C.V. Madhukar is changing citizens’ roles in Indian democracy by opening the process of lawmaking to greater public engagement and scrutiny. He provides citizen organizations, lawmakers, and the general public with vital information about policy issues, and creates forums for these groups to communicate with each other.
The New Idea
CV Madhukar believes that laws which are written with the benefit of input from the public are likely to be more robust and easier to implement. Madhukar has created a unique service that produces high-quality, easy to-understand analysis on upcoming legislation in Parliament, and disseminates it to a range of stakeholders, including lawmakers. Madhukar’s work is thoroughly objective and non-partisan. He realized that unless members of parliament have access to concise information on the entire range of legislative proposals, they will find it difficult to vote meaningfully. By equipping the people with the same information, he empowers the public to demand that lawmakers are well-informed and accountable for their choices. Simply voting the party line without needing to explain why—and nobody asking why—could become a thing of the past. Madhukar has not only generated public demand for transparency in lawmaking, but has created demand among MPs too. They see the career benefits of mastering issues and taking an informed stance on legislative issues within their political parties. Also, when local constituents meet the MP, the MP would like to be able to meaningfully respond. Indian voters are gradually demanding more accountability from their representatives. Thus, there is strong demand from all sides for Madhukar’s idea to spread and replicate. He wants his organization to become the “port of first call” for information on all legislative issues in the country. His ultimate vision is for information, analysis, and external participation systems to become mainstreamed into the Indian legislative system.
Although over 60 bills are passed in the Indian Parliament every year, many of utmost national importance, there is not a single public source of analysis in lawmaking. Traditionally, the press and other media have kept tabs on proposed legislative changes and acted as the informants for citizens. But apart from a handful of controversial bills, the media focuses more on politics than on issues. Journalists track party and Parliamentary politics but rarely discuss the content of legislation. Indian think-tanks usually do not focus on Parliamentary legislation, and generally do not reach out across the country. The Parliament Library’s information service does not analyze Bills coming up in Parliament. Citizen organizations, public groups, and other stakeholders likely to be affected by new laws neither have access to new bills under debate nor adequate channels to communicate with lawmakers. In the business sector, barring a few large companies and special interest lobbies, most smaller companies have no access to information on legislative changes in the Parliament that may help or harm them.In the Indian system only bills drafted and introduced in Parliament by Ministers are passed. Bills introduced by individual MPs who are not Ministers are rarely passed, since by convention, this would be construed as sign of loss of confidence in the ruling party. In its entire constitutional history, a Private Member Bill has been passed only once—in 1970. A Bill introduced in Parliament by a Minister is usually referred to a multiparty Standing Committee that studies the Bill and makes recommendations to strengthen the Bill. So the content is referred back to a panel of experts within a Ministry, who present the bill back to Parliament for a party-line vote. MPs often vote with their official parties position on a Bill and have little incentive to study the proposed legislation. The real thrust of committee’s expertise, insight, and judgment is seldom transmitted to the MPs. The legislative situation in India does not provide legislative aides or staffers to help individual members with research on issues. Most political parties make little effort to discuss legislation with their members. Aside from a lack of access to information, the system is not very open to suggestions from outside, though in theory mechanisms do exist. The best moment is when the Standing Committee opens to hear input from selected external stakeholders. But this rarely happens well. Even if stakeholders are able to access relevant information, many do not understand the process well enough to identify the right intervention points. Essentially this means that debate on pending laws happens neither inside nor outside Parliament.
Madhukar’s organization, PRS Legislative Research, uses three approaches as part of its strategy—information access, capacity building of stakeholders and connecting stakeholders. PRS aims its information service at three groups—citizens and civil society groups, businesses, and policymakers including Members of Parliament. Madhukar’s aim is not to make PRS a permanent catalogue or a research organization for Parliament, but rather to create a culture of welcoming input from various stakeholders prior to all decision-making in the government. Therefore, PRS selects approximately 15 to 18 bills per year and provides concise, objective, non-partisan analysis of the implications. Unlike media analyses and think-tank reports, the legislative briefs PRS produces are unbiased and simply offer the essential content of a proposed bill to the reader. PRS selects bills that are timely, topical, cover a wide range of issues and are of national importance. Madhukar and his team have designed a variety of client-oriented publications to reach his target audience:
Legislative Briefs: Easy-to-understand analysis on the implications of upcoming bills that are the four to six pages long. Bill Summaries: One-page snapshots of important Bills. Pre-Session Alert: A brief outlining issues likely to arise in the upcoming session of Parliament. Post-Session Analysis: Analysis of proceedings of the last concluded Parliamentary session. Your Opinion Matters: Takes citizen input on upcoming bills to policy makers.Madhukar understands that to attract and retain subscribers to PRS publications, he must write for the target audience. He has set up a database system to manage PRS outreach through which citizen organizations and businesses receive information based on their areas of interest and specialization. PRS seeks periodic feedback from its subscribers and asks them to refer other potential subscribers in their field. Madhukar has collaborated with Ashoka Fellow Sanjay Bapat’s IndianNGOs.com as well publications like IndiaTogether.org to create a broad, well-categorized, subscriber database. At present, legislative briefs are printed and sent to nearly 770 Members of Parliament, about 1,500 COs, and the top 500 companies in India. In addition, about 500 journalists receive PRS publications by email. Madhukar is also exploring electronic media such as blogs and web-forums to widen his reach. PRS also trains civil society organizations to identify intervention points and present their concerns to policymakers effectively. Madhukar wants to create strong professional relationships with MPs across party lines and engage them as users of PRS products. He targets younger members seeking to establish themselves in the party hierarchy and uses them as entry points to influence the party’s style of lawmaking. PRS organizes carefully designed capacity-building and interactive training sessions for legislators as well as “Policy Curtain Raisers” to facilitate interaction of experts with small groups of lawmakers seeking deeper understanding of issues. PRS also undertakes commissioned research from policymakers on various legislative issues and uses this as a revenue generation activity for the organization. The third branch in Madhukar’s strategy is to create platforms for sustained interaction between citizens and their elected representatives. PRS’ “Your Opinion Matters” collates feedback from a wide range of experts and stakeholders and takes it to policymakers. They also organize interaction sessions between citizens and policymakers. With a recent Food Industry Bill, Madhukar successful encouraged street hawkers to present their views to Ministry officials. The interaction resulted in some important recommendations being considered for incorporation in the final Bill. PRS is currently operated under the aegis of the Center for Policy Research, a reputed Indian think-tank. Madhukar deems this setup essential to quickly gaining legitimacy with policymakers and other stakeholders. Madhukar started PRS in September 2005 with funding from Ford Foundation. PRS currently has a core team of four people with plans to add more in the next year as it expands. Madhukar is sensitive to the threat of PRS being co-opted by parties for their political gain and has chosen a board of respected thought leaders to ensure neutrality and prevent politicization of PRS. In the next three to five years, Madhukar aims to seed similar initiatives in at least three states and create a paid subscriber base for PRS products. He also hopes to have established PRS as a national-level institutional player courted by lawmakers and the media. If PRS is successful, similar initiatives will spring up to service the market. Madhukar also plans to institutionalize the research and analysis component of his work permanently within the Indian government system.
The idea for PRS Legislative Research crystallized for Madhukar’s during a flight from Boston to India in October 2002. He noticed that the U.S. Presidential election debates were structured around various critical issues and felt strongly that he wanted to find a way to “frame the debate” in Indian elections. He spent the next two years at Harvard and the World Bank honing his idea. Madhukar grew up in the Kolar Gold Fields Township in Karnataka, where his father taught English at the local college. His father passed away around the time he went to college. Madhukar finished his engineering degree, went to University of Houston for his MBA and began volunteering with UNICEF. He was struck by the stark difference between American and Indian lifestyles and mused about the impact the U.S.-based Indian community was having on India. Within six months of completing his education, he decided to leave U.S. and moved to Mumbai. Madhukar began his professional career with ICICI Securities in Mumbai and while at ICICI, he developed a proposal for UNICEF India, creating a donor base of Indians living in America. He persisted for nine months while his proposal was shuffled around in the UNICEF bureaucracy. Finally, UNICEF’s Mumbai representative advised Madhukar to volunteer with Pratham. Madhukar met Madhav Chavan and was immediately attracted to the professionalism and scale of operations in the organization. He realized that scale was a key factor for him in the citizen sector. During his voluntary involvement, Pratham grew from serving 200 children to 100,000 children each day in Mumbai. After three years at ICICI, Madhukar took time off to travel across India and study initiatives that had been successful in scaling up. He was invited by Pratham to help with the Right to Education Bill that was being debated in the Parliament. Madhukar realized that the service delivery issues plaguing basic education were not very different from those affecting basic health care delivery in the country. The realization that service delivery issues are cross-cutting made him think about the broader governance questions to be addressed, including setting up institutional mechanisms.In 2000 Madhukar was approached by Azim Premji, founder of Wipro, to help set up the Azim Premji Foundation. At the same time he set up and managed the Akshara Foundation with the goal of achieving universal elementary education in Bangalore city. Madhukar also organized the computer based learning initiative in rural government schools and developed appropriate content. However, Madhukar was being identified as an education expert and he was interested more in overall governance,, than just one issue. In 2003 he started the Mason Fellowship program in Public Administration at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. At graduation, Madhukar worked at the World Bank for a year before moving to Delhi in 2005 to start PRS Legislative Research. He lives in Delhi with his wife and two sons and loves to travel with his family.