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Bar & Bench in conversation with CV Madhukar, who aims to strengthen the legislative debate in India by making it better informed, more transparent and participatory. He speaks with us about his background, work done by PRS, research methodology used and the future.
Bar & Bench: On the intitial years
CV Madhukar: I started like any other good south Indian student. I graduated with a civil engineering degree from the BMS College of Engineering. In my 3rd year, I realized that I wanted to do an MBA and later was admitted to the University of Houston, where I specialized in Finance.
After my MBA, I decided to come back to India and started working with ICICI Securities. I had an excellent 3-year run in what was then one of the most sought after companies. While I was with ICICI, I met with several non-profit institutions during the weekends. I understood their work and also began to ponder on how these non-profit institutions could be scaled up across larger geographies.
This is when I discovered Pratham, which was a couple of months old when I approached them. I started volunteering with Pratham even when I was with ICICI. I was later seconded by ICICI to work with Pratham full time, where I worked for nearly 3 years. The Government of Karnataka wanted to replicate the Pratham model in Karnataka. This led to the setting up of Akshara Foundation. Nandan and Rohini Nilekani, Rajeev Chandrashekar, Texas Instruments and other corporates came forward to support this initiative.
It was at this time that Mr. Azim Premji wanted to know if I could move to Bangalore to help set up the Azim Premji Foundation.
I spent 3 years in Bangalore, after which I left for Kennedy School of Government at Harvard where I completed my Masters in Public Administration. I joined the World Bank after my MPA and worked there for 2 years after which I came back to Delhi to set up PRS.
Bar & Bench: Why focus on policy?
CV Madhukar: All along even before I started with Pratham, I had a fetish for scale. I was always fascinated by scale and thought about solutions on a PAN India basis. Scale to me meant a couple of different things – one was scale in implementation; the other was scale through public policy work. Policy was always on the back of my mind no matter the kind of work I was involved in the past. There was a lot of scope to work on policies in the education sector and other social sectors. A lot of the policies that we feel the impact of today depend on how the policy is conceived and implemented.
Our MPs who make policy cannot be experts in all the issues that come up before the Parliament. The range of issues before the Parliament is too diverse for any Parliamentarian to understand the nuances of a Bill or an Act in greater detail. Further, in our system, we do not have research staff for Parliamentarians. Our MPs need better research tools to take more informed decisions on issues of law and policy. This is how the PRS idea originated.
Bar & Bench: What does PRS do?
CV Madhukar: The core of PRS’s mission is to “strengthen the legislative process by making it better informed, more transparent and participatory”. We had a certain idea about our value-add to the MPs and we also obtained their feedback as well as feedback from people at large. MPs and wider citizen groups have accepted much of what we have done. We have tried a couple of ideas and have dropped some, which did not make sense. On a scale of 10, we have been accepted on 7 or 8 core issues that we wanted to cover.
We have been fortunate in having some of the best researchers working with us. We don’t see ourselves as experts in all areas of law and policy, just as our MPs are not experts in all areas of policy and research. Our research methodology, when we work on a piece of legislation, is to list all the stakeholders and connect with them on each of the core issues and challenges proposed in the bill. We reach out to activists, lawyers, access Supreme Court or High Court precedents, international examples and conventions. These multi-stakeholder discussions provide us with valuable insights on any legislation.
We have maintained non-partisan research and have been able to provide support to about 250 MPs across party lines.
CV Madhukar: I would go back about 17 years, to 1993, when Parliament introduced the Committee System. This system is a good check on the manner in which a Bill gets shaped and the thoughts of the political parties. These committees take a holistic approach in reviewing a legislation and have ensured that there is a deeper debate on a Bill. But there is a definite need to build capacities and provide better research assistance to ensure better information for MPs; but certain capacities have already been put in place.
Bar & Bench: Challenges while setting up PRS
CV Madhukar: When we started out, the Ford Foundation agreed to fund us as they found PRS to be a good idea as long as it was executed efficiently. Later Google.org, which is the philanthropic arm of Google, decided to support our initiative. We have used these funds and have set up a technology platform (www.prsindia.org) and a large database of state laws (www.lawsofindia.org) that is not only used by MPs but also by several lawyers. The PRS website has the text of every Bill pending in the Parliament, related documents and PRS analysis on the issue.
As far as process is concerned, we did look at some international examples. We learnt about legislative briefs, how to write, how to present issues, the appropriate format, the length for our briefs for MPs and have evolved a summary report to suit our MPs. Anything we write is within six pages and has a one-page summary. So these are some simple things we picked up.
The biggest help in any work like this is the support of family and close friends. Long before the idea of PRS became reality, I have had endless brainstorming sessions with my wife Veena over a couple of years. So in many ways she has as much of a role in thinking though the concept of PRS and the actual setting up of PRS as I have. She had a flourishing career in the IT sector but gave it up to move to Delhi to help me set up PRS.
A number of close friends have been very supportive of the idea of PRS, and it has made a lot of difference in how PRS has shaped up over these years. Finally, all credit must go to the abilities and dedication of the team working at PRS.
CV Madhukar: We have had a stream of students coming in and saying that they want to work with PRS. While we would want to take more people, we want our team to be a good mix of lawyers and others. We have a stream of interns from NLSIU, Bangalore, NUJS, Kolkata, and other good law schools so that’s something that we encourage. We benefit from some of the research that the interns do and hope that the interns take something back with them as well.
Bar & Bench: Future plans?
CV Madhukar: I have spent a good part of the last 5 years setting up PRS and to increase PRS’s scope and make it more relevant to the Indian policy making process. PRS will continue to be my foremost priority. PRS will itself evolve as an institution. We are planning on doing much more work in the coming months on other aspects of the Parliament. Certainly, we are also examining the idea of what we can do with state legislatures. It doesn’t matter whether the law is passed by the Centre or the State, it affects the citizen equally and if there is anything we can do to strengthen the law making process at the State level in a phased manner, we’d like to see how we can address that. That is the direction that PRS will head in the foreseeable future.
I would like to continuously add value to PRS. The question we are asking ourselves right now is if we are a group that is supporting the world’s largest democracy, how should this institution look? We would like to emerge as an institution that lasts another 100 years and serves our democracy well.