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Off The Cuff with Rohini Nilekani

Active Citizenship | Ecosystem Building | Sep 9, 2022

This is an edited version of ThePrint’s ‘Off The Cuff’, a conversation between Rohini Nilekani, ThePrint’s Editor-in-Chief Shekhar Gupta, and Senior Editor Sandhya Ramesh. They discuss Rohini’s new book, ‘Samaaj, Sarkaar, Bazaar’, as well as the changing nature of philosophy, the role of women, and how technology can be used to improve education.

My book, ‘Samaaj, Sarkaar, Bazaar’, is based on a lot of the work I’ve been doing over the last 30 years. Through my experiences in the sector and the kinds of people I have met, I propose that Samaaj is really the foundational sector and the Sarkaar and Bazaar are created to serve Samaaj. Markets didn’t come first, the state didn’t emerge first, it is society that emerged first in various forms. And today, I feel that we need to really understand how important Samaaj is as the base, the foundational first sector. Sometimes even civil society organizations are called ‘the third sector’, but that doesn’t make too much sense to me. Civil society in all its forms and its representative institutions are the first and foremost sector, and the Sarkaar and Bazaar were created to enable the larger public interest. There’s no question that all three must work together. We cannot do without the Sarkaar and Bazaar. But I just wanted to focus on the fact that whether we are part of the Bazaar or are working with the government, we are all human beings and citizens first, before these other identities. Always remember that we are Samaaj first.

Creating Active Citizens

This book came together because I felt it was time to put everything in one place. A lot of people, gratifyingly, have been using the phrase ‘Samaaj, Sarkaar, Bazaar’. Although people have been talking about the role of markets, society, and the state for hundreds of years, I thought this was the time for me to write my particular take on it and bring together all that I’ve been speaking and writing about over the years. I wanted to clarify what I meant by saying that Samaaj is the foundational sector and this book also gave me the opportunity to write 10,000 new words and includes some of my latest writing on the subject. I hope that the book will be a conversation starter. The reason I have put it out in the Creative Commons where it is available to download for free, is so that everyone – especially young people – are able to access it easily and use it to trigger conversations among themselves. I want them to question and discuss how we should think of Samaaj, how we should think about the accountability of our Sarkaar and Bazaar to society, and what that actually means. So for me, this book is like a conversation starter, it’s an invitation to deepen the public discourse.

I think it is very important to engage young people in these conversations. We are such a young nation and young people are usually idealistic. While some of us are always looking back, young people like to look ahead, their future lies ahead of them. And I think in a country like ours, with its extreme diversity and very lively debates, young people need to be involved in these discussions about India’s future. We have so many complex problems but when young people get involved and become an active part of finding solutions to better their neighbourhoods and communities, it helps them to develop a sense of community, it helps them to develop their critical thinking, and it also helps them to learn leadership skills. And after talking to the many, many, many young people in the organizations we support through our philanthropies, I have seen that they also find a purpose in life. They feel there’s more meaning to life 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 becoming active citizens is very important in a democracy like ours. So we try to support many organizations that gather local people, especially hyper-local action to solve local problems. There’s only so much that can be done through the 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. That is one part of it, but I think it is really up to civil society institutions to help develop this youth muscle to get involved and engaged. We need more debating clubs, we need more book clubs, we need more spaces for young people to come together and discuss ideas – there are sports clubs and other such groups but I think we need different spaces as well.

One of the interesting projects that I’m supporting is an organization called Kshetra, which actually evolved from the work I did on ‘Uncommon Ground’ many years ago to bring corporate and social sector people together. Kshetra is developing a curriculum to help people engage in processes to reduce and prevent conflict. Through that process, you walk in another person’s shoes and actually understand different points of view and therefore evolve your own. I think we need more initiatives like this, but that is really in the hands of civil society institutions. I also believe that we need to do right by the young men in this country. We have almost 180 million young men and boys, and while we invested a lot of public money and attention on women’s self-help groups, I feel like we now need to think about what the right formation for these young men can be. They are also confused, scared, and need mentoring and support. We have seen the kind of backlash that’s come with women gaining more opportunities to move ahead, because men now feel insecure in some situations. And the last thing we need is to roll back women’s rights and women’s freedoms. So, we need to take men along with us on this journey as well, and one of our philanthropy portfolios is focused on that. When we began, there were hardly one or two organizations working with young males. Today, there are 17 and growing. So I think helping young men achieve their potential and be able to speak freely and safely is also something that is very important when it comes to the youth of India.

In my earlier work, whether it was with water or education, there was a lot of focus on what was happening to the girl child, or women in villages who were trying to access water resources or have a voice in how the local budget should be spent. There was a lot of gender focus on women. But as I was traveling around the country, I would often meet young males who were feeling left out, who had questions that could not be answered, and who didn’t know where to turn. And I began to slowly realize that perhaps something needs to be done about this. So we started this portfolio to work with young men and boys, with the idea being that you cannot achieve women’s empowerment unless men themselves also feel empowered. 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 lens of Samaaj, so 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 their role is – they are supposed to be providers but they themselves feel insecure about the future of jobs and how fast things are changing. They feel they cannot catch up with the new technologies. So there is a lot of uncertainty and insecurities which then allows them to become ripe pickings for all sorts of other things. So it is very important to create positive programs for young males in this country.

A Different Approach to Climate Change

I also 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, we have to have a very healthy dialogic process in society, especially in a democracy like ours. So how do we encourage the dialogic process so that we don’t break down into divisions that allow for an ‘us versus them’ scenario? These are too simplistic. It was alright when we were very, very young. But now I think the nation has to encourage critical thinking so that more people can live in the grays, and not be locked in by binaries and conform to one side or the other.
From my years in philanthropy I’ve learnt that we can’t really solve problems by looking at them in silos, because these problems are so huge and complex. When I started working in the water sector 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 and I was there for about 16 years with Arghyam, which was the foundation I set up for water. I think India knows its hydrological issues much better and there is very good policy, but as usual everything comes down to implementation. I would say that successive governments have made significant strides on providing better drinking water and better sanitation. We still have huge problems, though, that are going to be climate change related and for which there are no easy answers. Our groundwater situation is not exactly healthy in about two thirds of our districts. So there is a lot more work to be done to manage this scarce resource well. I think Samaaj has to contribute to improving the water situation as well, because we need better implementation of our policy frameworks. It is something that Samaaj, Bazaar, and Sarkaar should collaborate on. In fact, Bazaar is also very involved because they know that even for industry to run in this country, you have to increase water efficiencies throughout the supply chain. I think all that awareness has come, but we still have a long way to go. We don’t know what will happen with climate change. That’s my big worry.

We have seen recent examples of this, from the Yangtze River drying up in China to the severe floods in Pakistan. These sorts of climate events are very hard for farmers to predict and plan ahead for their crops. And because farmers are essentially entrepreneurs, it really makes their life much more difficult to adjust for climate variance. Again, we need a lot of public policy support. I have also often said that we are going to have to model for climate change in any kind of policy formulation and design of public infrastructure going forward. Today, would you take a decision for a coastal road in Mumbai, knowing what you know about what is happening to the sea levels? So, it is critical that experts get involved in the planning for these kinds of things.

Climate change has already begun and, according to the latest IPCC report, it is happening much faster than scientists thought. This is why the commitments to reduce carbon emission and to increase renewables is so critical, along with designing better public transport around the country. It is a challenge for all citizens to get involved, knowing what we know and that we are racing against time now. How should we be thinking about our consumption patterns and how we design our lives? Everybody has to think because, in a sense, we are all in it together. We know that India’s coastal areas are going to be very vulnerable, and so much of our population lives along these coastal areas. Then there is the Gangetic plain where we also have a large population, and will people be different inland? What does that mean then? We are talking about 20 or 30 years from now. I don’t envy the government having to think about the future.

In terms of environmental and ecological research, we also need the kind of long-term observation that ATREE has been doing for 25 years. One thing is to keep a track of what is happening in yearly, annual cycles, and there are enough sensors to give us some indication of that. But we need a lot of research institutions to have the resources and permissions, because nowadays even obtaining permissions to be able to go into our wild areas to set up long-term monitoring stations is getting a little tough. Today we have the national biodiversity mission, for example, which I think is going to be very critical to catalogue our biodiversity and understand what is changing in our biodiversity map. We need many more such initiatives and many more environmental research institutions to spring up, so that we know what are the absolute national treasures of biodiversity that we have in this country.

India is one of the few countries in the world which have so much population pressure, and yet because of our 5,000-year old culture of respecting nature, we are also one of the biodiversity hotspots in the world. We need to preserve that, not just because it looks beautiful, but because it is the future resource for this country – 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 is going to be our work against climate change as well, to understand what is happening and to be able to prevent some of the worst parts of it.

The State of Our Samaaj

Public engagement and participation is also more important now than ever before. As the world is turning more authoritarian, we have to ask why, right? Perhaps it is because many people may feel like “I don’t want to participate in everything all the time, I’m fed up of this. Let me just trust in a strong leader to solve my problems.” But history has also shown us that it doesn’t happen that way. As I say many times in the book, we cannot simply outsource good governance only to the government. It is too important. Citizens have to co-create good governance and have to strengthen democracy themselves; it is not just going to happen for us. If we don’t participate, we lose ground. We cannot outsource citizenship to anybody else. It can be messy, but we have to get involved. We cannot just want to lie back and enjoy life. If more people don’t get involved in solving local problems at least, we will find that more of our public infrastructure will break down and more authoritarianism will be on the rise, because we have abdicated our role as citizens.

What is happening in Samaaj all over the world? We know that social media has had a long and big role to play in the last few decades. But I still believe that we get the kind of governments and societies that we help to create. So, if you are not involved then you do not necessarily get what you 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 we do have to be aware of what is going on around us. So it is more important than ever to get young people to ask these questions. What kind of society do I want to live in? What is my role in creating that society? How much control am I willing to give up to a government? How much can a government do for its citizens if citizens don’t do for themselves? These questions have to be alive in the public discourse.

Unfortunately today, 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 and diverse civil society. 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 the gaps that need to be filled, so that the people at the first mile can be helped.
Any strong state really needs the participation of civil society to go with it. So I wish that both sides will do whatever it takes to build more trust. I think we have an extraordinarily diverse and vibrant civil society, but they are facing some challenges. Just among our civil society organizations, I wish we could find a way to build better bridges with the state, both at the local level and at the center. I think it is needed, because civil society is needed to provide a mirror to governments as well as the corporate sector and society at large. That allows for healthy self-correction and preventive correction. As someone who belongs to civil society, I wish we could find ways to build many more bridges of trust, for which we need transparency on both sides.

We also need to build trust within Samaaj itself. It is very easy for social media, etc. to create polarizations. It serves some people but it does not serve Samaaj well at all. And I really believe that people are fed up with these polarizations. They are fed up with this ‘us versus them’ culture. And I think we are at peak polarization. It has to go down from here, it cannot get worse than this. And I think 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 arguments because some people are on one side and some people are on the other. So how do we build the societal muscle for dialogue? That is the key thing needed today. How do we practice this in 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 is not rich living. That is poor living. So, a lot of people are engaging with these ideas now. How do we reduce the binaries? How do we reduce polarization?

I think we need to get to a place where philanthropy is unnecessary because, to paraphrase Martin Luther King, we should never forget why philanthropy is needed in the first place and what caused this imbalance, where wealth is concentrated in the hands of a few. We also need to remember what philanthropy actually means – it means people being interested in the welfare of others. Now, because of the hyper wealthy class that has been created, philanthropy is perceived as something much larger, where people like Bill Gates spend $5 billion a year on philanthropy. But it is not only the super rich who can do philanthropy, ordinary people also do it routinely in India.

So there may never be a time where human empathy will not be needed and human resources will not be needed to help others, but I do hope there will be less of a need for intensive philanthropy to do what society should have done anyway. Societies tolerate private wealth creation because they assume that wealth creation will spur innovation, create jobs, and will also help create better societies. But societies will only tolerate runaway wealth creation so long as that wealth appears to be working for society. Otherwise the government will swoop in and tax it all up.

In my book, I mention Anupam Mishra, who did a lot of work in water. He told us about this tradition in villages in Rajasthan, where people go to other villages to help work on public water projects. All the villagers from the surrounding areas do Shramadaan to help create public water resources. It might be digging a well or a farm pond, repairing a bund or anything else that may be needed. In return, the villagers make them a nice meal. Fun is had by all and everyone feels good, and a public infrastructure gets created. The same thing is then repeated across all the villages. 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. Samaaj, Sarkaar, and Bazaar are also integrating – we saw the best example of this during the pandemic.

Lots more will have to be done when other disasters come along, but the pandemic showed us how quickly Samaaj was able to respond. The first responders were neighbors, families, and civil society organizations; the Sarkaar came in pretty quickly after that. And the Bazaar, especially in India with Serum Institute, was able to act very quickly to get vaccine delivery going. In just two years, so many things happened that had never happened before, in terms of how Samaaj, Sarkaar, and Bazaar came together. Samaaj 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? For example, we didn’t see so much vaccine resistance here as we have seen in other parts of the world. So the pandemic resulted in very rapid action from all three sectors and I’m hoping that this experience will allow us to be much better prepared because now a little more trust has been built. When the next time comes around, we should be able to organize a bit more quickly and efficiently.

A Holistic Education

We started Pratham Books in 2004, as part of the Pratham network, and through this so many children had been taught to read. But when we started looking around to set up libraries for them, there were hardly any children’s books for the 300 million children of India. So we decided that something has to be done and we started publishing books in 2004. It has been an incredible journey. One of the great things that we decided to do was to put all the books out for free in the Creative Commons, which impacted 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 and share them in their communities, to edit – just the whole community response. It became like a societal mission.

I retired five years ago, but the new team has done even better. Today, they have created a StoryWeaver platform on which there are books in 320 languages now, contributed by citizens from around the world for our children. There are thousands and thousands of stories available and there have been more than 10 million reads just in the last few years. We know that even through the number of books that Pratham Books has sold. 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. The Samaj came in 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.

At EkStep Foundation which Shankar Maruwada, Nandan Nilekani, and I formed seven years ago, we set ourselves the goal of increased access to learning opportunities for 200 million children by 2022. And I think we have been able to achieve that because we were lucky enough to work closely with the union government and then 28 states to help launch the DIKSHA platform. DIKSHA is a digital platform for parents, children, and especially teachers, to help each other learn how to deliver their teaching across the classroom and across the school more effectively. It has been quite a success, and luckily it was ready just in time for the pandemic. We saw the uptake rise so rapidly on the DIKSHA platform, with not just millions, but billions of learning sessions. So it is now an entrenched form of learning and sharing, improving learnability, accountability, and teachability, because it is open, transparent, voluntary, and it especially allows teachers to share best practices across the country. Since this was developed by the government for the public school infrastructure in the country, we have seen mainly government schools using it, with about 12 million teachers on the platform. While we did a lot of the initial investments as part of the foundation, the government stepped in to fund it and now it is the government’s own program running almost everywhere in the country and is free for the public. A teacher in Tamil Nadu can ask a teacher in Bihar something, and we’ve seen teachers feel much more empowered because they are able to go on the DIKSHA platform and access information themselves which helps them in classrooms.

All of this learning happened just in time, and I think one thing that the pandemic has shown us is that if we do have to shut down schools again for any reason, this country is prepared to meet the challenge. I believe we have the best public digital infrastructure in the world, and we are ready to be able to reach children with or without schools. Of course, there is nothing that can ever replace the social interaction of a teacher who is in front of you rather than on a screen. But, if it happens again, we are ready and teachers have learned how to make the best of their digital tools. Hopefully, more civil society participation will happen on the platform as well as Bazaar participation.

I have been working on education since 1999 and I have seen a lot of improvement over the years. It is true that there are certain numbers that are still a bit depressing, but we have also seen a lot of improvement in many areas of the country for sure. We have already solved our question of enrollment, which was a huge problem 20 years ago. Today, we know that all our children are enrolled in school and there is a huge demand for education. We are also seeing all kinds of new technology being created to improve 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 – foundational learning. The government’s full attention is now on foundational literacy from class one onwards. Even our preschool infrastructure is going to be ramped up so that children are going to get more and better educational tools and are able to access them to be able to start thinking, describing, talking, and using creative tools, from age three onwards. So, I think we will see continuous improvement.

We also have millions of first generation students in the country. I think with one more generation, we will begin to see a huge difference. Already, if we 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 it will only get better from here, now that this generation is educated. It means that their children are going to have a much better learning environment, not just in school but also at home. So I am very optimistic about this.

I think we also have to realize that the government cannot resolve every issue for us. There are some questions that Samaaj needs to solve, as a community. We have to be able to see how interconnected we are, not just within India but all over the world. Just two years ago, we learned firsthand that if a grandmother in one part of the world sneezes, her grandson somewhere else can catch a cold. We know that now, literally. So as human beings try to evolve to become better and better, I think no matter what our issues are right now, there is a great human capacity for empathy and coexistence. We have to tap into that, and to do that we need moral leadership from Samaaj to come forward. When there were riots in Mumbai and other places like Bhiwandi, it was the elders who came together, created Mohalla committees, and started a peace building process. I think that’s absolutely critical today and I think we need Samaaj to take the lead.

I think this starts early, with children. We need to show them examples of moral leadership and generosity. And I think those stories have to be told from family to family. For example, in my family my grandfather’s life was held up as something worthy of emulating. He was a lawyer, but the reason that he didn’t make any money was because he was busy patching up the two parties instead of taking them to court. His brother and him used to be called ‘Ram Lakshman’ in those days in the Belgaon district. In 1917, he answered Gandhiji’s first call in Champaran and was among the first group of volunteers who went there to help set up Gandhiji’s Ashram in Bhitiharwa in West Champaran. He continued his lifelong service to the cause of freedom – through the independence movement, he worked closely with the Indian National Congress. The stories of his life and the values of simple living, high thinking, working for a cause, and service before self are the stories told in my family. If all families could do that, children would get easily inspired.

Even in schools, I think teachers have to go beyond textbooks to bring out stories. Maybe they can ask the children in the classroom to come with stories of their families. That is always the deepest and quickest connection that teachers can make. And there are so many heroes – the Tatas, the Birlas, and so many other worthy philanthropists that this country has spawned in the last 200 years. We have to keep those stories alive. It is also important to explain to children about the neuroscience of giving. There is genuinely a joy to giving. We are wired for that. We are wired to get joy from doing something for other people. It makes us also happy. So eventually giving is actually receiving, right? And that is also a gift. I think children get inspired easily by such stories. It is 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.

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