‘We shape ideas, we build understanding’

Shalini Bharat has been through an “eventful” three years, to put it mildly, but the director and vice chancellor of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) is not letting the challenges cloud her tenure at the helm of one of India’s standout centres of learning. Being a trained psychologist has helped.

Matters of the mind aside, Prof Bharat has a well-earned reputation for her work in the field of health. She speaks to Christabelle Noronha about TISS — which she joined as a lecturer nearly four decades back — the importance of the research and field action it undertakes, and her vision for what is more than an educational institution. Excerpts from the interview:

What were your goals and dreams when you joined TISS? How has the journey been for you and how has the institution changed during this period?

When I came to the Institute in 1984, fresh after my doctoral studies, I was very happy because I was joining a research unit. Research was primary here and somewhere deep down I’ve always believed that the role of a researcher is crucial in a university context. I think I did achieve my goals in some modest ways.

It has been an extremely satisfying journey so far. I have been able to transcend my disciplinary boundaries and employ a multidisciplinary approach in my research. TISS offered me that opportunity; unlike in a conventional university, there were so many new things happening here. Coming from a straight-jacketed setup, I was thrilled to be here.

TISS has, of course, changed in several ways during the time I have been here. Much of this change has unfolded in the last 15 years and we have grown in size, scope and scale since then. We have restructured and expanded our academic programmes; we used to have three-four major ones and now we offer in excess of 50. We had 250-300 students graduating in 2005 and the number now is about 1,600.

Becoming big has had several advantages for us; it’s clear that we would have been just a speck in the education sector if we had remained small.”

The Institute has also, quite importantly, grown big in the vocational stream. We have 34 programmes in 16 industry sectors, a student body in excess of 5,000 and partnerships with more than 3,000 companies and institutions. We have gone international as well with our programmes: we have collaborations with universities in Europe, North America, Australia and South Africa, and we have started getting international students.

Health is a theme that you have paid particular attention to while at TISS. What drew you to this subject and how important is research here in the context of India and the social objectives of the Institute?

As a psychologist, I was researching various family-focused themes when I was asked — this was in the mid-1990s — by UNAIDS in Geneva to consider presenting a proposal to study the household and community response to Aids in India. It was the early phase of the disease and there was a lot of fear and anxiety and misinformation about it. I sent out this proposal which got accepted and I began to work on HIV-Aids, women’s reproductive health, the health of marginalised communities, youth health and wellbeing, and so on. I got more and more interested in public health.

My research on HIV-related issues was somewhat impactful, I should say. In the mid and late 90s, it was the only research of its kind in the country to put the spotlight on women’s status in the HIV-Aids epidemic. Nobody had looked at this dimension before and my research brought out the gender aspects, the risk and vulnerability not just of women but also homosexual men, transgenders and female sex workers.

As you mentioned, TISS has grown in size and student intake quite quickly over recent times. What kind of advantages have been secured as a result and have there been any stumbles? How difficult is it to ensure that quality keeps pace with quantity?

Children in rural India are among the beneficiaries of research studies in public health, says Prof Bharat

Becoming big has had several advantages for us; it’s clear that we would have been just a speck in the education sector if we had remained small. It was the best time to restructure and grow, to the extent that we are now able to offer more than 1,500 professionals annually to the development sector. TISS graduates are appreciated across many sectors and people generally have good things to say about them.

A much larger student body has made us eligible for inclusion in the national ranking framework and for global rankings too. Additionally, because we have a multi-campus structure, we enjoy high student diversity with respect to the backgrounds our students come from, and having programmes in multidisciplinary fields allows us to cover a variety of themes of national and global relevance.

How is the Institute faring in terms of research output and field action, both of which are vital to its wellbeing and relevance? And how does it compare in this regard with its peers around the world?

TISS’ research output has been good and distinctive. We have diversified over the years to newer themes, among them public health, climate change and sustainability, social entrepreneurship, water and natural resources governance, disaster management, migrants and refugees, domestic violence, even issues related to sexual minorities. And there is a lot of research happening in areas with policy implications.

We are facing a funding crunch, primarily because the money we get is not adequate, and it does not arrive in time.”

What’s important here is how these research studies become relevant for the state and for national-level initiatives, whether it be for starting a livelihood programme for forest-dwellers, mental health programmes for school administrators or introducing counselling in the health sector. TISS is also a pioneer in developing and implementing what we call field-action projects, which are about developing responses to social issues.

Finances have been a concern for TISS despite the inflow of CSR (corporate social responsibility) funds. Why is that?

CSR is not a funding source for us. Our full funding comes from the Ministry of Education through the University Grants Commission and, of course, we have been getting a lot of support from the Tata Trusts. But, yes, we are facing a funding crunch, primarily because the money we get is not adequate, and it does not arrive in time. We have been receiving less funds in the last two years than what we sought and this has added to the Institute’s difficulties.

We are making sustained efforts to get our full grant because that is the lasting solution, but we will have to approach more funders, and a diverse set of funders at that, to expand further. This means a whole lot of work for us. We are also developing internal mechanisms for self-financing programmes and the kind of initiatives where we can raise our own resources.

Social issues relating to gender, religion, caste and, in general, poverty seem to be bedevilling India like never before. What’s the role that TISS and similar entities can play at this juncture to help the country become more progressive?

Universities have a critical role to play here. Besides a liberal education, there needs to be more credible research and evidence to counter misconceptions, the all-round polarisation we see, to explore issues of marginalisation, to study inclusivity, and to influence policies and programmes.

We also need to have more and more quality research that’s indigenous, especially at the regional and sub-regional levels. Sometimes we find that a lot of quantitative data is put out but what can explain those numbers is crucial. Besides big data research, TISS carries out a whole lot of qualitative research that explores issues in depth. We can certainly do more, and we need to put our work in the public domain and in the mainstream. This we don’t do enough of.

TISS surely is more than just an educational institution. Does it make sense for it to take an activist position on social issues?

There is so much that we do besides imparting education and giving out degrees. We shape ideas, help build understanding and do a lot of advocacy around social issues. That said, I don’t think we have to be in activist mode to do all this. As social researchers, we share the knowledge that we create, we share the data, and we use that data to say what has to be said.

My vision is for TISS to be a global leader in social science education, to undertake research that has real value and application for social transformation, to impact policies and programmes. My vision includes a greater democratisation of education in India. I would like to see the Institute be a destination of choice for people from across the country, from the global south and from our own South Asia region.

How taxing is the responsibility of heading an institution like TISS and what is your coping mechanism at work and beyond? Does being trained as a psychologist help?

It has been really taxing. I will not mince words in saying that because it has been an eventful three-plus years since I’ve been in this position. Initially there were student protests over one issue or the other, then there were plenty of internal issues, then came Covid and now our financial insecurities. In normal situations, my stress busters are reading, music and good cinema, all of which have become luxuries. Peer-level interaction is the best I can get currently.

Being a trained psychologist helps — sort of — in identifying the sources of stress, in not crucifying yourself for everything. But that does not bring you pleasures such as time with the family; I can’t remember when we last went for a holiday or a proper outing. Covid is partly to blame, in that that it has made us work so much harder. On the brighter side, the pandemic-induced lockdowns have allowed me to be at home more often, to have meals together with my family. That has been a blessing.

Shalini Bharat with former TISS director Armaity Desai, the only other woman to helm the institution