C.V. Madhukar wants the research reports his non-profit organization generates for members of Parliament (MPs) to be accurate, easy to digest and bias-free. But not necessarily entertaining.
“I would categorize it as bland,” said Madhukar, a 38-year-old former investment banker who founded PRS Legislative Research in September 2005 at the Centre for Policy Research here in the Capital. “We are the antithesis of sensationalism. Some of the controversial Bills, when you read (our analysis) you might not even know they are controversial,” he added.
Madhukar said his six-person team, financed by the Ford Foundation, is the country’s first non-partisan research service focused on pending legislation. So far, about 60 MPs have used the service, he said.
The briefs are sent to all the MPs, about 700 journalists and 1,000 non-governmental organizations around the country. The group boils down 40-page Bills into four-to-six pages of bullet points and analysis, stripped of legalese and partisanship. They highlight key points and provide context—the product of a month of research and interviews with stakeholders, outside experts and the government officials who drafted the Bills. The briefs are available for free on the PRS website (www.prsindia.org).
PRS, at an MP’s request, also prepares backgrounders on specific topics, often on short notice before a parliamentary debate. Those notes are then available to any MP who requests them.
Madhukar said he founded the group after watching the US Senate election debates on a hotel television during a visit to Boston four years ago. The candidates, he remembered, were having substantive debates on health care, education and other important issues.
“Indian elections are so personality driven, not policy driven,” he said. “My emotional reaction was to ask: how do you get more substance on policy and performance into our election debates?”
Madhukar decided the answer was to inform MPs and the public about the issues. He joined the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University the next year as a mid-career Edward S. Mason fellow and used his professors and classmates as a sounding board. Kennedy School professor Gowher Rizvi, who is now on the PRS advisory board, organized a meeting with Madhukar and about seven members of the faculty to discuss the idea.
They agreed that for the project to be successful, the MPs would have to view PRS as impartial and willing to adapt to their needs, Rizvi said. Madhukar then moved to India to assemble his team, anchored by senior research fellow M.R. Madhavan, an old friend who left a job as Bank of America senior strategist for the Asia region, to work at PRS.
“A lot of this has to do with the fact that many of the parliamentarians, while committed and dedicated, are simply not well informed about the issues,” Rizvi said. “They lack access to analytical information that is unbiased and impartial.”
MPs, for decades, have had ready access to the Parliament’s Library and Reference, Research, Documentation and Information Service (Larrdis). It’s meant to cater to all the research needs of MPs. But Madhukar said some people say the service, which is part of the Lok Sabha, doesn’t provide enough analysis on Bills. He said it is very useful for newspaper clippings and documents, but doesn’t provide concise policy analysis on specific legislation.
A library official, who asked not to be identified, said Larrdis employees are trained to guard against bias and produce briefs on important Bills when they aren’t catering to the other needs of MPs. (Staff members get about 80 requests a day when Parliament is in session). Larrdis has about 10 dedicated reference employees, who do much more than analyse Bills, he said.
MP Anant Kumar Hegde of the Bharatiya Janata Party said he likes the PRS bullet points, which allow him to understand information quickly. He turns to Larrdis for specific tasks, but finds it takes longer to get what he’s looking for.
The library’s legislative briefs include too much detail, Hegde added. He uses the library when he wants history about a Bill or is looking up information about similar laws in other countries.
“PRS’ main advantage is its briefness,” Hegde said. “PRS gives me bullet points and I don’t have to use extra references to analyse a Bill… Otherwise, to get the details about a Bill, I have to make specific requests for information. With PRS everything is in one place,” he added.
PRS’ briefs have focused on Bills that seek to combat human trafficking, regulate the postal sector, the sale of seeds and pension funds, and recognition of the rights of forest-dwelling tribes.
Madhavan said PRS would not be necessary if the country had an independent research organization like the US’ Congressional Research Service, on which PRS is modelled.
“If an institutional structure does this, I will go back to (working at) a bank,” Madhavan said. “The happiest thing that could happen is if we become obsolete.”
Pratap Mehta, president and chief executive of the Centre for Policy Research, said he has been impressed with the quality of the group’s work. The centre houses PRS in its offices, which are about five minutes from Parliament.
“This is not easy to do,” Mehta said of PRS. “It requires good analytical skills and good communication skills. This is not to be seen as a lobbying organization. He had to find way of articulating an intellectual point of view without being partisan and he’s done a quite remarkable job of getting the balance right.”
Mehul Srivastava contributed to this profile.
Sixty in Sixty is a special series that we plan to run through 2007, the 60th anniversary of India’s independence. We will introduce you to sixty Indians—both here and abroad—who are not rich or famous.
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