January 10, 2016public policyinterview

What I would do with a billion dollars

Mint's Sidin Vadukut asked me what I would do with a billion dollars.

I would get a hundred Nobel laureates together in one institution’

This week, we spoke to Nitin Pai, co-founder of the Takshashila Institution, an independent public policy think tank. If you have your own billion dollar plan, send it to mintonsunday. Selected entries will be published online.

1. A billion dollars. Is that enough money to do something substantial in public policy in India? Why or why not?

A billion dollars is pretty adequate to make a noticeable change in public policy in India. It is large enough to unlock the minimum scale at which we can achieve national impact in one of a few key areas. The fulcrum is strong enough to support the lever.

2. What are some areas of public policy that you really care about? Feel free to go as micro as you want.

In my view—and I have put my career where my mouth is—the most important area of public policy is to review, clarify and educate citizens on what it means to be citizens of a democratic republic.

This includes our roles as citizens, our interactions with government, government’s interactions with individuals, businesses and civil society. We need to improve the quality, integrity and legitimacy of the links between citizens, elected representatives, public officials and businesses.

At a structural level, most of our public problems are fundamentally about the lack of broad consensus on these links. In fact, this is what the word dharma” means… that which holds things together. In our case, that which holds together is deeply contested, misunderstood or just badly defined.

3. So, what is your billion dollar public policy idea? Why is it important?

If I had a billion dollars, I would set up an educational institution that gets the top minds in a number of disciplines—from the social sciences to pure sciences to philosophy and art. This would be located away from New Delhi.

Get a hundred Nobel laureates together in one institution and attract the best students and researchers to come and work and study there. The institution can have campuses in several Indian cities, where thousands of students and teachers will have the opportunity to sit in classes conducted by the world’s best intellectuals.

Such an enterprise will open the minds of our people like never before. During the freedom struggle, our leaders built great educational institutions, from Ferguson College and Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan to the Indian Institute of Science.

Independent India has fared a lot more poorly, building IITs (Indian Institutes of Technology) and IIMs (Indian Institutes of Management) on one hand, and a number of commoditized colleges on the other. These have helped us to create technical manpower, but at the cost of higher education in its broadest sense. India cannot become a developed country unless it develops minds. Unless it opens minds.

4. Broadly, what can a billion dollars do for this particular area?

Recruiting and retaining the world’s best social scientists, philosophers, mathematicians and researchers requires money, because you are essentially competing at the top end of the global market. Creating infrastructure that can house a centre of learning, close enough to cities but large enough to support a quiet campus life, will also be expensive.

It is important to do this without government grants or government largesse—it has to be independent of the government.

5. Now, give us a sense of how you will spend this money. Be specific if possible.

The thing to do is to invest a large part of the money as an endowment fund, and use the returns to support running of the institution. A billion dollars can perhaps earn around $50-100 million a year. So, we are talking about an annual budget of around $100 million. A large part of the money will go into endowing seats of learning, scholarships, bursaries and research grants. Then, there is the cost of infrastructure, events and so on.

6. What outcomes do you hope to see?

A single person with an educated, open mind can infect many others throughout her life. If we were to, say, create 10,000 people every year who are broadly educated but eminently employable, who can work in government, private industry, non-profits and media, we are talking about a revolution. Going out on a limb, I’d say we can even trigger off the Indian Enlightenment.

7. What if I gave you another billion? Would you keep spending it here?

I’d ask you to give it to someone else. Really, it is important to have many people with big stakes in the success of such an enterprise, not only to widen the pool of donors, but more importantly, to broaden the support base for such a project.

8. And, finally, what if you had to just spend it on yourself? (Be decent.)

As a hedonist and a materialist, I would want enough creature comforts for myself and my family. But how much I can possibly spend on myself is a couple of orders of magnitude lower than a billion dollars. Other than putting aside some money as a contingency fund to lend to my kids to pay for their university education, I really can’t imagine what I’d do with that kind of money. I will probably end up buying more stationery than I could ever use.

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