This is an edited version of a conversation with Rohini and Nandan Nilekani as part of the #IIMChat series hosted by IIM alumni in Singapore. The event was moderated by Sonia Gupta, Vidya Vasania, and Suresh Shankar.
Like all of us in this room, while I didn’t grow up rich, I still grew up very privileged. My family was part of the urban middle class in Mumbai. I feel like just being in Mumbai was a privilege. Now, when I think of it, when I was growing up in the 60s and 70s in Mumbai, we had clean running water, we had electricity, we actually had public transport, we had roads without potholes, we had safety, we had art, we had culture, we had the sea – we had everything when I think back on it. And I think that itself was a privilege. I was also a bit of an activist do-gooder, which nobody likes, but I learned to get a little more sophisticated about it. So, it was inevitable that I would become a journalist.
When I became accidentally wealthy, because Nandan became an accidental entrepreneur, I found myself being a philanthropist. So then, I could actually support all the hundreds of thousands of amazing social entrepreneurs we have in India. This has pretty much been my journey. But I would like to add one more thing – in my family, and in those days in India I would say, we were always taught that the culture was service before self, and simple living, high thinking. My grandfather was among the first group of volunteers who went to Champaran in 1917, when Gandhiji called for help in setting up an Ashram there, during the Indigo agitation. He was held as the biggest person in the family to look up to. So those kinds of values that were instilled in us is what, I think, got me here.
Both Nandan and I support different things. But after he lost the election and said, “Now what shall I do”, we started working together in 2014. And it has been quite a journey. We support the intellectual infrastructure of India, including many policy think tanks. I am very passionately involved in environmental issues, and education has been at the very core of my work. I also care about access to justice, which is very important in a country like ours, and active citizenship. The goal is societal change, which is why, if you ask, “What did you achieve?”, most philanthropists cannot tell you what they achieved because societal change is so extremely hard to bring about. And sometimes the solutions lead to the next set of problems. But you have to keep at it and keep at it and keep at it. You have to create evolvability in your approach.
I think the first thing I changed my mind about was wealth. When I was growing up in the 60s and 70s, we thought wealthy people were not exactly the world’s best people. The country was a bit socialist and leftist, and we thought it best to stay away from wealthy people. And then I suddenly found myself wealthy and I said, “Oops.” It took me a while, but I changed my mind about wealthy people, wealth, and the responsibility of wealth. The other thing I got to change my mind about, because it is now 42 years that I have been living with one man, is technology. I studied the liberal arts, unlike many of you in IIMs and IITs. So, I was more interested in French literature and poetry and a little bit of economics, but was a bit skeptical about the impact technology can have on the world. But my God, I’ve changed my mind since then.
Climate Change, Urban Governance, and Samaaj
I have been talking about ‘Samaaj, Sarkaar, Bazaar’ for years now, but I owe the origin of that thinking to Prem Kumar Verma, one of our partners in my foundation, Arghyam. We were on this road trip in Bihar, from Patna to Khagaria, and that too at night, which I am not sure is the smartest thing to do. But during that journey, he told us many stories, including how there was a massacre at a village and my friend asked, “So where was that?” And he answered, “Jahan pe hum jaa rahe hai, wahi pe hua tha.” [It happened where we are going]. So we felt even safer. But he also talked about his own insights. He was a protege of JP Narayan, who started the Sampoorna Kranti revolution in India against corruption. During our journey, he told us that there seems to be a great imbalance in the world, because earlier Samaaj or society used to be the foundational and clearly more powerful sector. Even though they were monarchs, they really didn’t interfere too much in the life of Samaaj.
But in the last two or three centuries, especially since the Industrial Revolution, the Bazaar or the markets became more and more powerful, and he gave the example of the East India Company. Then in the last century, the state became incredibly powerful. So Samaaj has been pushed back a little, and he felt that was at the root of some of the problems that we were all facing. I found that this was a very powerful way of framing the question. And I started doing a lot of research on my own, and then talking more, writing more, thinking more about Samaaj, Sarkaar, Bazaar. The need for a better balance between the three sectors is what animates my work and philosophy. So, no matter which sector we work in, the goal is to strengthen Samaaj. How can you strengthen Samaaj to solve much of its own problems? And, through its moral leadership and through its institutions, how can it hold the Sarkaar and Bazaar i.e. the state and markets much more accountable to the wider public interest? Because nowadays, we get up in the morning and open Amazon or Google, and we immediately become customers even before we brush our teeth. Sometimes we see ourselves as subjects of the state, rather than citizens of a society. So, is there something we need to change? Is there some mental model flip that we need to make? That is my quest.
And it is really a quest. I am no expert, I am not an economist or historian. As a citizen, I believe this and I think there is a dialogue that needs to be had. We have reached peak polarization and I think people are fed up of it. We can all learn to build bridges, so that this discourse, about the role of Samaaj and society in the 21st century, can be deepened across the aisle, without canceling anybody and without any judgment.
In Mumbai during the 60s and 70s, there was not much of a difference between the rich and the middle classes. But in today’s India, the elite have, over the last four or five decades, completely seceded from all public services, right? And I am including myself in that. We have our own water, electricity, transport, education – everything you can think of, we have seceded from the rest. We have separated from the rest. And that doesn’t bode too well for democracy at large. So I believe that we now need what I call the end of secession, because we know that you cannot secede from pandemics. You cannot secede from bad air quality. You cannot secede from floods. When the recent Bangalore floods happened, many friends we know lost tens of crores of their assets, and it was really shocking for them. So many slum people nearby also had all their assets washed away. That is when I wrote about the responsibility of the 1% to do a little more, because this secession of the elite has resulted in castles being built on a very weak public foundation. We have excellent private infrastructure, but it is built on the back of a weak foundation of public services. So can we, the elite, participate in some way or the other? And there is always scope to do a lot in India so that the public foundation, whether it is a physical infra, digital infra, in any field whatsoever, is so strong that then, on top of that, wealth creation can lead to the elite. They can build their own fortresses or palaces or what have you, but on top of the foundation that everyone can benefit from. That is the argument I was making.
One of Nandan’s passions, and it is something that we are both very interested in, is urban governance and how cities should develop in India. We support a lot of organizations trying to do that work, because in Bangalore, I think we have the best Samaaj of urban reformers anywhere in the world. Every few inches you can trip over one reformer. They sometimes fight with each other, but they also sometimes work together. As a proud Bangalorean, I believe that many of the most interesting ideas on reform across the sector come from Bangalore. So that is an important thing. But I also think that the wealthy do have an extra responsibility in a country like India. Right now there is no great backlash against the wealthy in India as there is in many other parts of the world. I think that is because India is still a growing economy. People are still very, very hopeful about their own future. Most of India comes at the top of optimism surveys all the time. And when people believe that there is headroom for them to grow, then they are optimistic and do not resent what is happening with the very unequal wealth creation that is happening around the world and in India. But that is why the wealthy have so much of a responsibility to make that base stronger. So they need to engage in societal issues, whether it is about livable cities, whether it is about how people sometimes want to go back, or how we are going to reimagine our agricultural economy. Because all of us urban denizens are so dependent on other people’s products and services, just as all urban people are all over the world. So it is a matter of great interest to us.
Although I’m not an expert, I would say that things have improved so much in the agricultural sector. When I was young, we were still reading about hunger and starvation. Today also, the pandemic has certainly pushed a lot of people back under the poverty line, in India as well as globally. But at least in South India, you will not find a single hungry soul. And in much of the rest of India, the situation is improving however there are, of course, going to be pockets where more work must be done. But we do not know what is going to happen next. Due to climate change, our food production patterns are going to change dramatically, and the government policies and the markets are going to have to keep up. So all of us have to be worried about food – its production, transportation, and the energy and nutrition of food, not just for ourselves, but for all the people around us too.
I think in India, people are feeling the effects of climate change quite directly on their lives. We have had floods and droughts, and as we know, one disaster can change the lives of tens of millions of people. I am very happy to support organizations like Goonj, who are present on the ground the minute something like that happens, and who have a very revolutionary approach to helping the people get back on their feet. So people are feeling climate change. And I think they will be open to policy shifts that seem to have a lot of short term trade offs. They can see that in the long term they want their children’s lives to be better.
I had the good fortune of bumping into an old friend, Adam Werbach, recently. He was the youngest president of the Sierra Club and quite an environmental activist – he actually helped to re-green many of America’s national parks. But then he began to understand that it is not enough to stand outside the gates and agitate. He started to understand that we have to work with the government, of course, but also and especially with corporates if we are going to have a real, serious impact on consumption and therefore emissions and climate change. Today, he works with Amazon, and he works on sustainability.
There has been so much doom and gloom in this conversation over the last 30 years because governments simply have not been able to move as fast as all of us want. But we have not moved fast either. We have not particularly changed our lifestyle. But we like to tell the government to move faster than Samaj can because that is okay. Yet, in my conversation with Adam, he said something that really made me think. He mentioned how companies like Amazon are using 75% renewable energy in their supply chain. And he said something that I think we have not realized yet – humanity’s most important task now is to reverse 300 years of putting carbon into space. We do not think of it and it is not visible yet, but we are on the right track. I told him that many grandparents feel bad about what their grandchildren’s lives are going to be like in the future. He replied, “You know, I believe that in your grandson’s life, around 2060-2070, you will have less carbon in the air than we have today.” So many good things are happening. Of course, that does not mean all of us can now pack up, go home, and buy our next blingy thing. We have to keep at it, work at it, look at our own lives, look at what policy work we can support, and what action we can support on the ground so that Adam’s predictions for my grandson’s 60th birthday can come true.
How Philanthropy is Changing
In terms of striking a balance between the professional and personal, I think the main thing is that if your professional life and your personal life and interests are too diverse from each other, you can create unhappiness for yourself. So, at least for Nandan and I, our professional and personal lives are not that separate. We think about the same kind of issues in both and we have been very lucky that it is kind of seamless, unlike Americans who separate their Monday to Friday lives from the weekend. So we are very privileged to be able to say that it has been aligned. Having said that, of course, there is always the desire for being alone with yourself so that you can think and absorb the mysteries of the universe. We are lucky to get that time as well. I do that by disappearing into the forest. During the pandemic, I was away for 80 days. Nandan was quite happy with this situation. I stayed in Kabini, searching for the elusive Black Panther. In the end, after five years of searching for Karia as he is called, I finally found him in December 2020.
Philanthropy is not so easy as well. It takes time to learn how to give well, as some of you already expressed. So it has been a bumpy journey. When I came into wealth for the first time, I came into 100 crores, which at that time seemed like a mountain of money. And I decided to put it all into my foundation because I did not think we needed it in our personal life. So when I got my first chunk of wealth, I just put it all into Arghyam. And then of course, as I said, the way the economy is structured, the wealthy make more wealth while they are sleeping than most entrepreneurs used to make in their whole lifetime. So we became more and more wealthy and had to learn to give more and more away, faster and faster.
So we became more ambitious, took more risks, and had more trust in people, ideas, and institutions and that is how it has been going on. That is the philosophy. Trust in good ideas, good individuals, and good institutions, and let go of a little bit of control. That is when you find the opportunities to give more.
It also helps to remember that we are all members of Samaaj, first and foremost. We all have multiple identities but when you go to sleep, all those identities have to get stripped away. You are a human being first and a citizen next. And, of course, you may be a father or a mother too. But I think we sometimes get confused about those identities in our day jobs. We forget how much we are citizens at our core, when we go into our corporate selves. And I think that alignment has to be returned. Survey after survey says young people do not want to work for companies that do not have an expressed purpose to improve the world. So this change is very essential. As I say in my book, and I often say in person, even and especially in the Bazaar and in your corporate avatars, there is so much change you can do, by making the smallest of differences. If we have these conversations in the workplace, I think aligning purpose and profit can happen better. But we have to wake up and think about it very deeply, not just at a surface level. We know that capitalism has always evolved and tried to change based on the resistances it has found. And we are seeing that happen. We are seeing so much of conscious capitalism, stakeholder capitalism, all kinds of nuances in capitalism are coming into the marketplace. Nick Stern said that climate change is actually market failure. And I think the market has woken up to that sense of failure and wants to find new opportunities to reverse this failure. So that is the first thing I think all of us have to do, to keep that conversation at the dinner table ongoing. It is not something you forget about when you come home from work.
With the pandemic and other crises, we have seen how Samaaj comes together to help each other. But it is easy to do something in a crisis and then forget about it. I do want to note that we are seeing how the short and long term is now merging. Crises seem to roll about, but I have had the great fortune to support dozens of young leaders who are pulling together young citizens of India to solve their own hyper local problems. For example, Reap Benefit created something called Solve Ninjas and they have 50,000 Solve Ninjas around the country who look at some local problem and activate citizens around them to solve the problem. It could be about water, it could be about some public infrastructure, it could be about education or fixing a school. There are all kinds of things that they do. There are many other examples of initiatives like this. So I think people are actually putting a little part of their everyday time into this because it makes them feel very good. I met many of those volunteers. It gives them great purpose and satisfaction to do good and belong to a club of people like them. So we are seeing things move among a section of young people.
We have also seen retail giving in India growing by leaps and bounds. 300 crores were raised in just a short period during COVID by ordinary citizens who are not even used to giving that kind of money. Today, there are many more people doing small giving through events like Daan Utsav which is held from October 2nd to October 9th every year. So it is not just about giving their time but also their money on a routine basis.
I think faith and hope are necessary things. And I get my hope and faith from the people that I meet in India. I also live with a man who is an optimist, and sometimes is quite irritatingly optimistic. But I can say, it is infectious. What is most infectious is definitely, definitely going in the field, and seeing people giving so much of themselves to change the world. Then you come back and say, “Yeah, I can do it too!” I also look at my grandchild and I wake up wanting the world to be just a little better every day, for his sake.