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INKtalks: Rohini Nilekani: From Starting Infosys to Saving Water

Water | Strategic Philanthropy | Jan 4, 2017

Philanthropist Rohini Nilekani talks to Lakshmi Pratury about setting up Infosys in the early 90’s, her attempt to encourage children to read more books, and her foundation, Arghyam, which works with water and sanitation issues.

My marriage and my family’s journey with Infosys happened almost at the same time, and I think we were so young that we could afford to take any kinds of risks. For seven years we often had to go to the US, moving between cities and experiencing different things. But when we came into money, it was very difficult for me to deal with that kind of extreme wealth. It took me years to settle into the idea of it. In the early ’90s, we had this idea that wealth was never made ethically in India, which is not fair to all the earlier industrialists. Even though I knew how Infosys and the fortune came about and how dedicated and ethical the team was, it was really hard to deal with the wealth. I didn’t know what to do with it. When you don’t have money, it seems very desirable, but when you have too much of it, it can create quite a lot of problems.

It took me a while to realise that instead of looking at it as a problem I had to look at it as an opportunity. That’s when I realised that I could use that wealth to do many of the things that I always wanted to do even as a journalist, by helping others to make this world a better place. One of the areas I wanted to make a difference in was education. With Pratham Books, our goal is to reach millions of children with good, Indian, low-cost books, many of which are absolutely free through the Creative Commons.

One of the greatest joys of my life is to see children reading our books. For most Indian children, the only books they get are textbooks, and you can’t curl up with that at night. We wanted to democratise the joy of reading. So in 2004, we began publishing books and created a whole eco-system of children’s publishing that I think benefited the entire industry.

I also decided to put my own 100 crores from a good investment into my foundation, Arghyam. At that point, we asked ourselves how we could use that money strategically, to address certain gaps. So we started work in water, and over the past 12 years we’ve supported fantastic nonprofits in this country across 23 states, and have worked closely with several state governments. The goal is to get communities to accept that there’s a problem, and then help them become part of the solution by understanding how to use water sustainably. One of the things that we are working on is conserving groundwater and reviving springs all over the country. There are millions of undocumented springs in India. We need to collect more data on them because they provide good, clean energy, are perennial sources of drinking water to communities, and feed all our rivers.

Many of our rivers don’t reach the sea. We don’t think of these problems because a lot of us have easy access to water, but far too many people don’t. We need to get water-wise and water conscious, and through Arghyam we try to instill that in people. India has had some traditions of being a low water society, coming from a very strong environmental justice ethic. But we also need to become a low water economy, because there’s no way we can achieve our economic growth goals if we don’t look at the key resource of water. This is the responsibility of our generation.

India has spent thousands of crores on surface water, by creating command areas, dams, etc. But that money has under-performed because India is actually a groundwater civilisation. We have been an open well civilisation, and after the bore wells came, we started digging deep into the earth for water. 70% of our drinking water needs and 80% of our agriculture needs are actually met through groundwater. What we have been trying to do is to make that invisible water visible, so that we can manage it better. We are also working with the government to improve our groundwater management policies which are woefully missing right now. Currently, you can dig a hole in the ground and you have the right to pull out the entire aquifer. We need to make laws more compatible with this century’s needs.

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