We have a particularly special edition of CPR Perspectives – our flagship interview series commemorating the Centre for Policy Research’s 50th anniversary. This month officially marks 50 years since the Centre was founded, back in 1973, as an institution that would work to produce field-defining research and vital policy insights relevant for both the country’s decision-makers as well as an informed public.
To mark the occasion, this edition of CPR Perspectives features a conversation with Yamini Aiyar, President and Chief Executive of the Centre for Policy Research.
As with previous episodes in the series, we touch upon Aiyar’s path to CPR – including how she entered the Indian policy ecosystem with stints at Udyogini, a grassroots NGO, the Ford Foundation and the World Bank. But the bulk of the conversation takes a broader look at the history of CPR, the vital role it has played in key Indian policy debates – from industrial policy and economic liberalisation to foreign policy and climate change – and the challenges it is currently confronting.
Aiyar joined CPR in 2008, when she founded the Accountability Initiative, a research project that oversaw one of India’s largest expenditure tracking surveys for elementary education and brought a deeper, evidence-based understanding of public service delivery to the policy conversation in India. In 2017, Aiyar took charge as President and Chief Executive of the Centre for Policy Research, overseeing the deepening and expansion of the institution’s research efforts and a broadening of its engagement with governments, grassroots organisations and the global policy community. She also continued her own research on public welfare, federalism and state capacity, while serving on a number of government and international policy committees.
In the conversation with Aiyar, we spoke about her sense of the policy ecosystem in India before joining CPR, what it was like to build the Accountability Initiative and how the history of CPR’s policy interventions created a platform for her own tenure at the Centre.
We also spoke about what it takes to oversee an organisation with so many moving parts, how Aiyar sees CPR as an Indian voice at the global high table of policy debates and how she thinks about the current challenges faced by the Centre, as well as the misconceptions about its work.
You can listen to the entire conversation as a podcast here, or read the whole transcript now.
(This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.)
On this special edition of CPR Perspectives, we thought we’d get a broader sense of what it’s like to run an institution like this. But even so, I wanted to start with a brief glimpse of your pre-CPR days, at least to get a sense of how you saw think tanks and the policy research world before you joined CPR.
Well, to be honest, I didn’t really think very hard about think tanks per se. They weren’t in the front and centre of my thinking, partly because my own trajectory and interests were very much in the development practice space and I had always envisaged myself as playing an active hands-on role in the process of development in India. I began my career working with an NGO that was mobilising women to form self-help groups and training them and exploring ways of linking them to the market. Following my Masters degree in development studies, I got very interested in trying to find a space within the international development world and ended up first at the Ford Foundation briefly and then at the World Bank. So I never really thought about the think tank world, and as an idea and as a place, they also were not really at the center of the development debates in India at the time, the early 2000s.
But of course one was very much engaged with the questions of research and for somebody who never anticipated a career in research, it is ironic that literally my first job involved me doing research. I joined an NGO called Udyogini that was based in Delhi but working with partner organisations across North India. And the first task I was given was to do a documentation of women’s lives and experiences as they formed these self-help groups. I was given the task only because I like to write, and I was reasonably good at writing. NGOs are always scrambling for talent and you might be hired for X, but you’re asked to do many things at the same time, and so this was a task that was given to me. I started travelling around rural India and I realised that not only did I enjoy the process of being engaged with people and learning about them, but I also realised that it made me better understand the role that research plays in the development process.
What we call development is a process of deep social engagement. There are different ways and means in which the State and interlocutors of the process of development engage with people. We need to be able to better understand and empirically verify what is happening on the ground as objectively as possible, and step away from the action routinely to analytically understand the effects of what is unfolding, because the process of development itself is an unprecedented act.
It was important to understand how all of this was unfolding on the ground and most importantly, to get perspectives of people who are participants in this into the discourse and dialogue about what we need to do to collectively improve the economic well-being and the welfare of the citizenry. These were all questions that I was interested in and why I entered the development sphere in the first place.
I very early on realised that all that we had studied in the classroom provided useful frameworks. And that in the process of the doing of development, research played a significant role. The doers and the researchers – those who study what is happening and produce evidence – play a complementary and very important role in the making and shaping of policy.
It was through that lens that I began to understand the role of research institutions, and I encountered CPR actually very early on in my career. CPR was an institution that was well into its late 30s, so to speak, as an organisation and had been deeply influential in terms of bringing some of the country’s most well known policy practitioners and researchers into dialogue and discourse in the public sphere, in academia, and directly in policy.
My predecessor, Pratap Bhanu Mehta had just taken over as President of CPR about the time when I joined the World Bank, and several World Bank colleagues were engaged in a dialogue with CPR to explore ways of bringing conversations about how to think differently about the traditional development challenges – questions of health, education, sanitation, water supply, public service delivery, accountability – into a dialogue with policymakers. CPR actually became a platform for scholars at the World Bank, policymakers and civil society organisations to engage in this dialogue. In fact, I gave one of my first presentations on social protection programs (NREGA) and decentralisation at CPR in those very early days. So I came across CPR in that context and began to recognize that not only does research play a really important role, but creating platforms for engagement between researchers, policymakers, civil society actors and other stakeholders in the process of development and policy is a very crucial role that think tanks play.
One of the really important and unique features of the research ecosystem in India relative to what we see in many other parts of the Western world is that higher education and universities in India really emerged very much as a teaching space and core social science research space. Research centres that were in the business of active knowledge production and engagement with policy questions didn’t find a home in the social science university. They found their home in centres like CPR, which was founded in 1973, but you know, along with other think tanks like ICRIER, NCAER, NIPFP. All of these were set up as research institutions whose primary focus, primary goal and objective was knowledge production with the objective of engaging actively in the space of policy. That’s really what distinguishes the early birds of the research ecosystem in India.
How do you feel about the term ‘think tank’ itself? Does it adequately encompass where the institution sits within the overall policy ecosystem?
Well, you know, you create a category and we all fit within it. But I think the term think tank has come to be a recognised term for the kind of work that an organisation like CPR does. And hence we all fit within that broad framework. It’s broad enough to have a very large variety of organisations and that’s what makes it a very lively, engaged and exciting space.
At the heart of what CPR is as an institution is the ‘R’ of CPR. It’s the research. That’s what our founder Pai Panandiker really emphasised, which is why the institution’s culture too, in many ways, replicates a university’s ‘publish or perish’ culture. But it isn’t research in the ivory tower and that’s what I think bridges us closer into the think tank framework. The goal and objective of the research that CPR is engaged in is to produce field-defining knowledge, but knowledge that sits in very close conversation with the active art of policymaking.
Pai Panandiker’s early work when he set up CPR and a lot of his writings at the time highlighted a key point, one that continues to have relevance in the contemporary moment, that the bureaucracy tends to conflate the short-term and the long-term, because it is a generalist bureaucracy, because it is incentivized in a particular way and because that is the nature of the job. It is looking for everyday answers to the challenges it confronts and doesn’t have the luxury of sitting back and developing knowledge, engaging with knowledge, absorbing knowledge and then using that knowledge to ask itself whether the policy question itself is the right question to ask vis a vis the problem it is seeking to solve.
CPR was set up precisely to fill that gap. This is a gap that the academy can’t fill in its purest form. We don’t have these kinds of research centres within the Academy and the Indian ecosystem. And therefore the university isn’t the right home for this kind of work. There is a need for an intermediate space and a set of interlocutors that engage in the process of knowledge production, in conversation with policy to pursue active policy-making goals and agendas. That’s the role that CPR fulfilled.
Tell us about how you entered the organisation, and what convinced you it would be a useful home for the kinds of work you wanted to do?
What really convinced me was a conversation I had with Pratap. He said, here’s a space that is genuinely keen to invest in you, where you are free to do what you are best at, and it’s non-hierarchical. It’s a space where we want to enable people to be free to pursue their ideas, with no shackles. We are very keen to invest in people in the long run and it’s a place which is extremely collegial with a lot of people, each of whom is deeply passionate about what they do and extremely curious, but really very busy doing what they’re doing. So they will engage with you and you will learn from them, but they will also leave you to pursue your goal with excellence.
And I just felt like there are very few institutional spaces that allow for this. And I was a non-traditional person for a research institution or a think tank, in that I was at the World Bank and preceding that I was at the Ford Foundation as a young professional, which gave me a very interesting overview of the emergence of new and innovative work that civil society organisations were doing in the space of governance and accountability. That was an area I was keen to learn, understand and potentially specialise and CPR was one of the organisations that the Ford Foundation funded and we had engaged a lot with some of the scholars at CPR.
My interests were very much in working at the grassroots in the researcher-practitioner mould. I was somebody who wanted to be part of the process of development rather than a student of development processes. In the time between when I finished my stint at the World Bank and began the conversation with CPR, India was going through some really interesting transformations. This was coming off of the first decade of economic reforms. The imperatives on the Indian state to really double down and think about its own governance abilities and limitations, particularly in the context of investing in welfare, became simply unavoidable. Until then, questions of the Indian welfare state were very often brushed aside simply, saying we don’t have enough money. In the immediate aftermath of liberalisation, there was a lot of push towards shrinking the state and less investments being made in the welfare state, but that was becoming increasingly politically untenable. Grassroots social movements were emerging in a very big way. The right-to-information movement and the right to food movement being two really critical ones to a degree – putting pressures on the state to respond to the welfare needs of citizens, but doing so in a way that was cognizant of and seeking to find ways to respond to the very real challenges of deep governance and state failure at the grassroots.
For someone like me who was interested in governance and how to improve the capacity and capability of the state at the grassroots, this was a really exciting moment. In my time at the World Bank, again just by chance, I was working with a group of economists who had spearheaded the writing of the World Development Report 2004, which brough the issue of strengthening governance, particularly the citizen voice and accountability, to the center stage of the global development dialogue. And India was beginning to experiment with all of this. So it was a really exciting moment. I spent a little bit of time studying and engaging with the social audit process for NREGA as it was unfolding on the ground. The state of Andhra Pradesh was experimenting with this in a big way.
I was really interested in exploring more of this. I wanted to explore these kinds of participatory tools at the grassroots, but because the researcher in me had already had that spark ignited from the first day on the job, and then continued to find its way through my time at the Ford Foundation and at the Word Bank, I wanted to be able to not just be a participant in this process, but also to have the luxury of stepping away, studying it, understanding it, making sense of the evidence and then experimenting all over again.
I was not the traditional researcher or for that matter the traditional policy wonk. I wanted to walk the dusty roads of rural India, talk to people and work with NGOs. And yet CPR seemed to have a space for me and once I came in, I found that this was really, truly a quirky little place because there were traditional academics who were really keen on researching and writing for peer-reviewed journals and speaking to their academic community of practice, but also dialoguing with policy. There were policy practitioners who had spent the bulk of their careers roaming the corridors of Shastri Bhavan and Yojana Bhavan and the Ministry of Finance. And then there was me.
All of them had great respect and space to hear what I had to say about what I was learning from my grassroots work. It was this combination of people that made this space really exciting. And I was given the space to actually just go and experiment. I was not expected to produce only peer-reviewed journals or policy briefs. I was expected to explore, to experiment, to collaborate and partner with other organisations and in the process try and build this research initiative.
You don’t get spaces like that in India. That’s what convinced me. It was that one conversation that made me think this would be a fun place to work, even though I had no idea what I was going to do except for some vague sense of wanting to be at the grassroots. But I also want to be able to do research and have a set of colleagues who were interesting, exciting and willing to engage in conversations with me.
I came to CPR very young and very early on in my career, but it was a space that allowed me to grow.
Before we get to your job of today – running the institution – I want to get a sense of what it was like to build out the Accountability Initiative. We spoke earlier with Avani Kapur about AI as it is today, but could you give us a sense of what it was like to build it?
It was a really fun, exciting period because there was an excitement about the possibilities of this legislative and citizen-led effort at reshaping the grassroots state. The broad spectrum of stakeholders, from social movements to governments and change makers, all coming together to try and move the needle on these very critical issues of how the state functions and delivers on the ground. It was a really heady phase in that sense. Everybody was excited about the possibility: from civil society organisations to reformists within government to academia, that were looking at this experiment and keen to study and understand it better, and of course the donor community too, that was looking to India as a leader in this moment, and keen to engage land learn by supporting experiments and research.
The challenge was, how do you go from an idea into a practical, pragmatic research program? This is where CPR’s research ecosystem gave us the clues. The first thing that we did was to just get a sense of the landscape, both of the research that was already out there on social accountability and on questions of grassroots governance. Along with that, we organised a series of dialogues and discussions with stakeholders, many of whom one knew just from having already been in this space for a few years. And CPR was an institution with a great reputation, so people were willing to come together on the CPR platform to have conversations and dialogues.
So we brought practitioners together to talk about what are the different kinds of experiments that are going on, and also what are the kinds of research questions that practitioners themselves have for them to be able to better understand what they’re doing. That was the first phase.
One of the interesting things that was also happening in parallel at CPR was the creation of PRS, the Parliament Research Services, which was incubated at CPR. It had narrowed down on this very critical question of the kind of legislative support that parliamentarians receive in the Indian context, and experimenting with both providing active support to parliamentarians as they participate in their legislative duty with the objective of strengthening parliament’s deliberative role. It was also crafting a space to serve as an interlocutor between the technical expertise parliamentarians need and the reading public who are also stakeholders in this process of legislation and policymaking, through the creation of these legislative briefs that were then put into the public domain.
While I was trying to make sense of what to do, I was also looking at this very exciting and extremely successful project that was being incubated right next door to me at CPR. Watching PRS taught me that if I want to play this role of bridging between expertise, research and the policy-making process, regular productisation of your ideas is a useful proposition. I understood that you need to have tools.
In the course of landscaping what was happening in India in the accountability space, in the governance space and in the course of conversations with practitioners and scholars, one of the things that we realised is that there is an urgent need to actually demystify how the government allocates and spends its resources. Because that is really the starting point of participation. There had already been an emergence of organisations that were engaging in demystifying budgets as a tool. In fact, it became a whole arena of research and practice – participatory budgeting and transparency of budgets. In the global development arena, too, there’s been a lot of experimentation.
But most of these organisations were really engaging at the macro policy level: How do governments prioritise resources and allocate resources across different functions of government. So how much is being allocated to education, health and welfare programs versus, say, defense infrastructure, etc. And initiating public dialogue on government prioritisation using the budget as a tool.
In talking to practitioners, and this is something I saw myself, there did seem to be a significant gap between what was allocated and what was happening on the ground. We felt that just this path of allocation-to-expenditure was not well understood, partly because government budgets are very complicated and difficult to make sense of. That’s where the idea of the budget briefs emerged.
At the same time, our urge to be at the grassroots was very strong. I had also begun conversations with Pratham, whom I had worked with in a previous avatar. Pratham had started housing the Annual Status of Education Reports – the really powerful report that shed light on learning outcomes in India. In the course of those conversations, Rukmini Banerjee at Pratham and I began to talk about the role of parent teacher associations and decentralisation in strengthening learning outcomes in schools. The right to education was also being debated at the time and embedded in this was this idea of community participation, parental participation in planning and budgeting for the school.
I was interested in community participation, Rukimini was interested in how to get parents more engaged in the school. We came together to do a series of experiments on trying to make school development plans, which were mandated by policy. We were spending a lot of time in villages working with parent teacher associations to develop these plans, and one of the big challenges that we hit upon very quickly was that you can make a plan, but parents have no idea how much of the 10-15 thousand crores that is being allocated in Government of India, that all the budget groups were debating sitting in Delhi, is actually available to the school to make a school development plan.
We learned by trial and error. It took a long time to peel the onion of the budget first to figure out, of that 10 -150,000 crores, how much do schools actually get. But once we figured that out and went back to these parent teacher associations to say, ‘OK, by the way, it’s only ₹15,000’ it was obvious how little decentralisation actually was taking place.
Even on that money things aren’t easy. One school made a plan which was really very sensible. The school had a broken roof. There is a period of time in the school year, which coincides with the raining season, when parents, teachers, children are all aligned for children to turn up in schools: There are no weddings, the agricultural cycle means that everybody is in the village and children can go to school. But because it’s the rainy season and the roof is broken, the classrooms get flooded. And this was the excuse for teachers not to show up to teach. So the parents said, we want to fix the leaky roof and given that it’s a very small amount of money that is coming in the maintenance grant into the school, we will give our labour for free. But we need the budget to come to the school to procure the materials, etcetera, to fix this leaky roof. This was a conversation that happened at what coincided with the start of the financial year, which was early April, and the expectation was that well before the rainy season – late June, early July – the roof would be done.
But April moved to May. No sign of any money in the bank account. May moved to June. No sign of any money in the bank account. June moved to July. The rainy season has come. The classrooms are flooded. No schooling is actually taking place. By this point the parent teacher association members, the few who were turning up for our meetings when our teams would go to these villages, said ‘we’re not wasting our time with you. At least you can find out for us what’s happening, why the money isn’t coming?’
It became a bit embarrassing, so we felt we really owe it to these people who spent so much time with us to trace back and understand why funds have not reached this school. So we went to the block, we went to the district. Finally we had to get to Bhopal, to the State Department of Education to discover why money hadn’t flowed down through the system. In the process, we realised that there’s actually very little information within the government and amongst the citizenry at large about how monies flow within the whole government system.
Look at what was going on with this whole accountability question: There was a big debate going on at the national policy level over how governments are prioritising resources and whether questions of human capital and people’s wealth for citizens, welfare and well-being are being prioritised in a government’s budget, which is an important conversation to have. There has also been, consequent to grassroots mobilisation, a huge shift in what citizens are asking of government and expecting of government in that citizens are being invited by the government now to participate in governmental processes – auditing, planning, etcetera – to ensure that government monies are spent in ways that reflect needs and priorities on the ground. But the government is simply not organised to do this because it doesn’t even know how to allocate money so that discretion is given at the right level of government. It also doesn’t even have any idea of how money flows within its system. So where is the citizen and how is the citizen supposed to participate?
That then confirmed to us the starting point for accountability initiative is not to study the impact of accountability efforts at the grassroots, but to actually bridge a very critical knowledge gap on how the state functions to enable stakeholders – the wider citizenry, the interlocutors, civil society, the researchers, as well as government for that matter – to better understand how the state is organised. For it to be genuinely participatory, if it were, if it wishes to be so.
Because I was watching PRS, I also knew that the right way to do this is to productise. And the experience of working very closely with Pratham and seeing the role that ASER was playing in shaping the public discourse around learning outcomes made us also realise that one should be audacious about this. That’s when two interesting products emerged that are, I think, the centrepiece of what we were doing at the Accountability Initiative at the time. One was the Budget Briefs – just peeling the onion of the budget as it is allocated in the Government of India to look at how allocations translate into expenditure using government data. But we knew that that was not enough. We created these budget briefs at the start of every budget cycle. We would put out these 5-10 page documents that showed how monies were allocated at the start of the budget and how this was broken out across different expenditure items to get to your final output, and also how much of this money actually was released from Government of India to the state government, from state government to the expenditure entity and actually spent. And this is not an easy exercise to do because government is really complicated.
My colleague Avani, who now heads the Accountability Initiative, took the risk to join me in this crazy exercise and she really just took the lead and has created these budget briefs as the signature documents on social policy financing that CPR’s Accountability Initiative puts out year on year. Then learning from the ASER experience – and we were really lucky that ASER was excited about this idea too – we said, let’s include some fund flow questions in the annual user survey. So that’s how the PAISA (Planning, Allocations and Expenditures, Institutions Studies in Accountability) report was generated, which was a flagship piece of what we did in those early years. We introduced very basic questions and the thing that ASER really taught us is that if you want to bridge the gap between research and policy, between practice and policy, you have to think of research as something that is accessible, relevant, and responsive to the stakeholders at the grassroots. So ask questions in a manner that is relevant and responsive to the parents.
What does the parent need? ASER pushed us to ask, if they were to make a school development plan they would want to know how much money comes to the school? What does it come for? When does it come? How much did I spend last year? How do I plan to meet my needs for this year? These were the questions we included these questions in the ASER _PAISA survey.
And we therefore had data from 15,000 schools across the country which gave us better insight into how once ₹100 is allocated at the Government of India level, how does that ₹100 actually translate into a well functioning school at the grassroots level? We also realised that there are many complexities beyond this very basic question. So we started doing district-level detailed expenditure tracking surveys, which we call the district PAISA surveys and to do this we then brought in a whole team of colleagues at the grassroots. We called them PAISA associates.
The two more things that CPR and the partnership with Pratham and ASER really taught us is that for research to bridge the gap with policy, it needs to be in conversation with the public. So we made sure that we were constantly drawing on what we learned and and placing it in the public sphere in different ways – at the national level in the mainstream discourse, through op-ed writing and seminars and workshops – but also with the State and at the grassroots level by engaging in conversations with everybody from the panchayat to the district officers. And for that we built this cohort of PAISA associates, and a training module alongside it, to enable this whole process to take on a life of its own.
So, we went from a team of three mad people with a crazy idea. Pratham played a role. I have to mention Anit Mukherjee of NIPFP, the public finance specialist who was willing to jump into this crazy idea with us in those early days and taught us how to read government budgets because you don’t get to learn that anywhere. And CPR gave the space for this completely unorthodox research idea to emerge along the way. We went from three people to 10 very quickly in about 2-3 years. And that meant that this very small team was working all night long, travelling across the country but with full pep. A sister organisation of Pratham, the ASER Centre, was our key partner, and their energy and their infrastructure kept us going in those early days to build out the Accountability Initiative. It was super fun and a real learning and an opportunity really to do action research in an exciting way.
I would be happy to dig much more into the details of what things were like at the Accountability Initiative, but since we had a chance to cover some of that with Avani on an earlier episode, we’ll switch to the bigger picture that followed. Could you tell us a little bit about what happened after? What it meant to take the reins of CPR as an overall institution and how that came about?
Thanks Rohan. I mean so many things just come about by chance rather than plan and in some ways the opportunity to lead CPR really just came to me as a chance. I had never planned to be a career policy think tanker or policy researcher or whatever term one might want to use. But when one thinks back it was almost inevitable for me, and for the kinds of issues that I was interested in. In the context of Accountability Initiative, so much of what we were trying to do was to create spaces for a more embedded, deeper participatory process of policy at the cutting edge of where policy gets implemented at the grassroots.
In some ways it was almost inevitable that the logical next step of being a student and a practitioner of the idea of participatory development, that I would find myself in an institutional space, nurturing and building an institution that was seeking to do precisely that. Not necessarily at the micro grassroots level, but on the broader national policy making stage. In a way, CPR as an institution represented a lot of the imagination that I had kind of imbibed of the urgency for a broader participation of different stakeholders, different voices, different experts in the process of policy making. The democratisation of policy making, as it were. It was only logical, therefore, for me to grab the opportunity when it was presented to me, to nurture an institutional space that would do precisely this.
I grabbed the opportunity and it was a mind-opening experience. Being in CPR for just short of a decade before I had the opportunity to become President meant that I had exposure to a wide range of colleagues who were working on a wide range of issues, from climate change to urbanisation to land rights to international relations. We had heated debates on the nuclear deal back in the day. We had heated debates on welfare and social policy. We had heated debates on India’s growth trajectory and the questions of climate with some of the brightest minds and experts in the field. And now I had the opportunity to actually lead the institution and guide its intellectual as well as practical contribution to the making and shaping of the policy discourse at the national level.
For me it was unexpected, but exactly, in retrospect, an obvious next step from doing exactly this at the grassroots level. Very much like the role of civil society organisations and interlocutors in facilitating and enabling people’s participation at the grassroots level, it’s a logical continuum of exactly the same role at the macro level, of course with different tools and different forms of engagement, but engagement nonetheless. So there I was in an institution that I had come to love whose institutional culture had allowed me to nurture a space that I could call my own and given me a huge amount in terms of learning, in terms of opportunity, in terms of a space to experiment and build. And so if there was a place to take my work to the next step CPR was it, and the opportunity was presented to me and I grabbed it with pride.
This is in 2017 and I want to get a sense of two things here. One, as you’re looking at the institution I want to get a sense of what the challenges presented to you are at this moment, but maybe you know answering that means telling the audience what it means to lead an organisation like CPR for those who are not as familiar? What are you actually looking at, thinking about and and doing?
Maybe there are two different ways of thinking about this. Institutions inevitably raise very practical, quotidian challenges that have to be confronted. And that essentially requires constant reinvention, in response to the shifting landscape in which the institution locates itself. And I think CPR, like any institution that survives many decades and stays relevant and in prominence, continues to seek talent and in the pursuit of excellence reinvents itself periodically. Any institution that says static just simply doesn’t survive and loses relevance very quickly.
Transitions come at a moment when institutions are ripe and ready for reinvention and rebuilding.
I was very lucky, in the sense, that I took over an institution that was extremely robust and was really in its heyday, at its peak moment, in terms of the talent it had accumulated, the intellectual imagination that it had brought together and also its institutional reputation. The excitement that CPR had generated within the policy-making ecosystem, whether it was government or the academy or civil society, there was an excitement and energy about the institution and around the possibilities of the institution. In more ways than one, I took over an institution that was in its most exciting phase.
Before I talk about the challenges that I confronted, it might be worth just giving the listeners a little bit of a glimpse of what it took to get there, because I think that it is worth reflecting, especially as we celebrate 50 years of the institution’s life, on the challenges of institution building but also what are the elements of an institution that keep an institution alive and kicking?
Let me take you back a little bit to the period of the 1970s when CPR was first established by our founder Pai Panandiker. He’s a person with a huge amount of energy and in what basically has become core to CPR’s culture, the kind of person who is constantly intellectually curious, firmly non-partisan, doesn’t fall into any category of position or ideology and is always rebuilding and reimagining his ideas. Precisely because he had all of these characteristics as a person, he set up CPR as a space that sought to bridge the academy and policy in a way that would really try and push the envelope on policy making. It was not just about falling in line with what the policy-making establishment of the time wanted to hear, but was very much about challenging how the policy-making establishment was understanding the environment, articulating the critical questions and then engaging with it.
In the 1970s, emerging from the period of the nationalisation of the Indian economy there were important questions to be asked about the nature of the Indian economy and what path it was taking. Crucially to think about what are the different ways in which to address the question of growth. One of the early works that CPR produced, led by Pai Panandiker, was titled Towards an Industrial Policy: 2000 AD. Just to give you a sense of how forward-looking the institution was in its early days. It saw a particular moment in policy. It recognised that there were big questions to ask that one needs to think about in the longue durée. And it wasn’t going to try and answer this question in the immediate, it was going to think through long-term solutions and was going to be audaciously ambitious about it. In the late 1970s to be talking about what industrial policy would look like in 2000 AD was ambitious, and pushed the idea that governments need to think long term and really challenged conventional orthodox understandings about the Indian economy, about industrial policy of the time. Many, many decades later, in the late 2000s, CPR did exactly this all over again, this time on foreign policy, bringing together stakeholders of different views around the table to develop a long-term national security strategy, the foreign policy strategic document called Non-Alignment 2.0 and then some of the authors along with myself more recently produced the second version of this titled India’s Path to Power” a collective enterprise across several individuals and institutions.
This idea of looking at issues as they exist today, but pushing the envelope to think long term was very much at the heart of what CPR did. And I think that’s what made the institution extremely relevant and built up its ability to be responsive to the policy questions of the time. This early work that CPR began on industrial policy then comes to a head in the 1980s when the institution builds a very strong body of research on economics. Two of the country’s most well-known economists of the time, Dr Isher Judge Ahluwalia and later, Dr Charan Wadhwa joined CPR and played a very important role in challenging established understandings of the relationship between state and capital and pushing for the urgency of reimagining industrial policy in ways that rid India of the shackles of licensing that had was now increasingly being recognized as one of the reasons why growth was stagnant.
Dr Isher Ahluwalia, within a year of joining CPR, publishes this celebrated book Industrial Growth in India; Stagnation since the mid-Sixties and emerges as an extremely important voice on industrial policy, liberalization and growth. In addition, there are a few others at CPR who are working on issues of liberalisation, advocating against protectionism and for more open economic policy. In fact, at this point in late 1980s, there’s a revision of Towards an Industrial Policy: 2000 AD to keep it more updated to issues of the current moment. And Dr Charan Wadhwa joins as well to start a two-year long study on loosening protectionism on specific capital goods.
All of this is building up a body of knowledge that is responding to the very specific challenges that the Indian economy was facing in 1980s and contributing to the broader policy discourse, but also engaging in the public sphere with these questions of how should India open up that ultimately culminates into the famous 1991 moment of the opening up of the Indian Economy.
At this time, there’s another important element of Indian policy-making at the national level that was gaining ground, which was around South Asia regional cooperation. SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) was just about being established and in fact, CPR was a few years ahead of the formation of SAARC when it brought in two very important scholar practitioners Bhabani Sen Gupta and Pran Chopra to give birth to CPR’s work on foreign policy.
And they were particularly focused on questions of South Asia integration. This was very much a critical issue of the moment and CPR became the home of a significant amount of research and engagement on these issues, both as a convening hub that brought in different stakeholders within India but also building networks and relationships with researchers, with policy practitioners across the region.
The reason I went into this history was just to give the reader and the listener a sense of how the institution was developing its intellectual agenda. There was a policy context and within that policy context, there were emerging questions that needed long-term strategic thinking, but also active convening, dialoguing and debate. The two issues that the institution builds its expertise in is on the economy, where it’s at the centre of and I would argue even a little bit ahead of the debates on how India should think about its industrial policy, how it should think about questions of liberalisation, of opening up, and then on the other, it is looking at the foreign policy landscape and building up a very robust body of work and engagement around these critical questions of South Asian regional integration that were really at the heart of our foreign policy thinking in this phase in the 1980s.
CPR develops its expertise and presents itself to the world both by building legitimacy for its work through deep, field-defining research – both Dr Charan Wadhwa’s work and Dr Isher Ahluwalia’s work are widely cited as among the most important contributions to the discourse on liberalisation in India in the 80s and 90s. And the work that Pai Panandiker and his colleagues did on industrial policy feeds directly back into the policy discourse of the time as well. And similarly, as we see with South Asia.
If you go back to the history of the 1990s and the early 2000s, you see similar strains. An institution that is bringing talent in and responding to the big policy questions of the day and doing so both by looking at the long term through deep field-defining research and pushing the envelope on how policymakers think. But at the same time, also creating platforms for dialoguing and convening with a wide group of stakeholders to build public consensus around these issues in the 1990s.
Among the many things that the centre does, it also brings in extremely important voices in national security and foreign policy, through researchers who built out a very long career at CPR: Dr Brahma Chellaney, Dr Bharat Karnad as well as Dr Nimmi Kurian. Both Dr Chellaney and Dr Karnad retired a few years ago, and Nimmi, of course, is still a faculty member at CPR. Their work expands the horizons of CPR’s work on foreign policy, looking at newer issues that were at the frontier of foreign policy debates in India. Dr Chellaney did a lot of work on technology sanctions, on missile technology related to India’s relations with China and Central Asia. Bharat Karnad was a key figure in India’s national security establishment and was one of the principal authors of India’s nuclear doctrine. Both played a very important role in presenting alternative, contrarian positions to the mainstream. Nimmi did a lot of work on India’s relations with China, and has also since been doing a lot of work on borders and borderlands, both in South Asia, and India-China. These were emerging issues for foreign policy at the time and CPR was really at the front and centre of all of this.
Cut to the present. When I joined CPR, you see the emergence of a new intellectual portfolio of issues that were looking to the future in the aftermath of the first decade and a half of economic growth, thanks to Pratap Bahnu Mehta’s vision of a younger, academically rigorous CPR. With massive social economic transitions taking place in India, all of which required both a deeper understanding as well as some forward thinking about the next set of challenges that national policymaking was going to face. Way back before climate change and India’s energy transitions became matters of high diplomacy and front page news, CPR was ahead of the game and brought in two of the most talented young scholars, Lavanya Rajamani and Navroz Dubash, who hunkered down at CPR to build out what has now come to be called the Initiative on Climate, Energy and the Environment.
In addition, India was emerging from that first phase of growth and the largest movement of people out of farms and into non-farm activity opened up new vistas of questions about India’s urban transitions. How do we actually build cities that would genuinely fuel growth in India? We began setting up a program on urbanisation, the roots of which again can be traced back to the late 90s and early 2000s. DR KC Sivaramakrishnan, who became chairperson of CPR in the mid 2000s, joined CPR after retiring as Urban Development secretary. He was the architect of the 74th amendment that sought to decentralise powers to local governments in urban centres and municipalities. Dr Sivaramakrishnan began building out our work on urbanisation that my colleague Dr. Partha Mukhopadhyay, who joined CPR in about 2005 built up into our longer-term program on urbanisation.
Our work on international relations, of course, continued. And we also created space for academics who were looking at questions of foreign policy in different ways. Srinath Raghavan had joined in the mid-2000s to produce field defining books on the modern history of India’s foreign policy including: The Making of Modern South Asia and The Oxford Handbook of Indian Foreign Policy. Responding to the new set of policy challenges in that late 2000 phase, a new set of actors come in.
This is a very important time from the perspective of institution building, in that there was a proliferation of research institutions in India. The term think tank now enters the lexicon quite firmly. New think tanks are emerging in the landscape. And there’s also an emergence of a new kind of global philanthropy. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation had just emerged on the scene. They had started working in very niche areas of public health, particularly on HIV/AIDS in the mid-2000s and then were beginning to expand. The Hewlett foundation, the MacArthur Foundation were beginning to do a wide range of things in India. This emergence of global philanthropy in some ways created new institutional challenges.
On the one hand, there were a lot more resources that were available to do research, but the nature of those resources were very much projectized. Ultimately institutions need money to function and to build their institutional backbone. CPR, had of course, a very long partnership with the Indian Council of Social Science Research starting from the late 1970s, that had built out a few key academic positions at CPR and that’s how CPR its academic rigour. International philanthropic organisations, particularly for the Ford Foundation were another source of funds in the early years. But the way in which funding contributed to institutions was very different in that phase compared to the 2000s, when there was much more in terms of resources.
The old form of funding was very much about supporting the backbones of institutions. So the funding came in the form of research chairs, in the form of endowments. The new kind of funding, while it enabled a very large build out of the institution, was largely in the form of projects. And that raised important questions and concerns: Even as an institution is expanding, how do you build and strengthen its institutional backbone?
When I took over CPR, as the intellectual portfolio had expanded, a lot of resources had entered the institution to enable and facilitate this expansion. But the next obvious question was how do you build resources in a way that strengthens the institutional backbone, so that we are not just dependent on projectised funding, which while it allows you to innovate and experiment, has limitations in terms of its ability to ensure long-term sustained funding? And the one thing that we had learned from this period too is, in order to ask and answer hard and different complex
policy questions, as CPR was doing, it required you to build research agendas that could travel through the longue durée and and be agile and responsive to the nature of the particular policy moments and evolve as the policy questions evolved alongside.
So, I had been given a bubbling, energetic, thriving institution. My first challenge was to think through how to institutionally strengthen it. And of course, the second challenge was how do you develop its intellectual agenda into the next set of questions that we needed to confront.
And in some ways that agenda emerged organically. The key areas of work from climate to urbanisation, Land rights to international relations was continuing.
But in each of these, the one thing that became more and more visible to all of us was that even if you are looking at a policy question from the particular sectoral expertise that you brought to that question, whether it was climate, whether it was urban, whether it was social policy, ultimately, each one of these raised very crucial questions about the nature of the Indian state. Now this is something that CPR has engaged with all the way back from the 1970s. Pai Panandiker himself lamented the fact that India just didn’t have any good public administration research. Public administration scholarship really ought to be at the heart of a young nation that was energetically working towards the project of nation-building. It just didn’t exist in a substantive way. Over time ‘public administration’ turned into a new term that has entered the lexicon: state capacity.
In the 2000s, this question of state capacity came into CPR’s work from the point of view of public institutions and some really seminal work on India’s public institutions, led by Pratap Mehta along with his colleague Devesh Kapur and later Milan Vaishnav joined in as well. They produced two really important edited volumes on India’s public institutions, its strengths, its limitations and how do we answer the critical question of building out 21st-century public institutions that are autonomous, robust, strong, rigorous. There was my own work at Accountability Initiative, which dealt with the critical questions of governance at the cutting edge and how to strengthen state-society relations to improve governance and accountability.
We were all looking at these questions in different perspectives, but we hadn’t actually built this out into a cross sectoral work on state capacity. And increasingly, it seemed that that was really the next generation of questions that we need to get a handle on. One of the biggest things in terms of building an intellectual agenda that sought to draw on the learnings of the work that we had done over the decade previous was to build an umbrella project on state capacity, so we launched the State Capacity Initiative, and along with that, new initiatives on politics, new ways of thinking about international relations… [There were also] new forward-looking questions on policy: How do we build and respond to the emergence of technology in the public policy world? How do you think about regulatory institutions? These were some of the new areas of work that we started building in, while all along thinking about this big question of how do you strengthen the institutional backbone in a resource constrained environment.
Resource constrained because there was very little appetite within the global donor community, within the Indian donor community, to think about financing institutions from an institution-building perspective, by which I mean supporting the institutions in its ability to build a strong and robust institutional backbone, a strong administration, a robust corpus, endowed chairs that would allow you to attract talent and hold on to talent for the long term. And yet also have resources that were available to reinvent the kind of research that you wanted to do in response to policy.
One last thing is also, the urgency of reimagining how to keep the policy dialogue going in the public sphere. One of CPR’s great strengths which go back to the ‘publish or perish’ culture that our founder Pai Panandiker imbibed in the institution, is that CPR scholars were always prolific.
It’s a very heterogeneous institution. Through its evolution, it didn’t just bring in traditional academics. It was a space for retired bureaucrats – people with a long history of public policy practice – but also a number of journalists, too. BG Verghese, was a CPR faculty member till he passed away short of a decade ago. This presence of journalists encouraged CPR to engage with the public sphere beyond its academic work, writing quite regularly in national newspapers, in Op-Eds. Pratap of course, his columns are essential reading if you want to understand contemporary India and global affairs. At CPR, all of us enjoy the art of communicating research through the means of the opinion pieces and many of us indulge in this.
It has a huge positive in that it ensures that our research is constantly in conversation with the public and it also holds us accountable because when you present your ideas to a wide audience, some like it, some don’t, and you have to answer questions. So it’s very much a part of the institution’s culture.
But by 2017 the world was moving on beyond the Op-Ed. Social media had exploded. We had really resisted setting up a Twitter account or Facebook account – how can you communicate complex policy in 150 characters! But change was thrust upon us. By 2013-14 it was impossible to be an institution of any kind without active social media presence and communications became a real critical arm of how you translated research and kept engaged in the public sphere.
It was new, it was hyperactive, with lots of different ways emerging and you know we are in some ways old researchers. So we really had to also reinvent ourselves and find new ways of expanding our engagements beyond the opinion page and beyond the seminar room. The early experiments we did were with the CPR Dialogues, creating a platform for a wider public policy conversation that took critical pieces of our research, core questions of public policy, different stakeholders and then opened it out not to a carefully curated policy kind of audience, but to a larger audience.
In a way, our imagination was can you create the equivalent of Jaipur Literature Festival for public policy questions? I was really surprised to see how much hunger there is, particularly among students all over the city and actually all over the country to dialogue and engage on these very critical questions. The first time we did it, it was the first stage. It was small. But by 2020, just before COVID, we did the second big CPR Dialogues. And we had at least 200 odd students that came to the Habitat Centre through the course of these two days to listen, learn, ask amazing questions that pushed us to think harder.
It gave us a sense that there really is a space and an audience for this kind of deep engagement. So finding and experimenting with new ways of communication and taking our work beyond the Op-ed pages and seminar room was another big focus of my years as president at CPR. That’s where Hemali and Rohan you come in!
How do you wrap your head around all the different things going on at CPR? Is there a system – or just broadly managed chaos?
It’s chaos. I wouldn’t go so far as to say organised chaos but it’s chaos that all comes together and I think that’s the process of research. The exciting thing about CPR is that it’s a really intellectually charged atmosphere and all our peers are constantly engaged in questions, bringing through the seminar room experts, thinkers, writers across so many different fields. The range of exposure one gets and the kind of bird’s eye view that you get just being in the building and talking to colleagues on a wide range of issues that are really at the heart of our social, economic, and political lives in India just stimulates you and I think the prolific-ness of CPR, of all my colleagues, comes out of just that stimulation.
One of the great lessons of institution building is that there is no better kind of accountability than accountability that comes from being in an environment where everyone is in the collective pursuit of excellence. Your colleagues become the biggest check and balance to ensure that you produce and that you are accountable for producing as good a scholarship as you possibly can. It’s helped me think very hard about questions of how we frame accountability even when we talk about public policy and governance. The economist Lant Pritchett, who is one of my mentors and a good friend, has this very nice framing of accountability for accounting versus accountability as an account. He argues that a lot of how we think about accountability and public policy in our debates on governance, particularly in India, is to conflate accountability with accounting. So tick marking. ‘Have you produced three papers? have you organised two seminars?’ Accountability as an accounting practice, so to speak.
You realise that accounting is hardly accountability. Sure, it gives you a good ledger but it doesn’t create an institutional atmosphere of excellence. Where you’re held accountable in terms of outcomes of excellence. That’s where the second element of accountability – which is the account, the kind of embedded context in which you build narratives about yourself that justify the nature of work that you do vis-à-vis your peers and gives legitimacy to your work – this account is the way in which real accountability for outcomes emerges.
How do you ensure that teachers show up in government schools? Can you do it through an accounting practice by sticking in a biometric attendance machine? Well, maybe, but that’s not going to get your teachers teaching as well as they can. But create an environment where your peers engage with you in a dialogue about pedagogy and debate about how to teach particular things, and automatically your “account” of what it means to be a teacher starts becoming the front and centre of how you define your purpose and how therefore what you hold others hold you accountable for. That’s what I think CPR is. So in some ways, how I think about many questions of governance also intersects with how I think about my institution-building role.
In our work on state capacity, my colleague Mekhla, who heads our State Capacity Initiative, talks a lot about how to think about the norms and cultures of public institutions, and how to imbibe a sense of public purpose into public institutions. In many ways, the act of administering and leading an institution like CPR pushed me to think about questions of norms and public purpose. Maybe that’s why intellectual productivity is high, because even administrative pursuits that are quite quotidian, mundane, and frankly can be quite boring are also in many ways a part and parcel of the broader intellectual agenda that brings us all together under the umbrella of CPR.
But I’ll also say one more thing. It’s been a very turbulent time. I took over CPR in late 2017. It was a thriving institution. My predecessor, Pratap, had really built this phenomenally, intellectually vibrant, and purposeful institution. So I had big shoes to fill. It takes time to understand, even if you’re part of the institution, to view it from a different perspective. Perhaps it’s almost harder when you come in from being a faculty member to then think about leading it. Of course, it has its advantages. But you also have to reimagine and relearn everything that you know about the institution and that takes time. I had just about found my feet when Covid hit, which meant that the whole institution and how it functions had to be completely rejigged and we had to move from the seminar room to the Zoom room. And we’d barely emerged out of COVID when the regulatory environment started getting more complex. With the amendments to the FCRA laws in 2020, even the domestic fundraising environment was becoming much more challenging. And then, in mid-2022, as we were emerging out of the COVID phase and settling down into a new phase for institution building, the institution came under a new set of challenges with the authorities.
So in all these turbulent times, it’s still the vibrancy of the intellectual environment of the space that really keeps it productive, despite everything.
We’ll come to the current turbulence in a moment. But I wanted to ask about two ‘audiences’ for CPR’s work that we haven’t had the chance to discuss much. One is the broader policy space outside India. We’ve spoken mostly about India, but CPR is a voice that is relevant not just to the policy ecosystem here, but internationally also. And the second is in India, with the government and practitioners – how are they consuming and working with the output from CPR?
CPR as an institution has had a fairly long and deep relationship with a very wide range of institutions, both domestically within India but also with the global ecosystem. CPR is, at heart, an Indian institution that is deeply embedded in the public policy ecosystem here in India. Therefore, it plays a very important role in presenting the Indian perspective. Sometimes you can extrapolate from the Indian perspective to a more broader developing country perspective or we Global South, as we call it now. But bringing that perspective into the international arena and on the international stage, and this is particularly relevant for India in the last decade and more when India’s role in shaping the global discourse on global public good – whether it’s climate, public health, multilateral institutions, global finance – has become extremely significant. We play a very important role, through our long relationships, with global institutions in presenting an Indian perspective and enabling that perspective to find a seat on the high table of the global discourse.
Often global institutions tend to assume that their politics, their perspective is the way in which the world talks. I remember a really good line that summarises this in Navroz’s interview with you when he said sometimes we look at our American colleagues and we say ‘But you know, it’s not just America, that has politics. All countries have politics and you have to be sensitive to and understand the nature of that politics’. So presenting that perspective is important and it’s played a very important role in shaping, particularly, for example, the climate discourse, but also several other arenas: How we think about questions of education, of public health, of social accountability, how we think about the challenges of property rights. Embedding these ideas in the global discourse has been a very important role that CPR plays.
Also, being the home of where researchers from around the world come to engage in India, to understand India, to build research projects that are comparative, and deep. CPR as an institution is the home of several very important comparative global research projects. We were one of the institutional partners for the India-China Scholars Exchange program anchored with the New School in New York. It resulted in a very exciting exchange of scholars between India and China on a wide range of issues. Urbanisation, for example. These kinds of exchanges that both build a collective understanding and contribute to the global discourse on a wide range of issues is the role that CPR plays.
Another set of institutions from France whose names I am not going to dare pronounce because my pronunciation is all wrong. So I’m merely going to give the acronyms: IRD, CERD, Sciences Po, and we have scholars who have been embedded in CPR, who work on these issues. With CSH, we’ve had one of the longest running dialogues on Urbanisation, where we bring scholars and practitioners working on issues of Urbanisation from across the world to engage in a dialogue. We also have a long standing relationship with the University of Bergen on property rights. The convening power of the institution, with its relationships and networks with global scholars allows for an exchange of ideas that is genuinely unique, and it ensures that a deeply embedded Indian understanding is routinely presented in these platforms, which helps shape the global discourse. That’s how we view our engagements with international institutions.
You’d also asked about policy practitioners in India. There are three things I’ll say here. One is, that we often complain about the Indian state being too generalist and not open to expertise outside of the political moment. Some political regimes are more open to expertise, some less so. But you know more generally, the Indian Civil Services – it’s a constant refrain – it doesn’t like expertise. It’s too generalist. It’s too closed. But actually our relationships with the Indian bureaucracy over many decades suggests otherwise. The Indian state has its own very unique ways of bringing in expertise as it needs and is such that you know the answer to the generalist-specialist challenge of civil services doesn’t always need to find itself in standard debates on lateral entry. The Indian state does this by setting up expert committees – and CPR has often played a role in being members of or chairs of expert committees. It seeks researchers to provide research studies that contribute to committee reports and studies. Whether it’s the Finance Commission or the Competition Commission, Central Water Commission CPR scholars have played a very important role in this work. Often experts are called in. We were home to the Ministry of Water Resources (and later Jal Shakti) research chair. Our work with Accountability Initiative or even PRS of demystifying a lot of legislation, laws, policy budgets and presenting it back – sometimes, even the government needs it – is another way in which the government engages with expertise across the board.
But increasingly a new area has opened up which I think has been a long time coming. It’s becoming much more visible to us at CPR in the last five or ten years, which is a deepening engagement with state governments. I myself, through my work, have long advocated for deeper federalism and for states really claiming the role that they ought to play in both policy making and policy implementation and increasingly you’ll find state governments looking to research institutions, to think tanks to civil society, to a range of stakeholders to help them respond to their policy challenges.
The challenges at the state level are of a whole other kind. There are of course the big picture policy design, policy thinking questions that state governments are grappling with. But they’re also grappling with implementation. National policymaking is about ideas. It’s about setting standards. It’s about rule-making. But really, the rubber hits the road at the state government level, where they are tasked not just with building out a policy framework, but also implementation and the process of implementation has very complex design questions and institutional questions built into it. This is a new arena where state governments are looking to institutions like CPR. And we now have a fairly deep presence, which is again I think one of the additions to CPR’s repertoire of policy engagements in the last four or five years.
We’re working with the government of Tamil Nadu on thinking through their human resource needs over the next decade, as the Research Secretariat to the Human Resources Committee that the Tamil Nadu government set up. We’ve been working very closely with the government of Andhra Pradesh on providing both monitoring and evaluation on some of their key flagship welfare programs, but also now helping them build up a data analysis unit since the Indian state is now digitised completely, but it needs to build its capacity to draw on this digitization in ways that strengthen its capabilities, to be responsive to governance questions. We’ve been working with the government of Meghalaya on building its health policy as well as with its finance department on how to strengthen its budget making capabilities. We’ve been working with the government of Odisha on Urban Development and Sanitation. Similarly with Punjab. And this work cuts across many things. It’s thinking through policy design. It’s thinking through institutional design, institutional capacity. It’s thinking through the steps of implementation, it’s about evaluation. It’s also about training – building the capacity of the state cadres. In particular, we’ve done some really exciting training with the state cadres and with the administrative training institutions for state cadres in Himachal, in Nagaland, and in Meghalaya, all with the aim of strengthening the capabilities of the state at the cutting edge at the state government level. This is a new and very important and very vibrant stakeholder in the policy making process that is making its presence felt in the last few years.
I would love to be able to delve into each of those new projects, but given that we’ve already taken a bit of time, I’d like to come to the current moment. You’ve mentioned that it’s been a turbulent time. We’re not going to go over the specifics of the legal cases, CPR has responded to those in various other forums. But I wanted to get a sense of what it is like for you to lead this institution in this current environment, in this atmosphere?
In some senses, Rohan, I think it reaffirms the importance of institutional spaces like CPR.
Politics comes and goes, regulatory challenges remain. India and actually the globe is going through such a moment of turbulence and transition, and I think social media has added to new ways in which societies are coming to terms with how it engages and how it communicates what the public sphere should be, what are the norms of that public sphere. All of which creates a very, very polarised space. This is not unique to India. Countries around the world are dealing with this, and in that process the space for evidence-based, sober engagement with this critical moment that the globe is going through is even more urgent.
Adam Tooze has sort of popularised this idea of the Polycrisis. This polycrisis, perhaps, that the globe and India is going through requires spaces like CPR to be able to stay sober and continue with the process of trying to understand the nature of transitions that are underway. I don’t think anybody can claim to know with any certainty what’s actually going on. Therefore, it’s really important to be able to constantly observe, document and place one’s ideas into the public domain for engagement.
Through this whole process, the questions that have been raised about the institution, the nature of its work, the nature of its funding, all of that collectively makes me feel even more determined that institutional spaces like CPR must be fought for and kept secure because we need these. Otherwise, how are we going to understand the overarching context? It also is important to remember that even the process of evidence collection, the process of intellectual pursuit, can get heavily polarised when you are in this complex moment.
It’s really important always to ensure that the work that we do finds its anchors back into the grassroots. I personally find that – even as we’re dealing with all the difficulties of responding to questioning that the government is raising, CPR is now in the court – but just going back to the field, talking to people, getting their perspectives in villages, in urban centres, understanding – through everybody from the Block Development Officer to the state secretary – what’s actually going on, serves as a refreshing reminder of why the work that we do is so important.
One response that I and I think all of our colleagues at CPR have to this present moment is a determination to find a way to continue this work because as we find ourselves caught in this moment, the relevance and significance of sober, empirically grounded, intellectually grounded engagement with the very critical questions of our times, to try and understand the roots of the polycrisis, the nature of the polycrysis is just so, so critical.
One of the questions we’ve usually ended the interviews in this series has been to ask about misconceptions. I usually am referring to misconceptions about specific research work. But here, are there more general misconceptions about CPR and policy research that you find yourself having to correct?
What has really caught me by surprise is the kind of narrative building around CPR as being an institution that is driven by agendas that are not Indian. That it is actually the antithesis of national interest, of economic interest. The roots of all of that have to do with how we think about financing and whether foreign funding necessarily ought to be conflated with work that is working for foreign interest rather than national interest.
The reason it surprises me is, look at what we do. Are you trying to tell me that the work that we do on building a robust understanding in India on how we can navigate our energy needs as a growing economy whilst not locking ourselves into a fossil fuel-heavy energy transitions is anti national or goes against national interest? Is work that is trying to see how we can strengthen schools, improve learning outcomes, strengthen local governments, strengthen public health systems, going against national interest? Is work that is about trying to build public awareness on environmental laws and trying to understand the consequences of flouting environmental laws in terms of pollution, in terms of lives and livelihoods of the most marginalised of populations as we build out our infrastructure, something that is against the national interest? Is engaging in a dialogue with both the country’s elites and grassroots stakeholders on questions of laws and policy that our parliamentarians have passed going against national interest? Is engaging in the world of ideas going against national interest.
Ideas don’t have to be things that we all agree with. In fact, The Argumentative Indian is about the Indian who is constantly and consistently disagreeing with one another. That’s where the world of ideas gets emergised. And that world of ideas is not restricted to national borders. It is about an exchange and through that process of exchange, national interest and global interest is formed and that’s the work that we do as an institution. Yes, an Indian institution by definition works for Indian interests and its sources of funding are transparent and visible to anybody who cares to look, and very much within the framework of the law.
Should institutions in India be supported more by Indian philanthropy? Yes, of course and absolutely, there’s no question about it. But does philanthropic support from the global philanthropic community mean that an institution that is receiving that philanthropy is speaking to interests that are against the nation? I just find that impossible to believe. I just find that wrong. I find that that’s a really deep misconception and one that needs to be broken. In the world of ideas, there are no boundaries. In the world of ideas, the best check and balance is the fact that it presents those ideas in the public domain, and it is in the public domain that ideas get challenged, that policy debates take place, where views and evidence gets engaged with and responded to. This is how collective national interest is formed and preserved. For me, at this point in time, this is the biggest misconception that we ought to break. We ought to be celebrating and supporting institutions that are embedded in India, in the Indian policy making ecosystem, that are committed to working on issues that are of significance and relevance to Indian citizens and presenting an Indian perspective across the globe. We ought to be celebrating ideas and engaging with them and holding proponents of ideas accountable for their views with arguments, not shutting them down, when inconvenient.
Finally, are there three works that have been influential for you and that you would like to recommend?
There are so many. Maybe since since we’ve talked a lot about the Indian state and the role of policy research institutions like CPR in building the Indian state, I’ll speak to three books that have recently come out that I think really give us insight into the early phases of state building, but also open nice and important questions, for research that we ought to concern ourselves with as we think about the project of state building going forward.
I absolutely loved Nikhil Menon’s Planning Democracy: How a Professor, an Institute, and an Idea Shaped India. There are many reasons why a lot of listeners who are interested in public policy and public institutions should read this. But for me, one of the most important things that I learned from this book is just what it takes to build public institutions. As he traces the history of building India’s statistical institutions and PC Mahalanobis’ own evolution, as he builds some of India’s most well-known statistical institutions and then his contributions at the Planning Commission, you really get a very live sense of how institutions get built, what are the challenges, how different actors come together, their own personal quirks, their strengths, their limitations, their influences. And really, the recognition that the process of institution building is also about being embedded in a world of ideas and debates of the time, which goes back to the point I was making about ideas not having national boundaries. These are all responding to frameworks in which the world is thinking, ideas that are being debated, and you’re building institutions in that context. Strong institutions respond to that. You get a sense of that from Nikhil Menon’s fabulous history.
The other two books that I would recommend are books by CPR scholars. Two edited volumes on public institutions. The first, Public Institutions in India, edited by Pratap Bhanu Mehta and Devesh Kapur and the second, Rethinking Public Institutions in India, edited by Pratap Bhanu Mehta, Devesh Kapur and Milan Vaishnav.
Each chapter in these books picks up a key public institution and examines it from its history and then through that historical look arrives at the contemporary moment, assesses its strengths and limitations and then thinks about what it will take to strengthen these institutions in the longue durée. I think these are really important things, and the authors are a combination of academics and practitioners. So you also get a very vivid understanding of how practitioners think about institutions, how scholars think about institutions and the interface between the two. But also, as we look at the contemporary moment in India, when many of our core public institutions which are supposed to play a central role in serving as checks and balances to the more coercive aspects of the state are not performing their roles effectively, for understanding why we have come to this pass, these two books are extremely important contributions.
I will end with my favourite topic, which is the grassroots Indian state, and the Indian bureaucracy as it’s responding to the challenges of welfare. Akshay Mangala’s new book Making Bureaucracy Work: Norms, Education and Public Service Delivery in Rural India. The framework he’s building is about the role that institutional cultures and norms play in shaping how bureaucracies behave and respond to the tasks that they are given. Akshay creates these two very important types of bureaucratic norms – legalistic and deliberative – and these have really helped me understand better how and why the Indian state, particularly the grassroots bureaucracy, behaves the way it does. This kind of deep ethnographic work that understands the Indian state, in my view, is really a very big missing link in academic work on the Indian state and our thinking about questions of state capacity. I read it not just for what it gives me in terms of learning but also as a reminder that this kind of research we need to be doing as we look to the big 21st-century challenges that India has to confront and the process of state-building. We are assuming today that all of this will be resolved with digital technology, but that isn’t true. We need to be focusing on the hard task of building a robust state. And to do that, we need to understand the Indian state a lot better.
Those are excellent recommendations. Because we’ve been talking a bit more broadly about CPR, we haven’t had the chance to really delve into some of your own work. So I’ll tack on a hat tip to Amit Verma’s interview with you on The Seen and the Unseen, which focuses much more on your own thinking about the Indian state over the years.