Council on Energy, Environment and Water Integrated | International | Independent

Towards becoming resilient and remarkable

A few weeks ago, when hiking along the Klahhane Ridge in the Olympic National Park (a few hours’ drive from Seattle), a friend asked me, “Arunabha, what would success look like for CEEW?”

Instinctively, I said, “First, proof that we’ve been able to shape policy or transform markets. Secondly, that CEEW has created many first-rate careers in public policy, thereby making public policy a vocation of desire, not sacrifice. And thirdly, that we are able to prove that a world-class institution can be nurtured in the Global South and that, because of its work, CEEW has influence well beyond its borders of origin.”

My instinctive answer did not surprise. And should not come as a surprise to my colleagues who have invested heart and soul in bringing CEEW to its current level.

But as we hiked along the narrow ridge and I had more time to reflect, two more metrics of success came to mind: CEEW would be a success if it could withstand, survive and thrive through crises; and CEEW would be a success if our values and our methods became worthy of emulation for others. I made a mental note of these metrics of success: Becoming resilient and remarkable.

I have long believed in the power of institutions to effect change. That while change can come from force of principle, the zeal of individuals or the necessity of crisis, we cannot rely on principles, persons or problems, alone, to drive sustained progress. Or as Jean Monnet, when reflecting on what would drive cooperation between France and Germany after the Second World War, wrote in his Memoirs, “Nothing is possible without men [and women]: nothing is lasting without institutions.1

This letter is a reflection on what it will take for CEEW to become resilient and remarkable, in a world that is less sure of its past, increasingly damaging its future, and often choosing the easy path in the present. How do we stay alive and thrive but also become an example to emulate?

I want to start by outlining a few trends, which will continue to define our world in the coming years.

Living in the Anthropocene

Our natural ecosystems are under unprecedented pressure. In May 2019 the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) published its draft report2 on the state of nature. As any forensic investigator would comment, the imprint of humans is evident enough to make our species outright culpable. Three-quarters of the land-based environment and about two-thirds of the marine environment have been significantly altered by human activity. Our food demand alone has ensured that more than a third of the world’s land surface and nearly 75% of freshwater resources are now devoted to crop or livestock production. Our insatiable appetite as a species is crowding out space for others with around one million animal and plant species now threatened with extinction. This pace of species loss has no parallel in human history.

This is not all. The safe operating space for three planetary boundaries – climate change, biodiversity loss, and biogeochemical processes – have already been breached. Others, such as consumption of freshwater, might be well below the threshold but water stress (and in some cases, scarcity) is a reality in populous (and fast-growing) Asia. Another boundary (novel entities, such as toxic substances, plastics, heavy metals, radioactive contamination) has not been quantified at a planetary scale, but it is evident that humans are adding new substances that could impact biological organisms, reduce fertility and cause permanent genetic damage.

Many scientists now argue that, since the industrial revolution, we have entered a new planetary epoch, the Anthropocene3. Replacing the stable interglacial period of the Holocene (about 11000 years), humans are now the key agents of change for the Earth system and the main driver of disruption in the Earth’s resilience.

Convergence is no longer guaranteed

Not satisfied with altering the planetary system, we are also testing the resilience of our global economic ecosystem. This is happening in three ways. First, there is growing stress between economic growth, on one hand, and persisting joblessness and growing inequality, on the other. November 2019 will mark the 30th anniversary of the Berlin wall opening up and marking the beginning of the end of the Cold War. This brought forth a peace dividend for developed countries. It also created global opportunities for post-colonial developing countries, freed (at least temporarily) from being squeezed between the Cold War superpowers. A decade later – and despite the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98 – emerging economies were not anomalies but widespread. By 2001, the BRICs of the global economy had been identified as Brazil, Russia, India and China4. This economic categorisation evolved into a semi-political grouping and brought South Africa into the fold by 2010. With these regionally dominant economic locomotives, rapid economic development and “catch up” with advanced economies (pet concerns for developing countries since the 1960s) became a real possibility. No longer was economic opportunity limited to a few East Asian tigers; development could be far more widespread. This 30-year story is now beginning to unravel.

Since 2014, GDP per capita (in PPP terms) for 22 developed markets has collectively grown faster than for 30 emerging markets (excluding China and India)5. Many of these emerging markets enjoyed a period of high commodity prices, piggybacking on overall global growth and global demand for primary products. China drove the last three cycles of growth (2009-10, 2012-13 and 2016-17). With slowdown there, its economy does not need commodities as much from other developing countries, impacting everyone from Brazil and Chile in South America, to Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo in Africa, and even developed Australia. This also exposed the fragility of the commodities supercycle, because productivity gains had had little to do with economic growth in many emerging markets. We were digging up resources from under the ground, earning easy money and spending it on expanding our easy consumerist lifestyles.

Developed countries, meanwhile, suffered a different problem in the last 30 years. Despite the massive productivity boost from the Internet revolution, the political system failed to distribute opportunities more evenly. Real average wages in the US had about the same purchasing power in 2018 as in 19786. Productivity growth has stagnated in the UK as well, contributing only 22% of growth since the 2008 financial crisis compared to two-thirds before then. Again, in the past 40 years, only the recession of the early 1990s had a worse outcome for household income growth7.

The UK and the US were the vanguard of the promise that an integrated global economy – freely flowing goods, services and ideas (but not always people) – would generate ever-rising incomes and development for all. They are now the vanguard of a political backlash against a broken economic system across the developed and emerging world. In 2018, 26 persons had as much assets as 3.8 billion people8. The resulting domestic political backlash is the second way in which the resilience of our economic system is being tested.

At the Bretton Woods Conference, on 22 July 1944 (just over years ago), US Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr. said, “We have come to recognize that the wisest and most effective way to protect our national interests is through international co-operation — that is to say, through united effort for the attainment of common goals.”

Since the Bretton Woods institutions were created, the world economy encountered major disruptions such as the collapse of fixed exchange rates in 1971, hyperinflation in the 1970s, currency crises in the 1980s and 1990s, and the Great Recession of 2008. Yet, overall, the spirit of economic cooperation more or less delivered. World per capita income has grown four-fold since 1950 (despite three-fold population increase), global inequality has fallen thanks to Asia’s meteoric rise, and by 2017 global trade had grown 39 times.

But deindustrialisation in rich countries, low productivity growth, rising inequality and the persisting distortions before and after the 2008 financial crisis have made the West turn its back on global integration. On 20 January 2017, during his inaugural presidential address, President Donald Trump said, “We must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies and destroying our jobs. Protection will lead to great prosperity and strength.” Trump only exemplifies an underlying pattern of “deglobalization”: trade intensity of growth has fallen; global value chains have shrunk since 2008; and cross-border financial flows peaked in 20079. The US-China trade war might have a strategic (not purely commercial) imperative, but there is wider collateral damage. The multilateral trading system, and even regional ones, are no longer bulwarks against unilateral trade sanctions.

Capitalism is broken because our financial system is broken, and our taxation system is broken. The first is the social contract between the state and the market. The second is the social contract between the state and the people. With both broken, the social contract between the market and the people has lost legitimacy.

Tech-enabled mercantilism

The third shock to our economic ecosystem is technological. Artificial intelligence, big data, automation and quantum computing could fundamentally alter economic progress. Governments are pushing national strategies. China is aiming for AI superpower status by 2030. The EU, France and Japan are pursuing increased R&D investment while developing ethical and legal frameworks. A US taskforce called for a detailed R&D plan and an AI R&D workforce. A NITI Aayog discussion paper proposes an inclusive vision of “AI for all” for India. But as I wrote last year, “Old and new industries, technologies and methods of production will co-exist. This multi-velocity automation will complicate industrial strategy.10

Technological progress is to be welcomed but its impact will be mediated by social and political institutions. Loss of jobs due to technology is not to be lamented per se; but lack of skilling and preparing for a different technological future will create resentment. Ownership of factors of production has long been a source of inequality. Control over technology, if unmitigated, could also result in growing inequalities in assets, incomes and opportunities within and between countries. Consider this: In 2014, a minimum wage worker would have to work 3.5 full-time jobs to afford rent for a two-bedroom apartment in San Francisco, the heart of America’s tech boom11. The city now has one of the highest per capita homelessness rates among major US cities. Imagine similar social disruption across the developed and developing world.

Further, as countries scramble for technological leadership12, I expect that there will be a new Cold War in technology, namely a competition between a broken market capitalism in the West and a bloated state capitalism in China. This will make it harder to develop cooperative frameworks to develop technologies. With fraying consensus on trade openness, mercantilism will start dominating not just current trade and investment but also impact the flow of ideas and technologies. Hard infrastructure connectivity, say via China’s Belt and Road Initiative, will fail to integrate economies if mercantilism remains a guiding principle of economic policy.

Both these challenges – of internal tech-enabled social disruption and of international tech-enabled mercantilism – will be exploited by major corporations vying for political influence. This is evident with the tech giants of China, including Alibaba. Last year, the People’s Daily of China called Jack Ma one of the “outstanding builders of socialism with Chinese characteristics in Zhejiang Province.13” Although the founders of Baidu and Tencent do not have (known) party affiliations, three out of four private companies in China host Communist Party organisations. This confluence of economic and political power is also evident in US tech giants, including Apple, Amazon and Facebook, which pay little in corporate taxes. If companies became instruments of state in one setting, and states became instruments of companies in another, the basic structure of the Westphalian state system is called into question. At a recent conference, a Financial Times columnist asked another participant if Sheryl Sandberg should run for US president. The reply? “Why should she? She’s already leading Facebook.14

History repeats itself

Even as the West’s consensus on democratic capitalism strains at the edges, the East is only deceptively stable. June 2019 marked the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, which passed by with barely a whimper within or outside China. But less than a month after, protests in Hong Kong shocked the Chinese establishment and surprised many observers outside. For a largely commercially oriented polity, as has been the reputation of Hong Kong citizens, the choice to cling to their freedoms at all costs, rather than settle for the stability (but rigidity) of Confucian values and the Chinese state is telling. It is uncertain how this episode will end but the Great Wall has been breached from the inside.

There are breaches in the stability of the external environment as well. With the global strategic axis shifting from the Atlantic to the Indo-Pacific, old and new contestations are simmering or flaring up. China’s maritime territorial ambitions in the South China Sea are about both strategic positioning as well as securing energy and other resources. In July, a Chinese oil exploration vessel entered waters that Vietnam claims, resulting in warships from both navies squaring off against each other. Tensions over Taiwan are again on the rise.

Such tensions would have been manageable if there were consensus on the stability of alliances, the rules of diplomatic and military engagement, and the institutional structures needed to mediate conflict. On all three counts, the East is looking uncertain. America can no longer guarantee security. China no longer accepts US hegemony in the region. Japan no longer sees itself only as a passive pacifist nation. South Korea no longer wants to be subservient to the larger economies in East Asia.

North Korea no longer fits into a neat category of warmongering and baiting its own existential demise. And ASEAN members no longer agree on the most important issues (Cambodia has allowed China to build a military base on its territory).

This is looking less like the stable, peaceful and prosperous 1990s and 2000s and more like the twenty years of high uncertainty prevailing prior to the First World War. The master of statecraft, Otto von Bismarck, had a maxim: “always try to be one of three in a world of five great powers”. He primarily wanted to ensure balance of power within the European continent and retain German influence there. After his departure in 1890, German nationalists wanted greater power beyond Europe. The ‘encirclement’ that Kaiser Wilhelm II lamented, after the entente cordiale between Britain, France and Russia, was more self-imposed and delusionary than a specific strategy to destroy Germany. Meanwhile, British interests, Austro-Hungarian and Russian antagonisms and their desire to preserve their crumbling empires, and the French need for revanché against Germany were all responsible for filling the powder keg that was lit on 28 June 1914.

Is it too much of a leap of imagination to see how the fragile order in the Indo-Pacific today could unravel in a few years? Is it inconceivable that an expansionist China, jostling for space among other Asian great powers, would begin to feel encircled at just the time when alliances are weakening and institutions to abate tensions are coming up short? The economic dynamism of Asia is coexisting uncomfortably with atrophy in decades of geopolitical stability.

India’s (seeming) impossible trinity

India’s prospects are, no doubt, affected by the confluence of planetary-scale damage to natural ecosystems, weakened faith in the balance between market-driven growth and social justice, uncertainties and rivalries associated with disruptive technological advances, and populism and nationalism in many countries calling into question the bases of international order.

While awareness of the external environment is necessary, India’s domestic imperatives are shaped by what could be described as a potential impossible trinity of jobs, growth and sustainability. In many policy choices we observe at best two out of these three objectives fulfilled. Take the big push for renewables. Solar parks might bring in a lot of foreign investment and drive infrastructure growth. But they do not create as many jobs as distributed energy infrastructure. Or take efforts to scale up natural farming. The preparation of natural inoculants is labour-intensive but it is unclear whether the value addition in agricultural yield would suffice to compensate for the loss of value addition in the fertiliser industry. Or consider the automobile sector. With its substantial share of India’s industrial output and the millions employed in auto and auto ancillary plants, an aggressive move towards electric mobility will not be free of major trade-offs.

How do disruptions in the external environment – natural, economic, technological, and geopolitical and the seeming impossible trinity at home jobs, growth, and sustainability affect India’s prospects? I outline ten ways this can play out. The course of events and options outlined below underscore the importance of CEEW’s research and how our work fits into a much broader global context.

1. Energy and resource security are contingent on securing resources, safe passage, secure storage and functional institutions15. Reducing imports of hydrocarbons, alone, will not suffice for energy security in the coming decades. There will be new interdependencies, such as free trade in clean energy products and services or the supply of critical minerals for batteries, which will demand credible trade relationships, secure supply chains and effective multilateral institutions.

2. Diplomacy. India has demonstrated climate leadership in contributing to the Paris Agreement and to the Kigali Amendment of the Montreal Protocol. More significantly, however, the International Solar Alliance was designed to see far into the future and create conditions for cooperative energy security even as emerging and developing economies underwent their respective energy transitions. Currently, it is not delivering on its main aims: reducing cost of finance, deploying existing technologies faster, or collaborating on next-generation solar/renewables technologies16. Next month, India will host the Conference of the Parties for the UN Convention to Combat Desertification. Between now and 2022, when India hosts the G20 summit, it would have to integrate its interests on trade, finance and the economy with energy, climate and sustainability and set a more consistent agenda for global governance, ideas that CEEW’s research had set out several years earlier17.

3. Jobs and trade environment. The external trade environment is likely to remain weak for some time, and will not be a big contributor to job growth. It is a different matter whether India can capture some export markets as China moves further up the value chain. Overall, the China-US trade war will continue to dampen global trade growth. Therefore, India would have to turn even more to its domestic economy to create jobs. The energy transition offers one of the best bets for new jobs in a slowing economy18.

4. Climate risks and infrastructure investments. Whether climate change has hit a tipping point or not, India’s future growth is now intricately linked to climate risks19. Investments in hard infrastructure, such as housing, transport and industries especially along the coasts, will be severely at risk20. With weather-related insurance losses mounting, already there are warning signs of climate change triggering the next financial crisis and the need for central banks to pay attention21.

India needs a climate risk atlas to: (a) forecast localised temperature increase at high resolutions; (b) assess localised risks pertaining to heat stress, water stress, biodiversity loss, mortality, vector-borne diseases, frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, and associated economic loss and damage; (c) evaluate localised risks pertaining to workability, labour productivity, crop loss, loss in industrial value added, government revenue loss, rise in burden of fiscal transfers; (d) evaluate risks to social cohesion, cross-border and inter- and intra- state patterns of forced migration, risks of localised conflict over natural resources, stress-tests for responsiveness of local administrative structures; and (e) engage best-in-class attribution science to determine risk of economic damage to hard infrastructure at a very high resolution for insurance companies, in particular, and wider financial sector, in general.

5. Inclusion of the rural economy. It will be difficult to drive jobs, growth and sustainability without dedicated effort to include the rural economy in India’s development story. Palliative measures to help distressed farmers will not suffice. CEEW’s research points to the $53 billion opportunity in powering up the productive side of the rural economy using distributed renewables22. Solar irrigation, where India already leads, needs more equity and fiscal prudence in deployment strategies23. Designed well, these approaches can create new opportunities for farmers to shift to more value-added crops while building climate resilience.

6. Sustainable urbanisation. India is already the world’s third largest country by its urban population. Its unplanned, chaotic and misgoverned cities could also become the laboratories for new technologies, business models and behavioural nudges. CEEW’s extensive work on developing business models for rooftop solar and distributed renewables, in partnership with utilities, offers a glimpse of what a transformed and job-creating electricity system could look like24. Equally, India must build cities in which we need to move less and can do more. Sustainable mobility will start with reducing mobility demand, increasing public transport and shifting to alternative fuels25.

7. Green industrialisation. For years, CEEW has been pointing to resource efficiency as key driver of industrial competitiveness and sustainability26. The external trade environment and the deepening climate crisis have made an indigenous bet on green industrialisation an even bigger imperative now. Industrial decarbonisation will be the next major wedge for global climate policy and will impact India as well27. Those taking a lead on this will have a chance of retaining competitive edge. Steel, for instance, is the bedrock of any major economy. India also produces the lowest-cost steel in the world. Its industry could consider betting on renewables-derived hydrogen as a substitute for coal in steelmaking. Similarly, India must bet on mineral recycling, trade agreements and innovation to confront its high import dependency for critical minerals28. Innovation in cooling technologies could be another big bet for a hot country29.

8. Border carbon adjustments and trade barriers. For many years, trade disputes have been plaguing clean energy, as countries scramble to grab their share of a booming market30. And disputes over climate and energy will increase. By the end of 2019, the EU is expected to find consensus on a deal for climate neutrality by 2050. Once finalised, it is only a matter of time before the EU imposes border carbon adjustment to penalise imports arriving from countries deemed to be not acting fast enough on climate change. The US, notwithstanding its professed withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, is likely to do the same. This will create further havoc in the global trading system. While China might protest, it is on a different economy trajectory and could claim an emissions peak well before 2030. That would put pressure on India, for which it is not well prepared.

9. Domestic populism and geopolitical risks. The backlash against growing inequality within advanced economies is already resulting in myopic populism. For India, this presents further threats for how populist actions elsewhere could spill over into geopolitical risks in its Asian neighbourhood. The Iran-US confrontation is one example, which directly impacts India’s energy security. The tensions between China and the US are triggering other reactions. For instance, China is threatening to cut-off rare earths supplies to the US31. Such examples of “weaponized interdependence”32 make it harder for India to navigate technological cooperation, enact strategic industrial policy and attract foreign investment as key drivers of sustainable growth.

10. Perfect storm of shocks. In 2008, there were two global crises. One was the financial crisis. The other, less known, was in global food supply. A combination of high oil and energy prices, high cost of fertilisers, a demand shock for cereals needed for biofuel production, declining food stocks, currency devaluations and adverse weather conditions resulted in a rapid increase in food prices33. Major rice exporters, like Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Vietnam banned exports to maintain domestic price stability. Resulting food price shocks hit several countries in West Asia and North Africa, in part triggering the mass protests that came to be known as the “Arab Spring”. In the near future, India must confront the prospect of a perfect storm of global shocks, involving water stress34, agricultural losses, tensions over energy supplies, growing trade disputes, extreme weather events impacting insurance firms and the financial sector, and mass movement of environmentally displaced people. Within the next decade there is high likelihood of a large-scale experiment or deployment of climate geoengineering technologies, particularly injecting sulphate particles in the stratosphere, with both known as well as unanticipated consequences for precipitation, agriculture or biodiversity –– and could trigger political conflict in a completely ungoverned area35.

Our journey so far

Is our work responding to these challenges? From August 2010 until July 2014, CEEW was in start-up mode, establishing its credentials as a research organisation and demonstrating proof of concept that a world-class institution could be built in India, which would remain independent but have impact on some key policy moments, such as the working group on global governance, the national water resources framework36, the first evaluation of the national solar mission37, or the birth of the Clean Energy Access Network38.

From August 2014 until October 2016, the combination of data, integrated analysis and strategic outreach allowed us to make deep impressions at home and abroad. These included: Accelerated targets for renewables39; rationalised subsidies for and access to cooking fuel40; outlining power sector reforms41; strategies for making in India; creating new metrics for energy access42, critical minerals, clean energy jobs, and industrial emissions43; pioneering books on climate risk, India’s energy security, human development and global institutions44, and the international political economy of energy45; and pathbreaking work for the Paris Agreement46, the HFC deal47, the aviation emissions agreement48, and international climate technology cooperation49, and the International Solar Alliance50.

CEEW’s third phase of growth began in the autumn of 2016 when multi-year work programmes were consolidated into the current research focus areas. This allowed us to design research and put together teams that would chip away at larger problems in a coordinated fashion. The impact is evident in many areas. It was our research that highlighted how big a role finance had in catalysing the energy transition. Now everyone talks about the cost of finance in renewable energy tariffs51, as if it were the most obvious thing (it wasn’t until recently). It was our research that showcased how solar irrigation could be made sustainable by creating a district-wise decision support tool52. It was our research that projected 222 scenarios for India’s low-carbon pathways, long before the government started working on it. It was our approach to partner with utilities that resulted in innovative business models for distributed energy in our cities. It was our evaluation that helped a state government win an international award for powering up primary health centres with renewables53. It was our research that cut through byzantine language in climate negotiations and offered a template for enhanced transparency of climate action54. It was our research that first set out the options for creating a circular economy of water and waste55, ideas that are now getting traction. It has been our regular research on green bonds that continues to inform thinking within government on a new source of finance for renewables and electric transport56. It was our collaborative work with international partners that designed a risk mitigation mechanism for 17 countries57.

Over the course of the past year, we have been working on the fourth phase of growth, in the form of some big bets. These are areas in which we believe we could combine resources across research programmes (with data and integrated analysis) and add the strength of our strategic outreach to convert certain critical ideas into action. These bets will need dedicated effort over many years. We have to be cognisant of the metrics for measuring output,outcomes and impact for each, build the right team structures to deliver beyond the research, collaborate with partners at strategic and tactical levels without compromising our independence and credibility, ensure visibility for CEEW’s work, and continually review progress.

A work in progress

A few months ago, Mr Tarun Das (CEEW’s Founding Trustee) sent me a one-line email, which read:


How to get Discipline into the Indian system, Indian culture?

Any thoughts? TD

For me, institution building is about people, process and purpose. Without hesitation I can say that CEEW’s team is its greatest accomplishment. We must always seek smart people who will challenge us and help us grow but who also have the maturity to balance curiosity, irreverence and responsibility. In short, we need people who will both dream and deliver.

That we have strived so hard to maintain, add, simplify and improve processes from day one and continue to do so, with regular policy audits and revising standard operating procedures, is a testament that chalta hai has no refuge at CEEW.

But whether it is a country or an institution, people and process will flounder without purpose. Without clarity of purpose, people remain uninspired, at best, and become selfish, at worst; process seems onerous, at best, and gets bypassed and corrupted, at worst. It is the lack of clear purpose that makes us undisciplined, wild stallions, all remarkable creatures in their own right but all running amok. Discipline is not a whip that a single charioteer can crack to tame the wild horses. For complex societies, including large institutions, it is only common purpose that can solve for complex problems and deliver on both individual as well as common goals.

For the world outside, we want to explain – and change – the use, reuse and misuse of resources. For the world inside, we want to be the platform to build careers in public policy. And the way to measure our impact is by periodically asking a simple yet existential question: What would have been different if CEEW did not exist? This mantra can become the talisman to separate the good from the bad, the productive from the indolent, the inspiring from the humdrum, and the lionhearted from the malevolent.

For both our purposes, we need individual discipline, institutional process, and collective alignment. These are all needed to avoid what I would call a "Middle Ages Trap" for an institution or a country. Otherwise we would spawn fiefdoms and breed feudalism, high birth rate, high death rate, high recruitment, high turnover, low productivity, high anxiety, resulting in (as Thomas Hobbes wrote in 1651), "…the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.58" I do not want CEEW to have a short life. I do not want any of us to have short careers. I believe we should aspire to have noble and sublime lives, which people and other institutions would want to emulate. Resilient and remarkable.

In Loonshots, physicist and entrepreneur Safi Bahcall describes water molecules akin to a platoon running about randomly when in liquid form but when temperature drops below freezing, the molecules snap into formation. He calls this a “phase transition”, resulting from two competing forces, namely the binding force that makes water freeze and the forces of entropy that make water molecules more disorderly. He argues, “When people organize into a team…or any kind of group with a mission they also create two competing forces––two forms of incentives. We can think of the two competing incentives, loosely, as stake and rank.59

Small groups have it easier for everyone to have a stake in the mission. As groups grow in size, incentives become more individualistic, with people focused on rank, titles or salaries. This can be observed in a think-tank, in government, at a national scale, or in complex international negotiations to solve for the climate crisis.

We are a work in progress. For CEEW, we need to consciously work on the people and processes that help to keep our purpose clear. We need to build mutual trust, be willing to challenge, make a commitment, promote accountability, and focus on outcomes and impact60. The stakes are indeed high.

The Council of Music?

Among the four major forms of Hindustani classical music are Dhrupad and Khyal (in addition to Tarana and Thumri). Dhrupad (or Dhruvapad) is the more ancient tradition (described in Natyashastra, compiled at some time between 200 BCE and 200 CE). It derives from the Sanskrit word, Dhruva, meaning immovable and permanent. Khyal evolved from Dhrupad, but is a more flexible form of rendition, giving scope for more improvisation. In contrast to Dhrupad, Khyal derives from Arabic, meaning imagination.

Hindustani classical music has a rich tradition of gharānās. Many Dhrupad gharānās trace their lineage back to Tansen and the 16th century. Khyal gained more prominence in the court of Muhammad Shah Rangile, in the mid-18th century. Eventually, many gharānās differentiated themselves by their styles of Khyal musical composition and singing. But their traditions are not entirely dissimilar to the Dhrupad Vani system (which goes back to the first millennium CE) and many variants of Dhrupad gharānās also got popularised.

Tradition is often described pejoratively in contrast to modernity. But what if we thought of gharānās not as mere “traditions” of music but also as living and evolving “institutions”? If institutions are systems of rules, norms and procedures that govern our behaviour, then we can find the same in gharānās. If institutions are, as Samuel Huntington wrote, “stable, valued, recurring patterns of behaviour,61” then our syncretic musical heritage is less traditional and more symptomatic of both persisting as well as evolving social relationships in the high arts.

Yet, we do not seek inspiration in such traditions of music. Business leaders look at other businesses; political parties derive lessons from their electoral successes or failures; armed personnel study military organisation from ancient Rome to modern America; and think-tank intellectuals benchmark themselves against other policy institutions. Nothing wrong with this per se, until we realise that what lasts long need not have the shape and characteristics of what we are familiar with. Rather than breeding contempt, familiarity now seduces and entraps us in our respective echo chambers.

I want us to look beyond such wells of ignorance and climb over our siloed walls. It occurred to me recently that, in South Asia (not just India), where the polity struggles to find inspiration when surrounded by prejudice, nepotism and mediocrity in so many professions, how have houses of music survived for centuries, maintaining quality but also evolving and adapting? How have they made room for anyone, and cut across religious, caste and class lines, linking artistes instead via threads of common purpose, style and devotion to the institution, the gharānā?

When I read about gharānās, I realised this was exactly what these centuries-old institutions of music had managed to do. These traditions of music have in their core the very building blocks of living long as institutions. For Dhrupad lovers, it is the resilience and permanence of the style that is attractive and reassuring. For Khyal admirers, it is the wanton imagination that allows each variant of song to sound uniquely remarkable. One cannot stand alone without the other. We, too, must become both resilient and remarkable. To dream big, to imagine, we must have deep, permanent foundations. And yet, to dig deep is no good, if we failed to aim high.

With my very best wishes that we can have it all,




1. Monnet, J. (1978) Memoirs, Garden City, NY: Doubleday, pp. 304-305. Bracketed text added.

2. Díaz, S., Settele, J., Brondízio, E. et al (2019) “Summary for policymakers of the global assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystem services of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services”, IPBES Plenary Seventh session, Paris, 29 May. https://www.ipbes.net/system/tdf/ipbes_7_10_add-1-_advance_0.pdf?file=1&type=node&id=35245

3. Crutzen, Paul J. (2002), "Geology of mankind – The Anthropocene", Nature, 415 (6867): 23 Steffen, W.; Crutzen, P. J.; McNeill, J. R. (2007), "The Anthropocene: Are Humans Now Overwhelming the Great Forces of Nature", AMBIO: A Journal of the Human Environment, 36 (8): 614

4. O’Neill, J. (2001) “Building Better Global Economic BRICs” Global Economics Paper No. 66. Goldman Sachs.

5. Wheatley, J. (2019) “Does investing in emerging markets still make sense?” Financial Times, 16 July. https://www.ft.com/content/0bd159f2-937b-11e9-aea1-2b1d33ac3271

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