Closing Address | Beyond #Charcha2020: India’s Priorities

May 16, 2020


This is an edited version of Rohini Nilekani’s conversation with Ashish Dhawan and Sanjay Pugalia about the next steps for India’s resurgence from the current crisis. The session was part of #Charcha2020, which brought together 100+ hours of insights and knowledge shared across events by leading businessmen, policymakers, academicians, philanthropists, community leaders, and changemakers. [A summary can be read at The Quint.]

The COVID-19 pandemic has made us realise how crucial it is to have a Samaaj, Bazaar, and Sarkaar continuum that is balanced and works for the good of everyone. However, when this crisis emerged, it was civil society organisations and their representatives that were the first responders on the ground. They are always the closest to citizens and it was very clear that they had the trust of the community. For a sector that has been under so much stress over the last few years, both due to unnecessary government action and the withdrawal of certain kinds of philanthropic flexible capital, to be clearly winning back the trust of both society and the state is extremely heartening.

We have also seen new voluntary energy coming into the sector, which was much needed. I remember my mentors and some of the most inspiring leaders in the social sector like Vijay Mahajan, Deep Joshi, and Al Fernandes coming together during the 1967 famine when they went out as volunteers. They then stayed on in the sector, giving up other lucrative careers because they saw that they were needed. So I see this as an opportunity for many young people to come in with the kind of volunteer energy that Gandhi inspired, which would be a much needed boost for this sector.

Building a More Resilient Sector

We have learnt a lot of lessons during this time, and a word that keeps coming up in conversations is ‘resilience.’ I’ve been thinking about how we can move towards resilience, because if change is going to be the only constant, clearly we have to figure out how to adapt and create a much more resilient social sector, and indeed a resilient society. I think we also need to take this moment to address something that we, as a sector, don’t often focus on – the emotional and mental well-being of the people in the sector itself. We often forget that stressors on people in the sector can mean that they are not mentally and emotionally equipped to problem solve and respond in the way they otherwise would have. At this moment, our organisations need to pause and look at the kinds of resources available, to enable all of us to also take care of ourselves before we can help others. Organisations need to open up that dialogue now.

Before mentioning the mid-term and long-term issues that we will need to keep in mind going forward, I’d like to address a few structural issues in the sector that perhaps prevent us from being the best that we could be. Change has come in a way we couldn’t predict and the future is going to look very different, therefore we also need to think very differently about how we operate.

I think the sector has issues of competitiveness that we need to address. We need to move from the mindset of ‘or’ to the mindset of ‘and’, and we need to do it fast in order to collaborate and pool resources as never before. It’s alright to have our own ideologies, but when they become blinkers and allow us to assume that we are adequately representing the people we are working on behalf of, I think it leads to problems because there’s much more diversity on the ground than we think. So moving into an open and listening mode, even more acutely than before, is something we all need to think about now. Finally, we all have ambition, but sometimes our ambition can be unhealthy. We may fall into the trap of wanting to scale our organisations instead of scaling the mission. We need to have an internal dialogue now, even as catastrophe is at our door because without it, the sector won’t be able to respond in the best way it can.

Right now we are seeing, more sharply than ever before, how the philanthropist sector can push for change in the Samaaj, Bazaar, and Sarkaar. Across the globe, governments are expanding their authority to respond to this pandemic, so we have to think about how we are going to work with the Sarkaar. In some sense, we are going to have to find common ground with the Sarkaar, even as it plans to roll back labour laws and environmental regulation. How can we re-gear society to retain the human rights dimensions of our work, and work with the state so that we are ready for the next crisis?

There is also going to be less philanthropic capital coming into the sector. Of course we can hope this won’t be the case, but the reality is that the economy is shrinking and organisations and individuals might feel less generous when they have a mindset of scarcity. So how are we going to use the resources we have more effectively? This brings us to the framework of responsibility, responsiveness, and resilience. Over the last few decades, the social sector has taken on the responsibility of creating a regime of rights, policies, and laws together with the state. This has enabled amazing things to happen in this country and has led us towards a more prosperous future.

It’s also going to be a challenging time financially because so many budgets are being cut, understandably so, because COVID-19 needs resources at this point in time. But what does it mean for sustainability of this sector, asks Ashish. How will these nonprofits survive? In many cases, founders have taken salary cuts because they care about their organisation and mission. While governments in the US and UK are extending loans to nonprofits, in India there wasn’t any mention of the nonprofit sector that’s really facing hardship right now, while doing frontline work during this pandemic. So there’s a crisis part of this, where people working in a sector that does such hard work for such little money, are only left with three to four months of cash balance to survive. We need to have a conversation amongst the funders and the ecosystem about a sort of protection on the balance sheet, so that if you’re faced with hardship, it doesn’t leave you in such a vulnerable position. As of now, the sector is not well-positioned to survive a crisis like this. So we need to find ways to build some buffers in and structurally set some norms.

Now is the time to redefine the social sector’s responsibility. For example, if we look at NREGA, which enabled so many people to survive in times of distress in rural India, it is now being refashioned for many more things. But is that the right framework, or do we need something else? We need to rethink our responsibility in this regime of rights and policies. In terms of responsiveness, many new institutions were set up in India in the last few decades that were looking at the effectiveness of the state in responding to the regime of rights and laws. To uphold the rule of law, think tanks and other institutions were formed to look at how we can help the state be more effective. This kind of work is going to have to expand, as well as collaborate with the bazaar, because as the state expands its authority, the Samaaj and Bazaar need to realign themselves to work together. Both the markets and the Samaaj have a common interest in upholding the rule of law. So we need to find new pathways to enable system responsiveness.

Finally, we need to ask ourselves what is resilience? If change is always constant, we need to be able to adapt. While we should keep traditional wisdom in mind, we must also bring science, data, and analytics. We need to utilize technology frameworks and really think about how we are going to engage in creating a digital civil society. It’s inevitable that our world will be much more digital post-COVID-19, so the civil sector needs to be vigilant but not technophobic about what is to come. We do need a digital presence to be enabled to achieve our mission and vision, at the kind of scale and with the kind of new social restraints that are going to be forced upon us. So we must re-imagine this through what our team calls ‘societal platform thinking,’ i.e. how we can use digital public goods to distribute the ability to solve, reduce the friction to collaborate, and distribute agency. This is the kind of thing that will build resilience.

One example of this is the DIKSHA platform that the government has set up which enables teachers to keep learning and reach more students and parents when schools are closed. Another example is the ECHO platform, which is doing guided mentoring for lakhs of healthcare professionals at a time when they desperately need help. It’s by thinking digital, thinking systems, and thinking collaboration, that will help us build the resilience that we need so much. Although many of us begin our work from the heart, we now need to combine the head and heart. We have seen terrible things happening to our fellow citizens. But we need to remember why we are in this sector in the first place – in order to create a good and just society – and we must hold on to that empathetic energy now more than ever.

Reexamining Our Relationship with the State

According to Ashish Dhawan, if it were not for our civil society sector, we would be faced with an even larger crisis right now. Although the government has big programs in place like its Jan Dhan Yojna, in times like these many of the gaps are exposed. A recent survey by Azim Premji University showed that despite all the efforts that we have made, the last mile is still broken. People aren’t getting money or access to food from the government, and so civil society is stepping in to fill that void. To him, the government really needs to think about how to rectify this going forward. This might look like massive programs around education and health, as well as a foundational literacy mission coming out of this crisis.
Ashish suggests launching a national health mission going forward. While many of us are concerned about fixing the economy, we also need to fix other sectors as well. We should be demanding similar things to address the massive challenges that we’ll be facing, and really accelerate our progress on many of these social indicators. For this to happen, the government must change its mindset, because it’ll be strapped for cash and needs to look at civil society as a partner. To him, the government hasn’t embraced the sector whole-heartedly, but this moment can be an opportunity. There is proven evidence in the sector that actors are doing successful work in states and districts, so the time has come to collaborate on a bigger scale. We need to reset the relationship between the government and civil society.

We need to start thinking about the last mile as the first mile, because that’s where the problems reside. At the first mile, the government is quite willing for the civil society sector to participate because they know that for the last few steps, the social sector is the best at bridging the gap. However, when people start challenging certain ways of the state expanding and retracting through environmental or labor legislations, that’s when things get difficult between the sector and the state. For many in the social sector, there is a great role for agitation, to stand outside the gates and really bring peoples’ conscience out.

But there’s also a huge role in between, to work with the government at various levels because the government is not a monolith and there are always going to be bureaucrats who are sympathetic. There’s always going to be some department of government that is willing to listen or some politicians who will understand. We need to find those champions and work with them. We have to assume that many things are done with good intentions. We also know the road to hell can be paved with those same good intentions, but it is for us to learn new forms of collaboration. There’s no easy way out, and we don’t want to walk away from the negotiating table. We have to be able to sit across from each other, because governments know they need the social sector’s innovation, ideas, and demonstration on the ground. As Ashish argues, the centre, the states, and the civil society really needs to come together to work on this, through bigger and bolder reforms to help the people who really need them.

This crisis has given us an opportunity to reexamine the ways we have built our society, our cities, our world. With the migrant crisis and the question of whether they will return to cities, this is the time for us to to think very radically about what they will come back to. We need to use the momentum now that people have realised that our cities cannot run without the plumbers, electricians, masons, and sanitation workers among others, to now ask ourselves how we can address the reasons they left. This is a real chance for civil society, research institutions, and academic institutions to come and suggest a rapid reform of the urban sector to be more welcoming to migrants.

A Technology-Enabled Future
Our interest in all our work is to make sure that we remain technology-enabled rather than technology-led, because technology is just a tool, it’s not the end goal. But we must really exploit all the potential of that technology to achieve our goals. We do that by holding certain philosophies and values which we make public, and then design technology for that. There will always be some unintended consequences. But if we put the philosophy out front and design based on that philosophy, instead of creating monopolies and gated walls, we can create open systems which allow data to flow in multiple directions. This allows for transparency and observability from different directions, as well as participation and co-creation. That’s my understanding of the benefits of open, digital public goods.

However, we must be careful not to increase the digital divide. Everybody deserves access to digital and to smartphone technologies. With that, we can do all kinds of things to bridge the digital and physical world. In EkStep, we are working with the government to be able to use digital to allow people to do more physical. But at the scale at which we need to work, even if it means telling parents how to help children at home, we need to reach them digitally so they can do things physically. I think this has become an extremely important thing for the social sector to engage with. Ashish argues that we don’t have to be at the cutting edge in order to use technology for impact. What’s more important is to contextualise it and make it relevant for the situation and the problem at hand. How do we use existing tools that anybody can pick off the shelf and design something that will be effective?

In addition to leveraging high tech strategies, Ashish points out that low-tech solutions like text messaging features to stay in touch with parents during the crisis, will also be helpful in problem solving. Even now, we are seeing that teachers are forming more WhatsApp groups. It’s more possible for teacher training to move online now. In this way, we can come up with new models and new infrastructure because these teacher groups have already been formed. There are also groups being formed between teachers, schools, and parents, which never existed before. So through this crisis, some crucial infrastructure is also being built, and we must think about how to leverage this. Earlier, we never thought about the home as an environment that we could impact. Now, we’re thinking about it much more as we’re forced to reach people at home. Whether through tele-medicine, some form of interactive radio, an app on the phone, text messaging, etc. we are finding ways to reach them. So perhaps we will see some innovative ways of thinking about things coming out of this as well.

In terms of reaching people at a grassroot level, especially women, I think we are going to have to create new forms of support. We already have self-help groups across the country, which gave women in isolated settings a lot of support. We need to think along those lines now and co-create a way to support women in this new crisis. In terms of micro-entrepreneurship for women, there’s been a lot of concern about the reducing labor participation of women. The social issues behind that have not yet been fully understood. So I think there is scope for the social sector to go into that and enable the re-gigging of women’s participation in the labor force in a safe way and with dignity.

Leveraging the System

Now is the time for philanthropists to be more flexible and generous in our funding and roll back some of the reporting requirements and outcome-based reporting that was mandated on which many social sector organisations spend up to one third of their time. We know that impact is not always measurable, and we need to be a little nuanced about that, especially now. Outcome funding should not crowd out the current needs of the nonprofit sector.

We have to face the fact that there will be a financial crunch that many nonprofits will face. Even if some people step up through generosity, retail funding grows, and many Indians are very generous, it still won’t be enough for nonprofits to do business as usual. We are going to have to figure out how organisations can stretch the rupee and rethink priorities. While there are no quick answers, this is where I think focusing on sharing competencies and assets across nonprofits will help. Some of us are working on processes to do that, like listing your assets, publishing them, and learning from others. It means moving from a scarcity mindset to an abundance mindset. What do we have that we can share, build on, and re-purpose?

In the larger scheme of things, philanthropic funding is a drop in the bucket compared to what the government spends, Ashish notes. The real question we should be asking is, “How can we make a bigger impact?” For example, with an organisation like Pratham, what are some of the things which were really high leverage? One is ASER, which didn’t cost a lot of money but really holds a mirror to education in the country. All of us look at the data and know there’s a learning crisis. It’s such an important public good which uses a small amount of money. Secondly, even though programs scaled and then shrunk, they went to different states and tried different things, which were then picked up by other nonprofits, so they were able to spread that public good.

The social sector needs to learn the art of acupressure. Where are those points at which you press where you will get the whole system’s leverage? I think we have to dive deeply and think about that, so that we get more ‘bang for our buck’ as they say in the corporate sector. This is where frameworks like societal platform thinking comes in, where discoverability, shareability of assets, and a continuous learning journey, ensures that we make the most out of what we have. And even if our other resources are reduced, empathy and volunteer energy are always free and expanding on this will prepare us for resilience in the long term.

This pandemic has also taught us about the importance of decentralisation. While I agree that some things need to come from the center, we know that the best response is a response in context. For us to effectively respond in context at the local level, we need decentralisation of power and flexibility. I would say that the promise of the 74th Amendment has not been met. Ashish mentions that China’s development offers something to learn. In China, the devolution of power goes down to the county level. There are 3,000 counties in China, about a quarter of the size of an Indian district in terms of population. The party chief who runs the county actually is on metrics and has a lot of authority and funding available at their discretion, and that’s what makes China successful. It’s not just the devolution, but the accountability, metrics, and outcomes orientation.

This is the time for us to step up to ensure that the balance between Samaaj, Bazaar and Sarkaar is retained. We have to be vigilant, but we must be ready to collaborate, we have to be creative and innovative. Never before has the importance of the social sector been so visible. Let us use that opportunity to help forge a good society. This is the time, this is the opportunity, and I hope we can work together to do that.



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