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Agents of change

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The infrastructure in India is a train wreck;the trains are a horror to travel on;the travel sector is inhospitable;the hospitality industry is unhealthy;the health segment is being corporatised;the corporate world is politicised;and the political arena is...

When our long-lost and new-found Non-Resident Indians (NRIs) cast a sharp (and/or sentimental ) eye on their homeland or country of origin, they see a staggering range of problems - and opportunities. Indeed, amid an economic downturn in the West over the past few years, India has represented something of a jangling cash register, and rare is the NRI who isn't drawn by the "ka-ching" factor, all other things (home, family, sentiment etc) being great pulls. NRIs are now wading visibly into infrastructure (airlines, hotels etc), health (witness the number of doctors returning ), technology, food, banking, and corporate sectors, wanting to pull India up by its bootstraps.

However, one of the most significant interventions is occurring in politics and public policy. This in itself shouldn't be surprising. After all, almost all of our founding fathers were NRIs at some point - Gandhi, Nehru, Bose, Jinnah, Patel, Ambedkar all went abroad to study and some of them even worked outside India (Gandhi for a solid, extended 21 years). But the call of the freedom struggle was a big draw at a time that was probably more idealistic and less predatory than now.

Unlike outbound migrants of a generation or two ago who winged west with the sole intent of economic betterment and became foreign nationals, today's returning expats and NRIs are global citizens who see themselves as agents of change dealing in ideas. Call them policy wonks. Twice in the past two decades, C V Madhukar went to America, and each time he returned to initiate subtle changes in policies that are influencing our national political discourse, which are not always cogent or informed.

His most recent intervention followed an epiphany of sorts at 38, 000 feet. A couple of days after he had watched two American politicians duke it out in a TV debate in Boston (where he was presenting a paper at Harvard), Madhukar was struck by the vast didactic gulf between American lawmakers and their Indian counterparts, both fraternal members of an electoral democracy. The Americans were fast, fluent, full of facts and figures, speaking with clarity and conviction. In contrast, the two Indian politicians who he watched debating on the in-flight newscast on Air India were mostly essaying rhetoric. "When I saw the shallowness of the debate, without specifics of policy or performance preparation, my heart sank, " he recalled. "The contrast was very vivid after watching the American debate. "

It's not that Indian politicians are less smart, contends Madhukar. In fact, if anything, at a recent outreach with state level lawmakers (MLAs) demonstrated, they have more grassroots wisdom and connection than the elites give them credit for. But in the absence of a support system that supplies them critical information, data, background on contemporary issues, most lawmakers hawk bombast and bluster in speeches (and on TV) in place of hard facts. By the time he landed in India, Madhukar had zeroed in on his next project - a support service for Indian parliamentarians and legislators broadly on the line of the Congressional Research Service in the United States.

It was a natural progression for a man who left India for America for the first time in the 1990s to earn an MBA (after an engineering degree in Bangalore), telling his mother he will make a ton of money and come back (yeah, right, would have been the general reaction). Meeting another Harvard MBA with a "nice car, a big house, and a suburban lifestyle" at the end of his course convinced him he didn't want to end up being a marketing director in a chemical company. He returned to India in 1995, working in a boutique investment bank, and telling himself that what the corporate sector does also constitutes nation-building. At the same time, he consorted with the NGO sector, first working with Pratham in 1996, and later helping set-up the Akshara foundation and the Azim Premji Foundation.

Significant and engaging as these interventions were, considering the large number of people they affected (" scale" is one of his favorite terms), Madhukar says somewhere along the way he realised "policy was what will make the real difference. " Back he returned to the US, this time to the Kennedy School of Government in Harvard, where he honed his knowledge of policies and processes all the while (including during a year at the World Bank) looking for the ideal involvement that would better policy making in India. The penny dropped on the Air India flight.

The PRS Legislative Research that Madhukar eventually founded in September 2005 is still a toddler, but already showing it has legs to last a long time. Its primary service is to produce briefs for Indian MPs on critical, contemporary issues - from the Jan Lok Pal debate to the food security wrangle to the nuclear liability kerfuffle. The briefs, based on substantive research by a 20-person team, are non-partisan and unbiased, and help lawmakers take an informed position on pending issues and legislation. It hasn't been an easy ride. When the service first started and MPs began getting briefs in their mailbox, they called up with searching questions: Who are you? Why are you sending this? Who is funding you? But with the passage of time, and dozens of briefs and bills later, the law-makers are more assured, and funding is now flowing from domestic sources (in addition to backing from the Ford Foundation, Google. org and Omidyar Network). There have been several moments of vindication. A lawmaker who was deeply suspicious of a bill on the prevention of infectious diseases in animals, seeing it as a backdoor entry for cow slaughter, got more clarity after reading the PRS brief. Another MP called in late night one day wanting an urgent briefing on the meaning of derivatives before taking part in a debate on the Reserve Bank amendment bill the next day. "It was our Hillary Clinton's 3 am moment, " jokes Madhukar, referring to the infamous ad that boasted of her preparedness at all times.

All this may not be apparent at a time the headlines continue to bring us reports of parliamentary walkouts;where each election cycle re-emphasizes the criminal element in legislatures. But legislative education is a work in progress, says Madhukar, and the first generation of (non-elite, Indian educated) lawmakers fluent in policy articulation are already here, although PRS found itself tripped quite a bit when it realised that Indian elections frequently turn out more than 50 per cent of incumbent or sitting lawmakers. Still, a 2009 study by IIM Ahmedabad found that half the MPs in the Indian parliament knew about the existence of PRS, half of them read the briefs they received, and more than 100 MPs were now reaching out to PRS for information. PRS itself, now ramping up to 45 people, also instituted a fellowship program that attached 46 LaMPs (Legislative assistants to MPs) for a year, leaving many of them hankering for more. Dark as the newspaper headlines make out the political process to be, there is more than a ray of hope coming through.

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