Grand Tamasha: ‘No govt can do without civil society in a developing nation’

Oct 10, 2022
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“Governments need civil society organisations to serve as mirrors; they need them to reach the first mile… they need all the risk-taking capital. No government can do without that in a developing country like ours which is so highly aspirational,” Nilekani told Milan Vaishnav, host of the Grand Tamasha podcast. Grand Tamasha is a co-production of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington, DC-based think tank, and the Hindustan Times.

Nilekani was speaking about her latest book, Samaaj, Sarkaar, Bazaar (Society, State, and Markets): A Citizen-First Approach, which encapsulates many of the lessons the author has learned over three decades working in the civil society and philanthropic sectors.

Nilekani, wife of Infosys co-founder Nandan Nilekani, oversees an influential private foundation and helped found several successful non-profits, including water non-profit Arghyam and Pratham Books. To encourage readers to learn from her hits and misses, Nilekani has made the book freely available for download at https://www.samaajsarkaarbazaar.in/.

Vaishnav asked Nilekani about the state of philanthropy in India today, to which Nilekani said: “Countries allow such runaway wealth creation only if that wealth is going to being deployed for the larger good. Otherwise, why would any state or society allow this? Wealth comes with a great responsibility and extreme wealth comes with extreme responsibility.”

The Nilekanis are signatories of “The Giving Pledge,” a campaign started by billionaire CEOs Bill Gates and Warren Buffett to encourage extremely wealthy individuals to contribute a majority of their wealth to philanthropic causes. “Wealthy Indians are being generous, but I think not generous enough,” Nilekani said, adding that she hopes they give away more and faster.

One of Nilekani’s biggest philanthropic priorities is improving the quality of urban governance, especially in her home city of Bengaluru. “We saw tremendous flooding in East Bangalore this year and you saw all the memes going around the world of these rich homes inundated,” with feet of standing water, remarked Nilekani. “I think there is a growing recognition that you can’t have a very thin slice of high-quality private infrastructure on a mass public infrastructure that is broken… the elite can no longer secede from participating in solution-ing for the larger public.”

In the book, Nilekani opens up about the challenge of carving out her own identity, given the immense public attention her husband often receives. After stepping back from Infosys, Nandan Nilekani served as head of the Unique Identification Authority of India, the Union government agency that oversees the Aadhaar project. Referring to her husband, Nilekani noted that he has gone on record that he has learned from his wife “how to always keep the human dimension of things at the very centre of the work to remind ourselves why we are doing what we are doing”.

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