Jaideep A Prabhu
The Hot Air Industry
This article originally appeared in CRI content has now been subsumed in The views expressed here are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of the editors of

My recent post on India’s allodoxaphobia highlighted a critical failure of the Indian government to create, nurture, and profit from think tanks and the disastrous consequences therefrom. The lack of trustworthy information and failure to declassify government records certainly has a disproportionately large impact on development. However, that should not be an excuse for us to take our eye off the structural flaws in the research agenda of Indian think tanks.

It is interesting to note that some think tanks in India are partnerships of various governmental and international concerns. For example, the Centre for Public Policy is a joint venture between the Government of India, the United Nations Development Programme, and the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore. Similarly, the National Knowledge Commission was constituted by the Prime Minister of India, Manmohan Singh. Close ties to the government or a corporate entity are liable to skew one’s views or be seen to do so and best to avoid.

It is also puzzling to see the massive scope of some Indian think tanks. In an environment that can produce the talent to staff such ventures and use the output of such entities, this is more understandable. However, many of the top think tanks prefer to focus on two or three core areas and develop expertise in them rather than follow the “all trades” route. Yet, India has spectacularly failed at producing either the environment or the talent for such analysis, and it is therefore puzzling to see the ambitious reach of some think tanks. The Vivekananda International Foundation, for example, conducts research in strategic affairs, international relations, governance, economics, and “civilisational” issues. Yet its papers indulge in the same general prognoses, informative, but hardly incisive or thorough.

Similarly, the Centre for Science and Environment (whose work I am quite fond of, actually) does not advertise, at least on its website, any papers that consider the minute details of environmental degradation in India and offers considered solutions. The South Asia Analysis Group, too, leaves much to be desired in terms of crisp analysis at micro level. Even the National Knowledge Commission, despite its influential friends (a must in a knowledge oligarchy like India), fails to be a source of detailed analyses of the state of schools, universities, and technical institutes in the country. Sumit Ganguly, a professor at University of Indiana, Bloomington, describes the output as “derivative, or worse, still mostly descriptive and hortatory.” To add to the garbled platitudes, The Hindu plans to start a Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy to revisit the governing vision of the Indian Constitution on matters such as federalism and pluralism.

By way of comparison, a study on transportation costs and funding by RAND is impressive in its depth and thoroughness. The Carnegie Endowment’s paper on air power at high altitudes is similarly quite impressive. Cato’s report on the impact of drug decriminalisation in Portugal is yet another example of quality research that pays attention to policy as well as logistics in its overview. Indian think tanks produce nowhere near this quality of work.

Beyond grand and glamorous projects like ballistic missile defence, nuclear proliferation, or India’s relations with the three Great Powers, Indian think tanks spend little time on more mundane tasks like urban planning, sewage systems, garbage collection, air quality control, agricultural subsidies, telecom regulations, and so on. These are areas with a greater availability of information than, say, nuclear policy, and has great impact on society. The audience for such work will not only be bureaucrats and politicians (assuming they even care), but also businessmen, investors, and activists.

Admittedly India needs both, nuclear strategists as well as urban planners, but the former is closed loop, information-wise, and the latter is in dire need of study. Presently, the best analysis of common problems of the common man comes from bloggers – Ritwik Priya, TRISH00L, Kartikeya Tanna, Harsh Gupta, and Rajeev Mantri to name a few – who share their expertise in their own fields through personal blogs, newspaper columns, or commentary portals such as Centre Right India. It is a pity that such talent is not properly rewarded and channeled for the benefit of India’s huddling masses.

In the land of strategists, the logistician is king. While grand strategies get the attention and applause, logisticians see the schemes through. Without logistics, great plans are little more than hot air. Cut-paste solutions imported from the West need not necessarily succeed in India. For example, Germany’s school children have shown excellent results in international evaluations such as the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), in which India recently stood 72nd out of 73 participants. However, Germany’s school system which divides children into a university-bound stratum and a vocational school bound group has the markings of failure in India, whose society is yet to abandon notions of occupation-related jati. To ask a mason’s son to study carpentry or a potter’s son to take up electrical work may well start a riot in some parts of the country. Similarly, the warm and wet Indian climate is not suited to homes furnished with carpets or some types of wall paints.

It is these minutiae that have gone neglected so far, and the signs are telling. It is not that existing think tanks should abandon their focus to study contraception availability in Coorg but that research in any arena should be done with an eye to the minute details – economics, technical capabilities, laws, cultural hurdles, etc. India certainly needs more think tanks to tackle the many questions that ordinary people, farmer and CEO alike, face. The need of the hour is people who, as Agnes Morehouse of Yes, Prime Minister fame says, know how much half a pound of margarine costs [5:40].