Back to resources

Rohini Nilekani on why India’s wealthy need to do more to boost civil society

Civil Society | Active Citizenship | Strategic Philanthropy | Others | Sep 4, 2022

At a time when the government and the marketplace have assumed enormous power over our lives and choices, Rohini Nilekani argues that now is the time for civil societies to be boosted, and that India’s wealth creators need to do more about it. In this episode, she joins host Sandip Roy to discuss her latest book, ‘Samaaj, Sarkaar, Bazaar’, in which she talks about the need for a balance between these three sectors.


0:00:01.1 Sandip Roy: Hello and welcome to The Sandip Roy Show on Express Audio.


0:00:20.1 SR: In a democracy we are told the voter is king, and in the market place we are told the customer is king. And on the face of it, it feels like that we after all have the choice to vote for candidate A or B or buy product C instead of D, but in reality, both government and market have assumed enormous power over our lives and choices. New laws and regulations have made it seem that the government is trying to bring civil society organizations to heal, though the government insists it’s just trying to instill transparency and accountability. Mega transnational corporations rule our lives in ways we don’t even fathom. And the citizen appears puny against such giant forces. Forces that ironically have derived their power from the citizen. Rohini Nilekani has been active in the civil society sector for many years as a philanthropist and founding member of various organizations. A collection of essays on the topic is Samaaj, Sarkaar, Bazaar. A citizens first approach. Rohini Nilekani, welcome to the show.

0:01:33.7 Rohini Nilekani: Thank you so much, Sandip.

0:01:35.6 SR: You write in this book something that many people will relate to, which is we were always told wealth is not what you aspire to, you aspire to high thinking. When you came into great wealth after selling Infosys shares, how difficult was it for you to publicly say, “I’m wealthy”

0:01:57.0 RN: Yeah Sandip, it really was difficult for me. I don’t want our audiences to get it wrong, “look at that poor little rich girl complaining about being wealthy” Okay it sounds terrible, but that’s not what I mean. I mean that as we grew up in a middle class urban family, there was wealth around us in Mumbai remember. But in our family, we were by no means badly off, we were middle class, but the stories in the family, the culture that was impressed upon us, was that wealth is not what makes you. And then in those days, remember I grew up in the 60s and 70s. In India too, wealth was not something that you aspired to you aspired to a different idea of the nation. We didn’t first say “Oh everyone in India should be prosperous,” we first said, “Everyone in India should be included right.” We have to still make this country, we have to build this country, we have to bring its people together, that sort of thing.

0:02:51.4 RN: So in those days, wealth was what I guess the industrial families had, [0:02:57.2] ____ Maharajahs, not normal people. And Infosys was a real experiment in that sense. A bunch of professionals coming together determined to succeed. But the first thing even on their minds were not, ” Oh let’s set up Infosys and become billionaires.” First thing on their minds also was, “Let’s set up a company” and they say it in their motto, about being driven by values or powered by values and with a style for excellence. So again, just to put it in context, why I was so uncomfortable being wealthy I was also a bit of an activist. All of us were a little bit on the left.

0:03:34.5 RN: And so when I myself came into so much wealth, it really took me years to deal with the fact that now I was on the so-called other side. I rebelled a bit, I couldn’t understand what to do with it, because it’s not like we were brought up to say, “Why don’t you just shop till you drop and have a great time? What’s the big deal?” We couldn’t do that somehow. So that wealth had to have some purpose and meaning. So it took some time, but then somewhere the penny dropped, certainly Nandan had something to do with saying, “If you don’t accept it and make something of it.” So then rather than seeing it as something strange, it became more of a joyful responsibility to learn how to use that wealth, of course for ourselves too but also think of it as something you could do more with in the societal domain.

0:04:26.1 SR: I understand that this must have been a sort of a gradual process for you, but does anything stick out as a moment when you realized that in fact, “It’s okay.” This is not unethical, this is not like the Bollywood scenario of: Look if you have great wealth, then you know you must be engaged in immense corruption.

0:04:48.1 RN: Yeah, I do remember that in those days. But luckily, this happened now in the early 2000, by which time India had liberalized, and a decade of liberalization had changed public attitudes also towards the creation of wealth. There’s also a shift in the mindset I feel, that wealth creation is what India needs now, and because Infosys was always driven by a very strong core of ethics, the wealth that had come to us was perfectly legal, perfectly transparent, perfectly hopefully articulately made wealth, so that was not the issue.

0:05:24.2 RN: So that certainly helped both the fact that liberalization in any case, had made that wealth possible and there’s a public shift in the mental model of what India should be doing now. And then because I used to travel a lot in those days with Nandan as well. And just to learn, we were able to travel abroad, we had already spent a lot of time in the US, but after we became wealthy then I got to go to places like Davos, where all the world elite were there, and they didn’t think much about… Certainly this problem was not in their minds. [chuckle] But I also then got to meet a lot more philanthropists around the world, with that’s whom I was drawn to, and began to see more and more what an opportunity this could bring for my work.

0:06:06.1 SR: But you say that “Philanthropist was a descriptor that did not sit so well with me in the early days why?”

0:06:14.3 RN: You know, this whole idea of philanthropy, remember, is a bit new, okay? People used to do good old fashioned charity, because humans care for humans. And if you had more money, you did more charity. And if you had less money, you did less charity, and I think that’s the highest sort of human attribute, right? Empathy. So then as foundations began to be born, and wealthy people started to become so wealthy, that as they said that if you have a Ferrari, you better have a foundation too, this whole new thing with the media celebrated about philanthropy came into being, just about 30 or 40 years ago, and that kind of thing, which later, Matthew Bishop even called philanthrocapitalism, right, which sat even more uneasily with me and I used to tell him so, so I’m not saying something that he doesn’t know. So that’s what I meant, that I was a little uneasy that philanthropy was something too big a word. And even underlying that, as even Martin Luther King said that when we say, okay, philanthropy does good, we mustn’t forget why philanthropy comes into existence, because it always reminds you that there is so much inequality, right. So that was the discomfort, but now I’ve settled down to it.


0:07:27.5 SR: But would you agree, since you talked about charity that when people argue that rich Indians and there are a lot of rich Indians right now might be charitable, but not enough of them are philanthropist?

0:07:40.4 RN: Yeah, I think people are beginning to change, okay? In the sense that, yes, people still do charity. And I think there’s nothing wrong with that. But the kind of, I guess the axiomatic idea is that philanthropy is somehow smarter or philanthropy is more strategic, because hopefully, if you have so much money, and you’re committed to certain courses, then you’re going to go beyond just feeding the poor and clothing the naked as they used to say, in the old days, and say, “Why are so many people needing the food and clothes in the first place?” And that’s what you’re used to philanthropy for, to do the institution building, the leadership building, the agency formation or re-discovery rather than formation. And I think that’s what starts to separate in today’s lexicon, philanthropy from charity, and I believe a lot more Indian wealthy are seeing that and want to do that.

0:08:33.9 SR: So you would be in somewhat disagreement when, for example, you and your husband signed The Giving Pledge, where people pledged to give away 50% of their wealth in their lifetimes. Immediately, there were lots of articles about why are so few wealthy Indian signing the giving pledge. Are they afraid that when you sign the giving pledge, it will draw the attention of the tax man immediately? But you seem to be suggesting that actually that’s changing quite a bit.

0:09:04.4 RN: I do think it’s changing quite a bit. Unfortunately, there are very, very few, I think, only four people who have signed, who live in India who have signed the giving pledge. I wish more would sign, because it’s not like the giving pledge committee is holding a gun to your head, it’s just a public commitment to giving away 50% of your wealth, which is not even much considering how much people have now. The top five, top 2000 people in India or so. I mean, the kind of money you have, seven, eight generations will sit happily with just what they have now. So there is really no insecurity or fear left, so I wish more would sign, maybe they still don’t see the need to, then maybe we need an Indian version of it or something. Suppose it’s culturally not a fit. But we do need something like that however, there are a lot of new things emerging with philanthropists in India coming together and thus rather something living my promise does something. So there are Indian versions of that emerging, but I think there’s always hope for the Indian wealthy to give forward much more.

0:10:06.2 SR: How did you… Well, I assume it was a family decision, decide to sign the giving pledge? What prompted it?

0:10:15.3 RN: It took us a while because again, there’s a cultural thing. In India, you don’t really give sign pledges and make yourself look really good in the headline saying, “Look at me, I signed The Giving Pledge.” So that was a first hesitation, and then the international community of the wealthy, we didn’t really hobnob with them. So we had those fears, but then we talked it through, and I felt especially, and Nandan certainly agreed, that it is time for us to give up the old notion that the left hand should not know what the right hand does in charity. The time now is to signal loud and clear that wealth and especially such wealth has a public responsibility. And we thought this was one way of signalling it, and secondly, that it would give us a chance to learn how other ultra high net worth individuals what are they doing? So we are hoping to join this global learning community. And I must say, it is a global learning community, trying to learn from each other, the 250 odd people who have signed the global Giving Pledge, are certainly we meet once in a year at least and there is a lot of learning and sharing. So I think in hindsight, we did make the right decision.

0:11:25.5 SR: How have your peers in India taken it? Have they had conversations with you about it, expressed interest?

0:11:33.0 RN: We tried, when Bill Gates used to come here, one of the things on the agenda was to increase Indian philanthropy. So we had something called the India Philanthropy Initiative, where I think it did shift the needle a little bit, Azim Premji was very much part of hosting some of those things. It did shift the needle a little bit, but possibly not enough, and certainly since more people have not signed The Giving Pledge yet, well we have to see what happens.

0:11:56.2 RN: Now, I’m going to take you back a little bit to when you started getting involved with Civil Service Organizations, and in your book you talk about one of the first groups you did which was Nagrik. And you said it was a failure and a steep learning curve, can you talk about why, now with hindsight, why it failed and what you hoped it would do?

0:12:20.0 RN: So we started Nagrik a few like-minded citizens. I got a few people together because I was very moved as I say in the book, by the death of close friends in a very senseless car crash, and India remains one of the worst countries in the world to be on the road. We have the maximum number of deaths even today on our roads, so we were moved to do something to make roads safer. But I think at that time, since for many of us it was the first time we were trying to do something like this together, and I guess everyone had day jobs, we didn’t do know quite how to do it. And it was perhaps something that we were more interested in doing than society was ready for at that time.

0:12:58.3 RN: So it was morally undeniable to say our roads should be safer, but I don’t think we took the citizens with us enough to make it a broad based movement or to sustain the energy or to get the next level of people into the organization, etcetera. So we tried a few things, interesting things, but eventually ineffective things I think. And in a few years in humility, we sort of shut the effort down. But I’m sure each one of us learned a lot on the way, that first of all what cause you take up has to resonate with the public. Secondly, how you organize yourself has to be very clear, you need to pull in all kinds of resources and you need to really hang in there for a very long time before change can be seen. So it was good that in the first institution that I co-founded we learnt a few quick, hard lessons, hopefully without harming anybody in the process, which is very important actually, because in the civil society sector, we can’t glorify failure. In the market space, they like to almost glorify failure, like fail fast and all that, you know after you fail there may still be somebody else to support you in your next venture, but in the civil society space, while you must acknowledge failure and accept failure, and there will always be failure, we have to be careful that that failure doesn’t impact other people negatively.

0:14:15.8 SR: Were there ideas from Nagrik you think would still be useful today?

0:14:21.1 RN: No that the mission itself for safer roads, India still needs to do a lot, a lot more to make our roads safer. And as you know I haven’t stayed up with what all needs to be done, but I’m sorry to say that they aren’t that many organizations have taken this up as a civil society mission.

0:14:40.0 SR: So now with all the experience you’ve learnt, you’ve had, would it not interest you to do Nagrik now?

0:14:46.9 RN: Once or twice I thought of it, but now I’ve taken on so many other things that I really don’t think I could go back to this particular sector or topic. If there were people though doing this work, I would be happy to support them.

0:15:00.6 SR: You mentioned that perhaps society wasn’t ready for it in the way you and your friends were excited about it. It made me think that one of the dangers of people wanting to create change is we often forget to check our own privilege. Can you think of an example where you’ve had to do that?

0:15:22.6 RN: Yeah. I mean, the first thing was Nagrik, one of my friends, I’ll not name her. She said rather rudely to me, “Why on earth are you doing this? You go by car.” I said, “I do go by bus sometimes.” “Okay, fine. You go once in a while by bus, but why do you care about any of this? Why are you doing all this Do goody?” And in some sense it was right. When we do philanthropy or even charity, we have to acknowledge the privilege situation we are in. You have to be very careful when you try to represent the so-called poor or underprivileged or un-accessed or whatever the 100 names people give them beneficiaries, which I don’t like at all. But whoever it is that you claim to do work on behalf of, I think you have to be very careful to listen very deeply first, is this stuff they want, or is it something you are thrusting upon them?

0:16:09.0 SR: Did your training as a journalist help you do that?

0:16:11.5 RN: I think so, my few years as a journalist where you had to listen and talk less as you are doing now. [chuckle] You have to listen, and you have to listen and as part of your profession, you have had to listen to different points of view. And once you start deep listening to people, then also you begin to see where are the gaps that you can help to fill. And you have to always be careful that it is not an agenda that we are driving. See, I also want to say sometimes because of the privilege that we are in, we are able to see more people’s view than say other people can. And perhaps that can be used to an advantage to look ahead to what problems are coming. So for example, Arghyam in the water sector, we set up before people have started talking so much about water. So I think sometimes the privilege also helps you to see further into the distance because you are listening to so many people.

0:17:07.8 SR: We had Roridula Ramesh on the show talking about water, and she said that when she started doing all this rain water harvesting and everything, her privileged family, cousins, and all around her, they much like your other friend who said, why, you traveling by car? They kind of scoffed at her because they felt like, okay, this is just people going overboard with problems that should not affect “People like us.”

0:17:33.3 RN: Yeah, but I think the role of empathy comes in, so that is a modern imperative and also strategic imperative. When you begin to see water as the key resource as it is, for everybody’s wellbeing and environmental wellbeing, systems itself, ecosystems, wellbeing, ecosystems that serve us as human beings, they need sustainable water too. And once you see that as such a key resource for everything, including the economy, then this falls binary between the privileged and the unprivileged, sort of falls away. And then in, as in most cases, you know whether it’s the pandemic, whether it’s climate change, whether it’s water related crises, you begin to realize that everybody is going to be affected. The poor are going to be affected the most and the rich so-called rich or wealthy or privileged, I think, also as enlightened self interest and because it’s a moral imperative, should be working on issues like that.

0:18:33.0 SR: One of the areas that you identified early on, which many people know you from is Pratham books. How did you see reading as an act, as something foundational all those years ago in a country where I feel reading has been increasingly only equated with studying and getting ahead.

0:18:57.2 RN: Yeah. Thank you for that question, and of course it was the Pratham Network, the whole Pratham Network that was deeply engaged in the foundational literacy of children all over the country. So I was with the Pratham Network before we started Pratham Books. So in the Pratham Network, we had all decided that so few books are available for children who had just learnt reading through the Pratham Network. Something had to be done and I offered to take on the responsibility of setting up Pratham Books and got to great trustees together, Ashok Kamath and Reka mehem and we set it up in Bangalore, and then we just learned by doing. So for me, of course, it was a great passion anyway, I was a early reader. And for me, my childhood was spent between the pages of books, and I wanted every child to experience that joy that I had.

0:19:49.3 RN: And one of the first things we did was, like any good startup, we ourselves started writing. We ourselves started inviting other authors, translators from our networks. And that’s how we made the first few books, which were distributed largely through the Pratham Network. But then we came on one big idea and people like Gautam John were very much part of it. That from the beginning, the goal was to democratize the joy of reading. It’s not enough to be one publisher, create 15 books a year. It won’t do it with 300 million children out there, right? So how do we impact on the world of publishing? How do we just break open everybody’s talent in a nation of storytellers?

0:20:30.6 RN: And that’s when we decided to put all our content in an open source platform. And I say the rest is history, because tens of millions of children, not only in India, but around the world have used Pratham Books open platform now called StoryWeaver. After I left, the team made it even more sophisticated and better. So certainly a cause very close to my heart, it remains so, and very necessary to de-link from just being part of the curriculum. We have to learn to read so that we can think. A reading nation is a thinking nation. Reading absolutely diverse things when you’re a small child, allows you to develop nuances of thinking, where you can understand the rich use between black and white. And so reading for joy and reading to develop yourself as a human being is far more critical. I think of course you need to read at school and pass your tests, but first reading for yourself when you’re four, five and six.

0:21:34.4 SR: But do you feel Rohini that given the learning losses we’ve heard about during the shutdown and the pandemic, that the criticality of reading will take a hit or at least push us back into that whole idea of reading as part of curriculum, as opposed to thinking.

0:21:53.2 RN: In fact, I think the opposite Sandip, see two years children when they were away from school, what resources did they have? Thanks to EkStep and thanks to the government’s DIKSHA platform, which EkStep helped the government to build. The government was able to keep teachers in the game, creating content, able to get children, not just a few children, tens of millions. I would say hundreds of millions of children, to connect unfortunately online, but yes, online to reading and learning. And what were some of the things and content that was being used. In fact, with several of the state and national institutions, Pratham Books through StoryWeaver, was able to let children access joyful books through the entire pandemic. So in fact, they were doing non-curriculum reading. And so that itself was an experience for a lot of young parents who have access to non-textbook-based reading. And once you like story books, nobody can stop you from getting more.

0:22:53.9 SR: Now you said one of the game changers here was that you bust open the model by putting everything in open source StoryWeaver all of that, so everybody could access it. But at the same time, we are told all the time that we don’t value things until we put a fair price on them. Like water, for example, with which you work so closely, there’s always this argument about, that people wouldn’t waste water as much as they do if it was priced fairly. So giving books away free, weren’t you worried that people would not value them?

0:23:30.0 RN: See books are not like water, right? Now if you get more water from a finite source, then I will get less. But if books are free, if you read a book, it doesn’t mean I will get one less book. So knowledge and finite resources are extremely different in terms of how they are valued, okay. And also once you begin to read, you know, I bet you’ve read a million books in your life, once you’re hooked to reading, then that’s it. You are booked, you’re going to keep reading whenever you find it. And that’s why even the entire… If I say so myself, I’m sorry, but the entire children’s publishing sector benefited from this, because once children learn how to read and find joy in reading, they are going to look for more and more books, and many other publishers roll on the back of opening up this market so to speak, both in English and in many other languages in India.

0:24:24.8 SR: So when you write another of the Sringeri books that you wrote, is part of it because you want to write more adventures of this character, or is it children clamoring for more stories about them?

0:24:38.2 RN: It’s really both sides, because Sringeri Srinivas sort of drives me. He sort of pops up in my head and say, now what? Now what? So then I have to write something, but I often meet children, parents and teachers who say, when is the next one coming? And then the pressure starts to build, right now I’m feeling immense pressure because the last book I wrote was in the pandemic where Sringeri Srinivas decides to grow his hair almost as a [0:25:01.8] ____. So that solution to the pandemic will be found. And now that the vaccine is out and his hair has grown from here till there, in these two years, I have to find a way to poor fellow, get him to cut his hair.

0:25:14.5 SR: Now, this idea that you’ve explored through the essays and articles in this book about Samaaj, Sarkaar, and Bazaar, it’s an idea you say a colleague of yours expounded. Tell us a little bit about what his theory was about the relationship between these entities?

0:25:29.4 RN: So Prem Kumar Verma, of the Samarth organization in Khagaria in Bihar. When I went to there in 2007, was one of our partners at Arghyam, they are doing some amazing work in these flood prone regions. And we were traveling just to see some of the work that we had supported. And while he was telling us many interesting things, one of the things he was saying is also that Samaaj feels more sochit, or sort of oppressed now, because earlier Samaaj was stronger in some sense and had more distributed power than the State and the market. And maybe he was romanticizing the past, but in some sense, it’s true that the Sarkaar over time… The Monarchs of course had a lot of power. But then limited power in the sense, that the whole of society was hardly engaged in what the Monarch was doing, except in times perhaps of war. But as governments started to acquire more power, more military power, more power to tax and so many things, Samaaj took a setback, and the Bazaar and the 300 years post the revolution in India, he was talking more about colonial powers, as the East India Company and then the British government acquired so much power over our society, he felt that Samaaj had to take a backseat.

0:26:41.9 RN: And even in the later part of the last century, the State all over the World and the market all over the World through trans-national companies, through resource based companies acquired tremendous power. And what he said to me made a lot of sense. And then I started to really read up more on this. What have other people been saying about these three sectors? Sometimes civil society is called the third sector, but Samaaj as a whole is obviously the foundational first sector for which Bazaar and Sarkaar were created, so that Samaaj… Because it’s not a monolith and you will have internal conflicts, you need a State to uphold a rule of law. So that we can have a better, more peaceful society. As more and more trade began to happen, exchange began to happen, you needed rules of exchange and you needed a common understanding of value, so the Bazaar kept morphing into the market over the last 300 years. Of course you need both State and markets, Samaaj cannot do without them. But if we flip the notion to see Samaaj as the foundational first sector and all of us, no matter if you have a Chief Minister or a CEO, we are all Samaaj, right? Then how do you reorient, all the work that you do or whatever you do as a citizen first? Is something that began to interest me a lot.

0:28:03.0 SR: But is the Chief Minister or that industrialist that interested in flipping this order of things as it were. I mean, which leads me to the question, I mean, where do you see India right now in terms of these three balls being balanced?

0:28:21.3 RN: Well, I do think, and it’s not just India, as I said. But yeah, in India too the State is very powerful over all our lives. And markets, especially, in the last 20, 30 years, the markets are global. I mean, you and I buy from Amazon as much as we buy from Desi companies. And we are very much become consumers of the marketplace from morning till night. Everything we do with our phones and our computers seems to be something that the market is enabling us to do. It’s very, very convenient. But if we lose sight of the fact that in this process, actually we have become data, we are becoming the product, and unless we at least are more aware of this, I think it’s very a seductive and slippery slope into becoming consumers first and citizens later. So even if a CEO may have his first priority, maybe to obviously make the profits, take his company into the black and make shareholders very happy.

0:29:17.6 RN: At the end of it, if we uncover our identity layers properly, as a citizen, that same CEO, whatever he may be selling in his company, whether it’s software services or shoes, when he comes home, who is he? He’s a father of children or he’s a spouse, or he’s a son or whatever he is. He’s going to care about how his society functions outside his home, right? And that means you want clean air that we can actually breathe, which seems to itself be a problem today, and we want our roads to be working properly. We want schools and colleges to be working properly. We want our councilors or our panchayat leader or our MLAs to be responsive to what’s happening around us. So how can you escape that? No matter whether you’re making shoes or software services? I think just becoming aware that there’s possibly one identity that cuts through all the multiple identity hats that we wear, and that is first as a human being, and second as a citizen. That awareness itself, I think, brings some kind of agency to us. It empowers us to get involved in making change in the society that we want to live in.

0:30:25.5 SR: Yes, because you know that is why civil society organizations are created. And as you rightly write in the book, CSOs cannot just be handmaidens of governments, they must be mirrors too. But is that happening? There is a perception that civil society is rapidly being brought under the heels of government and being told to tow the line, and government saying, “Well, we need to do this because civil society has been too unaccountable.”

0:30:56.1 RN: Governments all over the world, and ours too, don’t seem to like dissent very much. But our civil society is diverse and has many views. It’s not only civil society as dissenters, it’s civil society as partners too. So we shouldn’t forget that, how important it is for the State to partner with civil society organizations, because the State simply cannot reach the first mile where the citizens are. The government cannot listen well, obviously, to citizens and their first primary woes and things that are emerging. By the time they’re emerged, it’s too late, governments have to spend more resources to fix them. So this very critical role of civil society, at what we call the first mile, because it’s not the last mile, it is the first mile. It’s very important and in that process, there will be some dissent, if there is some opposition to say, some law that has been framed or some scheme that has been developed. That is leaving some people out, for example. So I think strong governments, secure governments understand the role of dissent in democracies.

0:32:01.5 SR: So do we have a secure government?

0:32:02.9 RN: I hope so, because I hope we are going to have a much more confident and secure government that will look at people who have questions, as in fact, necessary partners in this long path of democracy towards prosperity for all, abundance for all, right?

0:32:23.1 SR: But do you also think that while we… We use these terms and we… Samaaj, Sarkaar, Bazaar and we think we know what these terms mean. Is there a bit of a disconnect in terms of our understanding of the role that these things really play in society? Because as you said, many of us have gotten seduced into thinking that as part of society, we think ourselves merely as consumers.

0:32:50.4 RN: Yeah, no, that’s why this book, right? That’s why much of my writing, that’s why much of my work. I truly believe this conversation has to be on the table at all times, and this conversation is never going to end if we do say 10 things, that’s it, we are done. Because to be a citizen, unfortunately is a lifetime role. Now you can do citizenship at many levels, some people will be fully involved day and night, and some people will say, “We want to just pay our taxes and obey the law.” But even those will find themselves involved in local issues more and more, because especially as India is growing so fast, and especially in its urban areas, you as a citizen every day going out of your home are going to encounter civic problems and issues. And therefore, more and more people are wanting to be part of the new association, social association groups that are forming like the residential welfare associations and many like those.

0:33:46.9 RN: It’s very hard for an individual, how am I going to fix the system? How many times am I going to call the government on the helpline? If a few of us came together, we have more creativity, we have more energy and we have more voice. So I think more and more people are trying to be part of some association however hyper local, and thanks to digital now it could even be global. So citizenship is acquiring new energy, is what I feel and I feel that discussion and that conversation is very, very important, precisely because the Sarkaar and Bazaar everywhere are acquiring so much power and power requires power. So unless all of us as citizens learn to find new ways to act collectively, it’s not always about fighting, we don’t always have to fight. It’s about conversations, cooperation, collective action, working together to solve common problems in a creative way.

0:34:40.9 SR: Did you try and communicate these ideas about what the role of the citizen should be when your husband was running for political office? I mean, was there interest in this conversation?

0:34:53.1 RN: I did to some extent. My job was really to represent Nandan, right? So it was not about what Rohini thinks, [chuckle] in those hectic months. I was trying to say what the candidate wants to do for you or what are his ideas for your welfare. They all wanted their problem solved by the MP, problems as simple as fixing their roads and their drains and their water connections, which are very things very worthy and necessary to be fixed, but not by your MP because there’s no way the MP can do that, at least not in the way his role is described in the constitution. And the campaign is so hectic you don’t get to sit down and have very deep conversations on the constitutional framework, but they’re saying, “I don’t care, you better listen to me.” And I listened very deeply, people were so frustrated that these simple things were not getting solved.

0:35:40.7 RN: So when somebody came to ask for their vote, they say, “You better listen to what I need.” And that’s what they needed, but I thought the path they were taking was not going to anywhere get to them to solve their problem. So one MP may solve one pipe because he knows somebody or she knows somebody, but that’s not going to solve the systemic problem anyway. So then I started writing and talking about, I wish we would hold our MPs and MLAs more accountable to be better lawmakers and policymaker, so that policy can enable the executive to do what it needs to do, which is to fix those things that those people wanted, the water, the electricity, the roads, and the schools and the hospitals and all those kinds of basic public infra that they desperately needed, right? But if we focused on that because I really have written in the book and do believe that good laws make for a good society. And if we held our elected representatives accountable to framing good laws, and then they could hold the executive accountable for upholding those good laws, I think the voters would have less problems than they do now.

0:36:48.6 SR: It didn’t make you want to run for office?

0:36:50.6 RN: No, no it made me want to run away from office.


0:36:55.2 RN: Just because it is so difficult, and just it’s so hard to be a politician everywhere I suppose, but in India definitely, precisely because of all these expectations. You are expected 24 by 7 to be there for the people. There are groups and subgroups and sub-interests and vested interests and all kinds of things that you have to juggle and balance. Hats off to those politicians who do it well and keep getting re-elected, it’s a very tough job.

0:37:22.4 SR: Is there a project that you’ve worked on where you feel like these stakeholders of Samaaj, Bazaar and Sarkaar have actually come together in a way where it worked and they were not stepping on each other’s toes?

0:37:38.3 RN: So in a very small way, it came together at Pratham Books, very small way. Now children’s books is a very easy thing, it’s not politically dangerous or contested. So yeah, in Pratham Books, Samaaj, Bazaar, Sarkaar came together, even the Bazaar got involved, ’cause many of our books are also sold in the marketplace. I think a step we have tried by working first with the government to set up for them the whole big shop platform, and then working very actively with the NGO communities to get them also to offer value-added services in addition to what they’re already doing in the field of education and market players like tuition agencies and all the for-profit education companies, the tech companies, getting them also involved, and then in London, work in financial services, also some of that is coming together.

0:38:25.7 RN: We tried in water, but that’s really much more difficult to get the Bazaar into the water space in any meaningful way at scale, given the current policy framework in the country. But the pandemic showed all of us what Samaaj, Sarkaar, Bazaar can do together. It is quite remarkable and I don’t want to discount the death and despair that we all experienced, but just think how much in human history in just two years, okay? How much visible and invisible cooperation between Samaaj, Sarkaar and Bazaar happened, and how fast, how quickly Samaaj institutions were the first responders? Just humans, were the first responders, to neighbors, to people on the street. And then of course, the Sarkaar moved in as fast as it could, in the way, it knew how to that felt, the Sarkar knew how to do it then. And how quickly the Bazaar moved in. Not in India, thank heavens, the Serum Institute, but others as well, and globally to create the vaccine in the shortest, ever time in human history, right? And how much people supported the rapid change that the Sarkaar created and the Bazaar enabled.

0:39:33.5 SR: Do you think that will have a lasting effect? I mean, one of the cons of it is during the pandemic, many governments… And we’re not just talking about… Suddenly went for a most centralized approach. They said, “Okay, all of this has to be laid aside, all power, all decision making has to come from here.” And after the pandemic, we heard things about like, “Okay, the Bazaar needs to catch up. So child labor laws must be loosened in some states there was discussion about that. But do you think the changes, the positive changes that you are talking about from those two years, will last?

0:40:06.4 RN: That’s the point, right? That we can never take freedoms for granted. No society can take freedoms for granted, right? And in the pandemic, yes, some powers began to coalesce, right? We willingly gave up some of our freedoms during the pandemic, because we understood that the individual good for some time had to be subsumed under the public good, right? Or the common good. I had to wear a mask and cover my mouth and nose, not just for myself, but for you and her and him. And we did that willingly. And some power started accumulating because power is like that. And that’s why you need the Samaaj to be strong, aware, and have its leadership and its institutions always ready. Because you can’t keep giving up power, you have to take it back. When the crisis is over, that power has to come back to the Samaaj, and this requires the Samaaj to be active, one of my mentors used to say, “A stick is never given away.” And you don’t obviously want what happens in times of crisis to become the norm.

0:41:12.1 RN: But to talk of the positive things that happened, I think some new forms of trust capital were built during the pandemic, right? Because state had to work. Local state representatives were happy to work with civil society. The Bazaar and government worked very closely together. So some mistrust fell away and new forms of trust capital were built. It is now our job as citizens and Samaaj to build more of… To now enrich the trust capital so that the next time a… And to actually build solid processes based on that new trust capital, so the next time the crisis comes, as it will, in some form or the other, we can respond faster, because we have now invested in the non crisis time to build more bridges across the sectors. Because when the three work together, we ourselves have seen, just so recently, what can happen. And it must happen, again and again, and that work has to be done now and I think the onus is on us, the Samaaj, to reduce mistrust and to constantly try to find ways to build social capital of trust.

0:42:23.9 SR: So we’ll have to leave it there. Rohini Nilekani, thank you so much for joining us and talking about your book with us.

0:42:30.4 RN: Thank you, Sandip. That was wonderful of you to listen so patiently. Dhanyawad and Namaskar.

0:42:36.3 SR: Rohini Nilekani has been associated with several civil society movements such as Pratham Books, Arghyam, and EkStep foundation her book: Samaaj, Sarkaar, Bazaar, A Citizens First Approach, is available freely for readers to download and share. Share your feedback on our show on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram. At Express Podcast, we do our best to be listeners first. This show was produced by Shashank Bhargav and edited and mixed by Suresh Powar. Thanks for listening, this is Sandip Roy on Express Audio.

Indian Express


More like this

Civil Society  |  Strategic Philanthropy

Rohini Nilekani: Digital Dependencies

This is an edited version of Rohini Nilekani’s comments on the “Digital Dependencies” panel at Digital Impact Mumbai Conference presented by the Stanford PACS on Feb 7, 2018. The panel discussion on “Digital Dependencies” was conducted by Lucy Bernholz, Director, Digital Civil Society Lab, Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society. They discussed ways that […]
Feb 7, 2018 | Speech

Civil Society  |  Societal Thinking

Understanding Movements

We often hear of the word “movement” in social change but what we have struggled with is the depth of the idea. A movement is much more than collective confrontational action. A movement offers an approach to social change that is different from and complementary to programs and collective impact. It encompasses shared, bottom-up action […]
Dec 3, 2021 |

Civil Society

CSOs: Mirrors, not just handmaidens

When a government limits the freedom of NGOs to criticize, as seems to be happening now, it prevents them from doing what it needs them to do. The world over, it is understood that civil society organizations (CSOs) provide checks and balances to counter the unbridled power of the state and any abuse of that […]
Jun 4, 2015 | Article

Civil Society  |  Strategic Philanthropy

Plotting Impact Beyond Simple Metrics

By Natasha Joshi | For NGOs, impact comes in different forms and to track the cycles of social change work, we must think across the tangibility and the speed of emergence of change. A few months back, we received an internal letter from the founder of an NGO, reflecting on the relationship between funders and […]
Aug 17, 2022 |