The Centre for Policy Research, which has recently come under the tax scanner for alleged irregularities in funding, prides itself on staying true to its “non-partisan” and “independent” values. Since its inception in 1973, the think tank has undertaken studies on almost every topic under the sun, and its academic freedom has of late been in full bloom – in commentaries critical of the government.
While the CPR maintains that it has done nothing wrong, “has all requisite approvals and sanctions, and is authorised by the government as a recipient under the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act”, opposition parties have termed the recent income tax search an attempt to stifle independent voices.
The tax “survey” in Delhi has surprised many within the centre, which despite the columns critical of the government, is still widely seen as a “centrist” constantly engaging with the government or its agencies – the number of government contributors attests to this perception.
CPR is among the 24 research institutes that are supported by the Indian Council of Social Science Research under the union ministry of education. However, the share of domestic grants for specified projects or purposes, including from ICSSR, to CPR is only around 12 percent.
So, who funds the multidisciplinary think tank, and how does it function? Newslaundry takes a look.
The funds and the projects
In the last five years up to 2020-2021, CPR has received over 140 crore for specified and non-specified projects. Of this, around Rs 122 crore was for specified projects or purposes – the share of domestic donors was a paltry Rs 14.54 crore.
The funds received for only non-specified purposes were included in the income and expenditure statements, according to which CPR’s expenses over these five years stood at Rs 20.21 crore. Salaries formed the largest chunk – over Rs 3 crore was spent towards wages of the total Rs 4.28 crore expenditure in 2020-2021.
Of the Rs 122 crore for specified purposes, the think tank has utilised Rs 105 crore in the last five years.
The significance of foreign contributors and the FCRA licence, due for renewal after September 30, is evident by the paltry sum left under “domestic contributions” if funding by multilateral organisations – such as Unicef, Unesco, WHO and World Bank – is subtracted in the specified category.
In the foreign category, major contributors are from the US. They include Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Ford Foundation, Namati, Omidyar Network Fund and William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.
The Gates Foundation – which fights poverty, disease and inequality – has contributed the highest at 17.32 crore in the last five years. This is still higher than the combined contribution of all domestic donors in the specified category. Projects funded by Gates have entailed programmes on sanitation, water and tracking nutrition.
In these five years, CPR’s receipts were the chunkiest in 2018-19 at Rs 34.94 crore, dropping to Rs 20.64 crore in 2020-2021.
The World Bank emerged as the top contributor in the domestic category with Rs 2.11 crore, followed by Unicef’s Rs 1.88 crore in the five-year period. On the other hand, ICSSR’s receipt share was just Rs 25.20 lakh.
Apart from multilateral organisations, union ministries such as Jal Shakti, external affairs and corporate affairs, the fifteenth finance commission, Niti Aayog, Meghalaya government, Population Foundation of India, HDFC Ltd, Jamnalal Bajaj Foundation and Tata Trust are also among CPR’s donors.
CPR has undertaken studies on almost every topic under the sun: health, sanitation, education, federalism, crimes against women, urbanisation, climate change, environment, post-Covid challenges for governance, data protection, etc.
Unicef-funded projects focused on tracking funds of urban local bodies and mapping Maharashtra government’s efforts on women safety while those by World Bank entailed studying water resources, federal governance, land acquisition litigation and census towns.
The ICSSR has funded projects on mapping citizenship in Delhi; interaction between urban citizens with the state; expansion of urban settlements; understanding homelessness; and examination of the idea of the Indian middle class.
In 2018-2019, housing finance major HDFC donated Rs 1 crore for a study on the “state of housing in India”. In 2019-2020, Nxtra, the wholly owned data centre of Bharti Airtel, wrote CPR a cheque of Rs 69.19 lakh for a fellowship programme.
Meanwhile, other major foreign contributors are Omidyar at Rs 9 crore, Ford Foundation at Rs 7.4 crore, Namati at Rs 6.7 crore and Flora Hewlett Foundation at Rs 5 crore. Oxfam India, whose properties were also surveyed last week, transacted Rs 19.87 lakh in 2018-2020.
US-based Omidyar, a shareholder in Newslaundry, has supported programmes on land rights. A CPR project on maintaining its academic freedom and institutional robustness is also one of the listed projects by Omidyar.
Ford has supported dialogue on agriculture policies and an increase in farmers’ income. It had earlier found itself in the crosshairs for funding activist Teesta Setalvad’s NGOs, Citizens for Justice and Peace and Sabrang Trust.
Funds released by Namati, a legal empowerment organisation in the US, have been set aside for grassroots programmes on policy compliance of environmental safeguards.
CPR was born out of a “frustration” against myopic government policy framework in 1973. As the government continued to draw up policies in response to day-to-day challenges, V A Pai Panandiker, a former planning commission member, felt the need for an institution that could brainstorm ideas for the long term. Panandiker built an institution where economists, anthropologists, climate scientists, environment experts and political scientists could join hands and enrich dialogue on policy.
Thinkers at CPR cherish its multidisciplinary nature. The centre’s former president PB Mehta once said, “So often, two or three sides of an argument come out of CPR – there is no party line. If you look at our IR faculty, we have the hawks, the doves, the comrades, opponents of the Indo-US nuclear deal.”
And so the “crackdown” has left some shocked. A few voices from the think tank – where channels of communication are tightly guarded in line with a corporate hierarchy – apprehend that it was a “gentle reminder” to not cross the limits. “The institution is very much part of the wider establishment. It works with the government and does not pretend to be anti-establishment,” stressed one of them.
However, academic freedom, which CPR president Yamini Aiyar believes the centre fosters, has of late been in full bloom in her and her colleagues’ columns and commentaries critical of the government. This “enhanced visibility” of Aiyar and her colleagues Sushant Singh, Harish Damodaran and Sonali Verma might have irked the government.
On the now repealed farm laws, Aiyar had flagged how an “absent state” can’t foster market competitiveness. On India’s Covid response, she declared that India has failed by ignoring federalism, the “first principle” of good governance.
An alumna of the London School of Economics, Aiyar was more scathing in her column in the wake of the killing of farm law protesters in Lakhimpur Kheri and the shutting of meat shops during Navaratri. “Violence has visible State sanction. This has emboldened mainstream State actors to invoke and entice violence more openly today than in past memory.” She was equally candid in her views over calls for violence against Muslims at the ‘Dharm Sansad’ in Haridwar. “The only antidote to hate, prejudice and communal poison is a politics of genuine secularism.”
On protests against the Agnipath reform, she wrote that the violence was a product of “politics of hate and bigotry”. More recently, Aiyar criticised prime minister Narendra Modi’s “revdi” culture remark in a piece for the Indian Express. She called the statement a “thinly disguised attempt to delegitimise welfare announcements by political opponents”.
In another piece, Aiyar criticised Modi’s emphasis on the duty of citizens during his independence day speech. “This emphasis on duties has been an oft-repeated appeal by the PM. I have no quibble with a discourse on citizens’ duties, indeed all citizens are duty-bound. The challenge is in how the terms of this discourse have been framed, casting the government's obligation vis-a-vis the citizen not in terms of ‘rights’ but in terms of her being the ‘beneficiary’ or ‘labharthi’ and therefore bearing duties in return for what the government doles out.”
In a podcast in November last year, Aiyar spoke about challenges to CPR. “You strike at the heart of the institutional challenges that we all confront. It’s not a unique challenge to CPR. Across the globe, we are going through a deep churning. And in that churning inevitably, the space for evidence-based sobre analysis becomes increasing limited.” Lamenting how policies are influenced by Twitter, she said, “All of this puts us in a deep existential moment.”
Aiyar has not responded to Newslaundry’s requests for comment. This report will be updated if we receive a response.
Meanwhile, in his column for the Caravan, Sushant Singh wrote about the establishment’s attempt to efface Jawaharlal Nehru’s legacy. “Attempts at invisibilising him exist because his persona and influence are too overpowering to fight, other than through falsehood and innuendo.”
In another column, he pointed to Modi’s anti-Pakistan rhetoric and India’s unpreparedness for a two-front military engagement. In yet another piece on the Indo-China border crisis, he opined that the Modi government’s refusal to publicly accept the gravity of the situation was alarming.
It remains to be seen whether the tax survey will impact the centre’s research in any way. “The survey seems just a blip. There has not been any communication from the institution before or after the survey. So I don’t think academic freedom will immediately suffer. But it can have a long term impact,” said a research fellow.