Rohini Nilekani on why India’s wealthy need to do more to boost civil society

Sep 04, 2022


At a time when the government and the marketplace have assumed enormous power over our lives and choices, Rohini Nilekani argues that now is the time for civil societies to be boosted, and that India’s wealth creators need to do more about it. In this episode, she joins host Sandip Roy to discuss her latest book, ‘Samaaj, Sarkaar, Bazaar’, in which she talks about the need for a balance between these three sectors.

This is an edited version of Rohini Nilekani’s conversation with journalist Sandip Roy, for an episode of The Sandip Roy Show. They discuss Rohini’s latest book, ‘Samaaj, Sarkaar, Bazaar’, and the need for balance between the three sectors.


India and the Changing Nature of Giving

Growing up in a middle class urban family in Mumbai, I remember that there was a lot of wealth around us. We were by no means badly off, we were middle class, but the stories in my family and the culture that was impressed upon us was that wealth is not what makes you. In those days during the 60s and 70s, wealth was not something that you aspired to in India. You aspired to a different idea of the nation. We did not say, “Oh, everyone in India should be prosperous,” we first said, “Everyone in India should be included.” We still have to make this country, we have to build this country, we have to bring its people together – that sort of thing.

In those days, wealth was what the industrial families had, not normal people. And Infosys was a real experiment in that sense. A bunch of professionals coming together, determined to succeed. But even then, the first thing on their minds was not, “Oh, let us set up Infosys and become billionaires.” The first thing on their minds was to set up a company – and this is something they say in their motto as well – that is powered by values and driven by excellence. I was also a bit of an activist. All of us were a little bit on the left. And so when I came into so much wealth, it really took me years to deal with the fact that now I was on the so-called ‘other side’. I rebelled a bit, I could not understand what to do with it, because it is not like we were brought up to say, “Why don’t you just shop till you drop and have a great time? What is the big deal?” We could not do that somehow. So that wealth had to have some purpose and meaning. It took some time, but then somewhere the penny dropped. Certainly, Nandan had something to do with saying that we need to accept it and make something of it. Rather than seeing it as something strange, it became more of a joyful responsibility to learn how to use that wealth, of course for ourselves too but also to think of it as something you could do more with in the societal domain.

Luckily, this happened in the early 2000s, by which time India had liberalized, and a decade of liberalization had also changed public attitudes towards the creation of wealth. There is also a shift in the mindset – that wealth creation is what India needs now, and because Infosys was always driven by a very strong core of ethics, the wealth that had come to us was perfectly legal, perfectly transparent, perfectly hopefully, articulately made wealth. So, the fact that liberalization had made that wealth possible and the public shift in mindset about India should be doing now, certainly helped.

I also used to travel a lot in those days with Nandan, and we were able to travel abroad. We had already spent a lot of time in the US, but after we became wealthy I got to go to places like Davos, where all the world’s elite were there, and certainly the problem of having wealth was not on their minds. But I also got to meet a lot of philanthropists from around the world and began to see more and more what an opportunity this could bring for my work.

I think we also forget that this whole idea of philanthropy is a bit new. People used to do good old fashioned charity, because humans care for humans. If you had more money, you did more charity. And if you had less money, you did less charity. I think that is the highest sort of human attribute, right? Empathy. But as foundations began to be born, and wealthy people started to become so wealthy that, as they said, if you have a Ferrari, you better have a foundation too. And so this whole new thing with the media celebrating philanthropy came into being, just about 30-40 years ago. This kind of giving, which Matthew Bishop from The Economist later called ‘philanthrocapitalism’, sat even more uneasily with me – and I used to tell him this too, so I am not saying something that he does not already know. So I was a little uneasy, I felt like philanthropy was too big a word. And as Martin Luther King said, even when philanthropy does good, we must not forget that it exists because there is so much inequality. So that was the reason for my discomfort, but now I have settled into it. 

In India, I think people are beginning to change. Many people still do charity, and there is nothing wrong with that. But the kind of axiomatic idea is that philanthropy is somehow smarter or more strategic because hopefully – if you have so much money and you are committed to certain causes – you are going to go beyond just feeding the poor and clothing the naked, as they used to say, to understand why there are so many people in need of food and clothes in the first place. This is the real use of philanthropy, to do the institution building, the leadership building, and the agency formation or rather the agency re-discovery. I think that is what starts to separate philanthropy from charity in today’s lexicon, and I believe a lot more Indian wealthy are seeing that and want to do that.

When it came to signing The Giving Pledge, it took us a while to decide because there is a cultural aspect to it. In India, you do not really sign pledges and make yourself look good in the headlines saying, “Look at me, I signed The Giving Pledge.” So that was our first hesitation. The second was that we did not really hobnob with the international community of the wealthy. We had those fears, but then we talked it through, and I especially felt – and Nandan certainly agreed – that it is time for us to give up the old notion that the left hand should not know what the right hand does in charity. Now is the time to signal loud and clear that wealth, especially such great amounts of wealth, has a public responsibility. And we thought this was one way of signaling it, and would also give us a chance to learn how other ultra high net worth individuals are doing their philanthropy. So we were hoping to join this global learning community. And I must say, the 250 odd people who have signed The Giving Pledge really are a global learning community, trying to learn from each other. We meet once a year at least, and there is a lot of learning and sharing. So I think in hindsight, we did make the right decision.

Unfortunately, there are very, very few other Indians who have signed The Giving Pledge. When Bill Gates used to come here, one of the things on the agenda was to increase Indian philanthropy. So we had something called the India Philanthropy Initiative, which did shift the needle a little bit, and Azim Premji was very much a part of hosting some of those things. But it was possibly not enough, since more people have not signed The Giving Pledge yet.

I wish more would sign, because it is not like The Giving Pledge committee is holding a gun to your head, it is just a public commitment to giving away 50% of your wealth, which is not even much considering how much people have now. With the kind of wealth that the richest 2,000 people have in India, families can last seven or eight generations comfortably. So there really should not be any insecurity or fear left, and I wish more would sign the pledge. Maybe they still do not see the need to or maybe we need an Indian version of it. As new ideas are emerging in philanthropy, we do have promising Indian versions that are being conceptualized, but I think there is always hope for the Indian wealthy to give forward much more.

Early Lessons in Philanthropy

In 1992, along with a few other like-minded citizens, I started Nagarik for safer roads. I had gotten a few people together because I was very moved by the death of close friends in a senseless car crash. India remains one of the worst countries in the world to be on the road. Even today, we have the maximum number of deaths on our roads, so we were moved to do something to make roads safer. But this was the first time many of us were trying to do something like this together, so we did not quite know how to do it. Everyone had day jobs and it was perhaps something that we were more interested in doing than society was ready for at that time. Unfortunately there still are not many organizations that have taken this up as a civil society mission.

It was morally undeniable to say our roads should be safer, but I do not think we took the citizens with us enough to make it a broad-based movement, sustain the energy, or  get the next level of people into the organization. So we tried a few interesting but eventually ineffective things. And in a few years, in humility, we sort of shut the effort down. But I am sure each one of us learned a lot along the way. My first lesson was that the cause you take up has to resonate with the public. Secondly, how you organize yourself has to be very clear; you need to pull in all kinds of resources and you need to really hang in there for a long time before change can be seen. So it was good that in the first institution I co-founded, we learnt a few quick, hard lessons, hopefully without harming anybody in the process. This is very important actually, because in the civil society sector, we cannot glorify failure. In the market space, they like to almost glorify failure, like the idea of ‘fail fast’ and even after failure, there may still be somebody else to support you in your next venture. But in the civil society space, while you must acknowledge and accept failure, and there will always be failure, we have to be careful that it does not impact other people negatively.

When we do philanthropy or even charity, we also have to acknowledge the privilege of our own situation. When I was starting Nagarik, one of my friends rather rudely said, “Why on earth are you doing this? You go once in a while by bus, but why do you care about any of this? Why are you doing all this?” And in some sense, she was right. You have to be very careful when you try to represent the so-called ‘poor’ or ‘underprivileged’ or ‘un-accessed’, or whatever name people give to their beneficiaries. I think you have to be careful to listen very deeply first to whoever it is that you claim to do work on behalf of, to understand whether what you are providing is even something they want, rather than something you are thrusting upon them.

I think my few years as a journalist helped in this. You had to learn how to listen, and as part of your profession, you had to listen to different points of view. Once you start listening to people deeply, then also you begin to see the gaps that you can help to fill. And you have to always be careful that you are not driving an agenda. Sometimes, because of the privilege that we are in, we are able to see more people’s views than other people can. And perhaps that can be used to an advantage, to look ahead to what problems are coming. For example in the water sector, we set up Arghyam before people had started talking about water. So, I think sometimes your privilege also helps you to see further into the distance because you are listening to so many people.

I think the role of empathy is also important, when tackling issues that may not currently affect you because of your privilege. It is a moral imperative and also strategic imperative to see how connected we all are. When you begin to see water as the key resource for everything including our wellbeing; the environmental wellbeing, since the ecosystems that serve us as human beings need sustainable water too; even our economy, then this false binary between the privileged and the unprivileged falls away. In most cases, whether it is the pandemic, climate change, or water-related crises, you begin to realize that everybody is going to be affected. The poor are going to be affected the most, but so are the so-called rich or wealthy or privileged. So as much as it is a moral imperative, it is also in their self-interest for the wealthy to work on issues like this. 

One of the other areas I work on is literacy, especially for children. I was with the Pratham Network, which was already deeply engaged in the foundational literacy of children all over the country, before we started Pratham Books. In the Pratham Network, we had decided that there were not enough books available for children who had just learnt reading through the Pratham Network. Something had to be done and I offered to take on the responsibility of setting up Pratham Books. I got two great trustees together, Ashok Kamath and Reka Menon, we set it up in Bangalore, and then we just learned by doing. For me, reading was a great passion, I was an early reader and my childhood was spent between the pages of books. So I wanted every child to experience the joy that I had.

Like any good startup, one of the first things we did was start writing ourselves. We invited other authors and translators from our networks, and we made the first few books, which were distributed largely through the Pratham Network. But then we came up with one big idea, and people like Gautam John were very much part of it. From the beginning, our goal was to democratize the joy of reading. It is not enough to be one publisher and create only 15 books a year. It will not do for the 300 million children out there, right? So how do we make an impact on the world of publishing? How do we just break open everybody’s talent in a nation of storytellers? That is when we decided to put all our content on an open source platform. 

The rest is history, because tens of millions of children, not only in India, but around the world have used Pratham Books’ open platform called StoryWeaver. After I left, the team made it even more sophisticated and better. So it was certainly a cause very close to my heart and remains so, and very necessary to de-link from just being part of the curriculum. We have to learn to read so that we can think. A reading nation is a thinking nation. Reading absolutely diverse things when you are a small child allows you to develop nuances of thinking, where you can understand the rich use between black and white. And so, reading for joy and reading to develop yourself as a human being is far more critical. Of course, you need to read at school and pass your tests, but reading for yourself when you are four, five, and six is also crucial. 

With the pandemic, we saw the importance of open source access to knowledge for children. In the two years when children were away from school, what resources did they have? Thanks to EkStep and thanks to the government’s DIKSHA platform, which EkStep helped build, the government was able to keep teachers in the game and creating content, and they were able to get hundreds of millions of children to connect online to read and learn. In several of the state and national institutions, through StoryWeaver, Pratham Books was able to let children access joyful books through the entire pandemic. So in fact, they were doing non-curriculum reading. That itself was an experience for a lot of young parents who have access to non-textbook-based reading. And once you like story books, nobody can stop you from getting more. Unlike finite resources like water, making books free and available does not mean they will be valued less. And once you begin to read, then you are going to keep reading. I think the entire children’s publishing sector benefited from this because once children learn how to read and find joy in reading, they are going to look for more and more books. So we have opened up the market for many other publishers, both in English and in many other languages in India.

With my own children’s books like the Sringeri series, Sringeri Srinivas sort of drives me. He sort of pops up in my head and says, “Now what? Now what?” So then I have to write something. But I often meet children, parents, and teachers who ask when the next one is coming. And then the pressure starts to build. 

Reorienting to a Citizen-First Approach 

My recent book, ‘Samaaj, Sarkaar, Bazaar’ explores the three foundational sectors. I first heard this idea of the changing equilibrium between society, state, and markets, from Prem Kumar Verma of the Samarth organization in Khagaria, Bihar. I traveled there in 2007, to visit one of our partners at Arghyam and see some of the amazing work they were doing in these flood-prone regions. And we were traveling with Premji, who was telling us many interesting stories. One of the things he was saying was that Samaaj feels oppressed now, because earlier Samaaj was stronger in some sense and had more distributed power than the state and the markets. Maybe he was romanticizing the past, but in some sense it is true that the Sarkaar’s power was limited. Even though monarchs had a lot of power, the whole of society was hardly engaged in what the monarch was doing, except perhaps in times of war. But as governments started to acquire more military power, more power to tax and so many things, etc., Samaaj faced a setback. With colonial powers like the East India Company and the British government acquiring so much power over our society, he felt that Samaaj had to take a backseat.

Even in the latter part of the last century, globally the state and markets have acquired tremendous power. What he said made a lot of sense to me, and I began reading up more on this to find out what other people have been saying about these three sectors.

Sometimes civil society is called the third sector, but Samaaj, as a whole, is obviously the foundational, first sector for which Bazaar and Sarkaar were created. Samaaj is not a monolith and you will have internal conflicts, so you need the state to uphold a rule of law and ensure that we can have a better, more peaceful society. As more and more trade and exchange began to happen, you needed rules of exchange and a common understanding of value, so the Bazaar kept morphing into the market over the last 300 years. Of course, you need both the state and markets, Samaaj cannot do without them. But if we flip the notion to see Samaaj as the foundational, first sector, then all of us, no matter if you are a Chief Minister or a CEO, are all Samaaj, right? So how do you reorient all the work that you do as a citizen first? This is something that began to interest me a lot.

In India, we have a very powerful state. And the markets, especially in the last 20-30 years have gone global. We buy from Amazon as much as we buy from homegrown companies, and we have all become consumers of the marketplace from morning till night. Everything we do with our phones and our computers seems to be something that the market is enabling us to do. It is very, very convenient. But in this process, we might lose sight of the fact that we have actually become data, we are becoming the product. I think it is a very seductive and slippery slope into becoming consumers first and citizens later.

A CEO’s first priority is to make profits, take his company into the black, and make shareholders very happy. But if we uncover our identity layers properly, that same CEO is a citizen before anything else. Whatever he may be selling in his company, whether it is software services or shoes, when he comes home, who is he? He is a father or a spouse, or a son. He is going to care about how his society functions outside his home, right? And that means we want clean air that we can actually breathe; we want our roads to be working properly; we want schools and colleges to be working properly; we want our councilors, panchayat leaders, and MLAs to be responsive to what is happening around us. So how can you escape that? I think it is important to just become aware that there is possibly one identity that cuts through all the multiple identity hats that we wear, and that is first as a human being, and second as a citizen. That awareness itself, I think, brings some kind of agency to us. It empowers us to get involved in making change in the society that we want to live in.

Governments all over the world, including ours, do not seem to like dissent very much. But our civil society is diverse and has many views. And civil society not only serves as dissenters, but as partners too. We should not forget how important it is for the state to partner with civil society organizations, because the state simply cannot reach the first mile where the citizens are. The government cannot listen well to citizens and their first and primary woes and things that are emerging. By the time they have emerged, it is too late, and governments have to spend more resources to fix them. So this is the very critical role of civil society, at what we call the ‘first mile’, because it is not the last mile, it is the first mile. It is very important and in that process, there will be some dissent if there is some opposition to a law that has been framed a certain way or some scheme that has been developed which is leaving some people out. I think strong governments, secure governments understand the role of dissent in democracies. And I hope we are going to have a much more confident and secure government in India, that will look at people who have questions as necessary partners in this long path of democracy towards prosperity and abundance for all.

I truly believe this conversation has to be on the table at all times, and that is the driving force for so much of my writing and my work. This conversation is never going to end if we do 10 things and then think we are done. To be a citizen, unfortunately, is a lifetime role. Now, you can do citizenship at many levels – some people will be fully involved day and night, and some people will say, “We want to just pay our taxes and obey the law.” But even those will find themselves involved in local issues more and more, because as India is growing fast, and especially in its urban areas, citizens are going to encounter civic problems and issues. And therefore, more and more people are wanting to be part of new social association groups that are forming like the residential welfare associations and others. 

It is very hard for an individual to try and fix the system themselves. How many times am I going to call the government on the helpline? If a few of us come together, we have more creativity, we have more energy, and we have a louder voice. So I think more and more people are trying to be part of some association, however hyper local, and thanks to digital now it could even be global. Citizenship is acquiring new energy and I feel that conversation is very important, precisely because the Sarkaar and Bazaar everywhere are acquiring so much power, and power requires power. So all of us, as citizens, must learn to find new ways to act collectively. It is not always about fighting, we do not always have to fight. It is about conversations, cooperation, collective action, and working together to solve common problems in a creative way.

During Nandan’s election campaign, I was trying to represent what he wanted to do for people and his ideas about citizen welfare. I found that most people wanted their problems solved by the MP. These were problems as simple as fixing their roads, their drains, and their water connections, which are very worthy and necessary to be fixed, but not by your MP because there is no way the MP can do that, at least not in the way his role is described in the constitution. The campaign is so hectic you do not get to sit down and have very deep conversations on the constitutional framework, but people said, “I don’t care, you better listen to me.” And I listened very deeply, people were so frustrated that these simple things were not getting solved. I thought the path they were taking was not going to get them anywhere though, because one MP may solve one pipe because he/she knows somebody, but that is not going to solve the systemic problem.

So then I started writing and talking about how I wish we would hold our MPs and MLAs more accountable to be better lawmakers and policymakers, so that policy can enable the executive to do what it needs to do, which is to fix those things that people wanted, i.e. their water, electricity, roads, schools, hospitals etc. If we focused on that, and if we held our elected representatives accountable to framing good laws, and then they could hold the executive accountable for upholding those good laws, I think the voters would have less problems than they do now.

Samaaj Taking Back their Power

We have seen the three sectors come together in a small way. Pratham Books is one example – Samaaj and Sarkaar came together and even the Bazaar got involved, because many of our books are also sold in the marketplace. We worked first with the government to set up the whole big shop platform for them, and then worked very actively with the NGO communities to get them also to offer value-added services in addition to what they were already doing in the field of education. We also got market players like tuition agencies and all the for-profit education companies, the tech companies, etc. involved. 

In the water sector, we also tried but it is much more difficult to get the Bazaar into the water space in any meaningful way and at scale, given the current policy framework in the country. But the pandemic showed all of us what Samaaj, Sarkaar, and Bazaar can do together. It is quite remarkable and I do not want to discount the death and despair that we all experienced, but just think how much visible and invisible cooperation between Samaaj, Sarkaar, and Bazaar happened, and how quickly Samaaj institutions were the first responders. Regular citizens were the first responders, to neighbors and people on the street. And then of course, the Sarkaar moved in as fast as it could, in the way it knew how. And how quickly the Bazaar moved in to create the vaccine in the shortest ever time in human history, right? And how much people supported the rapid change that the Sarkaar created and the Bazaar enabled.

During the pandemic, some powers began to coalesce. We willingly gave up some of our freedoms because we understood that the individual good for some time had to be subsumed under the public good or the common good. I had to wear a mask and cover my mouth and nose, not just for myself, but for everyone else. And we did that willingly. Some power started accumulating because power is like that. And that is why you need Samaaj to be strong, aware, and have its leadership and its institutions always ready. We can never take freedoms for granted. No society can take freedoms for granted, and we cannot keep giving up power, we have to take it back. When the crisis is over, that power has to come back to Samaaj, and this requires Samaaj to be active. One of my mentors used to say, “A stick is never given away.” And you obviously do not want what happens in times of crisis to become the norm.

But to talk of the positive things that happened, I think some new forms of trust capital were built during the pandemic. The state had to work with Samaaj, and local state representatives were happy to work with civil society. The Bazaar and the government worked very closely together. So some mistrust fell away and new forms of trust capital were built. It is now our job as citizens and Samaaj to enrich and actually build solid processes based on that new trust capital, so the next time the crisis comes, as it will in some form or the other, we can respond faster. We need to invest time now, to build more bridges across the sectors. When the three sectors work together, we ourselves have seen what can happen. And it must happen, again and again, and that work has to be done. I think the onus is on us, the Samaaj, to reduce mistrust and to constantly try to find ways to build social capital of trust.



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