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FCRA challenge for foreign think tanks in India

By Ruchika Chitravanshi and Subhayan Chakraborty
September 28, 2020 12:53 IST
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Funding challenges are not limited to just one think tank. Several scholars say that access for conducting research and getting foreign funds has become a major hurdle for think tanks, with the government raising many questions regarding such inflows. As a result, many think tanks are keeping a low profile and becoming less prolific.

Ruchika Chitravanshi and Subhayan Chakraborty report.

IMAGE: The Brookings Institution's building in Washington, DC. It was recently announced that the think tank had called time on its partnership in India. Photograph: Brookings Institute/Wikipedia

On September 10, Brookings India announced that it would henceforth be called Centre for Social and Economic Progress, an independent public policy think tank. The new name was the result of its partnership of seven years with the Washington-based Brookings Institution coming to an end.

Having set up its India office in 2013, Brookings Institution’s brief stint here raises a key question: Are foreign think tanks less enamoured of India?

Vikram Singh Mehta, who was executive chairman of Brookings India and is a distinguished fellow at CSEP, says that Brookings has withdrawn its trademark from all its overseas markets, including China and Doha. “They want to focus only on the United States. We have worked hard to develop our own brand, signage and website design,” Mehta says.

While CSEP maintains that Brookings India exit was part of a global strategy, some scholars feel it is not as simple and straightforward. According to people in the know, funding had become a major challenge for the think tank, with the laws around the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act becoming very strict.

Data from the ministry of home affairs shows that 375 institutions in Delhi lost their FCRA registration in 2015, a year after the Bharatiya Janata Party government came into power. This was followed by 164 cancellations in 2017 and 68 in 2019.

The home ministry did not respond to questions.

Funding challenges are not limited to just one think tank. Several scholars say that access for conducting research and getting foreign funds has become a major hurdle for think tanks, with the government raising many questions regarding such inflows. As a result, many think tanks are keeping a low profile and becoming less prolific.

For instance, Carnegie India has not published any policy outlook since 2016, according to information on its website. The number of reports and research papers published by Carnegie India fell from eight in 2016 to two in 2019 and four in 2020. And the number of articles published were down from six in 2016 to two in 2019 and one so far this year.

People in the know say this may also be due to the gestation period following leadership change in the organisation.

“Setting up a think tank in India is not an easy exercise. While India may boast of ease of doing business, ease of being a non-profit is a very complicated subject,” says a senior scholar who does not wish to be named.

Regulatory compliance, issues with the FCRA and getting good talent are big challenges for think tanks, he adds. Besides, if a think tank is writing on sensitive matters, such as domestic polarisation, democracy or foreign policy, then the government can raise an issue.

“However, while these things were happening even during the previous government (United Progressive Alliance), the current regime is more vigilant,” he says.

Many have, therefore, had to readjust their understanding of the relations with the government.

“While the current government is very combative, high-level think tanks don’t get pulled up much for their activities or publications,” a senior research coordinator at a leading Delhi-based international trade think tank says.

However, it remains incumbent on them to intelligently scope the economic and political landscape before embarking on projects, especially at a time of polarising viewpoints, she adds after some thought.

Case in point, the flurry of think tanks announcing new research on how to attain political, social and economic self-reliance, close on the heels of the prime minister’s pitch for Aatmanirbharta, she says.

"Reputed institutions only employ people who are well-known in their fields and understand how governments can often be sensitive to things they don’t want to hear,” a senior board member of an economic think tank says candidly. “That’s the reason these institutions are also sufficiently manned by a large group of former bureaucrats — to judge the mood of the politicians.”

For think tanks, the threat of losing their FCRA licence remains a major worry. FCRA is applicable to all societies, trusts, associations, groups and NGOs that intend to receive foreign donations.

Industry insiders says the central and certain state governments have increasingly begun to hint that not towing the established line may invite trouble. This includes conducting research, arranging workshops and discussions or submitting official recommendations along the economic and socio-political line of discourse espoused by the ruling political dispensation.

“The intimidation has a much more acute impact on NGOs, who maintain larger, more liquid financial operations. But it’s equally directed towards think tanks, a majority of whom either have or are trying to get FCRA approval,” a senior fellow at a Mumbai-based geo-political think tank says.

“In an economic climate where donors have tightened their purse strings, losing the only way to source donation from overseas is a death knell for research activities.” 

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Ruchika Chitravanshi and Subhayan Chakraborty in New Delhi
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