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Debate - August 2010
Indian minds, foreign funds
August 9, 2010, 0:55 IST by Sanjaya Baru

India’s best-known “think tanks” are becoming increasingly dependent for their funding on foreign benefactors. In economic policy, national security and foreign affairs, India’s premier think tanks and research institutions find it easier to raise funds abroad than at home, be it from a bureaucratic and feudal governmental system or from a miserly and disinterested corporate sector.

While some ministries, like external affairs, defence and commerce, have their own government-funded think tanks, others have their favourites in the non-governmental sector. Both are required to kowtow to the extant dispensation in the respective ministries — and many of these institutions have become sinecures for retired or retiring civil servants.

Indian corporates, on the other hand, have never been a major source of funding for research, even if they are increasingly funding education. Thus, Bharti’s Sunil Mittal, the only Indian mentioned in a Wikipedia list of world’s 100 top philanthropists, has liberally funded school and college education, including institutions like the Indian School of Business, but when it comes to supporting think tanks, he has so far preferred to help the Carnegie Endowment rather than any policy think tank in India. Same applies to most of India’s celebrated billionaires.

While Tata Sons have for a long time funded research institutions, Indian think tanks find the process of securing such funds becoming increasingly bureaucratic and so prefer courting foreign funding agencies. The Ambani family set up the Observer Research Foundation, with an impressive office, but it has so far attracted more retired diplomats and policy-makers than active researchers!

While India’s billionaires give away millions to Yale and Carnegie, India’s own think tanks are increasingly forced to turn to foreign funders because neither the government nor Indian corporates are willing to offer them untied funding.

Almost all the non-government economic, defence and foreign affairs think tanks and research institutions in the nation’s Capital are today more dependent on external sources of funding than domestic sources, government or non-government.

Major sources of research funds include multilateral financial institutions, like the World Bank and Asian Development Bank; western and eastern private foundations like Ford, Rockefeller, McCarthy and Sasakawa; and, foreign governments that fund agencies like Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC).

This is not a new phenomenon. There was a time when, in fact, India’s premier social sciences research funding institution, the Indian Council for Social Science Research (ICSSR), was itself receiving more funds from the Government of Netherlands than from the Government of India. Today, few foreign funding agencies bother routing their funds through the ICSSR, they do so directly.

Before worried nationalists raise a cry against this trend, they should find out what shape and condition of disrepair the ICSSR itself is in. Not only does the ICSSR have an officer of the Indian Administrative Service as its member-secretary, it has more than one council member without even a doctoral degree! Indeed, even radical social scientists who don’t like either government or corporate funding find it alright and easier to approach global non-governmental organisations for financial support.

In the field of international relations, India has as many as 65 listed research centres and “think tanks”. Of these, as many as 36 are located in New Delhi. A large number of these centres are funded by the government and the university system, but the most prominent ones are, in fact, funded by foreign governments and funding agencies! A substantial part of high-quality research on India’s relations with countries like China and Pakistan is, in fact, funded by foreign funding agencies.

It is not as if attempts have not been made by Indian scholars and researchers to secure corporate funding for Indian think tanks. But in most cases a mountain of effort is required, both in terms of lobbying and paperwork, to secure a molehill of funding. And, after all that and much interference in the running of the institution, there is little interest in the institution’s intellectual output.

India’s most respected strategic affairs guru, K Subrahmanyam, who ran a government-funded think tank, Institute of Defence Studies and Analysis (IDSA), as an independent and autonomous institution that respected the intellectual freedom of its faculty but found it very difficult to get anyone in government to listen to them or support their research work, once remarked to this writer, “I remember explaining to the director of Chatham House (UK) that the basic difference between IDSA and the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) is that the former gets all its money from the government but cannot get the time of the day from them, while the latter has to raise its own resources but gets all data and relevant information from government sources. Our senior bureaucrats have burdened themselves with so much of trivia because of the lack of a culture of delegation that they have no time to read such outside studies. Therefore, they have no use for them.”

The armed forces have become a bit liberal in funding think tanks, but these remain boutique institutions without the scope or size of a defence think tank like RAND in the United States.

I am not suggesting for a moment that as a consequence of this pattern of funding, Indian scholars have mortgaged their minds to foreign funders. Far from it. India’s most respected scholars, fiercely independent in their thinking, will never sing for their supper and allow the one who pays the piper choose the tune. Yet, for a country as big and important as India, it is a matter of great shame that so much of our best research and most important research institutions depend so much on external sources of funding.

Disclosure: The writer is on the governing board of Centre for Policy Research, Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies and Centre for Air Power Studies, New Delhi, and a consulting fellow of the International Institute of Strategic Studies, London.