Think-Tanks and their Emerging Role in Indian Policy Making

Posted in Finance Articles, Total Reads: 1741 , Published on February 22, 2016

India’s GDP growth in the first quarter of FY15-16 was at 7.5% compared to China’s 7%, thus pecking India as the fastest growing economy [1]. The progress of economic reforms in the nation and the subsequent economic growth has been largely governed by effective public policies pertaining to public sector, business, agriculture, infrastructure, labor regulations, rural development and healthcare. With a new found growth rate in a positively changing yet highly volatile climate, the tolerance for uninformed policy decisions have gone much lower. It is the thing of the past when the decision makers could wait and experiment to see the effect of the new policies on the fabric of the society. With a highly interweaved global economy and increased complexity in policy-making, the requirement of highly informed policy analysis along with the researched impacts on economic, environmental and social factors has increased.

Along with bringing a multi-disciplinary and non-partisan approach to policy making, the role of think-tanks in India is gradually increasing from knowledge repositories critiquing the policies to the one envisioning the future and consequently operationalizing it. Think-Tanks impact policy decisions by researching and reviewing policy relevance, consulting the stakeholders involved, preparing the guidelines for implementation, and often statistically assessing the impact of the same.


While the role of these policy research organizations or think-tanks was very well recognized by the West as evident from the central roles they played in restructuring of the British Labor Party & the German Social Democrats in the 90s as well as the influence which the major think-tanks had on formulation of US foreign policies during George W. Bush’s administration; however, India had been largely divided in its opinions on think-tanks and also in its role in the society. However, with the internet revolution, globalized economy and improvised technologies, the role of organized think-tanks are broadening in India in recent times.

Think-Tanks in developing economies like India have faced a number of challenges with foremost being financing the operations. Largely the capital funding is project specific and more than 75% of the funding endowments are limited to contracts and grants [2]. This in effect had led to a major organizational challenge of retaining top researchers affecting the capacity building of the think-tanks. There has been a large dependence on foreign funding and this needs to be addressed soon. The funding of the policy think-tanks should be largely dependent on a continuous public and private investment. There is an existing belief among experts that think-tanks are talking shops created by retired policy makers with very little to no influence. While they have played a vital role in Europe and North America, in the emerging economies of Asia & Africa, their competence has often been questioned [3]. The very fabric of policy making in these regions is not encouraging towards think-tanks. A major reason behind this is the lack of interaction between policymakers and researchers. Due to this, the research is not linked to the policy. The think-tanks do not have influence over policymakers which has resulted in inadequate use of information for policy making by policy makers. Thus decisions are often not data driven.

The collection of data in itself is a major challenge in a culturally-diverse and a vast nation like India. There are inaccessible areas which have little or no connection with the outside world and reaching these areas and gathering reliable actionable information is a major task. The thin line between lobbyists and think-tanks had been a major deterrent to garnering public consent. Developed nations already have strict legislations in place which help separate think-tanks from lobbyists. With the level of corruption that already plagues India, lobbying by think-tanks is a major risk that needs to be addressed while promoting them. In such setting if think-tanks become influential, they could turn into lobbyists and function in their own interests with little regard for public consent or social welfare.


India with 268 think-tanks, ranks fourth in the world [4]. However, very few of them have made impact in policy making. To have an impact on policy making, bureaucrats need to have more acceptability towards think-tank research. Think-Tanks should work on issues which are implementable and of direct relevance to the beneficiaries of public policy. Another aspect Indian think-tanks lack and gradually moving towards in is Policy Entrepreneurship which includes but is not limited to being able to work with important people within the policy-making space and to present, argue and push new policy alternatives effectively. It needs a comprehensive understanding of the context in which the policy and its key actors are working. E.g. Janani Suraksha Yojna (JSY), under the overall umbrella of National Rural Health Mission (NRHM), was proposed to modify the existing National Maternity Benefit Scheme (NMBS). While NMBS was linked to the provision of better diet for pregnant women from Below Poverty Line (BPL) families, JSY integrated cash assistance with antenatal care during the pregnancy period, and institutional care during delivery and the immediate postpartum period in a health center, by establishing a system of coordinated care by field-level health workers [5].

In the emerging sustainable economic growth of India, think-tanks can prove to be a valuable asset to the nation by enriching public policy debates. The gap between the knowledge we possess and the policy we create needs to be bridged, and an efficient way to do it is to make think-tanks as effective as possible who are not merely advisory bodies but also can play a bigger role in implementation and feedback of the policy. With emerging leaders and researchers who envision their career in think-tanks, the understanding of the policy imperatives for research, communication with policy actors, and quality of the research output has significantly improved. With the advent of an expansive media, think-tanks have done a commendable work in impacting public policy environment by undertaking and supervising policy research, organizing conferences and trainings, advocating policies and educating masses through campaigns [6]. It is important to understand the process of how think-tanks can influence public policy in greater depth in an emerging economy like India. The think-tanks need to correctly identify the evidence required for researching and arguing with conviction. There needs to be a strong relationship between the stakeholders involved. The Government in turn should also be sensitive enough to be open to the research studies and get the think-tanks on board to draft the policy proposals. Furthermore, in the populist demography like India, it should be ensured that proposal should be very convincing to elicit a healthy debate and garner enough support for its passage in the parliament. Think-Tanks now bank on media advocacy for policy debates in the public. The goal of any public policy is to ensure that the intended beneficiaries are benefitted at the grassroots level, and for this there needs to be a comprehensive evaluation mechanism. The results of any policy is determined by the way it has incrementally benefitted the marginalized groups and how the delivery of the scheme has improved. Since the number of think-tanks have also significantly gone up, it is important for individual think-tanks to be credible, clear, reliable, cost-effective, implementable, and relevant in their research outputs.

In the policy-making scenario, the process of consultation has been a significant one by think-tanks. The consultative process not only questions the current paradigms, but also enable the government to make informed decisions on policy [7]. For this to happen, we also need to analyze the other major stakeholder in the process - the decision makers or the Government and Bureaucracy. The government needs to create a framework for engaging experts, issue-specific think-tanks, civil societies and other stakeholders on policy discussions, thus creating a system of integrating public participation in the policy-making process. Also, bureaucracy should ensure that clear and relevant information is available to these think-tanks for independent research studies. In this dynamic political and economic environment, a deep knowledge of political contexts and network to build capacities will help steer think-tanks as primary drivers of social change in the county.


The article has been authored by Akshay Ratan, XLRI Jamshedpur



1. DNA India Bureau, (2015, May 30). India overtakes China in GDP growth rate. Retrieved from

2. James McGann, Jillian Rafferty, and Anna Viden (2014), How Think Tanks Shape Social Development Policies, University of Pennsylvania Press

3. Young, J. (2005). Research, policy and practice: why developing countries are different. Journal of International development, 17(6), 727-734.

4. Policy Landscape and Think Tanks in India : Paradigms, Processes and Future Directions. New Delhi: Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, 20094

5. Lim, S. S., Dandona, L., Hoisington, J. A., James, S. L., Hogan, M. C., & Gakidou, E. (2010). India's Janani Suraksha Yojana, a conditional cash transfer programme to increase births in health facilities. The Lancet, 375(9730), 2009-2023.

6. Weaver, R. K. (Ed.). (2002). Think tanks and civil societies: Catalysts for ideas and action. Transaction publishers.

7. Stone, D. (1996). Capturing the political imagination: Think tanks and the policy process. Psychology Press.


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