This is an edited version of Rohini Nilekani’s address at the ACTIZENS awards ceremony hosted by the Desh Apnayen Sahayog Foundation. In her speech as Chief Guest, Rohini Nilekani discusses how we can harness India’s latent potential to shape extraordinary citizens who will make India the world’s greatest democracy.
You and your friends, and all the young people like you in our country, have a really joyful responsibility to hold a brighter future and not to get weighed down by it, but see yourselves as trustees of a bright shining future for our country. I truly believe that if we can get our country right, if we can get India right in so many ways – including on the front of equity and justice and environmental sustainability, and opportunities for all – it is much easier for the whole world to be in the right path, because we are soon going to represent 1/5 of all humanity. So, think of the future as a road on which we will all walk together, carrying a light, joyful responsibility on our shoulders, because we are poised for so many good things. But as Vallabhbhai said, “Each one of us if we’re not active, this potential can fall apart.” They keep saying that what we call a demographic dividend can become a demographic disaster. And I must apologize for my generation, we seem to have left young people with a host of problems. But, in some sense, I think sometimes the crisis as we saw last year, the crisis of the pandemic, showed how much marvelous humanitarian energy could be put forward into the world.
So if we decide to look at the potential of abundance everywhere, I think we can genuinely collaborate to make a better future than some people claim that it might become. And democracy is a very important part of this, I believe. Because what do we want when we all sit and quietly think, what kind of society do we want to belong to? Just like you and I, all want our freedoms – the right to act, to speak, to wear what we like, to work, to improve our opportunities, and to improve the opportunities of the people around us. Everyone wants the same thing. So, the minute we step out of ourselves and into our communities, we realize that pretty much everyone wants the same thing. And therefore, what can I do? Because all of us here, some of us are more privileged and I accept that. Definitely, I belong to the very lucky privileged class. But all of us who are gathered here today are very, very privileged people in this country. And we know there are so many people out there who are not as privileged as we are, and yet, they have the same dreams, the same aspirations, and the same hopes that all of us have. So, one of the first things I believe we need in this century, which is already somehow 20 years old, is empathy.
I keep telling young people to stay curious, because there’s so much that we don’t know. And life is full of so many possibilities. So one: Stay curious. Two: Stay connected, because everyone is dependent on everybody else. And sometimes we forget that we are part of this big web. So stay connected, understand all the connections. This small little virus has taught us that. And third : Stay committed. Because all of us, especially when we are young, are trying to find our little space in the world, right? Who am I? What do I want to be? What about my personal ambition? But what about everything else? And from what I’ve seen and heard of all of you, you’re already much more mature than I was at your age. You are very clear about what you want to do. And I salute you. Really, I meet many young people in this country, except in the last year, which I feel so sad about. But they have shown me the limitless possibilities of India’s future. So again, I thank you for taking on this project, which Vallabhbhai started a few years ago.
So, when I was like you I must say that I was an activist. I was a bit aggressive, which I don’t recommend. But I was like that. And I used to say everything must be right. I grew up in Bombay and actually, I was very lucky because we had very good public services. Some of you who are in Bombay may not have even experienced what I had in the 70s and 80s. We had a good bus service, good electricity, good water, public safety, and women could go safely out at night. It was a different time and a different city. But sometimes people used to throw garbage. I used to get very upset and I used to go and pick up the garbage in front of everyone and glare at the person who had thrown it. Now, while that seems like the right thing to do, I soon realized that it didn’t make me any friends. Why? Because even though I was doing the correct thing, which is picking up trash from the public, I think my attitude was not right. I was doing it in a superior way, not accepting that I also have so many faults, other people have faults, we are all on individual learning journeys. So even as you pick up that trash and put it in the dustbin – we had proper dustbins in those days – something was not right, okay? And I had to learn, my young friends, over the years that the ‘what’ is less important than the ‘how’. So, I grew up and became more mature over the years.
When my husband was working for the government, outside our house in Delhi there was a tea stall and people used to drink tea and throw the paper cups right there. Now I said, “Should I go and make a big fuss? What should I do?” Then I said, “Be calm.” And I used to go everyday and very quietly, without making a fuss, picked up those cups and disposed of them correctly, and smiled and did namaste to those people, because really I’d learned that we cannot sit so much in judgment of other people. And when I did that, young friends, to my great surprise, within two days, the throwing of those paper cups stopped. After that, till I left that house, not one single piece of garbage I saw anywhere around me. Why am I telling you this simple story? It’s because we all evolve, yes, but I would like you to learn from my journey that sometimes when we do the right thing in the wrong manner, it really doesn’t help anybody.
So, having said that, always participate. All of us know things around us are not right. Some child may think, “Oh, why are we wasting water?” Some other young person may say, “Oh, what about our rights of expression?” Some other young people may be interested in other environmental issues. Please learn more about that thing which you care about and are passionate about and you want to change, and then think, talk to your elders, talk to your friend, “How can I participate in making real change and not make the mistake which Rohini did?” Participate with humility, participate without judgment, participate with self-reflection, and you will see the difference between doing it one way and doing it another.
Young friends, I was very lucky because Infosys, the company my husband set up with Narayana Murthy and others, that we became very wealthy, but not immediately. Infosys had to work for a very long time, very hard. It was after 15 years or so that Infosys succeeded wildly and beyond anybody’s expectations. And I had made a very early investment. From my small amount of money which I had in Infosys, I turned into a wealthy woman. Now, why do I tell you that? It is because in my family, wealth was not considered something great to be proud of. One of my grandfathers was very wealthy and did a lot of philanthropy. The other grandfather, my father’s father, Babasaheb Soman, was a lawyer who half the time didn’t want to take his case to court and asked his clients to settle issues out of court, and so he got no fees.
So he was certainly not wealthy, but both of them had wealth of mind. My father’s father joined Gandhiji when Gandhiji made his first clarion call for volunteers to come to Champaran in 1917. He was among the first people to go and was there with Kasturba and Gandhiji for several months. They built schools, they built toilets, they did a lot of work and then my grandfather joined the freedom movement. But always we were told that wealth is not what you aspire to, you aspire to high thinking. So, when I came into so much wealth, I was very confused, “What should I do?” Because I was on the other side before, and now I was on this side. Now I was the wealthy one. And it took me a long time, my young friends, to accept that wealth because it was ethical wealth. It came about the right way. And what was the responsibility of that wealth in society? I slowly learned that I was only a trustee of that wealth, and that it must be used for society.
The responsibility of wealth in a democracy is to be useful to society. And then I started my more serious philanthropic journey over the years, working with several organizations. Today, my husband Nandan and I have signed the Giving Pledge, which is a global pledge, where we have committed publicly to give half our wealth away to good causes in our own lifetime. And I tell you, it’s not easy at all to do that well, okay? It’s a huge responsibility, but we take it very, very seriously and if God forbid anything happens to us, our children have promised to fulfill that pledge.
The last point I will say is that in the continuum of the state, society, and markets, my strong belief is that society must come first because at the end of it, no matter who you are, you may be a student, you may be a teacher like Vallabhbhai, you may be a very successful investor, you may be doing very well in the Army or in politics, or anything, but who are you first? Of course, you’re a human being first, but after that, you’re a citizen. You’re a citizen of your society, you’re a citizen of your nation, and you’re a citizen of this world. So you’re a citizen before you are an employee, you’re a citizen before you are a consumer of market goods.You are a citizen before you are a subject of the state and good citizens together make a good society, and a good society can make sure that governments are accountable for the larger public good. They can also make sure that markets don’t become runaway powers and are accountable for a good society. So,by being the first building block of a good society, as citizens and actizens, together we can build a democratic society, where we can hope that, that child whose face you sometimes see when you’re coming to school or when you go for a vacation somewhere, who doesn’t have the benefits that you do, even that child can be included in a brighter future. So again, I say, stay curious, stay connected, stay committed and magic will happen.