? Or are they missing because of the lack of efforts and regional initiatives? Or, are they missing, simply because there is no capacity?
In terms of space, clearly they are much needed and important, given the contemporary issues and problems. While the regions either within India or in other countries of South Asia are dotted with numerous NGOs for different purposes, there is a huge gap in terms of independent and non-partisan initiatives outside the government, which have credibility and acceptability. While there are good and bad NGOs, the primary activity of them, irrespective of whichever category they belong to, they are more populist and activist in nature, rather than policy or research oriented.
Clearly, a difference should be made between the NGOs and think tanks/research institutes at the national and regional levels. In terms of space, they are much needed, not only because of the contemporary needs and issues, but also because what happens in their absence. Two things happen, when there are not significant research institutions/think tanks at the regional level. First and foremost, it results in the absence of serious alternative inputs and strategies to the government as policy recommendations. While there are always numerous do’s and don’ts in the opinion pages of news papers in the English and vernacular media, they are more a response and opinion to a current issue, rather than a well thought out and structured alternative.
While the Universities in the regions undoubtedly produce voluminous reports in terms of thesis and dissertations, for a policy maker and even the common public, to make practical sense of them is a herculean task. Besides these thesis and dissertations are not aimed at policy prescriptions or providing alternatives; they are scholarly and academic discourse. At least, that is what they are supposed to be!
Second, in the absence of quality think tanks and research institutions at the regional level, their partners from the national capitals usurp the role in thinking and providing alternatives for the regions. While none can deny that the think tanks and research institutions based in the capitals have a role to play, given the reach and distance, it is not practical for those institutions from the capital to think through long distance and provide alternative strategies for the regions.
The question, why should there be an independent initiative from such institutions at the regional level is irredundant. Given the general mistaken belief that the government and its bureaucracy is the fountain of all knowledge and they know everything, it is important that there are independent research institutions and think tanks outside government to provide alternative approaches. More importantly, they are also needed to have a reality check. The concept of checks and balances being the fundamental principle of democratic governance, it is important these institutions exist and perform a great duty not only to the public, but also to the government by providing alternative approaches.
Clearly, the sub-regions in India, for that matter in the entire South Asia, need quality think tanks and research institutions. Where is the problem then? Why are they absent?
Certainly, there have been few initiatives at the regional levels, both inside and outside the University structures to establish independent research institutions and think tanks. Except for few in Mumbai, Bangalore, Kolkata and Chennai, they have not taken substantial roots in other cities and sub-regions. Even if there are, they are one man or few men/women institutions, lacking quality research and an actionable policy recommendations to the State and federal governments.
Undoubtedly, funding for such institutions is a major issue. Even at the national level, there is a constant struggle to attract adequate funding support and yet remain independent and neutral. If the governments – at the federal and State levels are a major culprit, philanthropic institutions and foundations within India are equally responsible for not supporting such independent initiatives which are the need of the hour. While it is always surprising to find how the NGOs (good and bad) succeed in mobilizing support and resources for their activities, for research institutions and think tanks, it is a herculean task.
The State governments have to take the lead, and support such initiatives both within and outside the University systems. Though some of the findings and recommendations may not be palatable to the government, they are needed and in the interest of everyone.
Other than the funding, an equal challenge is the capacity. While it is difficult to accept, the hard reality is, there is a serious lack of work culture, academic rigour, methodical research and scientific investigation in the regions. While same is the case even at the national level, in the region, it is worse. We as a civil society have to look inwards and address this crucial challenge. A survey of our thesis and dissertations produced in our regional Universities – irrespective of the subjects addressed from Botany to Political Science will highlight what is needed. Unless there are quality inputs and capable hands (and heads) from the region feed into the research and think tank networks, there will always be a danger of importing from the national level.
Think tanks and research institutions at the regional levels are the need of the hour. What is more important is not the quantity, but quality. Let there be more Brookings and Carnegies in our regions.