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The Conversation Series I From Self To Society: The Role Of Active Samaaj For Social Change

Civil Society | Nov 1, 2022

In this session of The Conversation Series, Rohini Nilekani, Chairperson of Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies and a committed philanthropist, shares insights into her journey from self to society, and recounts personal stories of how she arrived at this philosophy of a strong Samaaj as the foundational sector. The author of ‘SAMAAJ, SARKAAR, BAZAAR: A Citizen-First Approach’ addresses questions such as: What does it mean to reclaim our role as citizens? What does this ‘citizen-first approach’ entail? What is the role of citizens in co-creating good governance?


0:00:09.1 Sudhir Pandey: Today’s conversation is very, very special for us because it matches with the purpose of Ahmedabad University. Ahmedabad University is a research university which is dedicated to fostering continuous progress of self and society, which is also part of the title. And we are transforming higher education in India. Most important part is that we recognise that social challenges and job opportunities are occurring at the intersection of various axes of influence defined by discipline, which is data, material, biology, behaviour. Nature, which is air, water, forest and land, and sectors of impact, which is health, transport, energy and education. And at the end society, which is individual and community. On these lines, accordingly, we strive to guide the students on how to learn through interdisciplinary, academic and real life experience that traverse these intersections. And we believe that the classroom should be able to do few things, and people should be able to learn and interact with deep thinkers and policymakers and those people who are really engaged with the social issues.

0:01:07.1 SP: In that tradition, today, we have Rohini Nilekani Ji, and this is a special privilege for all of us, ma’am, to have you at Ahmedabad University, particularly at the conversation series. I’ll give a brief introduction. Rohini Nilekani Ji is one of the foremost names in Indian philanthropy, we all know. Her work over the last two decades has been instrumental in bringing meaningful socio-economic and developmental changes in our societal and natural landscape. Rohini Ji and Nandan Ji both are signatories of the given pledge, we all know that, and have committed half of their wealth to philanthropy. The most important part is she is a former journalist too, and author of fiction, non-fiction and children books. One thing that I love is one of the children books, which is Annual Haircut Day.

0:01:56.8 SP: And those who know about this book, they will really appreciate the way it has been narrated. So I request others after the conversation, if you get hold of this, you can read how Sringeri Srinivas, the lovable farmer with very long hair wants it cut on annual haircut day, but everyone is busy. So read to know who cuts his hair. She’s also the founder of Arghyam, a foundation working towards sustainable water and sanitation across India. From 2004 to 2014, she was the founder chairperson of Pratham Books, a non-profit children’s book publisher. She’s the co-founder director of EkStep, a non-profit education platform. She sits on the board of trustees of an environmental think time. And she’s a foreign honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

0:02:43.6 SP: In the past, she has served on the audit advisory board of the Comptroller and Auditor General of India, and the Eminent Persons Advisory Group of the Competition Commission of India. The list only gets longer, so I’ll stop here and welcome ma’am to Ahmedabad University.

0:03:00.8 Rohini Nilekani: Thank you so much, Vijay. Thank you, Jeemol. So very nice to be here. Thank you. I’m honoured.

0:03:09.9 SP: Thank you, ma’am. The person who will be in conversation with Rohini Ji is our own Professor Jeemol Unni. She’s a professor of economics at Amrut Mody School of Management, Ahmedabad University. And she’s also the chair of Masters of Arts in Economics Programme. Before joining Ahmedabad University, she was the director of the Institute of Rural Management, Anand IRMA. And she was also RBI Chair Professor of Economics at IRMA. She’s currently a member of the standing committee on economic statistics constituted by the government of India. And she was a postdoctoral fellow at Economic Growth Centre, Yale University. She was an international level organisation consultant and senior advisor to the National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganised Sector, Government of India. Welcome ma’am. Before I hand it over to you, there are certain rules.

0:03:55.7 SP: Everybody will be muted during the conversation time, which will last for I think 60 to 65 minutes. These two speakers will be there talking to each other. In the meanwhile, I request other participants if you have any question, you can put your questions in everybody’s chat box, and we’ll curate it and take it up at the end of the conversation. So now I request Professor Jeemol Unni to take it forward.

0:04:17.1 Jeemol Unni: Good morning. Thank you Sudhir. And welcome Rohini Nilekani for taking the time off from all your busy schedule, and coming to talk to our many students and our faculty and some of our external… We have a lot of people who enjoy our conversation series and come in almost regularly. Thank you very much. So we have a very interesting topic here. And I did go through your book and I found very, very interesting points there. So today our topic is Self to Society: Role of Active Samaaj for Social Change. So responsible citizenship is a cornerstone of the country and respects the fundamental rights. Yet today, samaaj is known as the third sector. You know, in your book, I read more than half of it. So I’m really glad that it is a downloadable open access book. And so, there was this very interesting story you were telling about how one of the persons while you were travelling, I think about perhaps on the Ganges, where somebody gives us chronology about these three sectors; the samaaj, sarkaar and bazaar. And he tells you that, earlier in the ’70s and ’60s and ’70s, samaaj used to be on top and then slowly by the ’80s it became sarkaar on top.

0:05:37.2 JU: And now after the ’90s and as an economist, I’ll say after economic reforms, bazaar is on top. So the whole idea in your book, and then what is in our conversation today is how to bring samaaj forward, and why it is important to have citizens participate in the active role in developing our society and economy. So broadly, how do we reclaim our role as citizens and what does the citizen first approach entail, is broadly what we will be talking about today. So broadly we’ll structure the conversation into two parts. First, we will talk about your journey, how you moved from the idea of your activities, yourself, to the idea of why society. And in the second part, we will talk the strong role of samaaj or society as a foundational sector, and what is the role of citizens in co-creating good governance.

0:06:36.7 JU: So we’ll begin now. And my first conversation, a question to you. First and foremost we have to congratulate you as your contribution to the development of society, where you have donated this huge amount of funds. We don’t even know how many zeros there are to that. You became India’s most generous woman of the year, according to the EdelGive Hurun India philanthropy list in 2022. But you have been there for the last three years and donating increasingly large amounts from 47 to 69 to 120 crores this year. Congratulation on this incredible achievement. And also just the thought, that you donate to society in this fashion. So most of your donations we see have been made in the portfolio of access to justice, active citizenship and the environment. So could you sort of describe to us your journey to reach this incredible position in which you are today, and what motivated you all along this journey?

0:07:47.6 RN: Thank you, Jeemol, if I may call you that.

0:07:51.6 JU: Sure.

0:07:52.6 RN: It’s actually a very broad question. So I just talk about… You know, I was born in ’59. And when and where you are born really has an impact on how you lead your life, of course, that’s true of everybody. I think that time in India, there was a certain outlook, where citizens were called upon to reflect on the state of the nation, on our contribution to the nation. Those who are, politically there’s a lot of salience to the idea of citizenship. And I think I grew up in those times. In my family also, my parents were first generation urbanites. And we were lucky to be in Mumbai, which was an amazing city in those days, where actually the public infrastructure was very good. And so the difference between the public and the private infrastructure was really not as great as you see in India today.

0:09:19.9 RN: And so we were always raised, and the country was also like that at the time. We were raised to believe in service before self, in responsibility, in duty, in integrity. The big example in my family was always of my paternal grandfather, Babasaheb Soman, who in 1917 was among the first group of volunteers that went to Bhitiharwa in West Champaran to set up Gandhi Ji’s first Ashram. And how he pretty much gave up, he was a lawyer, but he gave up his profession. He never really was able to focus on his profession, because he was very much involved in the freedom struggle. And what that kind of sacrifice means and how this country stood on the sacrifices of people, the bigger ones we know, but so many ordinary people like my grandfather. So I think background, culture, upbringing matters. I think location matters. Being in a city, cosmopolitan city like Mumbai, where everybody was trying to make something of their lives, all those things had a huge influence on me.

0:09:58.9 RN: And like you said, 15 years ago actually, when I was travelling for Arghyam, my water foundation in Bihar, Prem Kumar Varma was one of our partners, unfortunately passed away during the pandemic. Was speaking to me about, he was a protege of JP Narayan, whose Sampoorna Kranti movement animated a lot of the politics of North India for several years. And he was talking about samaaj, sarkaar and bazaar, that not in the ’60s, but in two centuries ago or so, he believed that samaaj was more… Well, it’s not powerful, samaaj was more meaningful and the role of sarkaar and bazaar was somewhat limited, even during the time of monarchy and monarchies. And that balance changed a lot in the last century. And definitely, as you said today, all over the world, we are seeing the powerful rise of both the state and the market. And so the question was, “How do we restore primacy to samaaj?” Because all of us are samaaj. Sarkaar and bazaar came out of samaaj. So the political questions about power today are really about how do we restore that primacy to samaaj? At least in my opinion. And that’s why I wrote the book, Samaaj, Sarkaar, Bazaar: A citizen-first approach. Because that philosophy has animated my work.

0:11:25.6 JU: Thank you, Rohini. So now that we’re talking about samaaj, can we have your thoughts on what you really think is samaaj? Because we have a lot of research around citizenship and society and so on. But how do you visualise the samaaj?

0:11:45.8 RN: So it’s not my visualisation. For thousands of years, people have discussed this, whether it was Aristotle, or whether it was really in any kind of context about people and people’s lives. So all of us are samaaj. Samaaj is the whole human tribe. And whether we work in sarkaar or we work in bazaar, it doesn’t take away us belonging to samaaj first. And I think as long as we understand that very clearly, how we will behave in sarkaar and bazaar will change based on whether we understand, of course, that we are humans first and citizens next. And only after that, whether we are CEOs or chief ministers, we are citizens and samaaj people first. So I think samaaj is all of us. Samaaj is all of the institutions that we belong to. And there could be many, many identities. In India, we are part of so many caste groups, unfortunately, but that’s the living reality. I could be part of my neighbourhood association. Of course, I’m part of my family, an extended family. But any representation that we have in our communities are representations of us as being in the samaaj. So that’s kind of what I mean by samaaj.

0:13:06.2 JU: Great. Thanks. Actually, our university, I think Sudhir was trying to explain that. We give a lot of importance to interdisciplinarity and the idea of how do we contribute to society. So that many of our readings, many of our courses, also try to bring in the idea of how does one, even if it is a management course, even if it’s an economics course, what can you do in society and what is your role as a citizen in this samaaj? So I think we totally are in line or together on this particular point. To go on to the next stage question, you believe that the state, that is sarkaar and the market bazaar, and society samaaj should strive for a balance with samaaj as the foundational sector. Do you think that it is possible in this age of markets and the state having more power for this to really become a reality?

0:14:04.8 RN: That is really the political question of the day, right? If we all don’t strive to restore a better balance, are we willing to remain as consumers? Morning to night, we have been turned into consumers. You wake up, you pick up your phone, you click on something, you go to some app, all of that is aspects of the market. Morning to night you have become subjects of the state in some form or the other. So as long as that is working for people, it’s all right. But when the balance gets distorted, that’s what politics is about, right? The redistribution of power. So that there is a much better balance between state, society and markets. And I think many people in many ways, all over the world and in India too, are striving for that better balance.

0:14:52.4 RN: For example, there are thousands of very wonderful civil society organisations that work on the samaaj side, from the samaaj side to give people more voice and agency. And I think that is the work of the day. How do we make bazaar in all its new forms, which were never there before, thanks to technology? How do we make them more accountable to the larger public interest? Similarly, sarkaar has so much more power, again, thanks to technology today. How do we keep it accountable to its citizens and not become a power unto itself? These are living, breathing questions that affect each one of us. So that is what the politics of today is about, isn’t it?

0:15:35.2 JU: Yeah, actually, over time, what has happened is that earlier citizens would, if they saw a problem locally, they would try and resolve that problem locally. But increasingly, as the state became more powerful, it’s been left to, okay, now the state is supposed to do this. So this role is for the state, this thing is for the state. So if the hand pump in the rural area stops working, then there must be people in the village who can fix the hand pump, but they won’t. They’ll wait for the state extension officer or somebody, a technical person from the state to come and do it. So somehow, that role that we have in samaaj has been lost over time. You’re not taking that role as a citizen, that we also have to run this country. I mean, it’s just not the politicians and the bazaar which is running this country. I think that is what you’re trying to focus. And now we’d like to know how we’re going to do that. So, I mean, of course you are, like you said, the NGOs. NGOs definitely are doing a lot, but we as citizens also should have this idea.

0:16:37.6 JU: There are many things locally that we can solve. We don’t have to wait for the state, and there are markets, yes, markets are meant to enable us. They’re not meant to make us servants of the market. So continuing on this thought, what does it mean to reclaim our role as citizens, and what does the citizens first approach entail?

0:17:01.6 RN: I do believe that there are several civil society institutions. It doesn’t have to be just what we used to call NGOs, which came up in the ’70s really. It’s any form of civil association, right? Any form of civic association. And in urban India today, there are resident welfare associations, for example. So a citizen first approach, when I say, I mean that first of all, to shift the mental model. To understand that we are citizens first ourselves, right? And that markets and states evolved over centuries in order to create the larger public interest of the samaaj. And that if we flip the model to understand that we have to be activist citizens first, then it changes how we behave in our day to day lives, in the associations that we form, in how we become participants in creating the good governance that we all want. It could be just by participating in a child’s education at the lowest possible level.

0:18:03.9 RN: It could be involving in your street level problem, whether it’s about waste management or lights, or it could be just about anything. The minute we do that, the minute we step outside into society to solve even the most hyperlocal problem, I think that we raise the citizen in ourselves. And it’s an incredibly rewarding experience, as all of us who have engaged in that in however smaller way have already discovered, right? So we need a lot more of that to happen. Because it’s become too easy now to secede from everything and just remain as subjects, remain as consumers. We can sit in our homes and be unaffected. But that’s really, I think, an illusion. And as I recently wrote, even the elite and the super elite cannot really secede anymore. You know, we’ve created all these private islands of wealth. And we have our own schools, we have our own energy systems, our water systems, whatever, you name it, health systems we have.

0:19:05.8 RN: But as I have been arguing recently, all of that wonderful, private infrastructure, if it is sitting as it does on a very shaky foundation of public infrastructure, eventually, that too is going to crumble. And so how do we participate in making the public infrastructure foundation much more stronger and more resilient? Because if anything, the pandemic has shown us just how deeply interconnected we are. And how nobody can escape from viruses, floods, climate change, and more, right? So this is the argument I make, that we have to go out there, outside of our homes and families, to participate in creating the well governed society that all of us crave to belong to. And it’s an ongoing process. There’s no endpoint, we have to keep continuing. Solutions sometimes create new problems. So we have to keep keep on evolving the solutions. And we all have to participate. All of us have diverse skills, and we have to apply those diverse skills, I believe, to building the better samaaj that everyone wants to belong to.

0:20:16.3 JU: So let me ask you a question since you are a philanthropist. What is the difference between philanthropy and charity? And our students also, we have a course called Society and Philosophy of Society, and so on. A number of courses in this area. So maybe we’d like to hear from you, and all the students in this audience here.

0:20:39.3 RN: Yeah, that way, the world has got split in recent years, simply because of the rise of the 1%, right? They became so wealthy, I belong to that. So we became so ridiculously wealthy, that we had to elevate the idea of philanthropy. Suddenly, I found myself a philanthropist and had to deal with the responsibility of my wealth. But yeah, charity is something that human beings do all the time. And in India, we know that people are incredibly charitable. And actually, there is enough data to suggest just how much charity, and giving ordinary people of this country do. Hundreds of crores were spent by ordinary Indians during the pandemic. And people, institutions like GiveIndia were able to raise more than 350 crores, just from ordinary people who felt the need to share other people’s sorrows.

0:21:33.9 RN: So a sense that charity perhaps is just coming from the love of humankind, the need that we all are wired to participate in other people’s suffering, to relieve other people’s suffering. So in that sense, that could be called charity. But philanthropy nowadays, at least is aspiring to be more strategic, and to address the root causes of inequality, at least that’s what good philanthropy should be doing. So it’s a fairly simple difference. And I think it has been created because of the rise of extreme inequality. What are the wealthy going to do with their wealth? They better give it forward, because no society will tolerate so much disparity for too long. So the responsibility of wealth must be seen to create better societies. Even when it doesn’t do that, and in history we have seen, when that wealth disparity creates more and more suffering at the bottom, and just more and more secession at the top, turmoil happens in society. So there is a responsibility of wealth. Yes, we need wealth creation. Yes, wealth creation must come from innovation, from providing better services and goods.

0:22:49.2 RN: But then those who acquire that wealth, have a deep responsibility to give it back. And wealth has a responsibility and extreme wealth has an extreme responsibility. So that’s what philanthropy should be about.

0:23:05.4 JU: Thank you, because this question of inequality is something that has come to the fore in a very big way. I mean, we always knew as economists, we talk about it all the time, and it’s there in our classes all the time. But, we had this French economist, Thomas Piketty’s book got translated into English in 2014. And then he shows this extreme inequality increasing. And then later on, he has some papers with some other economists, are talking about the inequality rise in India. Something that we show in our classes. And I’m so glad that you’re addressing it directly, because it is a fact. And it’s not, the extreme is one thing, but that proportion which is at the lower, or even the lower, middle is so huge. It’s really a problem that one has to worry about. And it’s not… Yes, please.

0:23:54.5 RN: But India is an interesting outlier in some sense, and some countries in Africa as well. Today, Indians and research after research, survey after survey, shows that Indians are still feeling very optimistic about their future. Ordinary Indians, whenever they are surveyed, they still feel there is headroom for them to grow. It is societies where you have seen young people feeling very economically stagnant, who have lost hope that they will have better futures than their parents did, for example. That’s where the question of inequality hits hardest, and has clearly influenced the politics of so many countries. In India, you will still feel… People still, very often, I ask certain taxi drivers or other people. They seem to not yet resent the wealth creation that is happening in this country, because they are seeing it as dynamic economics.

0:24:46.2 RN: They’re still feeling that they can participate in this growth, and that it is a wide growth. Now, it is up to this country, its government, its policies and its entrepreneurs to make sure that people continue to feel that they can participate in this wealth creation, and in this growing economy. So we still have a few years left to get it right.

0:25:08.3 JU: Right. The people are very aspirational. And as long as those aspirations are there, and at least some of those aspirations are achieved, we will remain and the fact is that the economy in India is growing. So as long as it is growing, there is still hope. And that’s the reason why I think what you’re noticing is true. All right. So for our next question, we are going into something more about politics in some sense. Why do you say, we saw this in your book, that voters expect too much from their representatives, or that the politicians job is thankless? We know that Nandan Nilekani stood for elections. Incidentally, on a personal note, when I was a director of IRMA, Nandan Nilekani was my first convocation guest. And of course, I met you too. It was wonderful.

0:26:02.4 RN: So I got a little, I was literally… I had to dip myself in electoral politics when Nandan decided to stand for the Lok Sabha seat of South Bangalore, in 2014. And that night we were on the streets at people’s doors, asking, telling them why we believe they should vote for Nandan Nilekani. And I kept observing that, of course, different people had different responses. But what astounded me was whether they were the elite living in high rises with swimming pools, or whether they were people living in shanties and slums, they all wanted the MP, the Lok Sabha MP to directly address their local level problem.

0:26:52.5 JU: Absolutely.

0:26:54.8 RN: And we know that there was no understanding of the different three tiers, no sophisticated, nuanced understanding. Because nobody tells, we don’t discuss these things. We don’t discuss what is the real role of our legislators. And that conversation is missing from the media, it’s missing from the public discourse. So I can’t blame people for wanting the most basic amenities in their lives to work, right? That is stopping them from reaching their own potential. It’s hard to get to work if there’s not enough water, just the very basic things. That in fact, I took for granted in Mumbai, even though we were not wealthy, we were ordinary, middle class people. But we could take public services for granted in Mumbai at that time. Nobody can take public services for granted anymore.

0:27:42.6 RN: So voters are impatient and want every politician to serve their personal needs. But unfortunately, that is very short sighted on our part as voters. Because what we need to hold a politician accountable, at least the MP accountable to is making the good laws, the good regulations, the good policies that will actually enable the executive to do its job, and create that public infrastructure. One elected representative is obviously not going to do it for anybody, it’s impossible. No, you would need to be a superhero to do that.

0:28:17.9 RN: So I think that’s why I say people expect too much, and too much of the wrong thing from the politicians. If we allowed our legislators, and our legislators themselves need to accept that role, that they must participate vigorously in the creation of better laws. And better laws, I have argued in the book and in my work and in my writing, make for good societies, good laws make for good societies, if they are implemented and upheld. Rule of law matters. And that’s what we must hold our politicians accountable to us to do, among other things. Of course, they also have to hold the executive accountable. But if we have the right policies, the right laws with deep public discourse, I think that’s half the battle won. So we need the voters to shift a little in their expectations of their politicians.

0:29:11.2 JU: You’re absolutely right. So we have a three tier system of government, and we’ve had these fantastic laws for decentralisation that have been enacted quite early, for the Panchayats, regarding the Panchayats. And there are incredible rules and regulations there, which includes like any decision which is taken there, it has to go through, they call it a Gram Sabha. So they’re supposed to call Gram Sabhas at least twice in a year so that anybody and everybody can speak up. And there are a lot of studies which are looking at when, and if these Gram Sabhas meet, then how the lower income groups and women actually come out and speak for what is it that they need. So there are these tiers of government, but that fact that you should be addressing your local problems to your local representative. Even in urban areas, we have corporators and then of course we have the mayor. But that understanding is really the thing. So you must have really learned a lot I think in that whole process of going to the people.

0:30:07.4 RN: It was incredibly fascinating. Yes.

0:30:11.0 JU: Yeah, absolutely.

0:30:11.7 RN: But of course, the 74th amendment is really completely unrealised, right? Today in Bangalore, we don’t even have a functioning municipality. We don’t even have, there’s no mayor, everything has been suspended. The bureaucrats are running or not running Bangalore. People are so frustrated. We need elections to happen. We need to elect our representatives in our cities. I think very few cities have achieved the 21st century governance that our cities need. And unless citizens get involved, it’s simply not going to happen. You cannot sit at home and consume good governance. You have to co-create it. You have to be out there and get the demand and fight for, and work for more than fight for. Fighting is easy, working is harder. If we don’t do that, our cities will remain dysfunctional, and we are seeing it more and more unfortunately in Bangalore. Government after government is struggling to cope with the growth of the city. And urban governance, there’s so much work ahead, right?

0:31:18.8 JU: Yeah, absolutely. Actually, decentralisation in rural areas in some states at least has worked better, but urban areas I think…

0:31:28.1 RN: In some states it has worked better. Yes.

0:31:29.6 JU: Yes. But in urban areas, I think it’s really gone out of the scene. Okay. So to come to our society today, like you just said, we wake up in the morning and we pick up that silly thing called a phone. And so, you know the world is going to fall down if you didn’t look at that. So, we have become so into that so-called digital age. So our question is, what is the role of civil society? How does that change or how has it changed with this digital era upon us?

0:32:01.4 RN: So imagine, the digital age really compounds change. Change becomes so much faster, and everything is so much more complex because of the digital revolution. And we have finally… I mean, there is no escaping the digital age, right? So we have no choice but to be digitally savvy. For people of my age, it’s a bit harder, but for my grandson’s age, it seems to come as naturally as playing [0:32:29.1] ____. So for us, playing on a computer is the same as we used to play cricket or lagori or whatever. So there are obviously new challenges facing us in this digital age. And it makes being a citizen in some sense even harder, right? Because while we are instantly connected and if digital is done right, it will reduce the distance between the citizen and the government, between the citizen and the market. But if not done right, then actually you get layers and layers of non-transparent markets and states.

0:33:08.6 RN: So, the task before all of us is to become savvier as digital citizens. And the task before civil society organisations in India is to give up any reluctance to join the technological age, and actually create a thriving digital civil society. Because we need a digital civil society to hold digital state and digital markets accountable to the public interest. And within the public, within the samaaj also, there is so much competition, rivalry and conflict. And that is playing out in the digital space today, whether it’s through social media or something else. So you need digital checks and balances in the digital age. And I think we are still, it’s also new, society is still developing the new norms that will govern civility in the virtual world. But it has to come. I really believe that people are totally fed up of the crazy polarisation, the hate spewing, anonymous hate that is spreading.

0:34:19.6 RN: I believe people are fed up. And these things cannot keep on going endlessly. So something will come to balance this out. We need new norms. We need new forms of behaviour online, which are much more civil than we are seeing today. And some organisations are working on that. And it is collectively our responsibility to create a very different digital future. But I believe it will happen. It has to happen.

0:34:51.7 JU: But when you were talking about inequality, one of the big inequalities today is this digital divide, the fact that people don’t have access. When the pandemic came, we actually did, we had to take classes from home. For one and a half years, we were sitting at home. And everything was taken on Zoom. And even there, we are, I would say, relatively well to do private university and our students are relatively better off. But still we had this difficulty where students are unable to access. And then you forget about the rest of the people who go to school, and not having enough phones or laptops as the number of children they have in the house, to be able to take classes on.

0:35:33.5 JU: So this digital divide is very, very, very large. And the same thing goes for organisations which are working with people who are in the market, doing economic activities. There also this digital thing would help them to improve their market size, to grow basically, instead of being stagnant. But then the thing is, two things are required. One is smartphones, which are cheap, that people can actually access. Nobody can manage this crazy things called iPhones and things. And the other thing is data. Data has to become so cheap, that just like we use electricity, of course, electricity charges in Ahmedabad are very high, but otherwise it should be at that level. Only then this thing can be, only then civil society can really participate. We mean, by civil society we mean the common man. So that could be one of the things that people like you should think. And of course, then it’s on top of all of that.

0:36:35.8 RN: Nandan is fully involved in exactly this question. But let’s look at the positive side. There’s more than 700 million smartphones in India.

0:36:46.6 JU: Absolutely. Growing.

0:36:46.7 RN: And even surveys like ASER, the education survey that Pratham does in the pandemic, showed a rising number of people, deciding to join the virtual learning community by buying the family’s first phone. Of course, it’s not perfect, but it’s a growing segment of people that have access to smartphones, and we have to keep pushing so that every single person has access to, as you said, cheap data and good smartphones, because there’s really no escape. So much of life is happening on those virtual devices. So actually India is in a better place than many other countries.

0:37:26.7 JU: That’s true.

0:37:28.1 RN: I would say India has one of the most sophisticated, open, public, digital infrastructures in the world. And I truly believe after being in this house and Nandan and seeing his vision for universal access to digital public goods and services whether in the markets or in our relationship with the state, India is in a remarkable place actually. And if we really build out the remaining parts of that digital public infrastructure, I have truly begun to believe that it is the foundation for economic democracy. Of course, nothing goes in a linear fashion. And if people don’t work for it, it’s not going to happen.

0:38:15.6 RN: But if we work for it, if we are aware for it, if there’s almost a civic movement, these tools which are now allowing market transactions to be leveled out, allowing the citizen to reach out and ask the state, make demands of the state, if you get that right, these are the tools for economic democracy. And economic democracy, social democracy, political democracy, as you know better than I do Jeemol, are very closely tied. So I try to be optimistic on this. But really, the future is what we make of it. So it’s really a lot on the samaaj’s plate right now, with all these changes happening around us. But good things are happening in terms of digital public infrastructure. And we need to participate in democratising that further.

0:39:13.6 JU: Right. So coming to what we can do as citizens, we are a university. So one of the big advantages of being a university and being a teacher is that we actually talk to one hell of a lot of people. We have children in our class and these kind of lectures and so on. We get a chance to convey a lot of things that we would like to convey, as long as we are not just sitting looking at some economic models alone. So universities have a role to play in this whole idea of yours, bringing samaaj to the fore in some sense. So our question is on that, our last question, then we’ll open up to a lot of people who are wanting to ask you. So do you think that universities and educational institutions have a role to play in this citizens first approach that you’re talking about? And any thoughts on how it can be achieved in a university setting? Like I said, we have this student audience in front of us.

0:40:10.0 RN: Yeah, no, it’s just remarkable. I derive a lot of my positive energy from meeting young people in this country wherever I go. And I come back always feeling optimistic about we are such a young country. Young people are usually optimistic, idealistic and energetic. And we are very lucky that for the next 20, 30 years, India is going to remain a young country. So universities, I think have a big role to play in this, because from ancient times, they are the cradle of… They are, whether we like it or not, they are the cradle of politics. And I don’t mean politics in terms of electoral politics at all. That could be one of the streams that emerges. But I mean politics in as much as we have to be continually concerned about the distribution of power in society, right?

0:41:06.9 RN: And young people have to be seized off what is actually happening in the real world, and what happened in history about the distribution of power in society. And whether you’re studying mechanical engineering, or whether you’re studying computer science, or whether you’re studying sociology, it doesn’t matter. I think to really be able to understand the distribution of power in society, those years in university are the crucial formative years when you develop your worldviews, where you have time to think of the past, and not just rushed into the future. So universities have a huge role to play, I believe. And I know your university is very interested in these questions. I went to college, Elphinstone College, Mumbai from 1976 to 1979. So can you imagine those are the emergency and post emergency years? There was thriving discourse.

0:42:04.0 RN: I don’t think I was as much in class, as I was in the corridors of Elphinstone College. But everybody was talking about what it means, what emergency powers mean, how does it affect us as citizens? What should we be doing? What is resistance? What does resistance look like? And within two years, fortunately, we came out of that darkness and that real enthusiasm for the new government, which of course, all kinds of things started to happen pretty quickly then. But those, imagine those years in this country’s political life is when we were in college. And I think it was as much of what our college did and didn’t do, so that we could allow our minds to be free. I think that was a remarkable experience for us at that time. And I think today also, I’m not suggesting that students continually disrupt their learning life. Because really, today, what they learn has become so important to develop the capacities, because the future of work is changing so rapidly.

0:43:10.6 RN: So to get those foundational, resilient sort of capabilities in your school and college has become even more important. So you have to focus on your studies. But really, that’s the time when you have to ponder about the distribution of power in society. So universities have to allow for that freedom.

0:43:30.2 JU: Absolutely. Thank you so much, Rohini. I think now we have a very excited audience who would like to ask you questions. So thank you very much. And we hope to see you physically on campus as well sometime.

0:43:43.7 RN: I hope so.

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