Think Tanks and Funding Sources: Autonomy and Sovereignty

Centre for Policy Research

This year, within the world of research organisations, the big news is the suspension of FCRA registration of Centre for Policy Research (CPR) and probe into Oxfam India accounts. Both are interlinked as per news reports: Oxfam giving funds to CPR, without authorization. However, the amount under probably investigation from Oxfam India, as per Annual Report 2021-22, was a mere Rs.8.3 lakhs, listed under domestic funds. Total receipts to CPR for the year was Rs.24.80 crores, of which share of foreign funds was Rs.18.78 crores (76%). Within this share, it should not go out of our notice almost 50 percent, that is Rs.9.12 crores, came from Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF)[1].

CPR has a range of funding sources. As Sanjay Baru wrote[2], 70 percent of its funding is foreign. And, the other part is from government agencies themselves. If the objection of Government of India is to foreign funding, it should have started with Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the most pernicious of them. Apparently, it is not. Even if the objection was on BMGF, government would have been left red-faced because BMGF is tightly, directly intertwined with atleast 5 Union Ministries, including agriculture and health. And, of course, taking into the fact that Mr.Bill Gates gets almost Head of State treatment, as we witnessed his recent meetings with various Union Ministers. Action on CPR does not seem to be on the principle of foreign funds.

Foreign funds to think tanks is apparently considered scandalous in US, the mecca of political lobbying by corporate interests. More than a dozen prominent Washington research groups have received tens of millions of dollars from foreign governments in recent years apparently to push U.S. government officials to adopt policies that often reflect the donors’ priorities, an investigation by The New York Times has found. The money is increasingly transforming the once-staid think-tank world into a muscular arm of foreign governments’ lobbying in Washington. And it has set off troubling questions about intellectual freedom: Some scholars say they have been pressured to reach conclusions friendly to the governments financing the research[3]. Foreign governments funding research or advocacy by think tanks in the US is considered a scandal, but legally it is not prohibited.

Unlike US, in India, it is a case of private multi-national, philanthropy foundations supporting research and advocacy through thinktanks. It is also not illegal, either. All four pillars of Indian Constitution do not view foreign funding to think tanks as immoral.

The surprising part is that CPR’s work is intertwined with Union government variously. One ex-staff member writes that they were part of Indian delegation in Paris COP of UNFCCC. Maybe, in many other research projects as well. Usually capital city-based think tank organisations are careful and strictly academic, avoiding criticism, try to be politically correct and do not contradict government directly. Think tanks by nature have a soft approach, sliding ideas and solutions, overtly and covertly, but never taking conflicting stand. There are exceptions though, such as BMGF, Ford Foundation and other US-based thinktanks, which do active lobbying on policies and administrative prescriptions.

It is puzzling as to how CPR, with 50 years of experience in Delhi’s bureaucratic circles, ended up on the wrong side of BJP government. No one seems to be wiser about this. The reason of Oxfam, could at best a fig leaf. Government has targeted Oxfam, which in recent years has published some reports which ‘expose’ and describe India differently from the official narrative. If that’s the case, shooting CPR from the shoulder of Oxfam, looks churlish.

Defining a think tank is very difficult[4]. With contestation of ideas and solutions becoming a norm, think tanks focussed on policy change are always suspect as to where their interest lies. If its foreign funded the antenna raises a little higher. Yet, from Russia to China, India to US and elsewhere, there is growing role for think tanks in governance and public administration. For years, Government of India was always selective with think tanks, cozying up or in distancing itself, and not on principle. There has been no righteous reaction when foreign think tanks, not even foreign funded Indian think tanks, entirely funded by foreign funds were made members of policy and decision-making bodies for a quite long period.

For this reason, probably, there is no defensive statement from fellow think tanks. There is not even a murmur from fellow CSOs, on the action of government on CPR. Not only in this case, but also when Greenpeace, Oxfam and others are targeted. Apparently, these are not linked with local civil society. Oxfam used to have a large network of CSOs, across the country until 2011 or whereabouts. Greenpeace operated in its own style and bubble. CPR is Delhi-centric research organization. At best, it could have well-wishers who interacted with CPR personnel, variously.

A former staffer of CPR writes[5], “A think-tank creates a space where academia and the government can meet halfway. More often than not, academia represents an ivory tower insulated from the world where scholars ponder and innovate ideas………It is at this crucial juncture that think-tanks step in. With one foot in the ivory tower and the other in corridors of power, they are able to take a step back, study issues in depth, and make policy recommendations to achieve the goals of the State.” This view confirms that CPR’s work is relatable to an ivory tower. On the other hand, this justification of think tank probably tells us that the work therein is similar to a consultancy. A consultant delivers what is expected by the engaging party, albeit nicely couched in language and arguments. CPR seems to be playing this role, and yet it was targeted. The cause of action, thus, does not seem to be content of the work, either. The current action on CPR by the government could be related to jostling therein for funds and power among the slew of think tanks, working with NITI Ayog and/or government.

Action on CPR is most probably an outcome of the ‘politics’ of knowledge that is being played at higher level. Corporate interests in various sectors play this very sophisticatedly. Growth in the number of “Davos men” (coined by Samuel Huntington) is not mapped, in general. With World Economic Forum, BMGF and other ‘global’ private entities breathing down on countries such as India, a desi thinktank that is building a perspective differently could be an apparent threat. As it is, information, researched knowledge, data and related products are increasingly being controlled by corporate interests, an organization which is born locally could be thorn in the flesh. However, CPR is no small organization. Even if the action has legitimate background, the aftermath of a resultant ‘regulatory’ scenario is likely to cool down an independent Indian civil society. And, that’s the problem, which is not recognized easily.

Politics of think tanks, in the power centre that is Delhi, is not easily understood. There is almost zero focus of media on their activities and the linkages with policies and regulation. Media itself is a pawn and player in this politics of knowledge, which has huge impact on public policies, is a different matter of discussion altogether. In fact, every year, as we pledge ourselves to a republic on 26th January, it is time people become aware of how this ‘republic’ is being undermined by the think tanks, under the guise of philanthropy, and their under-rated influence on public policies.

Dr. Narasimha Reddy Donthi is a Public Policy Analyst

[1] Annual Report 2021-22, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi (






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