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Why the India chair in Virginia varsity matters

May 26, 2012 01:24 IST

Professor Niraj Verma, director of the L Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, US, who will be the operational head of the envisaged India Chair in Democracy and Civil Society, has said that he couldn't be happier to be the point man for such a project.

Verma, who was born in Hyderabad and raised in Ranchi, came to the US in 1987 with a civil engineering degree from the Birla Institute of Technology-Ranchi and a master's in infrastructure planning from University of Stuttgart, Germany.

After earning his PhD from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1991, he joined the faculty at the University of Southern California where he taught for nearly 15 years and then was recruited by the University of New York, Buffalo to be its chair of the department of urban planning. Following a four-year stint there, he was recruited by VCU.

Verma says an India initiative had been in the works for some time at the university, but was dusted off. With his advent two years ago and that of the Indian-American president of VCU, Dr Michael Rao, brainstorming on how to affect a competitive edge had led to the chair being conceived.

What is especially heart-warming, he adds, is that the Indian-American community in the area has virtually taken ownership of the project and is keen to have it running as soon as possible.

Verma talks to's Aziz Haniffa:

Why an India Chair in Democracy and Civil Society and how did it all come about?

I have been here about two years. Even before I came here, apparently there was an initiative to do something about India and that petered off for a variety of reasons.

So, when I came in, we took that old initiative and said let's try to rethink what our competitive advantage is in this. We are a school of government and public affairs, so that's one thing.

The other thing is that most of the India chairs in the country are focused primarily on business -- and we want to attract business because India is such a growing economy -- but at the same time, there is something fundamental underlying business. So, we decided that we wanted to do something on democracy and civil society, which is a broader concept, which will bring in business, but not be defined by it.

The second thing was that most of the other chairs in the country usually have a full-time faculty member -- either they already have that person or they recruit somebody and give that person, more or less, a chair for life. Because this is the only real chair in Indian studies in this whole region in some ways, we wanted to do it differently.

We wanted a variety of people because civil society is not one person. So, we decided to do it in a kind of short-term as well as medium-term of up to one-year type term visit by people who come here and spend time here and not just engage our students -- which is pretty important -- but also engage the local Indian community.

Aren't you taking on a pretty broad concept? How will you address those critics who may think that this is trying to romanticise the concept of democracy, the utility of civil society, etc, and argue that a specialised chair on subjects like business or Indo-US policy matters is more tangible?

We are an interdisciplinary school, unlike some other schools in the country. We don't have departments, we have programmes. The whole idea being that we can move seamlessly between different areas.

So, we are not trying to romanticise it; we are trying to critically examine it and there has been increasing work in economics for instance that has been telling usÂ… that the specific assets that are in play, such as collective memory and so on, become much more important and that individuals end up embodying many of these ideas and that institutions matter in a way that we hadn't thought of before.

These ideas have acquired some role in the last 20 years; not like it's cropped up yesterday, but clearly with people like (Oliver) Williamson who got a Nobel Prize in this recently.

So, this whole idea of institutions being more important than anything else in some ways -- we are trying to take that same thing when we talk about civil society. We are really looking at the institutions that are behind civil society.

Democracy is one of them, but also things like family, things like religion, things like political parties -- all of these things. Even ordinary things like marriage and how it is changing or rural/urban living and how it has been reformulated. All of these are questions central to our school's interest.

How did you, an engineer, with a specialisation in infrastructure and urban planning, find yourself as the operational head of a chair dealing with democracy and civil society?

Urban planning is a much broader area than is indicated by just those two words. Often times, urban planning is about where markets fail, where government intervention happen, and so on. So, democracy is a very important part of this.

I have been a student of government from that perspective for many, many years and I continue to be. So, it is not a stretch for an urban planner to think about these things.

The engineer part is a bit misleading for sure. I have moved away from my old engineering roots, but at the same time, everything you learn perhaps is valuable.

So, in some sense, your expertise in urban planning and the fact that you are very much involved in it as it affects civil society, makes this project much more closer to your heart?

Most certainly. It is close to my heart for a variety of reasons, not just because I am an Indian American, but I have a passion for this area -- consultation, cooperation and collaboration as well as negotiation. These are kind of by-words in urban planning these days.

People are realising that you just can't plan and blame somebody else if it didn't happen. The implementation and planning are seams that we knit together.

How did you arrive at the figure of $1 million for the chair?

Public universities have slightly different ways of approaching this as compared to private universities and $1 million for a chair is the standard figure at VCU. So, we have gone with that number.

Often times the big salary of a person may be supported partially by state resources as well. So, we believe the $1 million will help us go a long way towards that and, of course, if we exceed it, so much the better. But $1 million would really take care of the project.

I believe at the first fundraiser to establish this chair, you raised about 20 per cent of the $1 million. Was this a surprise?

It was not a surprise. It was an affirmation of what we thought would happen. If it had not happened, it would have been a, let us say, a bad surprise. But like I said, it was an affirmation of what we thought; the Indian community rose to the occasion.

We had a leader like Ranjit Sen -- an entrepreneur, and he and I worked closely on this -- developing lists of people to call and energise them.

What is very interesting about this is that there are a lot of people who we think are first- time givers. It is also, I believe, a maturing of the Indian American community in a variety of ways in terms of philanthropy and so on.

We love the fact that the community has gotten so involved in such a collective fashion. It is one thing if you have one rich person putting a lot of money. But this is much more widespread -- it is several people.

Ever since the event, we have got people talking to us about how can they be supportive and part of this project. All of them feel invested and believe they have ownership of this chair.

We will put together a group of people to help us with programming -- some of them will be from the community and some will be representing more of the academic interest from within our school and so on. We expect to work very closely with the Indian American community, which is very vibrant and supportive of this.

The Indian-American community, which is fairly significant in the Richmond and greater Richmond area with quite a bustling information technology community, I am told, really stepped up to the plate and pledged their unstinted support to this endeavour?

Absolutely. We had about 320 people at the fund-raiser, whereas initially our estimate was about 250 people.

The other thing is that we did not restrict it to only Indian Americans, but also opened it up more broadly to local corporations. We actually had sponsorship from Mead-West Vaso, one of the world's biggest packaging and land development companies. They are very interested in BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) countries, particularly India.

Another sponsor was the BonSecours Medical Group, because they have so many Indian-American doctors on their rolls.

In fact, over 15 people from there were at the event, and most of them were physicians of Indian origin. There were also some law firms. We want to further build on this corporate presence to solicit their partnership at future events.

Was Governor Robert McDonnell and Indian Ambassador Nirupama Rao's presence at the fund raiser an impetus?

It certainly was. We are very grateful to the governor for taking so much interest. In fact, it was he who reached out on our behalf and invited Ambassador Rao.

The partnership between Virginia and India was furthered not just by his visit (to India), but also by this chair happening.

Perhaps in some ways, having the India Chair on Democracy and Civil Society housed in a School that bears the name of the first African-American governor of a southern state like Virginia has special significance?

Absolutely. Governor Wilder is really an inspiration for our project. I had so much pleasure introducing him at the event and I said that it's one of the perks of my job that I, once in a while, get to have lunch with Governor Wilder and learn from him. If you talk about a living legend, it's pretty much what it comes to. We are very fortunate to have his support and we feel proud of his name in our school.

Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC