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Off The Cuff with Rohini Nilekani

Active Citizenship | Civil Society | Strategic Philanthropy | Sep 9, 2022

In ThePrint ‘Off The Cuff’, watch author and philanthropist Rohini Nilekani in conversation with Editor-in-Chief Shekhar Gupta and Senior Editor Sandhya Ramesh, where they discuss the changing nature of philosophy, the role of women and how technology can be used to improve education and Rohini Nilekani’s latest book ‘Samaaj, Sarkaar, Bazaar: A Citizen-First Approach’.


0:00:10.5 Sandhya Ramesh: Welcome to this edition of Off The Cuff. We are at the lovely residence of Rohini Nilekani, and she’s here in conversation with Shekhar Gupta, our editor-in-chief, and myself Sandhya Ramesh. Rohini is an author, writer and a philanthropist, and her new book, Samaaj, Sarkaar, and Bazaar is out recently. Thank you so much for being with us, Rohini. It’s lovely to be here.

0:00:31.6 SR: Thank you. Thank you, Sandhya, thank you, Shekhar. It’s a great pleasure to be on the show.

0:00:34.8 Shekhar Gupta: And thank you, Rohini. Thanks for organising this beautiful weather and rain just to make us [0:00:38.4] ____ feel even more miserable about ourselves.

0:00:41.6 Rohini Nilekani: I’m sorry, but the Monsoon has been pretty kind to us here.

0:00:44.4 SG: Yeah, we’ve been waiting for it this year. So, tell me, Samaaj, Sarkaar, Bazaar, do you put them in an order of precedence or it…

0:00:54.9 RN: So the whole…

0:00:57.7 SG: Is Samaaj most important, Sarkaar second most important?

0:01:00.6 RN: So the whole idea of this book, Shekhar, and it’s based on a lot of the work I’ve been doing for the last 30 years, but also because of the people I’ve met, and especially I recount an incidence in the book where this whole idea of how the Samaaj is really the foundational sector, and the Sarkaar and Bazaar are created for Samaaj, right? Bazaar didn’t come first, markets didn’t come first, the state didn’t emerge first, society emerged first in various forms. And today, I feel that we need to really understand how important Samaaj is as the base, foundational first sector. Sometimes even society organisations are called the third sector, but that doesn’t make too much sense to me. I think Samaaj, which is the first sector, and its representative institutions, which are civil society in all its forms, is the first and foremost sector for which Sarkaar and Bazaar were created to enable the larger public interest. All three must work together, no question. You can’t do without Sarkaar and Bazaar. But I just kind of wanted to focus on the fact that, if we all understand that we are human beings and citizens first, and then in whatever identities we have in our Bazaar form, or whether we are working with government. But always remember that we are Samaaj first.

0:02:17.8 SG: Well, thanks for reminding me that civil society is called the third sector, ’cause we have forever been called the fourth estate.

0:02:27.2 RN: That’s true.

0:02:27.7 SG: So, we know our place, [laughter] it comes last of all. When did the spark for the book come in? Because I know a lot of it may be a collection of what you’ve written, but still, to put together a book is additional work, and I fear nothing more than one more deadline.

0:02:44.0 RN: No, I felt it was time to put everything in one place. A lot of people, ratifyingly, have been using the phrase now, Samaaj Sarkaar, Bazaar. And while for hundreds of years, people have talked about the role of markets, society and the state, I thought this was a time for me to write my particular take on it and bring together all that I’ve been speaking and writing over the years. So, I felt this was a good time to bring it together, when people are already using the phrase a lot. And I wanted to clarify what I meant by saying that Samaaj is the foundational sector. So it gave me an opportunity to write 10,000 new words and put together some of newer stuff that I have, and hopefully the book will do well. More than anything, Shekhar, more than the book doing well in that way, I want it to be a conversation starter. The whole idea, the reason I have put it out in the Creative Commons, the book is available to buy, but also available to download…

0:03:46.1 SG: Yes, for free.

0:03:46.8 RN: And the goal of that is especially young people should be able to download it for free and use it to trigger conversations among themselves about, “How should we think of Samaaj, and how should we think about the accountability of Sarkaar and Bazaar to Samaaj? What does that actually mean?” So for me, this book is like a conversation starter, it’s an invitation to deepen the public discourse.

0:04:10.2 SR: And you’ve also been a proponent of having young people in the Samaaj participate in the Sarkaar and also involve themselves with the political process. Can you elaborate that a little bit? What can young people do to actively help the political scene in India?

0:04:26.8 RN: I think it’s very important. Young people are usually idealistic, and we are such a young nation. Young people are idealistic, they’re looking ahead, when some of us always are looking back, but young people like to look ahead, their future lies ahead of them. And I think in a country like ours, with its extreme diversity, with its very lively debates, I think young people need to be involved in these debates about India’s future, about India. And more importantly, I think… Because, of course, there are so many problems in society. When young people begin to get involved in becoming actively a part of finding solutions in their neighbourhoods, in their communities, we find, one is it helps them to develop, of course, a sense of community, it helps them to develop their critical thinking, it helps them also to learn leadership skills. And also, I find when I talk to the many, many, many young people in the organisations we support through our philanthropies, they find a purpose in life. They feel there’s more meaning than just downloading whatever the latest thing is on social media. They say such things to us, and they themselves get excited by the work they do. So I think young people being part of active citizenship is very important in a democracy like ours. So we try to support many organisations that gather local people, especially hyper-local action to solve local problems.

0:05:52.4 SR: And we can also see that young people are actually more politically aware now, especially teenagers and people in their early 20s in terms of climate legislation and environmental impact all over the world now. We can see a lot of younger people participating…

0:06:08.1 RN: True.

0:06:09.2 SR: And asking for political change as well. So to involve more citizens in this process, what can institutions do? And people who are at the heads of institution, to make youngsters more politically aware?

0:06:22.3 RN: Yeah, I don’t know how much can be done through government. I think we do need to look at more public policy and programmatic funding around helping young people to create institutions that build more social capital. But that’s one part of it, but I think it’s really up to civil society institutions to help develop this youth muscle to get involved, to get engaged. We need more debating clubs, we need more book clubs, we need more such things. There are lots of sports clubs and other such things, but I think we need more ways. One of the things, one of the interesting projects that we are supporting is an organisation called Chitra, which actually takes off from the work I did for… On uncommon ground many years ago to bring corporate and social sector people together. So what Chitra does, is it developing a curriculum to help people engage in processes to reduce and prevent conflict.

0:07:23.3 RN: So you’re able to… Through that process, you can sit in the other person’s shoes and you can actually understand different positions, and then therefore evolve your own. I think more of that kind of thing. But that’s really in the hands of civil society institutions. But I do hope, especially for young males in this country and we have almost 180 million of them, just like we had a lot of public money and attention on women’s self-help groups, I feel like we now need to think, what is the right formation for young males? They’re also confused. They’re also scared, they also need mentoring and support. So there is a lot of scope to do some of those things, I do believe.

0:08:07.4 SG: In fact, I’m interested that you say this because a lot of the young men, they… Also a lot older men, they find it very difficult, they’re quite disconcerted dealing with this situation where women are much more empowered…

0:08:19.6 RN: Yes.

0:08:20.0 SG: Than they’re used to seeing them to be. And this requires a lot of reorientation in their own mindsets.

0:08:27.4 RN: Yeah. And we mustn’t push that under the carpet. A lot of the backlash you’re seeing in the world is because men are feeling insecure in some situations…

0:08:37.3 SG: Right.

0:08:37.6 RN: When women have had opportunities to go ahead. And the last thing we need is to roll back women’s rights and women’s freedoms. So, taking males along with us on this journey. So, one of our philanthropy portfolios is focused on that. And when we began, there was hardly one or two organisations working with young males. Today, there are 17 and growing. So I think helping young males achieve their potential, be able to speak freely, to be able to speak safely is also something that’s very important when it comes to the youth of India.

0:09:11.8 SG: This is so counterintuitive. Did you… I mean, did you… Like you said just a couple of minutes back, to get someone to sit in the other’s shoes?

0:09:22.7 RN: Yes.

0:09:23.0 SG: Right? And see how that feels. Did you do that to yourself or did you go through that experience before you figured that you had to think about men?

0:09:34.2 RN: Yeah, because if you look at my earlier work, whether it was on water or education, there’s a lot of focus on what was happening to girl child, or women in villages who were trying to access water resources, or have a voice in how this local budget should be spent. So there’s a lot of gender focus on women. But as I was travelling around the country, I’d often meet young males who are feeling left out, who had questions that could not be answered, who didn’t know where to turn. And I began to think slowly that perhaps something needs to be done about this. So we started this portfolio to work with young men and boys, the idea being that you can’t even get women’s empowerment unless men themselves also feel empowered.

0:10:16.9 RN: And what does that mean? What is the gap we need to fill so that all genders can reach their potential? What should society be doing? See, I always come from the Samaaj lens, what can Samaaj do more of to help its own citizens, its own communities? And it’s been a very interesting journey. Men do feel a bit threatened, young men sometimes, and they struggle to see what is our role? We are supposed to be providers but we ourselves feel insecure about the future of jobs, how fast things are changing. They feel they cannot catch up with the new technologies. So there’s a lot of [0:10:51.7] ____ and then they become ripe pickings for all sorts of other things. So it’s very important to create positive programs for young males in this country.

0:11:01.1 SR: And the nature of discourse for young men and their place in society, like you said, where women are getting empowered and just institutionalized sexism and toxic masculinity also affects men.

0:11:13.3 RN: I try not to use the word “toxic masculinity,” because I don’t think I would like it if somebody said, “toxic femininity.”

0:11:21.1 SR: Right.

0:11:21.4 RN: So I think we should avoid that phrase.

0:11:23.3 SR: Sure.

0:11:23.8 RN: I think, how do we get men to feel less threatened?

0:11:27.3 SR: Yeah.

0:11:27.5 RN: I think that is something more interesting.

0:11:30.3 SG: You know, it’s fascinating the way you put it, trying to see the picture from the other side, because one of the vantage points from where I look at things is my own reading of military history and… ’cause that’s the kind of stuff I’ve been covering.

0:11:43.8 RN: Yes.

0:11:44.3 SG: So the armed forces have a system whereby when they plan an operation, they check it out whether it’ll work or not. So they assign a bunch of officers to be the enemy…

0:11:55.9 RN: Enemy, correct.

0:11:56.6 SG: And then they make the moves that the enemy might make, except in the armed forces, whatever the boss thinks is always right. But that’s a good scientific practice to look at.

0:12:08.5 RN: I mean, it’s simple strategies, right? You have to do modeling of different scenarios. Similarly, see, I worry sometimes that all of us are getting fixed in binaries. Whereas, most of life’s nuances are in the greys. And so to prevent people from falling into binaries, you have to have the dialogic process to be very healthy in a society, especially in a democracy like ours. So how do we encourage the dialogic process so that you don’t break down into divisions that are just, us and them, enemy, friend? Those are too simplistic. It was alright when we were very, very young. I think the nation has to encourage critical thinking so that more people can live in the greys, and… Because sometimes, binaries lock you in.

0:13:02.2 SG: Also, binaries put you under pressure to conform…

0:13:05.0 RN: Correct.

0:13:05.6 SG: To one definition of one side or the other.

0:13:08.5 RN: And young people don’t like so much to conform.

0:13:11.6 SG: Also, you need some spaces…

0:13:12.9 RN: If you remember, the demography of India…

0:13:13.4 SG: Everybody’s fleet-footed, you need spaces.

0:13:17.4 RN: Correct.

0:13:18.7 SR: I was… You had mentioned earlier that you’ve worked with water. So I was wondering if we could segue into that. And if you could tell me a little bit about, what the water situation was like in India when you began your philanthropic and societal work with water, and where is it today? How has it progressed?

0:13:38.5 RN: Yeah. So this is the thing about philanthropy, right? You can’t really solve any problems that way, because these problems are so huge and complex. So I went to one senior official when I was thinking on building beyond water, into food. So he said, “Ma’am, I greatly respect… ” He said…

[foreign language]

0:14:00.5 RN: I said, “No, sir. It’s not like that but you can work parallelly on many things because everything is connected, food and water are so connected.” So to answer your question, when I came into water in 2005, we had just begun to see how water as a key resource was going to affect everything in India: The economy, the ecology, and of course, people’s health. So we started working on this, I was there for about 16 years after we started working in water, I just retired from Arghyam, which was the foundation I set up for water. But I think, India knows its hydrological issues much better and there’s very good policy. Now, as usually… Everything comes down to implementation.

0:14:42.8 RN: I would say the government has made several strides, successive governments have made significant strides on providing better drinking water, better sanitation. We still have huge problems, though, that are going to be climate change related, for which there are no easy answers. Our groundwater situation is not exactly healthy in about two thirds of our districts. So there’s a lot more work I had to manage, a scarce resource well. But I would say we have quite a bit of the policy frameworks right. Now, it’s always the matter of implementation. And I think Samaaj sector also has a lot to do. Everybody can contribute to improving the water situation. So it’s something that Samaaj, Bazaar and Sarkaar… In fact, Bazaar is also very much involved because they know that even for industry in this country to run, you have to increase water efficiencies throughout the supply chain. And I think all that awareness has come, but long way to go. We don’t know what will happen with climate change. That’s my big worry.

0:15:48.6 SG: Yes. For example, if you just look at the rain map of the region, to our north and the east, China has a withering drought in a large landmass…

0:16:01.4 RN: Frightening.

0:16:02.5 SG: Yangtze…

0:16:03.3 RN: The Yangtze, have you seen the pictures of the Yangtze?

0:16:04.5 SG: Yangtze has gone dry. Pre-Christ sculptures, Buddhist sculptures are coming out now.

0:16:10.2 RN: Rising up.

0:16:10.5 SG: Yeah, they are rising up. And at the same time, toward West Pakistan, has 700… Some parts of it have 700% more rain this year.

0:16:19.9 RN: Yeah, just had severe floods.

0:16:21.3 SG: In fact, if you see satellite pictures of Pakistan, it looks like there’s a giant lake in the middle of Pakistan.

0:16:27.2 SR: There has been a new inland water board.

0:16:28.9 SG: And India has such uneven rain this year. So, this is beginning to hurt everybody.

0:16:34.5 RN: It is. And therefore, it’s very hard for farmers to predict, it’s very hard to plan ahead for your crops. And because farmers are essentially entrepreneurs, it really makes their life much more difficult to adjust for climate variance. And so, again, a lot of public policy support is needed. And also, Shekhar, often, I’ve been saying, I think that… I don’t know if that article is included in the book, but we are going to have to model for climate change in any kind of policy formulation going forward in the design of public infrastructure, going forward. Today, would you take a decision for a coastal road in Mumbai, knowing what you know about what’s happening to the sea rise? So, planning for that is going to be something very critical for experts to get involved.

0:17:24.5 SG: Yeah. The other thing about climate change is that no matter what you do, it’s not going to get better. It may get less worse…

0:17:30.4 RN: Yes.

0:17:30.8 SG: But it’s not going to get better.

0:17:31.7 RN: Because it’s already started. The process has started.

0:17:34.3 SG: Yeah, so we’re just trying to slow it down.

0:17:35.8 RN: Yeah. And if you see the IPCC’s latest report, it’s happening much faster than the scientists thought, which is why the commitments to reduce carbon emission and to increase renewables is so critical, along with designing better public transport around the country.

0:17:53.1 SG: Well, yesterday, I just saw a model of the new stadium that has been built in Qatar for FIFA World Cup. It’s the world’s first fully air-conditioned football stadium.

0:18:08.0 RN: Wow.

0:18:09.7 SG: So, just think about it, in Qatar, a fully air-conditioned stadium, and it’s not as if the stadium has ceiling, it’s air-conditioned from below. So, imagine the amount of carbon that we produce as a consequence.

0:18:24.3 RN: An engineering marvel, but not sustainable.

0:18:28.0 SG: Yes, yes.

0:18:28.4 SR: Yeah.

0:18:28.7 SG: An engineering… It was demonstrated to me by L&T people, because I…

0:18:34.0 RN: So that becomes a challenge for all citizens to get involved now with, in the sense that knowing what we know about the race against time right now, how should we be thinking about even what about design in our lives, in our consumption patterns. Everybody has to think. So in a sense we are all in it together.

0:18:52.3 SR: Yeah. Even our personal choices in terms of, for example, future real estate and things like that, we might invest in, we have to be aware of the climate repercussions, which is not an industry wide practice right now.

0:19:04.8 RN: Correct.

0:19:04.8 SR: Right away. Yeah.

0:19:05.1 RN: I mean, our coastal areas are going to be so vulnerable.

0:19:09.9 SR: Yeah.

0:19:10.6 RN: With so much of our population in the coastal areas of India. And then the Gangetic plain where again, we have so much population, will people be different inwards? And what does that mean then? And this is, we are talking 20, 30 years from now. I don’t envy the government, have to think about the future.

0:19:27.6 SR: But it’s no doubt that every year there are extreme events that are constantly challenging our infrastructure…

0:19:34.4 RN: Yeah. I think the climate deniers will have to go home.

0:19:35.5 SR: Yeah, absolutely.

0:19:36.7 SG: Well, I mean, while we are debating this, Trump may come back.


0:19:42.8 RN: Don’t know.

0:19:43.8 SG: Don’t know.

0:19:44.8 RN: Just don’t know.

0:19:45.0 SG: So public debate, you’ve written this book because you want this to become centre stage in public debate, and these are things, because we also work on the principle of out of sight out of mind. How much does public debate contribute to shaping of policy? Particularly in today’s kind of situation where democracies have strongman governments, where usually thinking comes from one leader and it’s not just India. It’s India, it’s, I mean, okay, Russia and China are bad examples, but America until under Trump, Erdogan, Israel under Netanyahu, you have Bolsonaro in Brazil, these are… Brazil, even more than India is a very sensitive climate hotspot. So in these situations and given this strongman power structures, how much does public debate matter?

0:20:42.0 RN: More than ever. As the world is turning more authoritarian, we have to ask why, right? Is it people, people maybe feeling that I don’t want, I’m fed up of this, participating everything all the time. And let me just sort of abandon or trust in somebody, trust in a strong leader to solve my problems. But also history we have seen it doesn’t happen that way. Nobody, as I say, many times in the book, you simply cannot outsource good governance only to government. It’s too important. If citizens have to co-create good governance, have to themselves strengthen democracy is not going to happen for us. If we don’t participate, we lose ground. So you cannot outsource all these things. You cannot outsource citizenship to anybody else. It can be messy. You have to get involved. You just want to lie back and enjoy your life. But if you don’t get involved in solving local problems at least, you will find more of this. You’ll find more of a breakdown of public infrastructure. You will find more authoritarianism on the rise, but that’s because you abdicated.

0:21:53.4 RN: So if you look to ourselves in Samaaj, what is happening in Samaaj all over the world? And of course we know social media has had a long, quite a bit of role to play in these last few decades. But I at least believe that you get the governments and societies that you help to create. So if you are not involved, then you get a, you don’t get what you necessarily want. You can’t expect good societies to form on their own. Everybody has a role to play. Not everybody has to work all the time for it, but at least to some extent, being aware of what’s going on around you, you can’t abdicate this question at all. And so it’s more important than ever to get young people to ask these questions. What kind of a society do I want to live in? What is my role to create the kind of society that I want to live in? How much am I willing to give up everything to a government to do? How much can government do for citizens if citizens don’t do for themselves? These questions have to be alive in the public discourse. And now more than ever, now more than ever.

0:23:02.9 SR: As a philanthropist you’ve contributed to so many causes, are you hopeful that in a few years, maybe a few decades, we would eventually get to a place where citizens would not need philanthropy?

0:23:17.5 RN: Yeah. I mean, I love that to happen because as a Martin Luther King’s quote, which I don’t know the exact quote, but, you should never forget why philanthropy is needed in the first place and what caused this imbalance to come so that there is concentrated wealth in the hands of a few, and then they have to do all this philanthropy to correct for what should be going better in society. So I think philanthropy is critical and important. But, and I don’t think there’ll ever not be a need for philanthropy. Because after all philanthropy… What is philanthropy? It means people being interested in the welfare of other people. That’s really what philanthropy is. Now because of the hyper wealthy that have come around the world, philanthropy has become something like really big where people like Bill Gates have to spend $5 billion a year on philanthropy. So, philanthropy will have to always exist, but philanthropy is not only that of the super rich, ordinary people can also do philanthropy and they do, routinely, in India. So there may never be a time where humans empathy will not be needed and human resources for other humans will not be needed. But I do hope there would be less of a need for intensive philanthropy to do what society should have done anyway.

0:24:45.5 SR: That’s really nice, less wealth disparity and more empathy.

0:24:49.9 SG: I’d rather that there is inequality of wealth and some people have a lot of wealth than the government having, that the state having all the wealth.

0:25:00.0 RN: Well, I think taxation is an important tool to redistribute…

0:25:02.4 SG: Yeah. But the state can’t have it all.

0:25:05.1 RN: Yeah. No, I agree that private wealth creates, I mean, societies tolerate private wealth creation because they assume that that wealth creation will spur innovation, create jobs, that that wealth creation will also help create better societies, right? Societies will tolerate runaway wealth creation only so long as that wealth appears to be working for society. The private wealth so long as it is seen to be working for society, it’ll be tolerated. Otherwise the government will swoop in and tax it all up.


0:25:39.8 SG: Let me ask this one. So this is, Colonel Kil Vishwanathan is one of our subscribers and he’s a prolific guest on this show. He says, “In the introduction to your book, you have a quote, ‘Countrymen to rise above self-interest and reciprocity.’ In my pre-teen days, late 1950s, there was a custom in our village in North Malabar where the father of the would-be bride gave a tea party to the village with just a cup of tea and one snack was served, where just a cup of tea and one snack was served. The occasion was to facilitate villagers to attend the party and contribute there might towards the wedding expenses, all on a reciprocal basis. Would you say our Samaaj knows and adapts or has adapted to a great extent, and have you concluded that Sarkaar and Bazaar are integrating?”

0:26:37.6 RN: To the first point, I think that example is beautiful. And in the book I mentioned what Anupam Mishra who did a lot of work in water.

0:26:46.1 SG: Yeah.

0:26:46.8 RN: Used to tell us about that there’s a Pratha, there’s a tradition in, there still is actually in Rajasthan villages where people go to other villages to help work on public water projects. So the whole, all the surrounding villages go for the day to this other villages and do Shramadaan to create public water resources. It might be digging a well or a farm pond or whatever, repairing a bund or whatever that may be just pre-decided. And in return, the villagers make them a nice meal. The original village in which the work is going on, makes them a nice meal. Fun is had by all and everyone feels good and a public infra gets created. And then the same thing is repeated across all. So this kind of reciprocity Samaaj, which is really trust-based social capital is absolutely critical. And we see it in many forms if you travel around the country. And so that’s very important. To the second question about whether Samaaj, Sarkaar and Bazaar are integrating, I think we saw the best example of it during the pandemic.

0:27:47.8 RN: Lots more will have to be done when other disasters come along as unfortunately they will, but we saw how quickly, Samaaj of course responded very fast, and very quickly. First responders were neighbours, families, civil society organisations, state came in pretty quickly after that. And as we know the Bazaar, especially in India with Serum Institute, et cetera, was able to act very quickly to get our whole vaccine delivery going. So we saw very rapid action and I’m hoping that that experience will allow us to be much better prepared because those little bit more of trust has been built. And when the next time comes around, we should be able to organise a bit more efficiently and faster. So I thought that was one of the best examples we saw of the quick integration. I mean, just in two years, imagine how many things happened that had not happened before of Sarkaar, Bazaar coming together. Bazaar, Samaaj coming together and so on and so forth. All of us know millions of examples.

0:28:46.6 SG: Look at our vaccine compliance.

0:28:48.2 RN: Yeah.

0:28:48.6 SG: So that’s where Samaaj comes in.

0:28:50.8 RN: Yes. They quickly got the message that what’s good for me is good for all of us. And what’s good for all of us I have to do. Right? We didn’t see so much vaccine resistance as we have seen in other parts of the world. So yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

0:29:08.2 SR: I want to club two questions that our viewers have about education. Kaushik Sivasubramanian from Reach To Teach asks, “How do you and your foundation look at technology to improve education? Is it an enabler or could it be a solution that delivers quality education by itself?” And as a supplement to that Dr. Vasanthi Vasudev from Osmosys Learning asks, “What in your opinion is an effective hybrid model for classroom teaching, especially befitting rural India that would leverage technology, technology-aided learning without marginalising the role of the teacher?”

0:29:45.2 RN: Okay. There is the second one first. So let me answer the first one first. At EkStep Foundation which Shankar Maruwada, Nandan Nilekani and I formed five, seven years ago now, we set us as a goal of increased access to learning opportunities for 200 million children by 2022, which is this year. And I think we have kind of been able to achieve that because we were lucky that we were able to work closely with the union government and then 28 other states to help launch the DIKSHA platform of the government to… Which is a digital platform for parents, teachers, children, but mainly teachers to help each other learn how to more effectively deliver their teaching across the classroom and across the school. And it has been quite a success, and luckily it was ready just in time for the pandemic.

0:30:40.0 RN: So that leads into the next question, because we saw the uptake rise so rapidly, there were billions, not millions, billions of learning sessions on the DIKSHA platform and studied at some number, like 1 billion or something. Now, I don’t have the exact data. So it is now an entrenched form of learning and sharing, so it improves learnability, accountability, teachability, because it’s open, it’s transparent, it’s voluntary, and it allows especially teachers to share best practices across the country. A teacher in Tamil Nadu can be asking something to a teacher in Bihar and we’ve seen teachers feel much more empowered because they’re able to go on the DIKSHA platform and get something for themselves that enables them to be more effective tomorrow in the classroom.

0:31:31.7 RN: So just in time sort of ability to learn from the platform, and I think one thing the pandemic has shown us, God forbid, but if there is, again, having to be a shut down of schools for any reason whatsoever, this country is geared up, it has the best public digital infrastructure in the world, I believe. But we are ready to be able to reach children with or without schools. I don’t think this empowers teachers actually, teachers learned very quickly. Of course, there’s nothing that you can never replace the social interaction of a teacher who is front of you, with the teacher who is on the screen, no question of that. But if it happens again, we are ready and teachers have learned how to make the best of their digital tools. So that’s all I can say, but I hope we don’t have to shut schools ever again.

0:32:21.3 SR: Do you find the adoption of these tech platforms happening frequently in government schools as well?

0:32:28.5 RN: Mainly government schools, so mainly government schools, because this whole thing was developed by the government for the whole public school infrastructure in the country. So there are some 12 million teachers on this platform.

0:32:43.6 SG: And this is public infrastructure?

0:32:45.0 RN: It’s public infrastructure.

0:32:46.0 SG: Yeah, so it’s free? Free.

0:32:46.6 RN: It’s free for the public. It’s free for the public funded by government, we did a lot of the initial investments as part of the foundation, but is taken over, it’s now the government’s own program running almost everywhere in the country, and other things are getting joined to it. So even now, hopefully more civil society participation will happen on the platform. I do hope more Bazaar participation will happen on the platform. So I think it’s a very rich resource for teachers and students as well.

0:33:15.7 SR: In this context, can I ask a follow up question from Jayantilal Tanna, who says, “Even after 75 years of independence, why do you think educational standards have remained well below average, especially in literacy and numeracy in our government schools?”

0:33:31.5 RN: Yeah. Well, I can see, I started work on education in 1999. That’s a long time ago. And I have seen a lot of improvement. So it’s true that there are certain numbers still are a bit depressing, but you can see a lot of improvement in many areas of the country for sure. We have already solved our question of enrollment, which was, 20 years ago that was a huge problem, today we know that… Today we know that all our children are enrolled in school. Today we know that there is a huge demand for education, today we know that all kinds of new technology is being created for improving learning in schools and the new NEP, which is going to be rolled out soon, also puts a great emphasis on something I think is absolutely key, which is foundational learning. And with the government’s full attention now on foundational literacy from class one onwards and even before. Even now, our pre-school infra is going to be ramped up so that children are going to get more, much better educational tools and access for them to be able to start thinking, describing, talking, using creative tools, right from age three. I think we will see continuous improvement.

0:34:47.6 RN: And by the way, we still have some first generation students in the country, right? Millions of first generation. I think one more generation, you will begin to see a huge difference. Already if you look at some of the EkStep numbers, most children’s parents now have studied at least to class five, which in 15, 20 years is a huge shift. And you’ll only see that get better. Now, this generation is educated. So their children are going to be able to have a much better learning environment, not just in school, but also at home. So I am very optimistic on this.

0:35:25.2 SR: A lot of thanks to smartphone permeation as well.

0:35:26.7 RN: Sorry?

0:35:28.3 SR: A lot of thanks to smartphones permeation as well for this.

0:35:31.2 RN: Yeah, there’s a lot of smartphone permeation. There are a lot of NGOs that are supporting parents also to help teach their children better. So we will see the gradual, but definite improvement in learning outcomes. I’m very sure of it. These are the 10, 15 years in which we are going to see the big leap.

0:35:49.5 SG: So, Padmakshi K who wants, she said she’s read your book fully, and she’s asking, “Can peoples participate lead to peaceful coexistence with different sections of people in times of polarisation in our society today?”

0:36:04.6 RN: I certainly hope so.

[foreign language]

0:36:07.8 RN: These are questions that Samaaj has to resolve. The government cannot resolve issues of communal tension. Who has to resolve them? We have to resolve them as communities. We have to be able to see how interconnected, not just all the people in India are, but the people all over the world are. And just two years ago, we learned that very, very closely that if a grandmother in one part of the world sneezes, her grandson somewhere else can catch a cold. We know that now literally. And so as human beings try to evolve to become better and better, I think, no matter what the current waves look like, I think the, below that I think there is a great human capacity for empathy and coexistence. And we have to tap into that and to do that Samaaj section… Moral leadership of the Samaaj only has to come forward. When there were riots in Mumbai or other places Bhiwandi… So it was the elders who came together, created Mohalla committees, started a peace building process. I think that’s absolutely critical today and I think Samaaj only has to take the lead.

0:37:16.0 SG: You know, these days, because we’ve not been holding public sessions for Off The Cuff, usually we’ll do it with an audience.

0:37:22.4 RN: Right. That’s right.

0:37:23.6 SG: So it’s only now that we are growing out of Zoom at least. I find… So we get a lot of questions from our subscribers and our likely guests.

0:37:31.0 RN: That’s really good, that means that they are so engaged.

0:37:32.0 SG: But I find that the quality of questions for this one is of a much higher order than the questions we get. When we get people who might be talking about war in Ukraine, hard politics, money, stuff like that. So that says that… That tells us that your book has struck a cord. So Sandeep Dutt who’s from My Good School, I presume he runs a school. How do we explain philanthropy to young people at school so that they look at life full of serving and giving?

0:38:05.8 RN: For look at life full of…

0:38:06.8 SG: Full of serving and giving.

0:38:08.2 RN: Okay, good. Yeah. I think children very early on need to be shown examples of human, moral leadership and generosity. And I think those stories have to be told from family to family who… For example, in my family, my grandfather’s role in our, was held up as something worthy of emulating. He was a lawyer, but apparently he… The reason that he didn’t make any money, he was very busy patching up the two parties instead of taking them to court.


0:38:40.9 RN: So he and his brother used to be called Ram Lakshman in those days in the Belgaon district. But he went and answered Gandhiji’s first call in Champaran in 1917. And he was among the first group of volunteers who went there to help set up Gandhiji’s first Ashram in Bhitiharwa in West Champaran. And he continued lifelong to serve the cause of freedom. And so the independence movement, working closely with the Indian national Congress at that time. And his life simpleton living, high thinking, working for a cause, service before self, those are the stories told in our families. And if all families could do that to their children, children get easily inspired.

0:39:23.9 SG: ‘Cause how could teachers do that in schools?

0:39:27.0 RN: I think they have to go beyond textbooks to bring out stories. Maybe ask the children in the classroom to come with stories of their families. That’s always the deepest and quickest connection that teachers can make. And there are so many heroes. There are the Tatas. There are the Birlas. There are so many worthy philanthropists that this country has spawned in the last 200 years. We have to keep those stories alive. Because also explaining to children about the neuroscience of giving. There’s genuinely a joy to giving. We are wired for that. We are wired to get joy from giving and doing something, going outside of ourselves to do something for other people. It makes us also happy. So eventually giving is actually receiving, right? And that is also a gift. So I think children get inspired easily by such stories. Don’t they?

0:40:19.0 SR: And like you said, we are indeed wired for that.

0:40:21.3 RN: We are.

0:40:22.8 SR: It’s our evolutionary, it’s our social insecurity.

0:40:24.2 RN: It’s evolutionary biology. We are a social species because unless we work together, we will not succeed. We are wired to cooperate. We are wired for empathy. We are wired to feel joy in giving.

0:40:39.2 SR: You are on the board for ATREE as well.

0:40:42.4 RN: Yes.

0:40:43.3 SR: I wanted to ask you. Can you walk us through a little bit about environmental and ecological research in India and the blind spots and gaps in data? Where are some places that you think we need immediate research and data?

0:41:01.6 RN: That’s a large question, but I think like ATREE has done for 25 years, we need long-term observation. One thing is what’s happening in yearly, annual cycles. And there are enough some sensors and we get some indication of that. But we need a lot of institutions, research institutions, to have the resources and the permissions, ’cause nowadays even permissions are becoming a little tough to be able to go into our wild areas to set up long-term monitoring stations. Today we have the national biodiversity mission, for example, which is I think going to be very critical to catalogue our biodiversity and to understand what is changing in our biodiversity map. We need many more such things. We need many more environmental research institutions to spring up, so that one thing is we know what is the absolute national treasures of biodiversity that we have in this country.

0:41:58.9 RN: One of the few countries in the world, which has so much population pressure, and yet because of our 5,000-year, perhaps, civilisational culture of respecting nature, we have also among the highest biodiversity on the planet. We need to preserve that. Not just because it looks beautiful, but because it is the future resource for this country in everything, for medicines, for precious materials, for carbon sequestration. When we think of the hundred reasons why we need to understand and preserve our biodiversity, we need a lot more monitoring stations and the ability for more researchers to go into various wild areas of the country to really understand what is going on. And that’s going to be our ball work against climate change as well, to understand what is happening and to be able to prevent some of the worst parts of it.

0:42:52.5 SR: Now, we have a couple of questions about corporate social responsibility, Colonel Achal Sridharan, and I hope I’m pronouncing the name right, from CovaiCare says, “CSR should actually be citizen social responsibility, corporates give money through CSR for their philanthropy and social commitment. One of the areas that needs a lot of attention is elder living and care, which unfortunately remains quite neglected.” So he says, “We see CSR money for education, women’s welfare, environment, etcetera, while social value investing is a must for corporates to survive. Why do we not see contributions for elder living and care?”

0:43:28.3 RN: I think some people are beginning to set up NGOs, especially targeting the elderly, because as we know in another 40, 50 years, we are going to be an old nation. Right now we are worrying about the population explosion, but we are going to be a old nation, and with all the attendant issues. Right? We’ve seen what’s happening…

0:43:46.0 SG: See what’s happening in China.

0:43:48.2 RN: And Japan.

0:43:48.7 SG: And they are struggling in China with five and half times of our per capita GDP.

0:43:54.3 RN: Yes. And so can you imagine when… Who’s going to make the social payments required for an elderly nation? So I think this person is absolutely right. We need a lot more Samaaj institutions that are focused on improving the lives of the elderly and keeping them active in the Samaaj. So a lot more work on that. A lot more work on that.

0:44:19.1 SG: A couple of questions from our colleagues. I know that your time is committed to many things. Matley Azarika, she’s from Assam, “In what ways can a civil society strive when there are frequent instances of crackdown by the government?”

0:44:37.0 RN: Yeah. Unfortunately there is a breakdown of trust between the state and civil society actors. And I really wish there wasn’t. Because a strong state really needs a strong civil society, and a diverse civil society. Because the state cannot reach the first mile. No state, however efficient, can reach the first mile where the real problem is, where people are suffering for various reasons. So, it is civil society institutions that are most likely to understand what are the gaps that need to be filled, so that the persons who at the first mile can be helped.

0:45:16.9 RN: And any strong state really needs the participation of civil society to go with it. So I wish that both sides would do whatever it takes to build more trust. I think we have an extraordinarily diverse and vibrant civil society. They are facing some challenges. For example, [0:45:36.2] ____ FCRE regulations, and many countries are now saying about foreign money coming in, but that’s a separate thing. Just among our civil society organisations, I wish we could find a way to build better bridges with the state, both at the local level and at the centre. I think it’s needed, because civil society is needed to provide a mirror to governments. And to societies as well, and to the corporate sector as well. Because then it allows for healthy self-correction, and it allows for healthy preventive correction. So because I belong to civil society, I wish we could find ways to build many more bridges of trust. For which We need transparency on both sides.

0:46:24.4 SG: So Kriti Bhatt was one of our youngest colleagues. She says, “You say in your book throughout history. We have seen society take law in their own hands, which resulted in vigilantism and violence. What do you think is causing societal breakdown? Because we’ve seen a lot more of it lately. Why are citizens instead of fighting for proper amenities or better facilities are fighting each other?”

0:46:52.5 RN: Yeah. Sometimes it’s very easy for social media, et cetera to create all these polarisations. It serves some people but it doesn’t serve Samaaj well at all. And I believe, I really believe that people are fed up of these polarizations. They’re fed up with this us versus them culture. And I think it’s we’re at peak polarisation. I think from now on it has to come down. It can’t get worse than this. So I think… Again, that’s what I say. This is not something that we just write about or read about. Each one of us can do something about it. In our own families we have seen everybody argue with everybody else because some people are on this side, some people are on the other side, that’s what I’m talking about. How do we build the societal muscle for dialogue? That is the key thing needed today. How do we practice in small, small doses tonight at the dinner table? Can I talk to a family member who thinks differently from me without getting all hot and bothered and judgemental? That is the new Sanskar that we have to develop in today’s democracies. Because otherwise all of us are shrinking. We are shrinking into narrower and narrower selves. That’s not rich. That’s not rich living. That is poor living. So a lot of people are engaged with this idea. How do you reduce the binaries? How do you reduce the polarisation? I think we are at peak polarisation and it’s going to get better.

0:48:16.3 SG: And she has another question, which is a very different question, very different… On a very different track. She says, “You call volunteerism as the bedrock of society. And so why do we wait for people to become volunteers? There should be mechanism in place that makes working for society mandatory. For instance, in many countries there is something called work ethic approach to punishment where offenders are made to do community service as a way of reprimanding them. Do you think that kind of system can be implemented or successful in India?”

0:48:49.7 RN: Yeah. I think her questions…

0:48:49.8 SG: Our jails are overcrowded anyway.

0:48:57.2 RN: And more 75% of those in our jails are undertrials.

0:48:57.3 SG: Undertrials. Undertrials. Yeah.

0:48:57.8 RN: We don’t even know if they’re guilty. They haven’t even got access to a fair trial. So I think that is a huge problem. On August 15th, I thought the court had said we should release some of the undertrials. Who’ve already stayed in prisons for longer than even if they had been proved guilty they would have finished serving their sentences. So I think this is something all of us should worry about. But the questions of crime and punishment are very interesting in India Samaaj. What is punishment to be used for? Is it for revenge or is it for reform? And so this community work idea is something that is very interesting actually for judges to be able to say for minor offenses obviously not for serious crimes. To say that you can go and volunteer. America does it. Some other countries do it. I think it’s something worth trying for sure.

0:49:45.0 RN: So about volunteerism. Volunteerism can’t be mandated because then it’s not voluntary. So while there are programs in many countries for even some professions to go and do rural service or whatever there is. Some things like that can be imagined. We used to have the NCC and we used to have all kinds of programs when we were young. Maybe some things like that need to be revived. But volunteer energy has to come from inside. It has to be a [0:50:16.2] ____. It has to be something about where you do something both for yourself and others and it’s because you have that energy to give. So it can’t be mandated. And I hope it never is.

0:50:28.3 SR: I wanted to ask you a different question about children’s books. About Pratham books and your journey with Pratham books. Can you tell us a little bit about what it was like founding it and also what it has been like the past few years where considering you’ve been involved in education, as well as children’s books? How have you seen the consumption of children’s books change and the impact of Pratham books?

0:50:53.8 RN: Oh it’s phenomenal. You know when we started Pratham books in 2004, as part of the Pratham network that I was belonging to. Which through the Pratham network, so many children had been taught to read. And then when you started looking around to set up libraries for them, there were hardly any children’s books in India. Not even 500 or 600, we could find in all the languages for the 300 million children of India. So we said, [0:51:14.9] ____ kuchh to kiya jaana chaahie, something has to be done. So we decided we will only start publishing books. And we started in 2004. It’s been an incredible journey. One of the great things that we decided to do was to put all the books out free in the Creative Commons. And the kind of pickup that we saw. People came to give their volunteer energy, to translate, to write new books, to read out books to children, to download them and share them in their communities to edit, whatever, just the whole community response. It became like a societal mission.

0:51:54.7 RN: Today’s the story. We have a platform. I retired five years ago, but the new team has done even better. And they’ve created a StoryWeaver platform on which today there are books in 320 languages, which are contributed by citizens of the world for our children. There are thousands and thousands and thousands of stories on that. And there have been more than 10 million reads just in the last few years. And we know that even the books that Pratham books are selling. So we have helped to change the paradigm of children’s publishing in India. That’s the power of bringing Samaaj, Sarkaar and Bazaar together by the way. Because the Samaj came in, as I told you to write, read, and as Pratham books. The Sarkaar came in because many state governments worked very closely with us to get books into children’s classes, to get the library periods activated. And the Bazaar came in because some of those books are also sold. So it was a real coming together of these three sectors in a very wonderful example of what is possible when the three sectors work together for a common societal purpose.

0:53:01.3 SR: Absolutely. And the books are also made very attractive. The art is incredible.

0:53:05.8 RN: They are all Indigenous, Indian, rooted in our soil, rooted in our culture. And many many languages, tribal languages of India are represented. And we found the most amazing illustrators, who earlier didn’t have opportunities to showcase their skills. So the team has done extraordinarily well at Pratham books.

0:53:26.3 SR: Yeah. There are even… I have been lucky enough to write a book for Pratham books and it’s been translated into Esperanto.

0:53:32.3 RN: Very good.

0:53:33.0 SR: Yeah. There are languages all over the world that the books are in.

0:53:36.4 SG: So what did you write about?

0:53:38.2 SR: I wrote a book that is level three. I think it’s ages eight to 12. It’s called Starry Skies. It’s just about the different stars in the sky.

0:53:45.2 RN: Oh, okay. Great. I’ll look out for it.

0:53:46.3 SR: Thank you.

0:53:47.2 RN: Congratulations.

0:53:48.4 SR: Thank you. Thank you.

0:53:49.3 RN: I also have written 16 books for children. Many of them for Pratham books and they’ve been very popular, which just goes to show, it’s a nation of storytellers and a nation of story listeners.

0:54:01.9 SR: Yeah.

0:54:03.0 SG: So I think I’m getting some looks from your colleagues telling me that you are needed for something else. And before these become dirty looks, I think Sandhya we should conclude this session. We can go on for a long time.

0:54:14.7 SR: Sure. Thank you so much Rohini. This was a lovely conversation and we learned so much. I definitely learned a lot, and I really look forward to reading your book as well. And thank you for answering all of our viewer questions, too.

0:54:27.9 RN: Thank you to you Shekhar, also Sandhya thank you.

0:54:28.9 SG: Thank you Rohini. Thank you For agreeing to do it in a physical form because I’m just so fed up of the Zoom life.

The Print

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