Ideas of India: Society, State and Markets

Jun 23, 2023


Shruti Rajagopalan and Rohini Nilekani discuss philanthropy, civil society and how to generate social change in India

Ideas of India is a podcast in which Mercatus Senior Research Fellow Shruti Rajagopalan examines the academic ideas that can propel India forward. You can subscribe to the podcast on AppleSpotifyGoogleOvercastStitcher or the podcast app of your choice.

In this episode, Shruti speaks with Rohini Nilekani about civil society’s role in the state, public infrastructure, building state capacity, democratizing access to credit and much more. Nilekani is a journalist, children’s book author, activist and philanthropist. She is the founder of Arghyam, a foundation for sustainable water and sanitation, and the co-founder of Pratham Books. She is also the chairperson of Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies and the co-founder and director of EkStep, a nonprofit education platform. Her latest book is “Samaaj, Sarkaar, Bazaar: A Citizen-First Approach.”

SHRUTI RAJAGOPALAN: Welcome to Ideas of India, where we examine the academic ideas that can propel India forward. My name is Shruti Rajagopalan, and I am a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.

Today my guest is Rohini Nilekani, who is a journalist, children’s book author, activist and philanthropist. Rohini is the founder of Arghyam, a foundation for sustainable water and sanitation, and the co-founder of Pratham Books. She is the chairperson of Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies and the co-founder and director of EkStep, a nonprofit education platform. Rohini and her husband, Nandan Nilekani, have pledged to give half their wealth to philanthropic endeavors as part of the Giving Pledge.

We spoke about her latest book, “Samaaj, Sarkaar, Bazaar: A Citizen-First Approach”; the role of civil society in filing the gaps of a dysfunctional state; physical versus digital public infrastructure; how government regulation on foreign contributions impact philanthropy and civil society; the role of citizens and the imbalance between state, society and market relationships in India; and much more.

For a full transcript of this conversation, including helpful links of all the references mentioned, click the link in the show notes or visit Discourse magazine.

Hi, Rohini. It’s a pleasure to have you here. Thank you so much. I’m so excited to talk to you about the book “Samaaj, Sarkaar, Bazaar.” These are three themes that I am very interested in, though I mostly work in the bazaar/markets part of it as an economist in my day job. But yes, it’s a great book and a pleasure to have you here.

ROHINI NILEKANI: Shruti, thank you so much for inviting me to your Ideas of India podcast. It’s an honor, and I’m looking forward to our conversation.

The Samaaj

RAJAGOPALAN: I want to start with the theme and the title of the book. It is “Samaaj, Sarkaar, Bazaar.” It is not a coincidence that you start with samaaj because so much of your work is about that. But when I read the book, my sense was that you’ve had this long-held feeling that the sarkaar and the bazaar are very, very large in India. It started with the sarkaar being very large starting with the colonial state and so on, and, of course, the big central planning machinery that India imposed. And post-liberalization, the bazaar has taken off.

There are great benefits from it, but also a lot of exit by rich people from public-service delivery and so on, which is officiated through the bazaar. What has ended up happening in India is that the samaaj has ended up becoming the last of the three, and you’ve put it right up front. Can you tell us more about where this thought process came from?

NILEKANI: Yes. Thank you, Shruti. I would say that the book is “Samaaj, Sarkaar, Bazaar: A Citizen-First Approach” because the idea of the book was to describe the philosophy underlying my work and how I came to it. For those who don’t know these three words: Samaaj is society, sarkaar is the state and bazaar is the market. Society, state and markets are the three sectors that many, many, many, many people for hundreds of years have been thinking through and writing about.

That’s not new, but I did want to say to people and readers that I have come to believe that somewhere, by not putting samaaj and society right at the foundation, at the base, at the center, if you will, perhaps, we have allowed ourselves to forget that the state and the market, the sarkaar and the bazaar, were actually created for the samaaj. I wanted to keep on repeating this idea, that we should not forget that samaaj, society, comes first.

It’s not the third sector. Civil society is called the third sector, but society can’t be the third sector. It is the primary sector, and so therefore, while we very much need the state and the markets we cannot do without, what is the proper balance of accountability so that the state and the market are actually serving the larger public interest? How should society organize itself so that the market and the state are more accountable to it? That is my underlying permanent question in the quest for a good society.

RAJAGOPALAN: Samaaj ends up being the third wing; some call it the third pillar. Do you think this has happened because it’s so much easier to define where sarkaar and bazaar begin and where they end, and it’s very difficult to do that with society because that itself is so fractionalized, and the same participant can be part of multiple different areas in society or multiple different civil associations, and that all gets jumbled into one big thing like a big monolith? Do you think one aspect of this is just a definitional problem, and that’s why it gets left behind?

NILEKANI: It’s possible because society seems too broad a vessel to hold, whereas you can see and meet elements of the state. There are rules and laws written around the state. We know what the bazaar or the markets are supposed to do. It’s much harder to pin down the idea of samaaj because everything and everyone is samaaj, which is precisely why I’m interested in flipping that mental model.

How do we allow ourselves to understand samaaj? I think, for me, one of the ways to do that is through defining ourselves as first human beings and then citizens. I think the practice of citizenship allows you to define yourself as a member of the samaaj, especially in modern nation-states. Maybe that’s one way. But in India, I think we have a 5,000-year unbroken history of the samaaj, and in earlier formations, the state was mainly monarchical rulers.

Even though they ruled—and some ruled well and some ruled pretty despotically—the samaaj itself was fairly intact in its many, many dimensions, in its many groupings and subgroupings. And the rulers, the kings and their various satraps, while they played a role, they didn’t cover all of society. Society did many things on its own that were beyond the pale of the monarchs. In that sense, I think samaaj has been pretty strong in India for millennia.

Strong doesn’t necessarily always mean good, and certainly doesn’t mean homogeneous or monolithic. I’ve said that samaaj is more like a patchwork quilt, and sometimes it’s very hard to bring samaaj together for one cause. We have seen it episodically in history like during the freedom movement, perhaps, of India. But otherwise, it’s not so easy to get all of samaaj aligned, which is why perhaps it’s easier to define the state and the markets.

RAJAGOPALAN: For me, while I was reading the book, it also seemed like, more than just society, what you are very focused on is civil association and the ability to join groups that one is not necessarily born into. That also takes us a step away from a lot of the problems of the many-millennia-old Indian samaaj, which doesn’t change quite easily and has stayed still.

This is also something the constitutional framers struggled with because they wanted to, in a sense, create what—Madhav Khosla says that it’s a pedagogical project to actually bring society out of that millennia-old thinking. And a lot of the statutes early in the republic, whether it’s abolishing untouchability or anti-discrimination laws, these were all about that break from samaaj. In a sense, even within samaaj, you are really talking about an individual’s right to civil association.

NILEKANI: Yes, but more than a break from samaaj, certainly, whether it was Ambedkar or Gandhi or so many others like Gopal Krishna Gokhale, if you’re going even further back—certainly there was a great attempt to reform parts of the Indian samaaj and to make it more modern, leave behind some practices, especially when it came to caste. Yes, I think what I am possibly referring to as samaaj in this century is our ability to secure our agency as citizens.

Before that—I care very much about the human project, but we leave that aside for now—to secure our agency as citizens of collective action to make claims on the state, or to make sure the market is doing right by us as consumers. Yes, I would talk about our ability to form associations and institutions, and to throw out societal leaders that enable this continuous development of what used to be called a civic virtue of citizenship, really.

Working in Bangalore

RAJAGOPALAN: This, in a sense, comes from some of your early work as a citizen activist. You’ve been a very important voice, especially within Bangalore, advocating for public-service delivery, especially the most basic things like road safety, clean water, law and order, that kind of very local government. This is almost what a functional municipality should be doing, which I know in Bangalore is not so functional.

Unlike, say, the Gandhian project or what happened during the anti-Emergency agitations or during the Chipko movement, your project in the last few decades has been very much about filling the gaps that have been left by a dysfunctional state, especially dysfunctional local governments. Do you feel like some of the core things that you’re doing, though we always need to think citizen first, would they even be essential if we had well-functioning local governments? In a sensible situation, you would be the perfect person to run for local government, like a mayor for a city or something like people who do the work that you do, lend the voice that you lend. In India, it ends up going into samaaj because that’s filling the gap for the dysfunctional local government.

NILEKANI: I guess that’s where I slightly want to clarify my position. One is, by the way, I don’t want to make any claims whatsoever about my role in Bangalore. Bangalore is full of urban reformers. I, in fact, have stayed at the background and been able to support some reform projects, rather than be at the forefront myself. Let me clarify that first.

Secondly, I think while I agree with you that—and I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently. In many Western countries where public infrastructure is very well developed, there is no need for citizens to keep agitating for water, electricity, transport, mobility, et cetera. It is true that much of our claim-making on the state is just, how can you improve your governance to deliver the basic services that we need and expect from you?

Having said that, it’s not only about public-service delivery because I keep feeling and listening and watching that—the Western countries, for 300 years there has been definite civil society movement to get this kind of governance happening. It didn’t just land on their heads as a manna from heaven. We don’t just get good governance as some kind of right. We have to earn it; we have to co-create good governance in democracies, especially. I think that journey in the West is maybe hidden now because it all seems to be like a done project, and we are still in that transition here in India.

Even if the government was performing its public-service duties perfectly, I think there would still be a great need for citizens to be involved in the governance model because I still believe that citizens need to be able to imagine their habitats, their cities and the project of what their nation should be like. You can’t just leave things to government, is what I believe, which is why I come back to the idea of samaaj all the time.

RAJAGOPALAN: I live in northern Virginia. Here there is something called the park services. It’s there at the federal level; it’s there at the local government level. When a particular park was going to be converted into a slightly more polished space with lots of turf and put in swings and slides for kids and a separate area for dogs and things like that, there was quite a bit of drama in my community. The reason was that this is going to be a $5 million project. Is this really necessary? Can’t kids just play on the grass? Is this the best use of taxpayer money and so on?

I’ve seen the same kind of very passionate advocacy. When I go back to India—I’m not from Bangalore, but I grew up in New Delhi; my parents live in Noida. When I go to their condo building association or a residence welfare association, it’s the same thing. It’s just very passionate advocacy. Is one part of the problem not that citizens are not involved, but that we have a fundamental design issue? The way we’ve created the local government structure doesn’t allow for deep participation, either as citizens or as citizen-elected representatives or as taxpayers, especially when it comes to urban local bodies and the 74th Amendment because it doesn’t have Gram Sabha and those sorts of spaces.

NILEKANI: Yes, I know. The 74th Amendment is really an incomplete project. We have seen it in Bangalore with so many people pushing so hard for much more decentralization. It’s happening only in bits and pieces. I think it’s fair to say that there is no real state backing, and it’s not surprising at all, but the decentralization of power, especially for large cities like Bangalore—some 50% of the state’s GDP comes from here. State government doesn’t want to lose control.

The citizens have been fighting for decades now and are able to snatch some things, but not along the lines envisaged in the 74th Amendment with Ward Sabhas, local elections, the mayor would become—possibly there would be a metropolitan. None of those things have happened in Bangalore, and they’ve happened in very few other cities of India. This remains an incomplete project, but it needs to happen because like we saw in China, cities can become very powerful engines, and I hope in India there is inclusive growth. They can become powerful, but for that, I think state governments are going to have to let go of some power. At least some negotiations must happen so that urban local governments become stronger, most definitely so.

Exit by the Rich

RAJAGOPALAN: The other link we’ve broken in India—and this is, again, a design issue—is that our citizens and taxpayers are not the same person. In most places in local government, there’s a very tight feedback loop between the government and the participant citizenry because the same people who are paying for government are also the people who are voting.

Here the government gets its money in a very top-down way. Some of it is union government grants directly coming—it’s almost like there’s this bizarre splitting of the pie, and the rich places get left behind the most. On the other hand, you have a very strong participatory democracy, which has been created by the 73rd and 74th Amendment. I’m thrilled that people are participating, but that link is broken. We see it most in places like Bangalore, which are very rich, which have people who can pay, citizens who are willing to pay for these services, but now they’re doing it by exiting and doing it through the market instead of doing it through the state.

NILEKANI: Exactly right. I’m not an economist, so I won’t try to talk in economist terms. Exactly, as you say, the link between the taxpayer and the claim on the state as a citizen receiving services is not there. There are some powers, of course, to the local bodies—property tax is one of them—but we don’t see that coming back to improve the public infrastructure here. And nor can we make those demands because we don’t know how to structure those demands because we can’t see those connections between the taxes that we pay and what is due back to us. There have been a lot of interesting experiments on participatory budgeting, et cetera, in Bangalore, to make citizens more aware of this, but it is work in progress to say at best.

I talk about this a lot, that the elite in India completely seceded. Therefore, they have private electricity, private schools, private water, private mobility, everything almost. They also have gated communities now. They don’t seem to share a common fate, so they’re not pressing harder for improving the common public infrastructure. But we are going to see that happen because you cannot secede from floods, you cannot secede from pandemics and you cannot secede from pollution, air pollution especially. I think the elite are going to have to wake up a little and push and participate in creating better common public infrastructure and public goods.

RAJAGOPALAN: Yes, absolutely. You know my colleague Alex Tabarrok. He and I wrote this paper on Gurgaon, and we called it India’s private city. What we meant is Gurgaon just grew so fast that between the two, three census, it never got labeled correctly as an urban area deserving its own municipality because, by the time it happened, Gurgaon had just exploded in its growth, so all the gaps were filled by private players.

That’s great in one sense because the public needs are being met. On the other hand, you create all sorts of commons problems right outside the private boundary. The moment the private building or the DLF Private Enclave ends, you see piles and piles of garbage; you see groundwater depletion. So all those things, they need to be navigated through some other form of collective action.

NILEKANI: Yes. That even happened in a private city built by the Tatas like Jamshedpur. It was absolutely phenomenal inside, and outside, it was the other kind of India. It’s interesting—I grew up in Mumbai, Shruti, and I was just thinking that when we grew up, actually—and I grew up in the ’60s and ’70s in Mumbai—and actually, we had relatively good public infrastructure. Nobody had power cuts. I’m not talking of the very poor in the slums, but the lower and middle classes and the rich, there’s not that much difference in terms of consumption of public services.

We had very good mobility, we had public safety, we had street lighting, we had electricity and we had good water in the taps. It started deteriorating later. There were some private agencies providing those services too, but even though we lived in apartment buildings, those apartment buildings were not so gated. The boundaries were very blurred. The sandwich wallah outside, even people begging for alms, they were right there. They were not hidden. They could see us, we could see them. There was some conversation and communication among classes. That is becoming much less in this modern idea of India.

RAJAGOPALAN: Yes. And you know, this particularly bothers me in Delhi, especially the resident welfare associations. I’m very happy they exist and they advocate for their own communities, but it’s become a very strange NIMBYism. I don’t know if you’ve been to the posh colonies in Delhi recently; they have all these gates. They literally have gates with guards, and the local park is locked out. Why? Because they don’t want the children of the maids playing there.

It’s supposed to be meant for city beautification and greenery, and these are public roads where I can’t drive my car if I don’t have an address on that street. There is an encroachment of public spaces by private individuals. But on the other hand, there’s also the very strange segregation that has happened where, when rich people and the elite do engage, they’re not doing it in the most inclusive way. It’s taking a very strange form.

NILEKANI: I find that very disturbing, actually, that this fortress mentality has come in with the elite of India, and I don’t think it holds great potence, frankly. Something has to give, and we need much more debate and discourse on this as well and maybe a shift in policies too. How do you block off a public road? I live in Koramangala in Bangalore, and where we live is—not in a very complimentary way—called billionaires’ row because some of us who were living here before became billionaires.

Most of us try to be good citizens, but obviously there is going to be some sense that we make property prices rise. However, I’ll tell you in this block, we still go out there. I still participate in things that concern our block. There are no gates outside our community. There was some talk of that. Everybody pushed it back. Our block is open, anybody can come from anywhere. These are public roads paid by taxpayer money.

There are some billionaires living here, but anybody can walk past, and it’s not gated and it’s not a fortress and it’s not an enclave. I think I much prefer that style of urban habitation. We have a park where everybody walks, everybody and anybody walks. There’s a lake coming up, which everybody’s going to participate in. The villagers are going to graze their cattle just next to that. That’s the kind of, I think, vision of urban India which would serve this country better, its people, the samaaj. You have to serve the samaaj.

No Shortcuts to State Capacity

RAJAGOPALAN: You said you grew up in Mumbai, and one interesting thing about the functional municipal corporations in India is that they were all set up by a colonial government. The postcolonial government only focused on the top levels, at especially union and then state, but never really made it its job to think about local governments. They thought the states will do that. Is one part of municipal governance just that it takes a very long time to build capacity? It takes a century and a half, and Mumbai was reaping the benefits in the ’60s and ’70s because it had had a proper design maybe 100, 150 years before that. And that’s just how long these systems take to set up.

NILEKANI: It’s entirely possible. We forget how young a nation this is and how 30 years of liberalization has also brought in much more public finances. There’s much more in the coffers to even develop the public infra that our cities need. I’m sure of that. Some cities like Bhopal, Indore, Surat are showing that actually you can speed up the process, but I agree.

And also, the cities are growing like teenagers on hormones. They’re growing so fast with gangly all over the place. It’s hard to build that much infrastructure for the rate of the demand that is building up. It will take time. Even as infra gets built out, we are seeing the demand goes even higher, so then we’re always lagging behind. But Bombay went through that spurt and settled down and then found a new equilibrium. I think Bangalore, my city, is in that transition; the metro is just getting built out. I think in 10 years you will see probably a different Bangalore. I agree with you. We need a lot of patience, but it’s really very hard for the citizens in the meanwhile.

RAJAGOPALAN: I feel like it is difficult for people to come out and agitate about constitutional design and reform and the architectural aspects if they’re spending two hours every day in traffic, if they can’t trust that their child can go alone using public transport to school and someone has to ferry them and ferry them back. There’s a limited amount of time and attention any citizen can give to these causes, and it gets eaten up by this in particular, just navigating public spaces on a daily basis.

NILEKANI: Very true. Which is why, in my philanthropy, I’m very happy to support a bunch of new organizations with young leaders that are coming up with different forms of civic activism, new forms of it, including digital activism, which take less time than standing with slogans and pamphlets on the roadside. They’re able to galvanize more people to get interested in hyperlocal problem solving, and some at a slightly larger level.

That’s the kind of emergent new collective action in urban spaces that I’m interested in. Some of them are hyperlocal, about your local street safety or streetlights or something, but some of them are across the board looking at, say, some policies that you should be signing up, or you should be giving feedback on policies that have been put out for public consultation, gathering people to understand that and respond. That kind of new activism is coming up, and it’s good to see young leadership there.

Top-Down vs. Bottom-Up Approach

RAJAGOPALAN: Absolutely. Here I want to talk a little bit more about Nilekani Philanthropies, which is the umbrella organization that supports a lot of these other civil associations, NGOs, think tanks and so on. I have noticed that there seem to be two distinct sides to Nilekani Philanthropies and a lot of the work that you enable. One is exactly what you described, a citizen-first, participatory, bottom-up approach, which can take lots of different forms, sometimes through local leaders, sometimes through digital activism and so on.

The other side is about a systems architecture or system-design approach, and I presume some of this is Nandan’s influence because he’s worked so keenly on that. Do you view these two sides as complementary? Do these approaches ever clash, or are they feeding into each other? The citizen participation is giving your overall philanthropic institution a lot of feedback on how you think about systems design or vice versa?

NILEKANI: I hope they’re complementary. My work and Nandan’s work—sometimes he does some different work, my husband, and I do different work, and then we do some work together, but we keep learning from each other, I hope. So Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies Foundation—which I finally had to set up because the scale of the work was becoming too large to do it ad hoc—it works on this very clear philosophy that whichever areas of work we take up, our job is to enable civic associations, the ideas, the institutions, the individuals in the samaaj that are working to improve whatever sector they’re working in. And we will support the strengthening of the societal muscle to do that, whichever sector we work in.

That’s very clear in RNPF. Some of the work we have done together at EkStep Foundation, that is more about education. What do we need to do to trigger the ecosystem to improve the learning opportunities for 200 million children in India in a very short period of time? Now, that is a very different way of thinking than how I started my work, though I have some systemic-level experience through my work at Arghyam in water, my work on reading and the joy of reading in Pratham Books and some other associations earlier, but this was a different way of thinking.

My job at EkStep is to remind us that there is a bottom-up approach that is essential. And my way to learn from the people at EkStep is, how do you look at a technology backbone? How do you look at systems architecture to create change, which can either be incremental, which is good, but system-wide incremental? That’s important. Plus-one thinking, where even if you’re changing one small thing, you are changing it across the full horizontal space.

I think I’ve learned a lot from working in the last seven years with Nandan, and I think that’s feeding back into the work of my grassroots organizations as well, because they too are now thinking, how do we scale our missions? Not necessarily our organizations, but our missions. For that, then, they have to take a very different approach to strategic partnerships and collaboration. I hope it’s all feeding into each other. I think it’s more complementary than contradictory, but of course, sometimes there are tensions.

RAJAGOPALAN: I don’t really mean just personally between the approaches that two of you share or the organizations may share, but more philosophically. You just talked about scale, and the lovely thing about creating system architecture is that it allows things to scale in a very sensible way and apply things with a universality. How does one make sure that universality does not become uniformity? Because so much of your work, which is citizens-first, participatory approach, is actually really about how diverse the problems are.

The problems in Bangalore are not the same problems 50 miles outside Bangalore, and are certainly not the problems in Kabini or the problems in rural areas. That part—is that tough to navigate, and is there an inherent tension there? Or is there, again, a question of good design and feedback?

NILEKANI: I think I believe in the power of intent a lot. I think in some sense all the teams that are working on some of these massive projects that we are engaged in, the power of intent is underpinned by shared values. Therefore, whatever design we are putting out there conforms to those shared values. And they include that we want to ensure that we are distributing the ability to solve and not necessarily pushing one or two solutions down the pipeline, which means it’s very important how you design for this.

Second thing, we’re 100% sure the teams that are working together, is that you want unified solutions for sure, but they cannot be uniform. And elements of it can be uniform; if there is a system of ID or if there is a way to make payments, that can be the same. But there has to be continuous allowance for people to be able to respond in their own context. Unified but not uniform in its design to allow for diversity and contextual responses.

We are very clear that these elements have to be part of the design, and whatever technology is being developed to make these happen must also allow for co-creation so that we are always thinking about enhancing agency. These are not just words. We have great discussions on whether what we are designing is allowing for it or not. If it is not, then what must change? In that sense, I think the bottom-up and top-down projects meet, in the form that the power of the intent must translate into the grammar of that intent in the design of the system’s architecture.

Physical and Digital Infrastructure

RAJAGOPALAN: You work oftentimes in the space of physical infrastructure, whether it’s trying to get clean water to reach the first mile or road safety and so on. And Nandan’s work on the digital infrastructure—he managed to build out the digital infrastructure platform for the entire country faster than it takes most people to agitate and figure out how to build a road.

Is this frustrating for you in terms of this huge gap between physical and digital infrastructure, or is this again a question of just India has always had this problem—it’s leapfrogged, it gets left behind? India had virtually very, very few fixed-line telephones, and even after liberalization, telecom liberalization, we saw that phones went up a little bit, but fixed-line telephones never really took off like the rest of the world. We just jumped straight to cellular phones and smartphone technology. We have fantastic penetration there.

This leapfrogging problem, do you view it as a frustration, like, “Why can’t we do it in the physical infrastructure space?” Or is this also an opportunity to improve the physical infrastructure? How do you view this?

NILEKANI: I’ve really begun to understand Nandan’s work. I’ve been watching now since 2009, and we’ve had some healthy debates along the way because for the state, of course, it is easy to roll out a very large-scale public infra. Of course, the digital ID project was done very, very quickly, I must say. I think that we are lucky to be able to leapfrog certain—otherwise, if you are stuck in a legacy framework, which you’re not, it’s much harder to change those. It’s much easier for us to have done this.

I believe India has some of the most sophisticated public digital infra in the world, and especially for a country like ours, it was built out quite rapidly. I have learned in this last decade and little more that perhaps this leapfrogging and this amazing social adoption of the digital technology, where everybody has become savvy about using digital services to find a rung on this ladder of aspiration, it’s been amazing to watch.

I have been wondering—one question that is interesting me of late—could this perhaps form the foundations of a different kind of economic democracy? This economic democracy, which is not like how China did its economic miracle but quite different, which allows horizontal relationships, economic relationships to be formed between small entities. Is the local grocer and the supplier very different from the large scale?

I’m wondering whether this might unleash a different kind of economic democracy, whether 300 or so million people still waiting to climb faster up that ladder may get new chances that we can’t imagine yet through access to credit, to all kinds of things. What would that do even to the development of the unfinished agenda of social and political democracy? I think this will play out over the next few years. I think it’s going to be fascinating to watch.

RAJAGOPALAN: I completely agree with you on how the digital public infrastructure can actually democratize—we talked about civil association. It basically democratizes economic association. You can have peer-to-peer transactions. You can directly transact with your vegetable vendor and your auto rickshaw driver without necessarily having a state or a bank intermediary having to go through the transaction.

The fantastic thing about the digital public’s infrastructure—again, wearing my economist hat, we would say it dramatically reduces transactions costs, which is the main thing. For me, the even more interesting thing is, so far, I believe for India’s set of UPI payments—I’m just talking about UPI within the India Stack—about 6.5% to 7% of the people account for about 45% of the spend right now, which is very consistent with the rest of India. In India, about the top 12% to 15% spend about 45% of all the consumption expenditure.

Some people say, “Oh, it’s again a project for the elite and those who have e-wallets,” and so on. Do you think about democratization as everyone needs to participate, or the way I think about it, which is reduce barriers to entry and eventually people will participate? For me, democratizing the payment system is more about reducing barriers to access. One day they will come if you build.

NILEKANI: Yes, I 100% think so. That it can’t all happen at once. 700 million smartphones, and almost 80% of the people have at least shared access, if not their own private phones. That is huge democratization. We don’t even know what that means to people. I think it really means a lot. While I think we have to watch out that, of course, the elite will have capture of any infra that is built out. Obviously, the elite will get it first, but just think how quickly, how rapidly access has gone to the bottom of—I always imagine India, thanks to one of my mentors, not as a pyramid, but as a diamond, like a fat diamond.

There is top elite narrow at the top of this diamond, and some very struggling people at the bottom tip of this diamond. The bottom tip is trying to move up into the fat middle. I think this is allowing that to happen. It’s not quite reached the bottom of this diamond, but it’s reached pretty close there through this kind of access to public services through mobile telephony. Now we are going to see a lot more happening in transport and mobility with electric scooter. All the prices are going to go down. You’re going to see a lot of things. I shouldn’t try to sound too much like my husband. We should get back to the samaaj side of this conversation. This is mostly a pitch.

Access to Credit

RAJAGOPALAN: No. You know, the samaaj side of the conversation—so for instance, one thing I’m quite excited about on the India Stack is Open Credit Enablement Network. Did I say that right? Yes. The Open Credit Enablement Network. This side of the India Stack basically to me is very much also in line with samaaj because once upon a time, the government ostensibly decided to own banks because they wanted to reach the first mile. They wanted rural penetration and so on.

This in one sense dramatically reduces the barriers to entry for someone to get credit just based on their past record of payments, or past record of service delivery and so on, without posting any collateral. This is literally a report card of a person’s ability to have less risky capital. These are the sorts of things I’m particularly optimistic about, because we don’t think of credit as part of samaaj, but credit enables samaaj to participate on a much more long-term and intertemporal basis.

In some senses, these things are deeply entwined. It’s very hard to say one thing is only market or one thing is only society. It’s becoming much more complex, and the digital public’s infrastructure space reduces the transactions cost of that complexity. Maybe I’m being too evangelistic, I don’t know.

NILEKANI: No, I think you’re right. Also, credit usually came through circles of trust, right?

RAJAGOPALAN: Yes, known networks.

NILEKANI: So much intermediated by caste and community. Now, if you can go beyond that, then you can create a much more inclusive, equitable and widespread—you can increase that circle of trust through policies, laws and enabling infra. Obviously, that is much more desirable than what it used to be. Many people believe that this access to timely credit might help pull a lot of people out of—they may be stuck in a little bit of low equilibrium, but can we pull them out of the low equilibrium?

RAJAGOPALAN: Yes. Especially things like education loans, right? It’s very difficult for poor people to post collateral. SBI, until very recently—I think they still do ask for huge amounts of collateral to be posted for education loans, which means only the rich, property-owning class can actually afford it. With education, the advantage is you can literally get a report card.

We can actually value the human capital and the potential, like Ambedkar, and say, “This is an incredibly smart student but obviously cannot post any collateral.” Maybe, again, I’m just an optimistic person. These sorts of things make me very optimistic about democratizing, whether it’s through cellphones and other things.

NILEKANI: Yes, I wonder how Ambedkar would think of it. His own college fees at Elphinstone College, which I also went to in Mumbai, were actually apparently paid by a progressive maharaja from Baroda.

RAJAGOPALAN: Yes, Baroda. As was his Columbia education, actually.

NILEKANI: Yes. Hopefully you don’t need philanthropy except a small amount, maybe a little bit on the edges to allow everybody to get a decent education.

RAJAGOPALAN: No, absolutely.

NILEKANI: You create the systems that allow everybody to get an education without needing necessarily the philanthropy or the kindness of the rich.

Internal Contradictions

RAJAGOPALAN: Yes. Here, I want to come back to you and your background and your work. I feel like there are three aspects to your career. You’ve been a journalist and a writer for a very long time. This is a side of your life which you’ve never really halted or stopped, even though you may not work formally for a news publication.

You have a side as an activist. This goes back about 30 years with literally on-the-ground agitation for road safety and things like that, but more broadly through your direct or sort of background support for some of these organizations. The third is as a philanthropist, which is much more recent, after Infosys took off and the family decided to set up this foundation.

Now, when I think about these three sides—when I think about a journalist, you think about neutrality, someone who’s just looking at the facts and reporting them in a fairly impartial way or chronicling stories. When I think of an activist, I think of someone who is actively disrupting. There’s a disruptive aspect, not a destructive necessarily, but a disruptive aspect.

When I think about philanthropists, I think about people who are builders, long-term thinking and building organizations. Do these different sides ever come into conflict, your ability to be neutral, your ability to disrupt and your ability to build very long-term institutions that will outlast many generations?

NILEKANI: Well, sometimes, but one of the things I learned in my life is to hold contradictions right from my childhood. I think it’s all right. You have to allow contradictions to be held and understand them. Luckily, these happened in different stages of my life. I could be a journalist, and I realized as a journalist, one learns a lot about samaajsarkaar and bazaar, because when I was in Bombay Magazine or Sunday Magazine, we had to report on everything in Bombay, from Bollywood to crime to political scandals to everything. That was samaajsarkaar and bazaar.

From there, I learned also about some of the aspects of society that I personally wanted to be involved in changing. There are many things that agitate us because we want things to be better. Then I entered the phase of my life where I was no longer being an impartial journalist but actively working with many other people to say, “Let’s make our roads safer,” or “Let’s improve our government schools,” or “Let’s improve access to water,” or “Let’s put a book in every child’s hand.” That’s where I was in the phase of myself helping to implement certain changes, together with hundreds of great people to do that.

Then I gently came out of that phase to become a philanthropist, where I could support people who were trying to create positive social change. These were three distinct phases actually, in some sense, in my life. The contradictions between them—I don’t need to be that neutral anymore because I’m not writing as a journalist. Now when I’m writing, I’m writing opinion pieces about what I believe in. And I’m supporting causes that I believe in, which are mainly about democracy, freedom, justice, inclusion, environmental issues, et cetera.

RAJAGOPALAN: Do you ever feel like you have to hold back? That’s the day-to-day question, how this conflict or contradiction plays out. Are you in rooms where you are suddenly like, “Oh, I’m not the activist here; I’m not the journalist here. The way I ask questions will be different,” or “The way I support this cause will be different”? Do you have to actively do that?

NILEKANI: No, you have to show a great amount of restraint as a donor or a philanthropist, because the last thing you want is donor-driven agendas. If you’re implementing yourself, then you do what you want to do. But if you are supporting other people, then you have to trust them, and you have to let go of some of the opinions you may have.

You have to trust that they know what they’re doing in their context. You have to definitely show a lot of restraint and humility as a philanthropist, because you are allowing social change makers to do what they do best, and donors don’t have all the wisdom they think they have. Yes, definitely, you have to hold back a lot, as you say. I may have a certain opinion on, say, privatization of water or whatever that may be, but if I’m supporting an organization that has a different view—in fact, I am known to be, I guess, a little unconventional in the sense that in all my portfolios, many times I’m supporting organizations that have radically different views from each other.

Because I don’t think anybody has the answers, frankly. I believe, like in nature, you have to create all sorts of experiments. Some will march ahead and prove to be more successful than others, but many different ideas need to be tried seriously and backed and allowed to play out. In that sense, the ability to hold even those contradictions, I guess, is something that I treasure.

RAJAGOPALAN: No, a portfolio approach is great in everything. It’s great when you’re investing in the stock market. It’s great when you’re investing in society as a philanthropist.

Philanthropic Ecosystem in India

RAJAGOPALAN: In India, we have not a great track record of professionally run philanthropies. There are many reasons for it. One, most people think of giving in a very charitable sense. They’re doing charity instead of philanthropy. I can see that in a country like India, where literally outside your doorstep there are people who are starving. There are people whose kids need to go to school. It’s a very paternalistic sort of, “Let me help so-and-so.”

NILEKANI: I must say, though, luckily, not that many people starving now.

RAJAGOPALAN: Yes, of course.

NILEKANI: In south India it’s really, really hard to find any poverty anymore, thank goodness.

RAJAGOPALAN: I think it’s salient in my mind because of the pandemic. You know, again, how people just came out in very large numbers to make sure that nobody’s really left behind, everyone is comfortable, whether it was food banks and distribution or helping ensure people’s transport back to their village. In India, most people really think about giving as charitable giving to the end goal that you can see and touch and feel, almost to an individual level. Yes. Very visibly.

NILEKANI: To visibly alleviate suffering.

RAJAGOPALAN: We don’t have too much in terms of very long-term thinking of more abstract ideas. I can think of maybe the Tatas, who set up a very professional philanthropic side or wing to their endeavors. There were a number of old Parsi families in Bombay going back about 150 years who tried to build out all these long-term infrastructure questions: universities, bridges, so on.

But we don’t see too much of that. What is it about the Indian ecosystem? Is it a cultural thing that we are much more in tune with this kind of charitable, visibly reducing suffering kind of state? Is it maybe because of the Gandhian values or something like that? Or is it just that India didn’t have a new class of millionaires and billionaires until 10 years after liberalization?

This also meant that this wasn’t the old business families, the trading families and the business families. After liberalization, India created a new class of people who entered the business sector. They had professionally run firms. In fact, Infosys is famous for being one of the very few large conglomerates where the founders insisted that none of their children will take over the running of Infosys after they step down.

Is that what is driving Nilekani philanthropies and a lot of the newer philanthropies especially coming from young tech founders and things like that? How do you see the space overall? Are we culturally different? Or just, it’s a matter of money, we’ll get there?

NILEKANI: I think, to be fair, there was a lot of philanthropy earlier. The educational institutions and a lot of public infra was set up by business houses—colleges, universities, bridges, parks, many things like that—till about the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s. I think the ’70s after, say, the Bihar famine, you got a lot of new NGOs coming up.

Philanthropy came in its wake because they set up really important movements, whether it was MYRADA in the south for the Bangladeshi refugees that came in post ’71. After the Bihar famine, there were things like PRADAN. There were many very large NGOs that were set up that were funded by both foreign and Indian philanthropy. It’s not like we haven’t had examples of all that as well.

It is true that post-liberalization, first-generation new wealth such as we came into had much more freedom. Otherwise industrial families were mostly giving generation to generation, and had to continue capital formation within their families, and perhaps did not have that much freedom to give it away. People like us, we are not obligated to pass on our money to the next generation, nor did we receive it from our parents. We have extreme freedom in how we dispense with it. I think there’s a whole new class of philanthropists who have that kind of freedom.

There is also a whole new class of philanthropists who now finally feel so secure in their wealth that they can give away much more with much more risk-taking. You are definitely seeing in the cultural space a lot of innovation. You are seeing in healthcare a lot of innovation. Of course, education continues to be very big. But you are beginning to see now, we are talking about some philanthropy in justice, some philanthropy in media. There are new areas opening up with new philanthropy in India, and I sincerely hope people are talking about collaborative philanthropy.

We are talking about now there is something called the Grow Fund, for example, where we are saying we’ll come together to do capacity building of civil society. There are a lot of new trends in Indian philanthropy growing stronger, and I do hope it continues.

RAJAGOPALAN: One area where I still find Nilekani philanthropies to be different (perhaps not the only one, but still different) is, even the business houses and families who managed to actually build out, not just to alleviate pain and suffering, but say build out universities and colleges and bridges and all the examples you gave, it was still very much brick-and-mortar thinking, something where we can hang a plaque and a name.

Whereas one of the things I observe about Nilekani Philanthropies is the support for ideas, which is a marked difference. We don’t have too many philanthropies, outside of maybe the Tata Trust and Nilekani Philanthropies, which support abstract ideas where one day eventually if the idea grows, it’s not going to be a Rohini Nilekani idea. There is no plaque to hang there.

Is that another cultural difference? That you will have BITS Pilani, which is the Birla Institute of Technology. It’s an excellent place, of course—ideas foster, innovation fosters—but that kind of philanthropy is still very much where you can touch and feel what you gave money to. You can visibly see it, as opposed to you are much more comfortable with abstraction.

NILEKANI: I think a lot more people are doing many more things that are looking at the source of the problem, and there are people supporting the think tanks of India. New think tanks like Takshashila and IIHS—so many new philanthropists have come forward to support IIHS, for example, which is the Indian Institute for Human Settlements, which is looking at training the next generation of urban professionals and creating better public policy for urban India.

There are people thinking long term and doing a lot more philanthropy. We are talking to so many people. There is interest. Many of the other Infosys founders like Shibulal are doing things like ShikshaLokam, which is how do you build the capacity of the leadership of the education system? The Piramals are working on the Tribal Health Initiative. People are thinking system-wide where you can’t hang necessarily plaques. Rainmatter Foundation, that is the Zerodha founders, they are looking at issues of climate change where you certainly can’t hang any plaques, but those are the most wicked problems to solve. People are beginning to come into this space very definitely.

But philanthropy can’t do it on its own. I come back to my favorite subject, which is, unless you have a thriving civil society that is going to be able to implement some of these things, and create all the new civic formations to hold those ideas, and to put the public pressure for new public policy formation, the philanthropy by itself may not do it. It’s a reciprocal process where civil society comes up with some of the ideation, and then philanthropy backs it.

Regulating Foreign Contributions and CSR

RAJAGOPALAN: Do you feel in one area, where you talked about this two-way street between philanthropy and civil society, one area where the government is kind of cannibalizing this feedback loop is by clamping down on funding? One is, there is just a very long list of requirements and oversight that is built into any kind of civil society NGO institution that they need to declare they can be audited.

In particular, foreign funding has come under a lot of scrutiny. This of course has been going on for now, not just this government and the previous government, but even the one before that, but it is now taking on a new shape. I’m in particular talking about the FCRA and the FCRA licensing and audit system. How does the government regulating or scrutinizing this area impact philanthropists and the civil society movement and that linkage between the two?

NILEKANI: No, it’s impacting it a lot. There have been many more regulations on civil society. From what I can understand, the government is beginning to feel that, why should we have foreign influence on, say, policymaking institutions? The government clearly feels that we should have more homegrown influences and that foreign money should come in only for some things. Maybe in foreign direct investment into the economic infrastructure, or economic goods and services.

But that when it comes to the nonprofit side, that it should be probably more homegrown philanthropy and homegrown ideas. I think they’re coming from that space, and that’s why they’re clamping down. It is affecting people who were very much used to foreign money coming in for certain kinds of civil society work. The civil society groups have been adjusting. I think we will see more, not less of that for some time, and I think partly it’s because a new form of trust needs to build between civil society institutions and the government.

I think civil society institutions also need to do much better storytelling and much more groundwork to build those relationships of trust. We are definitely in some kind of transition, and I think it’s a call to action to Indian philanthropists and to the Indian wealthy, that there are many unfinished projects in the country. Some of them have definitely to do with human rights as well, and who better to work in those spaces than Indian philanthropists? In that sense, I think there is a real opportunity for Indian philanthropy to grow here.

RAJAGOPALAN: I agree with you, but there’s one side of this where I almost feel like there’s sometimes some cognitive dissonance within government institutions. Where on the one hand it literally criminalizes companies and people working at these companies who don’t meet the 2% CSR requirement. There’s a criminal penalty associated with it, right? Now, CSR is wonderful, and it’s done lots of great things, especially during the pandemic. We saw how useful it is in supporting a lot of the civil society work.

On the one hand there seems to be this scarcity-driven model, “Oh, we have a shortage of money coming into the NGO sector, and we must literally, at the point of a gun, force companies to do this.” And on the other hand it’s like, “Oh, we don’t need the foreign funding.” In my sense it’s like, it’s got to be one or the other. Of course, we have to scrutinize questions of money laundering, or money going to terrorism or something like that, but it just feels very strange. I think I understand your interpretation of “Ideas need to be homegrown, as opposed to gadgets and widgets can have investment coming from abroad,” so that might be one point of view.

NILEKANI: I don’t know. This is what I think government’s idea is, not mine, but this is how the state seems to be thinking right now. Therefore, their stopping foreign money coming into civil society is an ideological position. It’s a political position. The CSR regime was started by the previous government. Actually, at that time I was quite taken aback and wasn’t really sure it was going to work. It seemed to me like a tax by another name.


NILEKANI: And whether business houses were even suited to doing the work of civil society, I wasn’t very sure. Some surprising success stories have come out in these 10 years of CSR, but I think the jury is still out on whether that’s the greatest idea. Whether isn’t it better to just tax that 2% or 5% or whatever you want, and then strengthen state capacity to deliver? I think the jury is still out on that, but surprisingly, it’s worked out better than I had suspected.

We were some of the voices speaking out against it when the law came into being. Some good things have come out, but clearly, it has also become something that constrains corporations. It is up to them to continue the conversation with the state as to how this can be better implemented.

RAJAGOPALAN: And I think the criminal penalty absolutely must go away because it’s so crazy.

NILEKANI: Well, the criminal penalty, Shruti, this bothers me as a citizen, that many of our laws are made without necessarily a rational structure of proportionality. One of the projects we are working with—and we will work closely with government and the justice system—has to do with, do we need to decriminalize some of the provisions of many of our laws?

We have some laws which don’t make too much sense in terms of how harsh the potential punishment is. If you fly a kite with a wrong manja, it’s actually a scope to put you in prison, or if you walk your dog wrong—100 things which actually criminalize ordinary human failings. I think there’s a lot of work to be done. This government and the previous government have actually taken some of the colonial laws and modernized and updated them, but I think generally there is a lot of work to be done to decriminalize several provisions of Indian law across the board.

RAJAGOPALAN: My favorite is tree cutting. When I started law school, my next-door neighbor actually called me in and said, “We need your advice since you’re in law school. Can we cut this tree?” Because there are a number of laws. Whether it’s like at the highest level, the Forestry Act, and local level, both the municipal and the Delhi state and Haryana state and so on. They all have laws that actually carry a six months to two years criminal penalty for cutting a tree without permission.

NILEKANI: Many of them are nonbailable offenses. The longest time in Karnataka if you cut a sandalwood tree, you would have to go to jail, and that the perverse incentives that come out of these things, and the unintended consequences of hastily made laws—we created Veerappan, a sandalwood smuggler—and all the things that happened because of that, simply because of poorly framed laws. There’s a lot of work to be done, and there are many good organizations that are in my portfolio that are working with government and with the system to create better laws and to reduce internal contradictions and to set better standards for lawmaking itself.

Which takes me to—the thing is, there is no demand on our lawmakers at all from the public. People don’t see necessarily the relationship of their good life and a good law. There needs to be a much-deepened discourse on why good laws make for good societies. I think we don’t have enough of that.

Citizens vs. Subjects

RAJAGOPALAN: Also, I feel like somehow that colonial mindset of the state-citizen relationship has never quite gone away, in the sense that we are not citizens; we are treated as subjects. I especially see that in the in the context of foreign contributions, because when you see something like the prime minister’s fund, that is allowed to get foreign donations with zero transparency. You can’t file an RTI to actually figure out who gave money to the prime minister’s fund.

It’s not just the prime minister; I’m sure every state government has something like this. It’s the same thing for campaign contributions and electoral bonds. It’s completely anonymous, there is no oversight built into it, there’s no transparency, it’s completely opaque. The most important thing in a functional democracy where it’s a state-citizen relationship is that actually it is the state that is accountable to the citizen. When you flip it over and make it a state-subject relationship, it’s the subject who’s accountable to the state.

At a very deep cultural level, also, we have something to figure out, how to navigate this. How do we go from being subjects to becoming citizens? Maybe that’s a longer-term project.

NILEKANI: That’s kind of new. As I said, before independence, the citizen-state relationship was very different. It is much later that you come into this idea that people have, and that is done through all sorts of handouts and doles that become the norm, and the mai-baap, father-mother state emerges. Especially in the ’70s, where you expect the state to actually give you doles, and a lot of those are arbitrary decisions made, not that you claim as a right, but are given to you almost as some kind of benefaction from the state. That is what has to change, and people are beginning to see the difference between a state that makes universal goods and services which you can claim as your right.

Some of the public digital infra today is making that difference, where you can claim as an ordinary citizen your right without necessarily becoming a supplicant or a beneficiary. I think a new citizen will emerge from that, because this generation is much more literate. We have the first fully literate generation in India. The parents of the young ones today are the first literate generation. You are going to see different forms of citizen demand coming. I think the politicians are very aware and very close to this change.

Definitely, there is still a very high demand on the state to do everything, but the conversation—in my book, at least, and in my work, I keep making the case that we are citizens first. We are not consumers of the market first. We are not subjects of the state first, and we have to put forward our citizen identity. Nobody’s going to do that for us. We have to do it for ourselves. The state is much happier to see us as a subject, and of course, James Scott’s “Seeing Like a State”—many people in your podcast refer to that. How do we see ourselves as citizens so that the state doesn’t see us as subjects?

There’s a lot of work to be done on the samaaj. That’s where I work. I think that is a continuing work in a democracy. How do you develop the societal muscle of citizenship? What more needs to be done for people to see themselves as effective citizens who are continuously trying to improve the state of their society and their democracy?

And that this actually should also give reciprocal joy, happiness, satisfaction. It’s not only a duty element. We see that. And why do so many people join civil society movements, organizations, ideas, institution building? Because human beings are meant to be social, create reciprocities, do things that create universal and not necessarily private benefit. It is that energy that drives the larger public good through civic action. We need to focus more on that; at least I try to in my work.


RAJAGOPALAN: From a philanthropist point of view, typically the most pressing problems in society are the ones that come to your table. There are lots of claims, there are lots of people need money, and you have to navigate that choice in some way. Oftentimes it’s, “Oh my God, this thing is completely broken, and that thing is completely broken, and that needs fixing.”

On the other hand, you seem to be a very optimistic person who is always looking forward to changing things, who is very happy with incremental change and wants to keep pushing forward. Are you overall optimistic or pessimistic about what’s happening in India today? And then I’ll ask you the same question. Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future?

NILEKANI: I think you have to be an optimist. I think it’s too late for pessimism, so you have to be optimistic. I say that hope is the new religion. Hope is, I say, a very positive thing—not empty hope, but hope that drives you to positive action. Because there are always going to be things that are going wrong, and there’s always hope that human compassion, empathy, the power of human ideas, the power of human organization, we are always trying to change the world for the better. I think optimism of the will especially—even if there is some pessimism of the intellect, I think optimism of the will is almost required today, given that we have very large problems like climate change that we all have to work on.

When I think of it, I was talking to a friend: Imagine that eight billion people, for the first time in human history, are together in some way or the other, joined in this collective responsibility to heal this planet. Can you imagine that everybody feels in some way or another part of this grand human mission? Whether we succeed or not, we don’t know, but we are all going to have to try, and who knows what boundless energies and virtues will come out of this manthan, this churn toward healing and regenerating this planet?

I feel that, especially in India with such a young population—sometimes I wonder, one of the big ideas playing out in the world today is like that schism between the idea of public order and individual freedom. I feel like something is getting reset. Even though technologies are enabling individual expression and freedom, there seems to be a demand and harkening back to an almost old Eastern idea of public order. These two ideas are playing out in the public spaces.

It’ll be very interesting to see, in a young country like India, what prevails in this contest between how much can you restrict individual actions and freedoms to create the idea of a certain public order. I think that’s playing out. I’m very optimistic that young people want their freedoms and want their ability to experiment in their personal lives and in their social spaces and definitely in their livelihoods. I think that grand thing is playing out in India right now. With some difficulties, as everywhere in the world—there seems to be a trend toward authoritarianism in the pursuit of this public order and development model. That’s playing out in India, but India is so diverse.

They say the map and the territory are different. The headlines and what’s happening in the country are two completely different things. When I travel in the field, that’s when I come back full of hope, that people are doing things to change their surroundings for the better. They have hope; they have optimism. They think things in India are going to get better economically, socially. There is a new sense that India is on the move, and sometimes just having that sense makes that come true because you’re doing things differently. You see that a lot across the country.

RAJAGOPALAN: I completely agree. I live in the United States, and when I’m not in India, all I’m consuming is news and Twitter and opinion pages, and it can leave one feeling a little bit of despair. The moment I visit India, it’s just optimism all the way, because it is so different to be on the ground. As you said, it’s not that the headlines are necessarily untrue, but it is that they are one part of what’s going on in India.

And just the boundless entrepreneurship and energy, especially among young people—India is a very young country. That also makes me very hopeful every time I do visit India. I’ll see you in my next trip to India, and I look forward to that. Thank you so much for doing this. This was such a pleasure. The book is fantastic, and everybody should read it, and I hope you write more books about each of these three aspects, samaajsarkar and bazaar, but especially more on samaaj.

NILEKANI: Thank you so much, Shruti. Thank you for the conversation.



Apr 01, 2024
ಸರಿಯಾಗಿ ಹತ್ತು ವರ್ಷ ಗಳ ಹಿಂ ದೆ ನಾವು ನನ್ನ ಪತಿ ನಂ ದನ್ ನಿಲೇ ಕಣಿ ಅವರಿಗಾಗಿ ಬೆಂ ಗಳೂರು ದಕ್ಷಿಣ ಲೋ ಕಸಭಾ ಕ್ಷೇ ತ್ರದಲ್ಲಿ ಚುನಾವಣಾ ಪ್ರಚಾರಕ್ಕೆ ಇಳಿದಿದ್ದೆವು. ಆ ಕಥೆ ಕೊನೆಗೊಂಡಿದ್ದು ಹೇ ಗೆ ಎಂ [...]
Mar 22, 2024
The headlines brought back sharp memories of a hot summer wind. Exactly 10 years ago, we had embarked on a grueling campaign for my husband Nandan Nilekani from Bangalore South [...]
Oct 26, 2023
I was walking with a young leader of an Indian civic engagement organisation last week, when he shared a perspective that stayed with me. He said, “Sometimes, society believes its [...]