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Sunday, November 09, 2003

TN Ninan writes about the power of one

In all likelihood, you would not have heard of Parth J Shah. But as you may have guessed from his use of a middle initial, he spent many years in the US — after getting a degree in pharmacy in Baroda.

He realised that getting economic policy right did more to increase human welfare than discovering a new drug or two, and switched to economics, got himself a doctorate and taught the subject at Michigan before he decided to return to the mother country and started a modest NGO, which he called Centre for Civil Society.

Devoted to what one might call market liberalism, and inspired by such think-tanks in the US as the libertarian Cato Institute, Shah launched the Centre on the 50th anniversary of India’s independence in 1997.

He also roped in a bunch of familiar worthies to sit on his advisory boards, with the chairman being Kanwal Rekhi of TiE fame (he is also one of the primary financiers, the other being the Ratan Tata Trust).

When you meet him, Shah comes across as earnest and well meaning. He is obviously quite effective, because the Centre has a pretty good record for just six years of existence.

It has published some 15 books —some of them admittedly slim, and modestly priced, and some essentially reprints, like Milton Friedman's memorable minute on Indian planning and economic policy.

This was written back in the 1950s but its practical wisdom and economic common sense were officially ignored, to our great cost, and would have been lost to history if the Centre had not brought it to light all over again.

The Centre does other things too. It maintains a medium-sized library which is open to everyone; it analyses every Bill presented to Parliament; and it gets into public interest litigation (to support the privatisation of Balco, and to stop the harassment of ordinary commuters in the name of VIP security).

Predictably, of course, it also organises seminars. I attended one where those who would not be convinced could not be convinced.

The Centre has now brought out what it calls a 'Delhi Citizen Handbook 2003', perfectly timed to focus on governance in the capital just ahead of state elections.

Well I highly recommend you take a look at the Center for Civil Society Website. They are liberatarian, and therefore I often disagree with they have to say. However, I still think it does a very good job of getting information out into the public domain.

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