Rohini Nilekani | Casual Conversations with Citizens

May 31, 2020


This is an edited version of Rohini Nilekani’s conversation with Gopal Sankaranarayanan, as part of the Casual Conversations with Citizens series. Rohini shares her experiences of life and encounters with the law, rights, and most importantly, her ideas of justice.

I grew up in a fairly middle class household in Mumbai, and my parents wanted the best for my sisters and I. My mother was from a land-owning feudal setup but wanted us to have a liberal, convent education and be independent. The stories we were told, and the values we were taught said that wealth does not come from possessions or money, but a good education and how it is applied.

My grandparents inspired me a lot as well. My grandfather, Babasaheb Soman, was from the Belgaum-Khanapur area. Despite being in the legal profession, he spent most of his time trying to convince his clients not to go to court, which in turn meant that he did not earn much money. My grandmother, on the other hand, came from Gwalior as a young second bride to Babasahed Soman. Her father was an ambassador to the court, so she came from palatial surroundings to my grandfather’s relatively humble home.  

Their stories were told a lot. I didn’t meet my grandfather –  he worked with Gandhi during Champaran, and died just before Independence. But his stories are alive in our family. My grandmother, who I did meet, showed me how to really live. Having gone from wealth to humble living, she decided to go into severe austerity for the last 20 years of her life by living in one single room. So it was quite a journey.

I met Nandan in December 1977, when he was at IIT and I was at Elphinstone College in Mumbai. At the time we were young and free and trying to be radical, and not thinking about wealth. Even 10 years into Infosys, nobody thought we would come into this kind of unprecedented wealth.

Law and the Power of Knowledge 

​​As a journalist you get to see people encountering the law, because you write their stories. I remember as a cub reporter, I had to report on a murder, for which I had to think about issues of justice, policing, and crime. I think as a reporter you are constantly doing stories that involve jurisprudence in some form, but otherwise journalists don’t really encounter the law. In fact, we’re quite privileged in that regard. A good example of this is when I was covering a protest against a dowry-related act of violence that had taken place. Some people had killed a woman, so we were outside that house, and I had my camera and my notebook with me. When the police came, all those people got arrested, but I didn’t because I was also reporting. Which is to say, when you’re reporting, it’s a very different privilege.

Later, when I went to see how a high court functions, I was quite appalled because nobody could hear the judge. The audio system was poor and the crowd was too big, there was so much confusion. I saw a lot of people outside. One fellow was actually crying when I was talking to him, saying, “This is the 30th time I’ve come, and my case has been adjourned. My life is falling apart”. It really bothered me that something as simple as decent and competent access to a court is not a reality for most people. 

So I’ve always been interested, both as a journalist and writer and because my grandfather was also in the legal profession, about the issues of law in society. How does the law interface with society? Who learns from whom? It’s a two-way conversation, but often not discussed enough in the public domain. It seems to be hiding behind black robes sometimes, but it should be out in the public domain because law is about society. And so those issues are really important to put out into many languages, into casual conversations on the streets and in our homes, and that’s what made me suggest the idea of a portal that makes the law easy to understand for ordinary people. 

We still need to find ways to make lawmaking more transparent. In this, civil society plays a big role. I think we are also to blame as voters. I’ve said this before – we don’t realize that lawmaking is a very critical function of the legislators we elect and then expect to solve our personal problems individually. If we also took the time to understand that making good laws is a significant part of the work that legislators must do, then they can have a conversation with us to say, “Okay we are thinking of such a law, do you even have an opinion on it, then we can represent you when those laws are being framed.” I think that needs to start happening and it’s a two-way conversation, we must use our legislators. We can have civil-society organizations step in, so there is a much broader democratic consultation before laws are made.  

There is also an issue with the regulation of laws. There is no law that says, for example, that people can go and dump effluents in Vrishabhavathi river in Bangalore. Nothing allows you to do that. But people wait for everybody else to be asleep and go and do it. So, how many policemen, how many people do we need to watch over other people’s bad intent from being practiced? We need our governance institutions to step up and say, “Look, this pollution is going to affect all of us together.” So, we definitely have deficits of governance and regulation. We have deficits in terms of how laws are framed. And this is a wonderful time for more people to get involved with these issues of law and society and do all they can to improve the discourse, at least. Everyone can be a part of that and reduce some of the polarization in thinking. How can we do much more preventive work like mediation outside the courts? How can we think of ways where people can do much more peacemaking and prevention before things even reach the courts? So, I think there’s a role for a lot of people to get engaged with these questions.

We need to give first-time legislators a primer on how to go ahead with lawmaking. The work that PRS Legislative Research and Vidhi Center for Legal Policy are doing are good examples. Vidhi is trying to help legislators and parliamentary committees make laws that are more clear, contemporary, and within the frame of the constitution. PRS Legislative Research, on the other hand, is helping legislators and parliamentarians understand what laws are on the table, how to make better votes happen around them, and how to have better debates. 

Finally, when it comes to the judicial academy, it should be similar to medical education where you have continuing education to retain your license to practice. Given that change is happening at a dizzying speed, especially because of technology, this is the right time for it, because otherwise how are judges supposed to keep up? 

Gender is a Cross-Cutting Theme 

I’m not a career woman in the conventional sense of the term. As a journalist I only worked for a few years, after which I did a lot of freelancing. I gave up my job when my daughter was born because I found it hard to juggle both. But I was in a privileged position to be able to do so, and to take six years off from work to dedicate to my children because Nandan was very busy at the time. Additionally, my profession allowed me to write articles and do simple things on the side, so I was able to take advantage of that.

In that way, I did have the struggles that other working women have. All the things that women have to balance can be very tough. The demands keep changing and you have to make many sacrifices, because it is impossible to do it all, no matter what people say. Something has to give. If you’re lucky, you have a support system around you. Which is why it is so necessary that we work with men and boys, so that we can enable them to become the support system that women need. 

In my three decades of work so far, what I’ve seen is that no matter which area you work in, gender is a cross-cutting theme. Take water, which is an area I have worked on for 15 years now – the burden of water is on women at a household level, and in that way gender is an important part of our work in water, though we do not necessarily call it out. 

At a macro level, as a writer and a reader, when you are looking at what’s happening around us and trying to unpack things, you begin to think about the other side. In this case, that is thinking about who a woman is dealing with – she is dealing with a man on the street, or her husband, or her father, or her son, or somebody who has a different way of looking at women’s empowerment perhaps than she does. That makes her choices very complicated.  

Having thought of this I then began to look at young men, and asked myself where do all these things spring from? What is the root of patriarchal thinking? What do young males think when they are 13 and their hormones are raging? 

It was this line of questioning that made me look at what work was being done in this area, to try to support more of it, and create a whole portfolio across India where young men can safely examine their masculinity and come to terms with who they are. This is very necessary if we want women’s empowerment.

The Need for Collaboration 

In terms of collaboration, there are two kinds of models that we can look at. The first is between philanthropists, and the time has come when philanthropists globally are recognising the need to work together. This is an important point in the journey of The Giving Pledge where if we look at the difference between how much has been promised versus how much has been given, there is a huge gap. People don’t necessarily know how to give money, it’s not so easy. There are many intermediary organizations that are also helping bigger philanthropists, bigger foundations to connect with smaller first time donors. And there are many, many more open spaces for that sharing and discovery. So this is actually a very great time for that. 

In this context, there is a need for all of us to learn from those who have given better and given more. Thankfully, there are many intermediary organizations that are helping the bigger philanthropists and foundations connect with smaller first-time donors. Additionally, there are many open spaces for that sharing and discovery. It’s a great time for cross-learning in the space of philanthropy. 

The second kind of collaboration is between philanthropists and the government. Here, it is especially important to note that the money that even a philanthropist like Bill Gates has is nothing compared to what the government has. However, what philanthropists or people who want to invest in social change do possess is the ability to take some risks with their capital. They can say, “Let’s just try something. And if it fails then we’ll try something else.” This is not a luxury the government has. 

Indian governments, whether at the center, state, Panchayat, or even the municipality level – are usually open to suggestions. From there, it is a journey of co-creation between the government body and the philanthropist. The government body will have ideas, because they have budgets, schemes, or programmes, and as a philanthropist you have to fit into all of that. But you do get the space to innovate and that’s the important thing. 

Take Arghyam as an example. Approximately 10-15 years ago, there were marvelous institutions doing work on groundwater, at a time when there were no groundwater laws. Arghyam, in collaboration with these civil society organizations, came up with something called Participatory Groundwater Management which is now a cornerstone of all government policy on water. Which is to say that it is possible to find space and opportunity to work very well with the government. 

On Successes and Learnings 

When I think about my success, the first success that comes to mind is Pratham books which I co-founded in 2004. When we set it up in Bangalore, our goal was to get a book in every child’s hand. I stayed there for 10 years, and the next team came in and took it on. Over the years, millions of children have been able to get books in their own language, get them free or at very affordable prices, access them across the country, and soon all across the globe, thanks to the Creative Commons platform we created. I think that I consider it a genuine success. 

If we are considering the future of citizens as lawmakers and law abiders, it is especially important to ensure that children learn better. To this end, I have worked with two kinds of organizations. With EkStep, our mission is to increase access to learning opportunities for 200 million children by next year. I think we are on track to do that because we are working very closely with all the governments – approximately 28 or 30 states now want to develop a platform for getting teachers to teach better and access resources. EkStep does not create content. Instead, it supports the whole content creation ecosystem. In that sense, we do not decide what needs to be taught, but we focus on ensuring that whatever is being taught is being taught better, be it in terms of access, ability to discover, or ability to share. In essence, it is a technology enabled platform. 

On the other hand, organizations like Akshara Foundation, which I have been involved with deeply, looked at the importance of teaching values, what the atmosphere in a classroom should be like, and what the relationship between children and teachers should be. Together, I think we are able to engage with different parts of the system. The present is a great time for us to really engage with the whole school system so that children are more curious and connected to issues of future citizenship. 

The other success that comes to mind is Arghyam, where we’ve made some serious inroads in policy when it comes to water. We’ve been able to support dozens of organizations that have been working on the ground for decades. The government has already come out with two massive schemes in water, the thinking for which came from some of Arghyam’s partners. These policies in turn impact millions of people across the country. 

A learning experience that stands out for me was with an organization called Nagarik. I had just lost a very dear friend in a ghastly accident and so we set up this organization for road safety in 1992. We were spectacularly unsuccessful. Though there were amazing people like Sivakumar and Kiran Mazumdar and Jagdish Raja involved, we just didn’t know what to do. We were perhaps a little ahead of our time and we were doing the wrong things and under-investing, and so it did not work. But it taught me that just passion and unstructured use of your time is not going to make any change possible. Knowing what I do today, I would do Nagarik very differently. But that is how we learn – by failing. 

The Need for a Strong Samaaj

There are issues that remain unresolved in India on ground water, and that’s just one example of the commons. So, who owns the commons? Whose land is it? Whose water is it? We haven’t really resolved that. Different countries have resolved this in different ways, but personally I worry about the hard edge of that. To say that either the community owns it, or the private sector can be given a lease on it, or the state holds it in trust and decides whether the private sector gets it or you and I get it – they are all problematic constructs. So, we need a stepped-up governance architecture on the public commons. We have to use the principle of ‘subsidiarity’ where possible. For example, even if we say the state is a trustee of the commons, we have to leave some of it to be solved at the most local possible level. So, panchayats under the 73rd amendment need to be rejuvenated now but many local water bodies can be managed through dialogue and within those small areas or even across, within district boundaries. So, in practice, community resources are being managed by communities.

Once in a while a heavy-handed law will come down and an eminent domain will be called in and will say, “We are putting a fine here, we are putting a road here,” and there’s always conflict at those points. But I don’t even know if this can be resolved once and for all. We have to keep learning from the best examples available to us and then framing and sharpening our laws accordingly.

But you see, it’s when it comes to finite public resources that all these conversations arise. In education, if you have five extra books, I don’t get one less book. I can get five books too. If you get an education, I don’t get less of an education. But when it comes to these finite public goods, that’s when these contestations arise, and I think those discussions are still wide open in India. And we have to be wary of saying that the state will be the final authority. The common thread that runs through all my work is the dynamic continuum between Samaaj, Bazaar, and Sarkaar. Today, we need to strengthen Samaaj because right now it is very divisive and polarized. We have to start a deep conversation as to what is a good society. And then, therefore, redefine the role of the state and the market so that they remain accountable to the larger public interest. Otherwise, we fall into the trap of becoming consumers of the market or subjects of the state and forgetting that the real work for all of us, as citizens, is to contribute to a good society. We have to co-create good governance because the state alone will not do it. We have to co-create good markets that work for us, because the markets alone will never do it.

With this in mind, we need to be thinking about how we re-invest the commons with regenerative property so that more people can use them equitably and in a just manner. This is something the Samaaj sector needs to collectively think through. Here, the law needs to be engaged to enable implementation in a way that is equitable and just, and looks at intergenerational justice. These are the issues that keep me interested and I get to support so many good organizations that are deeply thinking through these issues.

The Future of Indian Philanthropy

Going forward, India’s super wealthy need to be more generous and more transparent about how generous they are. There are some people who are very generous and don’t like to talk about it. But for more people to increase their generosity, we need to build bridges of trust amongst the wealthy. People often get insecure and feel the need to protect their wealth. When economies are doing well or when people see a trajectory for their children, they are reassured and become more generous.

Even if people are more generous, I hope that philanthropy doesn’t remain charity. I also hope that philanthropy and justice do not remain octagonal, and that there is more convergence between the two. Because it is true philanthropy when you have understood there are structural issues of inequity that you have to address through your philanthropy.

That being said, you can’t do it alone. Nobody has figured out how to have a perfectly equitable society, but we can move towards an ideal where this kind of runaway wealth becomes structurally impossible to garner, because nobody needs this kind of wealth. So, how do you then, in your philanthropy at least, keep some portion of your portfolio to look at issues of justice, to find organizations you can trust who will work on these issues, so that the burden of philanthropy itself is reduced on people. That’s a long, hard journey for many people. And we also need many more institutions working on justice to better communicate what they do and the importance of their work, so that they are able to attract investments. So, there’s lots of work ahead but it’s a very exciting time because people have recognised how interconnected our destinies are.



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