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Major Indian think tanks are global minors

Business Standard, January 28, 2012

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India has the highest number of think tanks in the world after the US and China; yet, not even one finds a place in the top 30 worldwide listing by the University of Pennsylvania. In the list, excluding those in America, only one entity from India figured in the top 50 -- the Delhi-based Centre for Civil Society (CCS) is at 34th position.

However, in Asia’s top 30, we have Centre for Policy Research (CPR) at fourth place, Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations at 15th, The Energy and Resources Institute (Teri) at 17th, CCS at 18th and Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses at 24th.

The Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program at the University of Pennsylvania annually ranks think tanks around the world through an eight-month process through expert and peer institution feedback on their scope, performance and influence.

Parth Shah, founder and president of CCS, says the global ranking is based on the issues taken up, which are of universal concern. “For example, we are working on education, livelihood, governance, environment and rule of law,” he noted. Shah said the ranking also factors in whether the entities take their research to the targeted audience. Besides, the rankings also assess whether the bodies are working on multiple issues and not just a single one.

However, some experts in the field questioned the measure. “There is mystery surrounding the rankings, as CCS appears in the top 50 list of worldwide think tanks (excluding the US) but in the Asia list, its ranking is 18,” notes Pratap Bhanu Mehta, president of CPR, which is ahead at fourth in the Asian list.

India has 292 think tanks, the highest after the US and China, which have 1,815 and 425, respectively. The larger issue remains of Indian think tanks’ lack of global presence.

According to Mehta, the number of Indian think tanks is highly misleading. “The average size is very small,” he said, adding the lack of government funding was the major constraint. “Looking at the top three think tanks in the Asia list, they are from China, Japan and Indonesia, respectively, working with an annual budget of $50-70 million. There is a major drop at the fourth place, i.e. CPR, working with an annual budget of $2-3 mn,”

He points to how Singapore and China have invested heavily in research institutes, while Indian government funding is very low. “Though we (CPR) are big in India, we are minuscule if you put us on a global platform,” Mehta says. The Indian Council of Social Science Research’s annual budget is just Rs 30-35 crore, he adds as an example.

Also, India has no tradition of private philanthropy, as in the US, to fund good research projects, some experts say. Another thing India lacks is a vigorous university system that develops a good research base. “We do not have universities like Yale or Princeton. This weakens the entire ecosystem for research,” says Mehta.

Some slam the rankings altogether. “They are just looking at the new liberal world and are missing out on others. CCS is a liberty institute that advocates no competition law or benign capitalism. The list is based on a very narrow study,” said Pradeep Mehta, secretary-general of CUTS International..

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