Samaaj came before Sarkaar and Bazaar. We are more than subjects of the state and consumers of the market. Rohini Nilekani joins Amit Varma in episode 317 of The Seen and the Unseen to discuss her life and her learnings, why citizens need to embrace their agency — and why those with wealth have a special responsibility.
0:00:05.7 Amit Varma: One of the questions I often ask myself is, how should I live in this world? At one level, this is a question of personal ethics. What bounds do I place on myself when it comes to my behavior? At another level, it’s also a question of responsibility. What do I owe to others apart from not harming them and infringing their rights? This question has perhaps been moot for most people. For most of human ministry, we’ve been shaped by scarcity shaped to worry about ourselves and the people in our immediate vicinity, simply unable to influence the world beyond that, or to help others at scale. But in modern times, thanks to markets and technology, many of us now have the means to help other people at scale. And that brings us to the question, what is my responsibility to others if I have great wealth? I’m not sure this is a question that can be answered coherently from first principles.
0:00:53.4 AV: Each wealthy individual has to decide this for themselves. And if they do decide to use their money to make the world a better place, there are further questions to answer. How should one spend this money? Do you aim for low probability moonshots that can have a crazy outsized impact as many VCs would? Do you play it safe and do only things where you can see the impact right away and you get immediate gratification. Should you be low key about your spending as your personal values might insist or should you make a noise about it so others can also get inspired to follow you? And they have a template to follow. My guest today has spent years using her wealth to make a difference and more interestingly to me, she has constantly been writing, constantly been examining all these nuanced questions, and there are lessons there for all of us.
0:01:41.6 S?: Welcome to the Seen and the Unseen, our weekly podcast on economics, politics, and behavioral science. Please welcome your host, Amit Varma.
0:01:54.2 AV: Welcome to the Seen and the Unseen. My guest today is Rohini Nilekani, who began life as a journalist and writer, made a lot of money with an early investment and has since plunged into spending that money to help other people. She’s also been writing constantly, and I love reading her recent book, Samaaj, Sarkaar, Bazaar: A Citizen-First Approach. Rohini knows the corporate world intimately. She has seen the state up close, and she argues that Samaaj came before Sarkaar or Bazaar that each of us should see ourselves as more than a subject of the state or a consumer in the market. It’s a wonderful book, and I quote from it often during this conversation, so do pick it up right away. She’s an original thinker who questions everything, including herself. I was struck by both her personal and intellectual humility, and especially by one more thing, that she’s still moving, working hard, a work in progress. So many people I know become one thing and then they stay that way, maybe out of complacence or laziness or inertia. I certainly think that can happen to me if I don’t watch out. And so it’s inspiring to have a conversation like this with someone who is so engaged, so alive, so determined to make a change. I think you’ll enjoy this conversation as much as I did, but first, let’s take a quick commercial break.
0:04:02.5 AV: Rohini, welcome to the Seen and the unseen.
0:04:03.0 Rohini Nilekani: Thank you so much, Amit, for having me here.
0:04:05.1 AV: We actually we’ve been talking about doing this for three or four months, and one of the things I was sort of struck by is how you and your team are so meticulous about getting a time about calendarizing and so on and so forth. So the impression I got is okay, We fixed a recording at the end of Jan in I think November or October, we fixed it, that you must be an incredibly busy person and so on and so forth. So I want to kind of start by asking about what do you do in your me time? Like in the course of this conversation, we’ll talk about all the great work that you do in social work, in philanthropy, in writing, all of that. But what do you do in your me time? What’s your personal time?
0:04:48.2 RN: So for the past six years, it’s really trying to get as much time as I can with Tanush, my grandson. But other than that, I really love to go out into the wild. The first chance I get, I’m off into the forest. I read a lot like you, not as much as you and listen to music, walk, meet people like everyone else.
0:05:15.2 AV: And how were the pandemic months for you? Because you wouldn’t have been able to travel, you wouldn’t have been able to go to work, even your interactions with people would’ve been…
0:05:25.7 RN: Actually strangely enough, I was able to use the pandemic to travel because except for the shutdown times, the Karnataka forests were open.
0:05:33.3 AV: Wow.
0:05:34.1 RN: So Kabini, the forest was open, which is four hours from my home. And I spent 80 days in the forest during the two years of the pandemic. I would just push off. At that time I was having this romance with the black panther, local black panther there, who they call Saaya. And I decided I need to see him for whatever reason. And so I used to spend a lot of time, I was also part of a team that was making a film there, I mean a very peripheral part of the team. So we were able to go into the forest and it was really a marvelous time I had, so the pandemic was special, plus my grandson lives next to my home. Many grandparents couldn’t see their grandchildren. One of the big things that made older people lonely was they were cut off from their families in those two years. But we were very lucky we had our loved ones around us.
0:06:19.1 AV: How was it for him?
0:06:21.1 RN: For the baby?
0:06:22.3 AV: Yeah.
0:06:22.4 RN: Yeah these children who were two, three years old, when the pandemic hit before they had time to make social formations, they suddenly got out of that whole peer group interaction. Luckily for my grandson his, the nanny’s children live right in the compound, and they were very kind and they took him under their wing. So he always had playmates. But I saw a lot of children become isolated and fearful of adults when they went back to school. When we started looking at what teachers were saying, one of the things that was very stuck when I heard the feedback that my teams gave was that the adults said that they no longer look to each other first, their eye contact is first with the adults because they wouldn’t meet, they would look at the the teacher, but they wouldn’t… First few months wouldn’t talk to each other laterally to their peers because they had lost touch with other children.
0:07:18.7 AV: Wow. I mean, I guess it’ll be years before we fully know the impact of COVID on kids at this kind of formative stage.
0:07:27.4 RN: But kids are very resilient, Amit. They’ve already gone back. You can see they’ve already gone back to their earlier practices. Now learning loss is a whole different thing, but I hope if we adults do the right thing, the learning loss can be bridged, but not if we don’t. Because the ASA report just came out and you could see the impact of the pandemic. Many of the learning levels have gone back to 2012 across the country. A lot of progress had been made in till 2018, ’19, and these two years caused a massive slip back. The good news is that the education system is well aware of it. So hopefully in this year especially, we should be able to help most children catch up. Fingers crossed. Because it’s so critical, not only for every child, but really for the country. So critical.
0:08:18.1 AV: So let me take you back to the child you were.
0:08:20.3 RN: Yes.
0:08:20.9 AV: Tell me about your years growing up in you know, you grew, you’ve mentioned you grew up in a middle class household in Bombay and so on. So tell me a bit about those years, your family.
0:08:30.4 RN: Yeah. I was born in Mumbai in 1959 and cusp of new decade. So the ’60s were my childhood. And you know, when I look back now, what a wonderful, easy, comfortable, fun childhood it was because what I call normal middle class is probably already a very privileged setting in India. For us, it felt like normal middle class then we lived in apartment buildings. My father was a salaried professional, so when he moved jobs, we would have to move houses. But that was all in South Bombay, which is now, if you look at it, the very elite part of the country. But we lived like it was definitely not a rich life, but it was rich in many other ways. There was love, there was friendship, there was education. But what strikes me now in that carefree childhood, playing downstairs, we played strange games like French cricket because there wasn’t a place to run around.
0:09:28.4 RN: So we had to turning the bat around our bodies was one run that was so much fun. But I realize now that the safety in my childhood is something many people can take for granted today. We could walk anywhere in the streets of Bombay, and our parents also didn’t seem to restrict us too much. We would go outside the gates, Bombay itself, Mumbai, that was Bombay really. It became Mumbai later. It was Mumbai earlier, I guess Mumba Devi, but the public infrastructure, now, when I think of it, we had running water 24 by seven. We had electricity, never faced blackouts till I came to Kanataka. And we had wonderful public transport, bus number 84 still I remember taking everywhere. We had, as I said, safety on the roads. We had, there were playgrounds for people. Like the Maidans, the sea was there so people could walk along the seashore.
0:10:23.9 RN: So many things when I think of that allowed us to not necessarily want so much because a lot of it was available in the public domain. Going to movie theaters was not a big deal, a meal outside. There was a sandwich well outside my building gate. Started with 50 paise for a marvelous triple decker sandwich, and then it became one rupee, which we were really upset about and so on and so forth. But what I mean is now, when I think of it for the middle class life was not that now you have to struggle through the traffic everywhere in the country, so much deficit of public infrastructure, it has not caught up with the rate of population growth. But now, when I think back, Bombay was really bliss.
0:11:06.7 AV: Yeah. And just to you brought back old memories of mine by saying French cricket, just for those of my listeners who may not know what it is. Basically, you’re not allowed to move your feet, so your feet are exactly as they are. And then you hit the ball somewhere and the bowler has to go to that place where the ball went and ball from there. No matter what the angle is. So if you hit a ball to long leg or something, you’ve really got to twist your body to play the next one.
0:11:30.4 RN: And sometimes, because you would trip and fall and you’re out.
0:11:33.5 AV: So at that point where you are kind of growing up through the ’60s and the ’70s and all of that, what’s your conception of yourself and what your life is going to be? Like are you a kid who reads a lot? Is it from that time that you decide that you want to write? Because of course, you became a journalist and you’ve written many, many children’s books apart from Sarkaar, Samaaj, Bazaar. So and your columns and all of that. So what were you like as a child? What was your kind of vision for what you want to go on and do?
0:12:09.4 RN: Definitely the creative side appealed to me and writing and words, because yeah, I started reading at four over my sister’s shoulder, or we were not taught that formally, but somehow we learned quickly how to read and I would read all the time. I mean, my mother had to literally drag me as I hide sometimes, because I had some duties in the house, which I hate, like wiping down the furniture off the dust. And I would avoid it and avoid it and be in the middle of just wrapped up in the pages of a book, and she would’ve to drag me out of there. So yeah, reading first and because of reading, writing, so I used to write really bad poems from the age of five. So yeah, I could see myself as a writer. I would definitely have been writing something that was how I would see myself on the creative side for sure.
0:12:57.0 RN: So yeah, we grew up among books. Now, when I look back, I regret that a lot of it was English. My parents were among that generation post-independence that wanted to be upwardly mobile in an urban way. My father’s family came from [0:13:13.3] ____ side, Kanapu side actually, which is now in Karnataka. And my mother’s side was from Dahannu, which is one 20 kilometers north of Mumbai, both rural settings. And that whole generation obviously came to Bombay, Delhi, the big cities, to make their fortunes. What they had was education, and they were able to convert that to prosperity for their themselves and the next generation. So this family came for that to Mumbai. And I think that meant in those days that their children had to be educated in English to be upwardly mobile and belong to this new modern India. And so I feel bad because my mother was a Marathi and Sanskrit scholar, and we saw that, but we also felt that we had to belong to the world of English education.
0:14:03.4 RN: So my one regret is we didn’t, I didn’t read Marathi, my mother tongue books in Marathi… I would hear things a lot from my mother, but I still regret that I didn’t read early, because then after that, it’s a bit of a struggle to go back to another language. People have done it. I have been less successful. But yeah, so we read a lot of English books and what was available at that time was, of course there were some comics that told us about all the epics, etcetera, and Indian history. But inevitably we were reading Enid Blyton. And now when you see how much of Enid Blyton is aimed to be redacted, but I always feel how innocently we read Enid Blyton, how much fun it was. We didn’t think of the racism, we didn’t think of anything. I wonder if we even took it like that. But I suppose I shouldn’t say that because when I was four, when I was five, when I was six, I was more enjoying what the children were able to do in terms of the freedoms they appeared to have than think through what it all meant in a society. But yeah, you’re surrounded by books like that till when I started reading the bigger books at about 10 or 11 or 12. Yeah.
0:15:08.3 AV: Yeah. I guess from sort of my generation and your generation, I think what we kind of share is there just weren’t that many books. So we’ve all read Enid Blyton, we’ve all read Famous Five, Mala Ritas, all of that. Yeah. And I guess everything.
0:15:21.5 RN: William. There was that William.
0:15:21.6 AV: Just, Willie William. Yeah.
0:15:25.3 RN: And then there was there were a few even [0:15:25.4] ____ I remember reading, there were a few other things. Now I have to think back, but yeah, Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys or whatever, but yeah, they were pretty, there was a definite pattern to what they were writing about those authors. Yeah.
0:15:43.6 AV: Give me a sense of the kind of values that pervaded the household, because from what I can make out, there are like two sets of possible values, and one is that you have these upwardly mobile parents who want a good life and they’ve come from different places and they’re in Mumbai. And you’ve mentioned that you were taught that, “Wealth does not come from possessions or money, but a good education and how it is applied.” And again, I think that would be common values that a lot of parents of that generation would’ve had, because that is a one road out. So you were taught the importance of education. You were taught the importance of frugality because times of scarcity finish what you got on your plate and all of that. And also the sort of English is an aspirational thing.
0:16:27.9 AV: And I guess that’s one set of values, which is in that new independent India. And another set of values, I guess would’ve come further back from your grandparents, like you’ve mentioned your grandfather, Babasaheb Soman, who, A, he was in the legal profession, but he would spend most of his time convincing his clients that don’t go to court, let’s find an easy solution, even though it’s hitting his wallet when he does that. And he’s someone who kind of give up everything to join Gandhiji in the Champaran movement and all of that. So there’s a certain lesson there of values and self-sacrifice and something that is bigger than oneself. And equally, you talk of your grandmother who lived the last 30 years of her life, I think in extreme austerity in just a single room. Again, there being a set of values that surely you don’t have to live that kind of life in a single room, times are better, etcetera, etcetera. But you choose to, because there’s something more fundamental about that.
0:17:26.5 AV: So tell me about these different sort of influences in your childhood, how you looked at them like today, you can perhaps look back on your grandfather as just an individual and admire him for the things that he did. But growing up there, was there a sense that, Oh, no. They’re talking about grandfather again. Because family members then become [0:17:51.6] ____ rules. And of course you never met him, per se, as you point out, but he turns from a family story into part of a much larger history and all of that. So give me a sense of that Mahal, sort of when you’re growing up and how you’re being brought up.
0:18:05.2 RN: Yeah, actually one of the themes in my life is about contradictions. And one of my big journeys I think, is how to live with contradictions without getting overwhelmed by them. So for example, yes, Babasaheb story for me, Babasaheb my paternal grandfather, the stories I heard. And then watching my own paternal grandmother, whom we called Atya. For me that was extremely, extremely inspirational. ‘Cause there’s a part of me which really admires that austerity, that self-discipline, that almost self, well not denial, but actually finding abundance in less, that I find extremely inspiring. ‘Cause I know just how hard it is to do. But on the other side, my mother’s family came from a land owning horticulturists that were doing pretty well. And with all its in those days, big landed farmer, there’s a kind of almost a feudal sort of establishment over there that we used to go to all the time.
0:19:07.9 RN: And then on, so that was on my paternal side. On my maternal side, you had this Babasaheb, Gandhi and all the stories we heard. Then Atya, when her son was chief of naval staff, my father’s brother was Admiral Soman, second chief of naval staff of India. And when he is at the high chief of state in those Lutyens bungalow she chose to go to Alandi, which is the home of Dnyaneshwar not far from Pune, and stay in the vicinity of the temple for 20 years in a single room. And I just somehow thought that was remarkable. And on this side, of course, my parents were upwardly mobile, but they had to stay within their means. What they meant by upwardly mobile is our children’s future should be good. I think that’s everything else for the three girls, their daughters, and no son, unfortunately for them.
0:19:56.3 RN: And I’m sure my mother would’ve liked a son, but yeah, we were, and she did whatever she could with whatever means she had to make every rupee stretch so that her daughters would never want for anything. So there’s some contradictions on these things, and even politically, but I must say Atya’s life, Babasaheb’s life inspired me. But most of our vacations were in Dahannu at my maternal grandparents farm. And that was also another form of absolute bliss. Fruit orchard. We used to get mangoes by the bushels, guavas and what are called jambos, which is I think what are they called? Water apples. And I just remember like stacks and stacks of it. Every holiday we were there, we were encouraged to help out. I used to make flower braids, which were then sold at the railway station.
0:20:50.7 RN: I would get 10 paise if they got sold for each braid I made. It’s just so innocent and so marvelous. Yet at the same time, Amit, what stayed with me was the contrast and the contradictions, again, which is on my grandfather’s farm. They were also the laborers and all of them were from the Varli tribal community. And while my poor grandparents were hardly Draconian or anything, the fact is a stark difference between their lives and my vacation life in my grandparents’ home. And from an early childhood, that contrast used to bother me. On this side, I have the inspiration from my paternal parent. Your, of course, my grandfather was also a philanthropist, set up colleges and scholarships and all those things. But their life was like that. And not much about it was questioned then. But those contrasts stayed with me and have stayed with me throughout.
0:21:44.5 RN: So how do you hold all these contradictions, even politically, my families were so different. A lot of my mother’s side actually were very strongly into that time the Janata Dal politics…
0:22:03.7 RN: And on this side it was obviously Gandhiwadi. So having seen all of that, it’s been interesting to me that India has all these diversities and they occur within families. And so how do you without becoming extreme on any one side, how do you absorb and understand all these many threads? So somewhere in my early teens, all these things started coming into my consciousness much quite early because of what I’m describing. And then of course, in the ’73, ’74 India, I was in quite a situation, politic. There’s no way even for young people to not know what was happening in the country. And ’75, when I joined college, of course the emergency came, and those two years were really interesting in the Indian political scene.
0:22:49.6 RN: So by that, so guess how much was I 13, 14 when 15, when the emergency came about. And it really impacted all of us because we… Those discussions on the emergency were had in every home. What is the emergency? The middle class kind of liked the fact that we finally had cues without… Many middle class people began in Bombay, began to feel, oh, things are in order now. And yet you knew that you were giving up a lot of your freedoms for some unknown good future that the government was telling us was there. And then we saw the politics arise of the alternative to the current government then. And I think it was a big, in two years, my generation who entered while the emergency learnt very quickly about politics outside of our textbooks and classrooms.
0:23:46.5 AV: So a bunch of things I want to double click on here. And the first is, I’m struck by how you mentioned that you’re surrounded by contradictions and you’re getting used to them from an early age. And like one of the themes that I find through all of your writing permeating through is this sort of openness to complexity. That the world is deeply complex, that our country is deeply diverse, and you are open to that. You’re not rushing to judgment anywhere and all of that. And that’s just part of your entire work there. And I was kind of wondering that how much of this sort of openness, which I find too lacking in most people, I find it lacking in the discourse where people take absolute positions, where they stand in judgment over others. Where someone who disagrees with them is not just wrong, but evil and so on and so forth.
0:24:33.9 AV: Our discourse has become very polarized. And equally, some of us, when we think of solutions and we’ll talk about this in more detail later, but when we think of solutions, we’ll come up with this one grand frame and just try to force fit it everywhere and not look at local context and all that. And you seem to have an awareness for this now, this sort of attitude of embracing these contradictions of not being shaped by any one thing. I’m guessing that two kinds of forces play a part in it, that either you’re like this by temperament, let’s perhaps say you’re someone who’s open and who’s just looking around and seeing past those layers. And the other is circumstance that you could grow up in a cocoon and not… And there could be layers of blindness preventing you from seeing various things. What the patriarchy may do, what caste may do, what class may do.
0:25:26.9 AV: And all those layers you may simply never have had the opportunity to look past them and perhaps later in adulthood you do or you never do. So in your own case, circumstances clearly work in favor of making you a more open person because like you said, your paternal side, the Gandhi and your maternal side, you know land landowners, Hindu [0:25:46.6] ____, all of that. So you’re seeing those interesting contrasts there. You’re noticing the Varli tribals who are working as laborers. All of that is there. So circumstances are there, but do you feel that suaba also plays a part? Do you feel that you were always someone who kind of has that openness and that attitude and the ability to hold contradictions? And because a lot of people who reject contradictions, who become dogmatic or rigid in their thinking, I think do so out of intellectual laziness because it is hard work to live with all different ideas together, different notions together.
0:26:21.4 RN: Yeah, no, thank you for this question. It’s a central question I think today in the politic, but my suaba is very… Actually my suaba is not… I’m trying to tame my suaba. Though my mother used to say in Marathi…
0:26:37.4 RN: There is no medicine for suaba. But so actually I have to tame my suaba, because suaba my is aggressive and I want to win the argument. And I’m now that I’m 63, I’m trying to say that’s not the right thing, but my mind is actually… I am myself such a, a person of so many contradictions that I can see that. And I think, so I would say it’s more circumstance and than my personal suaba because, but as soon as I see one point of view, I can also see the other immediately. So I’ll say something, but I also know the opposite can be true. And I’m comfortable with that.
0:27:11.7 RN: I’ve learnt to be comfortable with that. And I think it’s because of all these things that happened in my life. Because of all our reading, obviously we all read. And because, again, I would say Bombay is one of the star characters in my life and upbringing. Outside my house, we are [0:27:30.7] ____ living in this apartment with all the weight of tradition on us. Next door we have Gujaratis, Marais, Cindis, Punjabis, Muslims, Christians, you name it, were in our building. Of all caste, classes, languages, cultures behaviors, all in one building. And you met them every day. That allows you to see how many ways there are of being. And there is not that much space for conflict in those crowded, the conflicts are quickly resolved because they have to be. So you realize there are pathways to conflict resolution also. And there’s ways to contain contradictions also.
0:28:09.8 RN: So I think in some sense, Bombay taught me that being a journalist taught me that. You were forced to look at every point of view before you wrote your 800 words or whatever you had to write. You had to, you were always ask to ask the other side before you filed. And that also allowed me, so I would say unfortunately it’s not my suaba. I wish it was, but I try to be open, I try to train myself to be open, and I’m quite happy to have more questions and curiosity than certainty. I’m quite happy with that because I can see it in nature as well, because I go out so much in nature. The wonderful people I support through my philanthropy ask so many questions about nature. And if anybody studies nature properly, there is no way you cannot keep your mind open because things contradictory are always happening at the same time in nature, in your own garden, in your in one flower pot, you can see it. Forget about going into the wild.
0:29:05.6 RN: So I think it was less me myself than things that kept happening around me. And all the marvelous books I kept reading that allowed me to see just how much diversity there is and how human beings have this enormous capacity, really enormous capacity. What Peter Watson called in that two volume tome a terrible beauty. So the enormous capacity to do things to each other, which is not very great, but also to do things for each other. That ability for empathy is so immense and so creatively immense that seeing both is very interesting. You can sometimes be depressed, but you can’t be bored.
0:29:55.3 AV: The question I often ask myself with reference to myself, when I look back on myself as someone who, when I was younger, I wasn’t as curious as I should have been. I didn’t have as much humility as I should have had and I certainly didn’t have as much empathy as I should have had. And therefore, the question that strikes me about empathy is that sometimes you are not a particular way and that is fine, but can you work towards it? Can empathy be something that you work towards intentionally in the sense that most of us live our lives with the main character syndrome. That I am the main character in this play. Everyone else is a side character or even a prop. We live like that. But then it’s important to snap ourselves out of that and look at other people as actually being other people.
0:30:44.0 AV: Like Iris Murdoch has this great quote about love where she says that love is a terrible realization that something other than one self is real. Which is so beautiful. But the point is, you should not have that realization only when you are in love. We should carry that with us all the time. And therefore, more and more I think that these are efforts we have to make that I find that to expect everyone, or to expect myself to be naturally humble, to be naturally open, to be naturally empathetic is perhaps not fair. But one can make an intentional effort towards being a more humble, being more open and all of that.
0:31:22.3 AV: And I guess the related question that would tie in with that is that when I look back on myself as a young person in my 20s or as a teenager, it’s almost like an out of body experience. It’s almost like I’m looking at someone else. That guy is not me. That guy is so limited in a hundred different ways. And today I can sit back and construct a story about that person that this is how he became this and construct that story. So with you when you look back on the younger you how much is that also playing a part? Like some people I notice are very sorted when they’re young. They are almost fully shaped when they are young and they don’t change much. Some people like me are just [0:32:03.4] ____ you get shaped over time and so on. And then you look back in hindsight and you can see things that you never did. So what, what was the shaping of Rohini like?
0:32:14.6 RN: No, no, I was definitely a mess. I continue to be a mess. I think how messiness is part of the really what humanity, humanness is all about. But yeah, we kept learning. You were talking about empathy, which I really am interested in as a subject. And of course in neuroscience today we are seeing a lot of things. Why are some people naturally more empathic than other people? And it’s a lot to do with the wiring in our brains, and we have to accept that. But I also believe that you can be trained or train yourself a keen out of curiosity to occupy another person’s shoes. The minute you do that, the very second you are doing that, in some humility, you can never put that toothpaste back in the tube. You will always be able to see from the other person’s point of view.
0:33:03.5 RN: And I think somewhere in our schools, in our families today, if we can encourage more people, especially men who are not necessarily required to be empathetic, to just constantly practice putting yourself in someone else’s position, I think it I the continuous unfinished business of Samaaj to do that because but there but of grace of God goes everyone. So for me that empathy, I think perhaps I had some ability to see distress all the time, and that was distressing for me. Sometimes you close your eyes because you can’t bear it in. You see a lot of poverty in India, in South India now you see much, much less in Bombay you see much, much less than I saw in the ’60s. And there were always, every child has a question, why is that beggar outside the window, outside the bus, outside… Why is that person in that situation and I am not, that’s the first thing that occurs to a child. And if he doesn’t, she or she doesn’t get the right answers, or if the question is pushed down, then I don’t know what happens to that child. But we were able to ask that question and we were able to participate in sharing something. If you had coins, you give coins. If you had something else, you gave something else to the person at the window.
0:34:22.1 RN: But I think that was an important part of… It still remains an important part of my life. Do I have the courage to be empathetic? Just, because now my circumstances are so different, do I still retain? How do I practice the retention of empathy is a very important question for me.
0:34:41.0 RN: And I think, again, the childhood, seeing poverty, seeing so much stark differences helps you, because you don’t get to look away. In India actually you don’t get to look away. Most people can see what’s going on with others less fortunate than them. And in fact it’s, you have to do practice of looking away because if you otherwise, it would be hard for many people to see because then they say, Okay, so what are you doing about it. If you’re seeing so much distress, pain, poverty, what are you doing about it? Is it okay for you to just walk on in your nice, comfortable, whatever life? Is it okay? And for those who don’t want to do something, actually they have to practice not allowing the emotions to rule them. So in my case, I kind of allowed my sentimentality, my ability to feel other people’s distress to actually play a part in my life. And I was able to do that. Now that you’re asking all these questions, one doesn’t sit around talking about oneself like this. So either thank you, Amit or no thank you, Amit. I will decide later.
0:35:50.6 RN: But yeah, I think in some sense that ability to feel empathy, which may be natural, which may be more suaba, I was able to convert to an action plan once we became very wealthy. And I’m able to use that to do my philanthropy. Maybe in that sense, I was able to get some strength from it because sometimes it’s really horrible when you realize how little you can do about other people’s suffering. It can make you numb, [0:36:16.1] ____ how many people suffering can you alleviate. So in that sense, people who are very empathetic also have to suffer themselves quite a bit.
0:36:27.3 AV: So you mentioned neuroscience, I don’t know if you remember, but the first time we I think met over physically at the same place at the same time, was in Ted India…
0:36:37.1 RN: Yeah, Mysore.
0:36:39.6 AV: In Mysore in 2009 where I was one of the Ted fellows and I was hanging out there with the great neuroscientist Vilayanur Ramachandran. Yes. And he was talking about…
0:36:45.3 RN: Tell-Tale brain, what is it? What is the name of that book?
0:36:49.9 AV: I forget which book had just come out, but it had this big chapter on mirror neurons, which he…
0:36:52.3 RN: Yes, exactly.
0:36:53.3 AV: Told us about, and basically for the benefit of my listeners, mirror neurons are those neurons in the brain, which basically when something happens to someone else, you can imagine it happening to you. So automatically empathy comes, which says that in a way we are hardwired for empathy, but also because we are hardwired for so many contradictory things, we are also hardwired for self-delusion because that is one of the ways, that is one of our coping mechanisms to deal with the world. And I think that while it is true that for example, poverty is everywhere. I also think that it’s a case of the seen and the unseen, people block it out. It’s like, I always say that in Bombay there are like two cities and one is a city that is inside the cars, the traffic signal, and the other is a city that is outside where the beggar is begging outside it, and the city inside doesn’t see the city outside. It’s kind of like a parallel thing. And I think that it does take an intentional effort for most people to remind themselves…
0:37:56.1 AV: I can’t just exactly roll up the window, roll up the sheds.
0:37:57.7 RN: But then look we have a 5000-year system of thought which allows you to believe in karma, at least for the Hindu communities. And in some sense, that’s a nice escape route also. So if you are… It’s like a, I guess in America there’s a political strand which says, you are what you make of yourself. And if you’re poor, that’s because… I don’t believe that. But there is a whole strain of thought which is that you make of yourself your own life. And in that sense, the theory of karma allows you to say that I am like this because of something I good I may have done in my past life, or that person is like this because they may not have and…
0:38:42.2 RN: So in some sense an escape route for many people. But I do think that we need to be… The idea needs to be better socialized that human beings capacity for empathy is what has got human civilization to this point.
0:38:58.9 AV: There is this lovely quotation, lovely lyric by [0:39:05.1] ____ which one of my recent guests Raghu Jaitley sort of had shared with me. And you mentioned, karma so it came to mind. Where the lines go…
0:39:20.3 AV: And the idea being that religion merely sort of… Religion merely sort of consecrates or puts in a book what is already there in society. And when one thinks of Karma, I think it is a convenient cop out. It is again how do we cope with the terrible miseries around us? And one way of coping with the miseries and making sense of them and finding some meaning is this one particular explanation, which feels to me to be a bit of a cop out, I guess in some senses.
0:39:51.9 RN: I mean, you can look at it as a cop out, but it’s a very interesting theory, however, because it doesn’t allow you, if you look at the theory more carefully, it doesn’t mean that you can cop out. Actually it is laying the ground for you to do better and better deeds in this life. And you have to constantly strive to do good karma now because there is a future life to worry about. So in that sense, while it is a cop out, when you look at that person and you don’t have the energy to do something about another person’s life, it doesn’t absolve you from that duty. It doesn’t absolve you from the duty of trying to do good every minute, whatever “good”. So in that sense, it depends on how you look at it. You could frame it as a cop out, but I think it’s also a pathway and an urgent sort of call to action to do good deeds rather than bad.
0:40:44.9 AV: Divine incentives.
0:40:48.6 RN: Yes, divine incentives for this afterlife, which many people believe in. Yeah.
0:40:54.0 AV: My other sort of issue with it is that it then seems to posit that morality is instrumental that be good because you will have a good afterlife or a good next life or whatever, be good for the sake of your karma. While I think that the ways in which many of us try to frame our moralities and find out what is… Like, I think a central question all of us struggle with is what is the right way for me to live? And I don’t think that a lot of people really answer that in an instrumental way, that I want to live in this way because…
0:41:26.5 AV: Whatever. So what is your answer to that question for yourself? Or rather, what is your process for having arrived at something? Because a lot of what you do is or perhaps all of what you do has nothing to do with instrumentality. It is not because you want to be seen in a particular way. You want karma brownie points or any of that.
0:41:46.9 RN: No, no, I don’t. I don’t think like that. But remember apart from that, there is also karma [0:41:53.4] ____ it says, don’t think of the fruit of your actions.
0:41:57.8 AV: Yeah, that’s of course.
0:42:00.2 RN: So that’s much more inspiring to me that you have to constantly do something without worrying about the fruit of your actions that is left to a later time. So again, all these contradictions.
0:42:11.4 AV: I love that. Yeah.
0:42:11.5 RN: So that is that your duty doesn’t absolve you, it doesn’t… Your karma of the past and all that forget, doesn’t absolve you from having to do your duty now and without… And you do it in a way where you do your best. You are not absolved from that duty. You have to do your best, you have to think, you have to [0:42:30.5] ____ Your discriminatory intellect to do, and not just blindly, but then without worrying about the fruit for yourself. So in fact, it is not at all transactional. It is that your input matters right now. The outcome comes later.
0:42:47.0 AV: That’s a beautiful way of putting it. What has your journey been like towards thinking about what is the right thing to do, how should one live one’s life? And the question also, of course, becomes complicated because at a certain point in your life you come into wealth and then those other questions arise. What is the obligation that wealth brings with it? And how does that change, perhaps does it sort of widen and broaden the responsibility that you might feel and so on and so forth. So I just want to sort of, if you take me down this journey of just thinking about this question or what is good, what should I do?
0:43:27.3 RN: Yeah. So I told you, we grow up thinking about austerity being the ideal. You grow up thinking about simple living and high thinking. You grow up being told education is more important than anything else. In your life you don’t have any great wealth. And even around you in society, the wealthy are quite hidden from your life. So you grew up like that. And then Infosys is an idea that happens at the same time as my marriage. And we are so young and we are able to take any risks. So we say, of course, you should do this Nandan, and I put in 10,000 rupees, which is all I had at the time into it. And then a few years later, the 10,000 rupees become some ridiculous amount. And we grew up, remember, India is in the grip of socialist thinking. And in fact, the world, look at the ’60s, look at all the popular cultural movements of the West, which by the way, we also heard about, we heard about all the hippie culture of the west, even though there was no mobile phone, no internet, and we were still reading newspapers and listening to the radio.
0:44:27.4 RN: So we knew what was happening around the world. There was a rebellion against material prosperity by the young. There was romantic new energy, key love piece, et cetera, et cetera, and not necessarily material pro. There was a rejection of a certain kind of modernity for a short while, and we were swept up with that social and narrow socialism was the idea of the day rush. I mean, the big movements of the day were more to the left, despite America. And so somehow though it now seems very weird, but somehow the nation was to progress without being obsessed about wealth creation. I don’t know how it was meant to do that. It to me, now it looks like we would have to cut into the same pie into more pieces you would have to make. But there was no such thing right about… And in fact, as I said to you once when we were speaking earlier, is in that time, the culture was that wealthy people must be doing something wrong. How did they become wealthy in the first place, in an era of high taxation, in an a socialist economy?
0:45:35.7 RN: So wealthy people were not looked upon as ideals to hold up to. And then here, suddenly in the ’90s, we come into extreme wealth. So while as a journalist or as a person in the kind of family I grew up in thinking about wealth in a particular way, suddenly you find yourself on the other side. And how are you going to deal with it came quite suddenly. And I must say I spent a few years not being able to grapple with it very well. You know, I just, I was very disturbed because I had to change my whole way of thinking about wealth and the wealthy. All I had to understand that maybe I had been too judgmental. Maybe my framing itself was wrong, that the, because this was good ethical wealth, and it was because the country had chosen a certain path, a new path of development. These Murthy and Nandan and Kris everybody, they were in the right place at the right time. So much luck was involved. But yes, here we were, we were going to be very wealthy now, and it took me a long time to deal with it.
0:46:33.7 RN: But after that three, four, five years, I realized that I had to use that opportunity to perhaps be able to do a little bit what of what I’d always dreamed of. That idea that I want to belong to a society which is much more just and kind and equal. No, not equal, but people have equal opportunity at least. And then maybe this is a chance to help create the more level playing field for everybody. To go back to the idea idea that I was, I could see myself in other people’s shoes. Maybe this was a chance to redress some imbalance in societies. Not because I have the talent or anything, but I know there is a thriving civil society out there of people who have the moral courage to do something and create positive change. Maybe the wealth can be used to help that cause a little bit. And once I truly understood that, I settled down [laughter] a bit, again, these are contradictions right here. I was believing in this civil society, this, that, and then I, myself, it sat very uncomfortably with me that I was going, I began to be called a philanthropist, whatever that meant. What is a phila… So philanthropist naturally is putting somebody in the position where they have power of money. So I had to deal with all these contradictions and I mean, it’s a continuing journey.
0:48:00.1 RN: But when we had an ADR, which was an American Deposit Receipt, I got a hundred crores, and it was like, today’s billion dollars. And I said, good god, I don’t need it. My life was quite comfortable. So I put all of it into my foundation, Arghyam every last paise of it. And that made me feel comfortable because I didn’t have to deal with it. I put it into Arghyam, and then we had a big team of professionals working, and that money could hopefully be put to good use rather than sitting with me. So that’s how I started to deal [laughter] with these contradictions and wealth. And as we went along, we started giving away more as we could. It’s a learning journey, okay? It’s not so easy. And we started to give, both of us, Nandan and I, we signed the giving pledge after thinking through, is it in the Indian culture to publicly declare, I have this much money and I’m gonna give half of it away.
0:48:54.9 RN: Is that what Indian culture, so to speak, is, took us a while to get there. I realized that no, that signaling is critical. There are so many wealthy people in India, so many, and that maybe some of us were hiding behind the comfortable proverb, left hand should not know what the right hand is doing when it comes to charity. But I felt we need to create a new culture around the responsibility of wealth in a society like us. And that’s where we went public and signed the giving pledge. So it’s a long answer to a short question. So the journey of wealth has been somewhat like this. And today we live very, very well. Simple living, high thinking was told to us simple living [0:49:37.1] ____ [laughter] I hope there is some high thinking, but what I’ve decided is so long as I’m giving away 10 times more than what I spent on myself at a minimum, that’s how I deal with some of these things that have been happening to me.
0:49:52.0 AV: So a good mutual friend of ours told me something about you that struck me where he said that, “She is generous to others, but not to herself.” And he said that…
0:50:01.2 RN: Really?
0:50:01.7 AV: Her idea of luxury for herself is to go in the forest for 10 days. It is not some big swanky whatever, whatever other rich people do, which was interesting. And the moment he told me this, I, again, thought of your grandmother austerity living in a single room for so many years. And did you…
0:50:20.3 RN: But she had a great life, huh? That’s the point.
0:50:22.2 AV: Did you speak to her about her life and about…
0:50:23.5 RN: Of course all the time. All the time. She was an amazing woman, really, Atya, and she became very spiritual, and that’s why she did what she did. But otherwise a feisty woman. Like she, her family, her father was an ambassador from the quarter in Pune to Gwalior. And she grew up in Gwalior, Maharaja’s outhouses. She said once she used to go to school for a few days in a carriage drawn by a deer, then she lived in the lap of luxury. And she, as a young bride, came to be married to Babasaheb Soman, was a wonderful human being, but certainly could not look after her… All her things were sold. That time the Congress Party was fighting for India’s independence. She gave away all her maternal things that she came with, with all the Congress workers shared to feed every day. She learned in that environment what is important in life. And I think she came to the conclusion that the higher spiritual, simple life was going to give her more peace than anything else that she had experienced.
0:51:29.6 RN: And so that remains so I used to ask her, why do you do this? She said, that’s what she kept saying that, “It gives me peace.” It gives me, when we need it, she would come, she used to tell us… She was the world’s best storyteller. She used to tell her stories of the Bhakti Saints. Today, also, I’ll cry when I remember her telling me the story of Dnyaneshwar, there was no food for those four siblings. And Muktabai the younger sister was very, very hungry. And they used to take Bhiksha, they were outcasts because their parents had a marriage unapproved of by society, so these four siblings were outcasts. And they used to beg for… They used to get grain, but how, what do you do with grain if you don’t have fuel? And Dnyaneshwar lies down on his or I mean, sits on all fours and allows the sun to heat his back enough for her to cook a bakri on Dnyaneshwar’s back to feed the siblings. That kind of stories my… She used to tell and used to be weeping with the feeling of that sentiment.
0:52:29.9 RN: And so she gave us that… She instilled the romance of austerity and high thinking, I guess, in us. So I told you we live very well. I don’t wanna pretend at all. We have a wonderful… We have two wonderful houses. We never have to think before we buy anything, do anything. How much whether it is do with health, travel, we never, never have to think. But I think just like buying things doesn’t give any pleasure, it just doesn’t. If I like something, of course I’ll buy it. But I don’t think about those things. Like many of this younger generation, and I have this weird idea that we are going to enter into a post consumption generation in the next few decades, that there will be people who have gone beyond consumption of material things because too many other realizations are hitting these young people. But yeah, so I feel there’s so many other things that bring more pleasure, like going into the forest, I must say.
0:53:33.7 AV: You know I love the phrase that you used earlier, that you realized your wealth was good ethical wealth, because I think that there are three powerful reasons that wealth was demonized before this. Like Nehru famously said to JRD Tata, do not speak to me of profit. It is a dirty word. And one is of course, sort of the colonial kind of connection, because after all, they came here first as traders and all of that.
0:53:55.8 RN: Yes.
0:53:55.9 AV: So tied up with exploitation and so on and so forth. So mentally you just thought of capitalists as, akin to colonialist. So that was one mental connection. Then the other one would have been that wealth would have been almost synonymous with a kind of oppressive feudalism that it took us long time to get out of, and maybe mentally we still haven’t. And the third factor was that given the overarching influence of the state and how much they didn’t allow free markets to progress, like you pointed out, if you were a wealthy businessman, it was probably through cronyism and all kinds of shady dealings.
0:54:31.5 RN: Yeah. The license that was really, truly only about that.
0:54:36.9 AV: Only about that. Yeah.
0:54:37.9 RN: Such arbitrary use of power. Yeah.
0:54:41.0 AV: Yeah. And…
0:54:41.6 RN: State power. Yeah.
0:54:42.7 AV: Yeah. And how that changes in the ’90s and becomes good ethical wealth. Because in a free market, you only create wealth when you make other people better off. It is always a positive sum game. I had once written a column called Profit is Equal to Philanthropy, though you don’t like that second word, because I just felt that, look, if you’re making a profit in a free market, you are by default already making people better off.
0:55:03.3 RN: That’s right. That’s right.
0:55:05.7 AV: It’s virtuous making money that way.
0:55:08.3 RN: That’s right.
0:55:09.4 AV: Tell me… But one thing that interested me in what you were talking about is what, like I was I did an episode with Asha Satar yesterday, and she uses beautiful, almost academic term, but I like the term called individuation. Where you assert yourself as an individual, you see yourself as an individual and not as part of a setup, not as a wife or a daughter or a mother or whatever, but you are an individual. And when you spoke of coming into wealth, you were not saying, you are talking about your investment of 10,000 and what it brought you as an individual and not necessarily being Nandan’s wife or any of that.
0:55:50.5 RN: Yeah. But that, I’m really lucky. Okay, that’s luck. See, most women in India, except the ones who are business people themselves, like Kiran Mazumdar, but most people actually, the family wealth is pooled. It’s not my wealth and your wealth. And in that sense it is, of course, and it’s not like Nandan and I calculate all this, your money and my money, but I got really lucky because I got a chance to invest, so-called my money, 5000 was it, of, it was actually given by my parents. So my parents should probably say it’s their money. But and 5000 was my savings from my grand salary at Bombay Magazine, which was some 500 rupees a month.
0:56:25.7 AV: Who says journalists can’t get rich?
0:56:27.4 RN: Yeah. [laughter] But not to the writing.
0:56:29.8 AV: Yeah. Well…
0:56:30.8 RN: They should invest their money in company startups, I guess. But so, and to think of it, whatever Nandan would have done, he happened to do a successful IT company, but he could have done anything and I would still have invested. So I got lucky. Is what I’m saying.
0:56:44.4 AV: No, I’m not disputing the luck. I think where I was coming at is that a lot of people would still not see themselves as an individual in that way.
0:56:52.2 RN: Right. True.
0:56:53.3 AV: Whereas you have always kind of been clear that you were a journalist.
0:56:56.6 RN: Yes.
0:56:57.0 AV: You were not somebody’s wife, you are not somebody’s wife, you were a journalist. You do your own things. You’ve chart your own path, you have your own views. So is that something that, where did the frames come from, where you begin, began to assert yourself like that? Because in an India of the 1970s, and I grew up in the ’80s and ’90s, but it’s similar. Pre-liberalization?
0:57:19.7 RN: Well, I’m not sure. You are much younger, but yeah, remember we were reading, we were the early feminists. Young teenagers reading Germaine Greer, reading, even my God, we read Nancy Friday. Now when you come Betty Friedan, you read all sort, you read all the Western feminist authors, and you had a real sense of gender politics. You had a real awareness of what it is to be a woman in a patriarchal feudal society. You could see it around you, even though our parents were so liberal, you could see it all around you. So the need to carve out your own identity as a human being, as a woman was very much part, it was essential for me being who I am. It was an essential part of, you had to make your own identity. It was very hard. And I think perhaps that’s one of the reasons why I always emphasize that this wealth by luck or whatever happens to be mine, and therefore my choices that I make with the wealth, in any case, my husband is incredibly progressive, open, supportive, and all that. So even if that had not been the case, I would still have had a lot of control over our joint wealth. But it was important for me. It’s very hard in India to have an identity as a woman. People don’t see you sometimes, like how many people call me Nandini?
0:58:34.6 AV: Oh God.
0:58:34.7 RN: Nandan’s wife must be Nandini. So I have, nobody calls Nandan Rohan by the…
0:58:40.3 AV: I’m gonna call him Rohan when I…
0:58:42.3 RN: He doesn’t deserve that either. [laughter] But yeah, so it’s very hard. So you have to actually work much harder to, if you want your identity and beyond the point, it no longer matters. But yeah, in those days, I had to present myself as a journalist, present myself later as a serial social entrepreneur. And then now as that dreaded word, philanthropist, philanthropist and author. [laughter]
0:59:08.1 AV: So a couple of the guests I’ve had on this show, Urvashi Butalia, and just yesterday, Arshia, who’s pretty much the same age as you born 1960, spoke of that excitement of discovering and engaging with feminism in the 1970s in India, where you’re reading all these books. Suddenly they’re toppling in and it’s as if a world is opening up and all of that. So take me a little bit through that process. In fact, I’ll just broaden the question. Earlier, you also spoke about the emergency happening when you’re 14 and suddenly becoming aware of politics and all of that. And I wanna know about how in those years, in those teenager years, you developed different frames of looking at the world, like when emergency and all of that happens. I’m guessing that there is a political frame where you’re thinking of rights and where questions of…
1:00:00.0 RN: Freedoms. And freedoms.
1:00:01.3 AV: Rights and freedoms, and where questions of what is good and what is not is getting a certain kind of shape. And then all the feminist lenses that are coming from these great authors, and what you’re seeing around you and how all these budding young feminists, I guess must be reinforcing each other. There’s a sisterhood there as well. So tell me about the different frames that then go into shaping you as an adult.
1:00:22.9 RN: So definitely, I was in Elphinstone College in 1975, we joined and the emergency hit, and that campus was full of fiery leftist…
1:00:33.2 AV: Did you know Arshia? She was also in Elphinstone.
1:00:34.6 RN: Yeah. But I didn’t know her so well. But there were many others, some of whom are… Well, some of whom are definitely in trouble with the law. But just for that political thoughts, which is what worries me, that you should be able to think anything freely in a democracy without the fear of being incarcerated. And that was what was happening to all the political leaders. They were being incarcerated for what they believed. And so many of them. And there was a lot of protest, there was a lot of underground movements. We saw all that. My mother was closely following the Janata Dal and all the movements at that time. And so the political framing for me was very clear. You need a strong civil society with moral leadership and political courage, because eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.
1:01:28.8 RN: And we saw that in front of us. What is the price of liberty? You can’t be fighting after you lose your liberty, your societal institutions, its leadership, its education, its public discourse has to be about the values of freedom, liberty, and justice. So in that sense, my political framing was quite a bit shaped from that. Earlier also through what gender rights are, what is equity among populations. Again, I told you about the influence of the feudal systems, etcetera. So what is equity, justice, gender liberties, those things were very much on our… We had the freedoms to think through all these things in spite of the emergency, in some sense, without fear, because we were not on the streets protesting likely to be locked up. We were all thinking in our safe spaces, but it was an important time. And so that was the political framing that came out as a woman, of course, reading all the feminist, I was a little bit sometimes women can get very aggressive about the feminism.
1:02:36.6 RN: And before I learned that that doesn’t work, I was an aggressive feminist. [chuckle] It doesn’t work at all. In fact, and I don’t know if this is the right segue to talk about my philanthropic portfolio called [1:02:49.2] ____, which is we work with young men and boys. I think that also came out of my understanding that aggressive positions on feminism actually might have caused a huge backlash and an inability to do what we’ve been talking about, put ourselves in other people’s shoes. Maybe we stopped doing that as feminists. We stopped putting ourselves in the shoes of men, for example, and couldn’t see from that side maybe. And I’m not saying the job of getting even dignity for most women is over, yet. I’m not saying that, but I’m saying maybe the pathways have to be different. So I got sort of distracted. You were talking about framings, political framings and, and you said something else.
1:03:36.2 AV: Yeah, I spoke about political framing and your framing as a feminist. And this is fascinating. Let’s continue down this digression, because I was gonna cover it anyway, but since you’ve sort of brought it up. Now, I was, I did an episode recently with the Nikhil Taneja called The Loneliness of the Indian Man.
1:03:51.3 RN: Yes.
1:03:52.1 AV: Where we explored how men in India are also victims of patriarchy. And perhaps it is worse for them because women at least have frames available to them to understand what is going on and to fight it. They often are not in the circumstances to fight it, but they at least understand, whereas I think most men don’t even have an intellectual understanding of what the patriarchy has done to us and so on and so forth. And you know, what you said about the need for empathy, Bell Hook speaks about it.
1:04:21.1 RN: Yes.
1:04:21.2 AV: Where she speaks about the need of not seeing men as enemies, but being empathetic. And I’m also reminded in a different context of this great quote I love by Jackson Katz, where he says, “We talk about how many women were raped last year, not about how many men raped women. We talk about how many girls in a school district were harassed last year, not about how boys harass girls. We talk about how many teenage girls got pregnant in the state of Vermont last year, rather than how many men had, how many men and teenage boys got girls pregnant.” So you can see the use of this passive voice as a political effect. It shifts the focus off men and boys and onto girls and women. Even the term violence against women is problematic. It’s a passive construction. There’s no active agent in the sentence.
1:05:06.1 AV: It’s a bad thing that happens to women. It’s a bad thing that happens to women, but when you look at that term, violence against women, no one who’s doing it to them, it just happens. Men aren’t even a part of it. And I think part of what you have said and written about this, and part of what Nikhil said about it in that episode, strikes a chord because the problem is men. The problem, in the sense that we are trapped by patriarchy, by expectations of what it is to be masculine and so on and so forth. And shifting the focus there and realizing that there is work to be done there as well, that it is not enough for women to aggressively assert that I will fend for myself or I will get autonomy for myself and so on. But there’s another part of the problem that you also need to solve. So my dual question to you is, one, when you spoke about aggression not working as a feminist, when did you come to that realization? Was there something concrete which brought you to that?
1:06:06.7 AV: And two, when you turned your focus to working with young men in the way that you’ve sort of described, like one of your, chapter titles in your book is, Want to Empower Women, Start Thinking About How to Help Young Men. And then you talk about, in some detail about how, “India has one of the largest cohorts of young men between the ages of 13 to 26 years. Their situation within the country, however, needs to be addressed. Far too many of them are undereducated, underemployed, and stuck in a low equilibrium. Far too few of them have positive role models and secure family lives.” So a dual question, when did you what you said about aggressive assertions of feminism not working in the real world when you, what brought you to that realization? And then how did you turn the focus to also realizing that young men also need help?
1:06:56.2 RN: Yeah. So I think, first, whenever I have been aggressive and there’s some innate aggression in me, I have found that. So I lead with emotion and conviction, there’s something like, I’m a feminist, so I’m going to assert my rights. Now, when somebody’s asserting their rights, and especially using language of assertion, what does it do to the other person? It makes the person either withdraw, recoil, or fight back. And that’s not the goal. The of why am I asserting this? I believe not just for myself in a world that is more just and fair. That feeling is there from childhood. We need a more just and fair world, even if that derail at it like anything. But then you realize that that doesn’t work. It doesn’t get you more justice and more fairness at all. It just turns people off. And that happened across several years.
1:07:43.4 RN: And I started to temper myself a bit. Some friends will say, I wish you could work harder on that, [laughter], but so I realize it’s not working. And if you want something to work, then you have to look at the, are you doing the, doing it in the right way? And started definitely to temper myself and then seeing that as something located in the broader work that I do. So if then just the assertion of rights, whichever rights there may be, just asserting them aggressively in demand, which is needed by the way. But I’m saying not all the time. What are the other things we have to do to achieve the societal goals of equity, justice, fairness, etcetera. And that’s when I began to see, as I was on my many travels for Akshara Foundation or Arghyam, going around the countryside, looking often dealing with women, because we would first go to the women because it, they were better able to socially organize themselves in the community.
1:08:37.9 RN: And also because of the amazing self-help group movement in this country, 70, 80 million women in this country, and I’m sure it’s more by now, are in proper formal formations for collective action. I mean, that’s a remarkable empowerment to have. Men don’t have it. So seeing all this, then I would see the men on the sidelines. It was so odd. You would always see the women, in fact, because we are going into such situations of empowerment, the women would be, while they were sitting separately, they were more capable of talking to us. The men would actually hang around quietly on the sides, never expecting to be asked questions about, they had power, but in those social movement situations, the women were able to speak more of their own issues, kept watching all kinds of incidents that happened where I saw the frustration of young men, even boys, that they had so much ambition, they had so much sense of responsibility, but the pathways were blurred.
1:09:40.8 RN: They didn’t know there was nothing, no light shining on that pathway. And they were frustrated and asking questions, what should I do? And that made me think a little more. It took me three, four years to first internally think, what am I saying? Why am I believing this? And then to start articulating it as a philanthropy portfolio to my team and saying, what, how should we look at this? And we went first, there was just one organization that even was thinking about any of this. And then ECF and then more and more started to join in where we realized that young males, as you said, are trapped in absolutely patriarchal identities, not fully aware that that’s what they’re trapped in, can only feel a sense of frustration. And often, whether it’s testosterone or whatever the reason is, can quickly turn to aggression.
1:10:30.3 RN: And they’re seeing also women, thanks to fantastic public policy in India for 40, 50 years to empower women and girls. Yes, they have more opportunity, thank God. But the men sometimes feel that they don’t. Rightly or wrongly see perception matters to how we behave with other people. And so I feel that the work is much ahead of us. And it’s not just India. Think, I mean, 1 billion young males of those ages in the world think of what is happening in the world when young males are being, feel that they’re left out of the future of work, or they don’t know what the future of work looks like. They don’t know if they have the skills to be equipped for this new future that is coming. They can see their roles in their homes, in their families, in their communities, and in their workplaces changing. They have to be much more sensitive to the rights of women and other genders. They have to change themselves very fast.
1:11:28.6 RN: And they are definitely feeling, not all of them, obviously, many are feeling insecure, afraid and have no safe shared spaces to speak of this. And to be able to create new social formations to advocate for new forms of public policy programs backed by public funds to equip them for what’s coming both close to them with the women being now different and out there where the world is changing so rapidly. I think it’s an important discourse to have calmly, again, not as binaries, women against men. That’s just not working. I really hope we have reached peak polarization in every way because it’s not working for anyone. Even the polarizers. So similarly in gender, this women against men or it’s just not working at all. And I think we all need to start from the family dining table. I don’t know if families eat together anymore, but this discourse is critical.
1:12:35.6 AV: I guess even if families eat together, everybody’s individually staring into the screen and…
1:12:38.9 RN: Yeah, really they are.
1:12:40.1 AV: [1:12:40.2] ____.
1:12:40.9 RN: And once the children have become so old that if they’re eating with us, they say, so sorry, we are going to be on our devices. Nobody listens anymore to their parents.
1:12:50.8 AV: Yeah. That’s a very insightful way of framing the problem almost as a dual problem. That, one, there is an economic problem. That with the world is changing, that jobs are changing, the future of work is changing, and you have a billion young men who suddenly like, don’t know what they’re going to be doing in their lives. And then there is a social problem that that they’re trapped in certain roles, and that actually sort of increases a burden that they feel to be earning members to go out there and all of that. And that can be crippling. And if you add to this, the fact that in male brains, I think it’s a frontal cortex which finishes developing by the age of 25.
1:13:27.4 RN: Yes.
1:13:27.8 AV: And therefore until, which is why the bulk of violence that is carried out is by men below the age of 25. You know, because those socializing parts of the brain haven’t yet fully developed and settled down. And when you put all of this together, it’s a dangerous mix. Tell me more about what you guys are doing about this. Like, it’s one thing to identify the problem. How does one sort it out?
1:13:51.0 RN: So, because as you know, now, I’m not going to myself be implementing like I did with helping to implement like I did with Akshara Foundation, Pratham Books, Arghyam, EkStep, but, so now it’s more about supporting others who want to do. And all our grantees partners are doing very interesting work. For example, some are using sports. See, this one thing I wanted to say before I go there is, while women that we did research, we did some research to make sure we were on the right track. Women would talk about their lives as… They talked of restrictions. Can’t go somewhere, can’t do this, can’t do that all the time the family is telling you what you can and cannot do. And men kept on talking about responsibilities. All the burden is on my shoulders and I don’t know if I can carry this. That is just a side that I thought was important in the framing.
1:14:43.5 RN: But yeah, so there is some, CORO, for example, is continuing its work with young men and boys as adjacent to all the work they’ve done with young men and women. Creating spaces to talk, creating common things that they do with young females, for positive social outcomes of it. It could be of any kind. There are some, there is some organize, so [1:15:03.8] ____ etcetera that are talking about the simplest of things, menstruation with young males. What does it mean? And that allows conversations about their own sexuality, their own sexual frustrations, how it would be to support women, what not to shame women about menstruation. Such a simple thing. But it has led to so many other things. Then some organizations are using sport, some organizations are just using repeated space for safe social interaction. So there are a dozen ways in which these organizations are working with young males.
1:15:38.3 RN: And I’m sure that we want more people to innovate ways of engaging young males in a positive way. We have more, very happy to support and very happy to see in just six years how many such innovations have happened. Talking to young males about what kind of society they want to create. Like even peripheral organizations like Reap Benefit, create Solve Ninjas. And many of them are young male to say, what is some positive change you want to bring about in your locality? It could be anything. It could be street lights or it could be something much bigger water problems. And how will you engage other people like yourselves to make that outcome happen? I think these kind of positive spaces for young male, in addition to scholarships, the whole educational thing, skilling for this, for understanding what are your abilities and strengths that you should work on to get better livelihoods, jobs, career. So a million pathways to the same goal.
1:16:42.3 AV: Great. So we’ll come back to your social work and you work with Samaaj later and talk about all those things in detail. But let’s go sort of back to chronology as it were, and kind of talk about your life. I think we reached sort of Elphinstone and you are developing those frames as a political frame. There’s a feminist frame. And in one of your essays you mentioned about how in December, 1977, you met Nandan, when he was in IT, you were in Elphinstone and all of that. So tell me about the two mini journeys that are kind of happening in the sense that one is meeting him and deciding to live a life together and what his journey took you on as well. And the other is your own journey into journalism and I’m guessing these are parallel tracks for a long time. So tell me about that phase of your life from 18 onwards.
1:17:30.9 RN: So after Elphinstone College, I went to St. Xavier to do a diploma in mass communications. And just as I finished our, Wilson, I think his name was, he said Bombay Magazine is looking for a journalists. And I said, great. And I walked in and I got a job. It was as simple as that. And so that’s how my journalism began. Before that, I’d done very little, one or two articles as a, tried to be a freelancer, but having a job was fantastic. What freedom, my goodness. I remember I got 450 rupees salary, but that was enough for my bus passes and everything, amazingly enough. But that’s how I became a journalist. And I really enjoyed it. I really enjoyed it. And I mean, I always thought of myself as a writer because I used write small fiction poetry and really bad stuff, but I used to, so writing was always, I always kept journals, always wrote out my thoughts.
1:18:24.2 AV: Do you still have them?
1:18:24.5 RN: So… Well, I have some they’re in so many different places. I think I should digitize some of them or burn and burn the rest.
1:18:31.8 AV: Yeah, you should digitize all of them. What is this burning thing? So…
1:18:34.9 RN: I mean, quite immature obviously, but anyway, I’m just joking. But, so I’m very glad I got to be a journalist because I really enjoyed the few years that I was able to, and I still, the reason I still write opinion pieces is part of that continuing journalistic side of me. And at the same time I met Nandan, what fun we all used to have, we were in big gangs, the romance was very different in those days. Quite innocent. And we were a big gang that became a foursome, then became a twosome kind of thing, and did all things in public in Chowpatty, Juhu Beach, or we used to go on buses and it was all very… And yeah, when he asked me to marry him, I took a little time, but I was very sure I had done the right thing. I could see Nandan’s future. [laughter] He was like an uncut diamond [laughter] at the time. He had all this funny hair and Hawaii chappals and faded jeans, but his mind was like so, so like lightning.
1:19:31.7 RN: And that’s, and he had a great sense of humor. Two things I think that make for long-lasting relationships; using your mind well and remembering to laugh. So yeah, so the, Nandan and then Infosys happened at the same time as our marriage. Nandan came and asked me, we were engaged and he said, “Murthy has asked me to join this idea. What do you think?” Because after all, he had a new responsibility with the fiance. And I said, of course you should do it. [laughter] We were so young, there was not, very little to lose. Unlike for Murthy and Raghav and others, there was very little to lose. But of course, I didn’t know that Infosys would become the thing in our lives and that the idea of Infosys would take over every single thing that we didn’t know.
1:20:16.4 RN: But we said yes. And so I was in Bombay Magazine. Bombay Magazine was India’s first city magazine by the Living Media Group, India Today Group, and we were in some sense pioneers. Mohini Bhullar was the editorial, we sang, we was the editor, Mohini Bhullar was managing the whole outfit and Bombay was such a vibrant city and we had to represent it every week. It was really fantastic. Fortnightly, I think it was. And we had to talk about the politics, the social life. We had to talk about everything in that one magazine. And I think we did a great job for a few years till it had to shut down. But so two years I was able to be there. Then I got married, and then in those days, all software was written on site, which seems very quaint now. So everything was developed on site, which meant Nandan and all of us, all of the Infosys at that time, hardly a handful of them, now they have 300,000 goodness, but there were just a few of them in there to physically go to the client’s site and write from code from morning to night, literally.
1:21:19.5 AV: Wow.
1:21:20.2 RN: So I had to pack my bags, all our possessions for seven years, used to fit in four suitcases. It was the best time of our lives because we had no… I mean no responsibilities. We didn’t have much money. But you again, America, public infrastructure, this big theme of mine, we need great public infrastructure if you want good thriving societies. And in America, amazing, the libraries just blew my mind. I used to go by bus or walking when, depending on where we were, and come home literally with 35 books at a time. Because you could take as many as you wanted, couldn’t read all of them. But it was like being in a goodies candy, a small child in a shop full of goodies. And I used to just go and I think my education happened through the public libraries of America, but that’s what our life was. And I could, I was continuing to write from there. I didn’t have a work visa, so I couldn’t work as a journalist, but I could send back articles and I had really some good experiences. I’ll mention only three for your listeners because in old time. It is quite old times, it seems like from 2023 looking from here. So I was there for the launch INSAT-1A, which was the first satellite we launched from Cape Canaveral.
1:22:30.8 RN: And in those very sterile environments, I think ambassador Narayanan was, very sterile environments. Our space scientists had a puja [laughter] before the launch of the satellite. Remember coconuts being broken and all the white Americans are all watching while this little traditional ceremony happened. And then standing there as the satellite took off and the rain came down. Unfortunately, that satellite failed, which was so heartbreaking for the country. But I got to be there. I got to be there. Interestingly, the opening of Epcot Center at Walt Disney World, they allowed the journalists to go in the previous night and they showed us exactly what it takes to run something like that. They get a hundred million visitors a year. And that whole infra underground is quite a remarkable, actually, I was there, I went to report on Rajneeshpuram in Oregon. That was quite a fun story. And I drove up there on fairly precipitous highways and they, the first thing they said to me was, “Oh, you’re brave to come here alone.”
1:23:31.2 RN: And that’s when I got scared, ’cause then I didn’t think I was being brave at all. But yeah, it was quite an empire they had set up. So I had a good time writing stories for India today as a journalist. So my journalism career again picked up in Sunday Magazine when I came back to Bangalore. I spent two years at Sunday Magazine, but then I gave up because unlike so many million women who have to do it, I couldn’t seem to juggle motherhood and my profession. So I decided to stop working and look after the kids.
1:24:03.1 AV: What role did the sort of stories you did play in your understanding of the world? Like I think you’ve written somewhere about how if you went to cover a murder, it meant that you’re also finding out about the how the law works. You’re also finding out about how the people live wherever. You use just all these different aspects of the city are making themselves known to you.
1:24:24.6 RN: Yeah, no, absolutely. As a journalist, as you get to see so much more than you would, because you can live only so much in your own life. But as a journalist, you’re almost required to peep in into other people’s lives and circumstances as you are doing to me now. And so you get to see so much that you would not have others… What a gift it is really to be a journalist, because you get to see so many things from so many points of view. We had to cover things like the Antulay Cement scandal, which we had to work so hard to understand exactly what was the corruption in that we were so naive and we had to learn so, so much. We got to see like, yeah, I had to cover some murder at a laundry of all things. Then we had to cover story on, even later in Sunday Magazine, the Devadasi Story. So completely separate from my social setting or anything. And to see all those things, you got to cover accidents, you got to cover public movements, you got to cover strikes, you got to cover corruption, you got to cover highfalutin celebrities. You got to cover Bollywood.
1:25:31.0 RN: And so you really got to see what India is made of. How many things and how many… As I said, the theme of diversity, keeping the strength of a nation. Today these things are questioned, but as I said, anybody who looks in nature and we are part of nature, and we tend to forget our hubris as a species has allowed us to separate ourselves, but the pandemic really well showed us that we are not separate, but that diversity is absolutely critical for resilience. Absolutely critical for strength. It’s not comfortable. Diversity is not always comfortable, not at all, in fact, and I can see why we are all returning in some ways to our tribal forms. We are afraid of the future, humanity is afraid, we’ve only brought this on ourselves in 350 years, but we are afraid and so we are returning to simplistic, maybe this makes sense. We are also wired for returning to simplistic. That’s also how are we going to cope with so much complexity.
1:26:36.6 RN: But my belief in diversity being essential for strength and flexibility and resilience has not faded, and being a journalist has allowed me to see all these strands of diversity, so I’m grateful for those opportunities.
1:26:52.2 AV: Just thinking aloud, do you think that there is a kind of bell curve inner comfort with the world the more we understand it? Initially, I would guess that the world is complex, we tell ourselves simple stories to make sense of it, they give us comfort, we are very comfortable, but then the more we find out, we realize all our simple stories are wrong, the world is deeply complex and anxiety goes up, the bell curve is at its peak. And then we come to terms with all of this, we revel in it, we look at it as something beautiful, we lose our hubris, we gain humility, we gain curiosity, we see the abundance around us as it were, and again, the bell curve goes down the anxiety goes away.
1:27:33.0 RN: Exactly, right. Beautifully said. You’re exactly right. And of course, experience and maturity of yours allows you that luxury to be able to… Because experience in life allows you to see different things, but you’re quite right, you reach a point where it’s too late for pessimism, it’s too late for anxiety, you have learnt that human beings are incredibly resilient. Otherwise, how do people suffer so much so silently, we get used to almost anything, but you’re right, that it allows you to use your primal anxieties better in a more positive way, that we are also capable of creating change, we are capable of driving to that midnight clock move to some 15 seconds, the doomsday clock move to 15 seconds before midnight. Which is too big an idea for most people. What does it even mean? What am I supposed to do about that?
1:28:25.5 RN: But we have seen that people look… Remember, I also grew up in the generation of nuclear anxiety, the ’70s, we were petrified that the nuclear powers were… Had so much ridiculous amount of nuclear weapons, which in those days, I remember we used to know that it could kill all of us 300 times over, just some of those weapons.
1:28:53.1 AV: Just to make sure.
1:28:54.8 RN: Just to make sure. And then of course the MAD, Mutually Assured Destruction, all those deterrent policies came up and it’s quite to touch all the wood I can find. We have not had in how many, 50 years, 70 years after World War II, a very serious… Of course, I recognize Chernobyl and other places, Penn Island. What was that? In Penn there was an accident. Three Mile Island, sorry. Three Mile Island… There have been accidents, but we have not… So human we can also contain their own terrible-ness and we should remember that because you know Adam Werbach who’s an environmentalist now works for Amazon Sustainability, from being the head of Sierra Club, he pointed out to me that the future is actually more optimistic than some of us think and that he believes just in terms of say carbon emissions in 40, 50 years, there will be much, much less carbon in the air than there is today. He said, Your grandson will have really different issues, there will always be issues, but this one may have receded. And then we’re thinking together that imagine today humanity, all of us, okay, all how many 8 billion people, many of us are involved in this first time ever in human history, grand mission to rescue us from ourselves together from climate change.
1:30:22.4 RN: I mean, just we don’t know the potential of such a thing, it’s never happened before, every one with a common goal that, Yes, we have made mistakes. And now we have to rectify them in 20, 30 years. Just imagine the beauty of such an idea. It’s never happened before.
1:30:38.0 RN: And the more people engage with the potential from such a thing first time ever in human history, we thought in those Sci-fi movies that some alien will come and then we’ll all come together to fight against some alien. But the aliens [1:30:52.7] ____ now, but imagine the romance of this idea and how young people could be fueled with optimism by thinking of the potential of what humans can actually do.
1:31:06.4 AV: Yeah, I’m actually… People know me as being dark and a pessimist, and all that, and I am a pessimist in the sense, that of course, we’re all gonna die. Our life is meaningless. But I’m an optimist about the world, I think the world is going to become a much better place, and I think we will tackle all these problems.
1:31:23.8 RN: It’s very chosen that the long arc of history bends towards justice of many forms, it does. When you are in the middle of something bad, of course we read the newspapers, or on social media, you can get pretty depressed, but the minute you just stand apart and you [1:31:39.5] ____ a little witness, be a witness rather than a participant. It allows you to get a much brighter picture, that allows you to let in more light.
1:31:52.2 AV: That’s a beautiful thought about being a witness rather than a participant, and is that again something that you worked on in yourself or were there yours.
1:31:58.5 RN: I’m trying hard. I’m trying hard. Not yet there? But especially when I… You know, being with Nandan really helps. He’s a genuine optimist. Okay, he can’t help being optimistic, so if I feel depressed, he will give me some counter to whatever I’m saying. So was like, I say something grim. He’ll say, But what about this, this and this? And that, again, allows you to shake yourself out of this, because as we know, things happen together, contradictory things hold themselves together at the same time, and there are always pathways out of the grim things. So it’s good, it’s good, it allows me a practice of being a witness, so long journey ahead though.
1:32:44.3 AV: So before we go in for a lunch break, final digressive question, which really doesn’t belong to any of the other narratives around you, which is, I’m curious about this love about wildlife, because when I think of someone growing up in Bombay. Maybe I’m thinking of the Bombay of today. I don’t even know where you encounter wildlife, so tell me about your sort of romance with animals or wildlife and so on, how did it happen? Was it just like a natural affinity that you just kinda love animals, or is there a particular phase in your life where you kind of got drawn to this because they are also like what you said about the hubris of the human species, and I can also see totally why embracing nature perhaps as a witness and not a participant, and just stepping out of your own ego can just build that humility and curiosity as well.
1:33:31.4 RN: Yeah, I’ll answer that question, but I do want to say something before I forget that I’m very honored to be on your show, Amit, but I’m just wondering, is this… And I want you to answer. See, I’m a journalist, so you got a journalist on your show, so I’m about to ask you a question, is this also going to be a form of self-indulgence. I never talk about myself for so long, so how do you, in your guests help them to counter that this podcast can be a form of extreme self-indulgence? That’s my question to you before I answer the other part.
1:34:04.3 AV: I think you’re been very harsh on yourself by calling it self indulgence because think about what interests you in the world, it is stories and stories about people, it is people. There’s a deep joy in getting to know someone and getting to know their stories. And it is not an irrelevant thing, I feel that I connect to the world through listen to people’s stories. I could just think a few words, Oh, she does philanthropy, or, Oh, she does this, so she does that, or whatever, but now I can… Now I’m beginning get a formal self of the kind of person you are, the kind of values you cultivate in yourself and I think in a general sense of reason I have moved in my show from an interest in subjects to an interest in people, is that it is also self-discovery, I think for all of us listening to people’s stories and their lives. And maybe from there, we can pick up frames which we can apply to ourselves and become better people ourselves, and so I absolutely love that.
1:35:11.2 RN: Thank you. That’s such a beautiful. You flipped it. That’s good. It’s true though, I listen to your podcast of other people, and the first thing that occurs to me is not that they are being self-indulgent, but I’m just a bit nervous so I thought I’d put it out there, because it’s very easy, you can fall in love with yourself as a main actor of this thing, and I just wanted to be a little sensitive to that possibility.
1:35:31.4 AV: Can I tell you something, and you must be familiar with this, that so many women who gets on the show have this sort of impostor syndrome that who will be interested in my life and male guests never do. It’s just an interesting observation.
1:35:45.9 RN: Right. But it’s true that people’s histories are the most interesting things on this planet. Yeah, that’s also a part of us, our hubris because we think we are the greatest things created or evolved on this planet, but… Yeah, thank you for answering that. My interest actually here in Bombay there’s not much crows, pigeons, sparrows, as there was as we were growing up, but we never look at the small things that were around. My parents used take a can of flit and kill everything that lived. Okay, because we didn’t know what diseases the cockroaches and the spiders were bringing. Today, I never wouldn’t do that, but remember I was also going every few days to the Hanu where there was a forest right behind the house, and you could see so many beautiful things, birds, animals, but really it was from my reading, whether I read just something as simple as [1:36:34.0] ____ or reading a lot, whether it was about Mowgli or it was about Black Beauty or so in that sense of world of animals, because those are very personalized in fiction, but interested me and being out Karnal Bird Sanctuary was a place we used to go for picnics, I remember. And I used to just love been out there in the open, no horns, I hate traffic noise, I really even hate it viscerally today.
1:37:01.1 RN: That time you would hear bird sound instead, and that was such a treat for us from Bombay to go there, so I always like going out with [1:37:09.9] ____, those were the highlights for me.
1:37:12.7 RN: The peace, that quiet, that beauty and the song of birds. So when my work on the environmental issue started coming out of understanding more about issues that affect even human beings, and that’s when I got to go out more and I loved it more and more and more, and really the pandemic has completely sealed my devotion to the wild. And learning that India is I will say the only country with the kind of population pressure that we have, with the kind of biodiversity we have retained, and it’s so deep in our culture. Now, today we have adopted a development model that is going to seriously threaten and I’m not challenging it, ’cause I know 300 million people are saying, Who are you to tell me not to develop. So I’m not challenging that, I wish we could alter it a bit, but it’s a work in progress, but today we still have the most amazing biodiversity right around people.
1:38:14.3 RN: And for me, that is something to just absolutely treasure in our culture. We was never allow… That’s why my poor grandson, I’ve been… He’s also a total total animal lover, he has more knowledge about animals than I do at the age of six.
1:38:31.5 RN: But that’s it. They have to be custodian and stewards of this planet’s natural environment, not just a human-built one, and so for me, this is now really a mission. And such a joyful one. Such a joyful one. And I hope everybody can go into the wild more than they’re able to do now.
1:38:50.1 AV: Maintaining the biodiversity and development go hand-in-hand because I guess development means more urbanization, more people in cities, this means more of your forest get preserved and there is… It’s actually good in that sense.
1:39:03.2 RN: But it depends on what kind of urbanization, because the footprint of our urbanization on even places that are not close by is something we need to begin to understand more of. So emissions in urban densities have rippling effects through all ecosystems. So it’s not as simple as that. So what will be preserved is more spaces, I agree, but of course, India’s urbanization is not as fast as people as they thought. So there’s a new story happening in India today, and I hear it and I don’t have enough data. So let me first say that I don’t have enough data, but I feel there’s a… People are re-thinking, some people are re-thinking coming to urban areas for the good life. There’s a lot of… Especially in the pandemic and the diverse migration that happened, some people have stayed back. Well, I have a feeling that people are going to the GDP, we still haven’t figured out how to include natural capital, but people are seeing a genuine impact of bad air and bad water on their lives and their health. And at least in rural India, you have access, some access to natural resources, you have some access to clean air and clean water, and I see that people are re-thinking what are they settling for by coming into urban areas, but I think the data will reveal itself over time.
1:40:31.9 AV: So I’m just thinking aloud and final tangent before the break that could it be partly because of technology, because the reason urbanization happens is that we have the most opportunities in urban, in conglomeration where people are together, they can form Economic Networks and blah blah, blah. But maybe now some of those networks can be formed without the need to physically go to a city and be around people because of technology and the internet, do you feel that’s affected…
1:40:57.5 RN: You’ll that in America a bit, but of course, they are at a different level of economic development, but I definitely think the benefits of density and clusterization which drives a certain kind of economy. New opportunities are coming because of technology that you could work without those kind of densities, you don’t have to because you can… Especially our digital mobility gives many new forms of physical freedom, so we don’t… I can’t see India, I don’t know. I’m not at all an expert, but will we have 10 cities of 20 million people each or will we have 10,000 cities that are smaller and more distributed. I think the jury’s still out on this we don’t know yet how India, right now at least, we are seeing a dispersed urbanization. We have 8000 towns, and some of them are growing very fast, whereas like Bangalore is still growing, other big cities are slowing down the rate of growth, not expanding it, so we’ll have a different form of urbanization.
1:42:06.5 RN: It’s impacting what I care about the natural ecosystems. If we want to keep that positive, then we have to… One of the institutions we support is the Indian Institute for Human Settlements which dwells on these long-term questions of what kind of urbanization should we aim for, so that it’s much more sustainable within the city, because if we think of the city as being the unnatural world and the wild as being the natural world, it will not work at all. So how do you incorporate natural ecosystems into the way you develop your urban centers is gonna unleash a lot of innovation, let me say.
1:42:51.7 AV: Yeah, that’s actually a profound thought about digital mobility bringing physical freedom. So while I process that let’s take a quick break.
1:42:58.7 RN: Thank you.
1:43:02.4 AV: Long before I was a podcaster, I was a writer. In fact, chances are that many of you first heard of me because of my blog, India Uncut, which was active between 2003 and 2009 and became somewhat popular at the time. I love the freedom the form gave me, and I feel I was shaped by it in many ways. I exercised my writing muscle everyday and was forced to think about many different things because I wrote about many different things.
1:43:27.5 AV: Well, that phase in my life ended for various reasons, and now it is time to revive it. Only now, I’m doing it through a newsletter. I have started the India Uncut newsletter at indiauncut.substack.com, where I will write regularly about whatever catches my fancy. I’ll write about some of the themes I cover in this podcast. And about much else. So please do head on over to indiauncut.substack.com and subscribe. It is free, once you sign up each new installment that I write will land up in your email inbox. You don’t need to go anywhere. So subscribe now for free. The India Uncut newsletter at Indiauncut.substack.com. Thank you.
1:44:10.2 AV: Welcome back to the Seen and the Unseen and I’m chatting with Nandani not Nandani. Rohini Nilekani. No, no. If I ever get Nandan on the show, and I will invite him. I promise you, I’ll call him to Rohan at the start and see how he responds. Let’s sort of… Your journey is kind of now reached that sort of fascinating point where you start getting into social work seriously, and I was very interested in how you speak, for example, of 1992 when you set up Nagarik. A friend of yours died tragically in a road accident you decided you have to do something about it, you set up Nagarik and it failed. And you have written at one point, “The early failure left me with a strong understanding of what could be done better the next time around. I realized that social change requires collective action where citizens are inspired to actively become part of the solution. I also learned that any team that claimed like us to be acting on behalf of citizens must be empathetic, innovative, organized and strategic.” And as well you have said about your early activism and your early work that, “I must say that I was an activist, I was a bit aggressive, which I don’t recommend, but I was like that.”
1:45:21.6 AV: And then you’ve spoken again about something that I found evocative and I’ll explain why, where you’ve written, “It was a different time and in a different city, but sometimes people use 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.” And later, you point out about how when outside where you and Nandan was staying there was a tea store that used to throw that. And you kind of did the same thing there because they were dropping cups, except you pick them up with a smile, and one of my close friends from Delhi [1:46:16.9] ____ told me an identical story that there was an office right opened up next door to his residence, and they would litter outside and he would just go every day and pick it up, and they just completely stopped when they saw this dignified gentleman doing all of this work.
1:46:31.3 AV: And this also seems to me to be such a Gandhian way of acting. Be the change you wanna see. And so what should we discuss first, your early experiences with activism or let’s leave that for later and tell me about Gandhi’s influence on you. Gandhism, like one trait of course is your grandfather and all of that, but I guess at another level, once you get serious about social work, once you encounter failure in social work, once you start thinking about what do I do not fail, you have to look at the past and you have to look at how other people have engaged with Indian society and Gandhi is a spectacular model in that regard, so tell me a little bit more about your journey with Gandhism.
1:47:16.3 RN: Yeah, so definitely… What is the thing that I admire most about Gandhiji is [1:47:24.7] ____ that he gets a man like Babasaheb from Belgaum to leave everything, leave his pregnant wife, leave his work profession, leave everything and just dash off in pursuit of a bigger vision, bigger than us, it is not about only us, it’s about something much bigger. For humanity at that time they were not even talking India, freedom of India in 1917, that is a power of this man, that he can inspire so many people to do something for a cause larger than themselves. I think that’s one. How do you get there was always fas… How do you become like that?
1:48:01.1 RN: And clearly in his case, it was his life was his example, and there’s so many contradictory things about Gandhiji that I was very, very aware of. In my family, my God, the number of arguments I’ve had with my mother about Gandhi and Savarkar, more on the Savarkar side. Though she appreciated Gandhi but she saw many of his flaws which he himself has written about at great length, of course, but he still remains very inspirational. His utter commitment to truth, his utter selflessness, even however he was whimsical in many ways, but that integrity, that hard work and discipline to aspire to much bigger ideas. Starting from Swaraj, which is raj over the self, which is the biggest human struggle of all to Swaraj of the nation and never forgetting the underlying value system, which says that the Swaraj of the nation cannot be built on anything that is against human justice.
1:49:10.0 RN: So you can delay the nations Swaraj, but that inner to outer journey where you are constantly fighting against the seven evils or whatever is the more important journey and impossible to tell that to an impatient nation awaiting for its freedom. But he did that. And getting people to do simple things that become powerful symbols against injustice, or fighting for freedom, fighting for truth, like the [1:49:38.0] ____, so getting inspiration from those kind of things. He was just a master in social and political craftsmanship to inspire thousands and millions of people.
1:49:52.2 RN: So in civic life, you have to look to people like that to learn how do they do it, so in that sense that’s where the interest in Gandhi came from, from his social political life.
1:50:05.1 RN: And no way one can keep up any… I’m not in nowhere close to it. I can’t even put myself in the same… I don’t even aspire to many of the things that he aspired to, but his… One thing became very clear based on the question you asked, which is when I was earlier aggressive, I told you, when I’m doing it because I think I’m so great or morally right. The way I present myself is exactly the opposite to what I want to achieve, and I’m doing it just because I was sometimes continue to be impatient. But those two things, like when I would pick up trash and put it deliberately in front of someone’s nose into a dustbin saying, Look, I’m better than you and look, this is what we need to do. I don’t think that person would ever bother with trash, wouldn’t even have… Except say what an irritating women is all that person would have registered, whereas in Delhi when I genuinely and if I had done it with false modesty, it would still not have worked. It was out of genuinely feel and I waited for a few days to decide what is it that I want to actually do, if I don’t want the place outside the house to be full of unnecessary trash, and one day I just decided I want to pick up this thing myself, so I went and quietly picked up all the paper cups and smile at them and went and put them into my trash in my bungalow. I did that again the next day, then I had a conversation with them saying…
1:51:40.8 RN: Not even one day till I left Delhi was a one cup left anywhere from that tea seller store. Not even one day, and I didn’t do anything, I didn’t have to be aggressive and how much more was achieved. So it was a real lesson for me, I’ve tried a few of those things, and now you can call it Gandhigiri.
1:51:57.6 RN: But it’s powerful, only if you have actually made some small transformation, but if you haven’t, it can’t be used as a transactional tool, you can’t. And that’s why it’s so powerful because it has to begin with you, and I think those are the things about Gandhi that inspire me.
1:52:17.2 AV: I’m really struck by what you spoke about going from Swaraj of the self, to the Swaraj of the nation and how Swaraj of the nation should not come at the cost of Swaraj of the self or justice or whatever, and I’m reminded of calling of the [1:52:31.0] ____ for example.
1:52:33.2 RN: Yes, exactly.
1:52:34.6 AV: Which is a great example of Gandhi’s assertion that means matter, that you cannot…
1:52:39.6 RN: And for him that was a thing. Today, so gullibly, we forget about means and ends and is the most difficult thing to do to focus on the means and not the end, because many times you have to give up the end when the means are wrong and how can you give up something that you’ve thought about for so long, but this is where we want to reach. And we keep saying many paths to one goal, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. But he’s saying the opposite. He’s saying how you go the journey is far more important than the destination, how you walk to that goal is more important than reaching the goal, and that’s really hard to do. But we’ve seen in world politics and human history, that when you forget this, when the means get disregarded sometimes the end you thought you were trying to reach actually becomes quite different from what you had planned. So that’s again very inspirational, how do you focus on the means.
1:53:39.6 AV: And this also leads me to sort of one frame that I have for looking at the world where I really don’t look at all action in two categories, and one is voluntary action with respect to consent, and the other is coercive action, and which is why I am sort of so inspired when I see civil society action. For example, during COVID, civil society got together in so many different ways to help migrant laborers, to feed those who couldn’t get food and all of that, and why I’m so suspicious of the state, because anything that the state does necessarily involves coercion and we’ve kind of normalize that. One piece in Times of India called ‘Every act of government is an act of violence’ and of course, we need the state, we need the state to defend right, it is a necessary compromise in that sense. We give up some of our rights so that the rest of them are protected.
1:54:29.5 AV: But too often, whenever we look for state solutions to social problems, they involve coercion inherently, and also then there is a chance of unintended consequences. I think a lot of social issues can only be solved from within society, and this almost reflexive tendency that Indians have especially that [1:54:53.4] ____ solution is in state action.
1:54:58.1 AV: In fact, so I had a conversation with Pranay Kotasthane and Raghu Jaitley recently on the show where I referred to the Samaaj, Sarkaar, Bazaar framework that you’ve written about Raghu Rajan also written a book on the thing, and my sort of reframing of that was that I would not make these three categories. I would think of markets as a mechanism through which society fulfills its own needs. Like I see society essentially working through voluntary action in many different ways, and the market is one mechanism, and markets can also be a mechanism for the state. When you have cronyism and you’re using state power to achieve ends. Nothing good can come out of that.
1:55:41.4 AV: So markets are just a mechanism, it depends on… But I’m not saying that to argue against your framework, your framework is powerful, because as you point out your original pillar is society, and then the state comes because we need the state, and then markets come because that is a mechanism. And now you have to see the relationship between all of these. But in that sense, since you mentioned Gandhi, and means and ends and all of that, my kind of deep suspicion of the state comes exactly from this, because power always corrupts, and the power of the state just continues to grow exponentially, and I think a lot of social problems just need to be sorted out in society, and as you’ve correctly pointed out and also written about in the book that state overreach can have such terrible consequences as we have seen in the last century.
1:56:26.4 RN: Yeah, no, I agree with you. You began with volunteerism and the ability of people to voluntarily do something for the others. To voluntarily collect themselves for action. In my life, at least definitely volunteering one’s self, one’s time, one’s effort, one’s talent is been seen as the highest personal ethic.
1:56:47.5 RN: But from there to come to the idea of Samaaj. As I say in my book, and I’ve been saying probably too often for 15 years, is that I had began to believe that Samaaj is the foundational sector, and that’s fairly obvious. That we are people first as in different formations, whether it’s from the family to the nation, and globally as well. And that over time in history, maybe the Bazaar came first before the Samaaj. Just people exchanging things and creating a valueof that exchange, which was commonly understood became the Bazaar and then the markets.
1:57:26.2 RN: And of course, you needed the Sarkaar and many forms of it developed from monarchy to what we see today as the modern democratic nation state in order to help people, because people are not a monolith, we fight with each other, brothers fight with brothers, siblings fight, everybody fights with each other when there are trade-offs to be faced, so you need a neutral authority, which we have created many forms of, which is the Sarkaar, the state to enable us to resolve those conflicts in a publicly accepted manner.
1:57:57.5 RN: You also need rule of law to be framed that everyone can abide by and it can keep changing, but something that is held by consensus, reduces conflict and creates the space for innovation for markets to provide goods and services to continuously improve the life of the Samaaj. That’s a very simple framing actually, and I do understand it is not [1:58:21.2] ____ since Samaaj ends here and Sarkaar begins here. It’s a continuum, Samaaj blends into, Sarkaar blends into markets at many, many points.
1:58:31.0 RN: But I still… The reason I keep dumbing this is because I think the balance has got so perverse, like you’re saying, deep suspicion of the state, not this state, or that state, but any state, because power does accumulate and in fact, we have designed the state to have a monopoly of violence. Only the state has the legitimate power to arrest, to imprison, etcetera, nobody else has that… No other formation has that accept the state, and that can be abused. Which is why we have to always see ourselves, and this is my exhortation to myself and everyone is, can we see ourselves as members of a Samaaj and only then position frame ourselves as subject of a state or citizens of a democracy, but are we not first human being first, and then part of our Samaaj first, however small however large, now it is even more confusing because it is even easier to think of yourself as a consumer first. That has created the maximum complications in this past century that you can be a consumer and be consumed at the same time without even realizing it.
1:59:44.2 RN: So that’s why my hope to reframe this discourse so that we see Samaaj as the larger envelope in which we all reside, and of course, there is Bazaar and Sarkaar to improve Samaaj continuously and make life easier for people, but the moment we flip that and see ourselves as citizens first, as human being first, I hope that creates that what you call voluntarism, that empathy, that ability of restraint, the sense of duty as much as a assertion of rights, that’s what we’ll then throw up the kind of people or the kind of conversations, so that members of the Bazaar and Sarkaar also influenced by that discourse. So today I’m talking to you as a citizen. But suppose I was a CEO, or suppose I was chief minister or something like that. If I remember too that I’m Samaaj first and then the way I occupy my CEO position or my CM chair would perhaps be different, would perhaps retain more elements of that human empathy and the understanding of how power operates and knowing that it’s fluid. Today I’m a CEO, tomorrow I’m back to being a citizen, but that will never change. My citizeness will never change, my humaness will never change every other identity is fluid.
2:01:06.7 RN: So to keep that always in mind. No matter which temporary identity you you occupy, I’m just hoping that means that we have more human empathy floating around and a constant awareness of how power operates.
2:01:25.0 AV: I’m just wondering if part of the reason at volunteerism that voluntary action is all around us, but well, as as coercion, but volunteerism is limited and too many people seem to settle down to be, as you’ve pointed out, either subjects of the state or consumers of goods and not active engaged citizens is perhaps because they see how the huge role that the state plays and therefore they abdicate their duties, they say that, Hey, I’m paying so much tax every year to state [2:01:55.9] ____ I’ve done three episodes with [2:01:58.3] ____ she’s also Bangalore based, does such a lot of good work. And I once asked him that boss, what you are doing is that you are organizing civil society groups to solve problems, which it was a government job to solve, which is in the state’s domain, so it’s almost like a duplication, you are already paying taxes for the state to do X, the state is unable to do X, and then either you do X, so you get together with the state to help it to do X and whatever. And I am not so firm on that question anymore because I kinda see where he is coming from, but I wonder about that apathy because that apathy not universal.
2:02:38.3 AV: At one point, you write, When citizens simply wait for the state to solve their problems, they lose a sense of agency, they feel helpless, a hopeless. I have witnessed first-hand the differences between an apathetic community and those that band together to create solutions for themselves, for example, in [2:02:54.3] ____ which receives abundant rainfall, people were still unable to harvest it for safe life line water whereas in parts of Kachin Gujarat communities work together to safely catch every drop of scanty rain to last them the rest of the year.
2:03:07.6 AV: Similarly, I’ve seen communities that enthusiastically ensure, all the children are enrolled in schools and learning, and others simply leave children to their fate in underperforming local schools, maybe this apathy stems from being unable to see a path to self-efficacy or from an excessive belief in the efficacy of the state or the market.”
2:03:28.8 AV: And at one level, if I’m going to think of the whole of the country, it sort of strikes me that this appetite doesn’t come from faith in the state, I think people have just kind of given up in a lot of areas, and this is inertia that prevails where they assume bad governance and they do their jugar to get on with things.
2:03:44.8 AV: But what I want to ask you about, and what I’m interested in, are these local differences, why is it that in some places people mobilize themselves and in some places people don’t… Is it like a cultural thing, is it like an accidental thing that somebody sets the ball rolling and the movement forms. What’s your experience?
2:04:02.2 RN: I think I’m scared to use the word culture, but sometimes it’s just natural circumstances, like in Rajasthan, it rained so little that every drop is precious and then in Bihar it rained so much that you forget about… You get so much in issues of quantity without worrying about quality. It can happen. So one is that, the second I think is leadership, I think there’s something that triggers one person to act on behalf of a community, there is some inner propulsion, it is intrinsic desire to do good that some people have and that inspires everybody very quickly. So it can be two of these, it can be these things, it can be as a result of prior conflict when there’s been so much conflict that everybody is really fed up, and like the [2:04:48.2] ____ communities came up after much conflict. When they came up, and then people felt it was worth investing in peace before when the next conflict broke out, so it really depends on a bunch of things, but I have definitely seen… And that’s been the 30-year journey of work, is that when you are able to allow people to see that they can be part of a solution, it unleashes a lot of innovation, it unleashes a lot of effort, it unleashes a lot of talent, and it unleashes good collective action.
2:05:20.2 AV: So that’s what I believe in, because who has decided exactly what belongs in the state domain, everything is actually in the social domain, we created the state for that. And it’s not something that you can just sit back and say, Okay, state…
2:05:37.0 RN: Only the state has to do this, and therefore I don’t and won’t do it. Don’t have to. And won’t to do it. Who’s going to suffer for that? You only. So we cannot unfortunately sit back and consume good governance, as I have been saying. Unfortunately paying taxes is not enough, you have to do more.
2:05:58.4 RN: Again, we talked about the price of democracy, liberty and all that. It’s not something that you can say, Okay, I voted, I paid my taxes, I’m done. I’ve done what I’m supposed to do. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that, because the state is also an evolving entity, and we know how power works, we know what kind of incentives that are be perverse and otherwise, but unless citizens are constantly driving and hoping and making the state more and more accountable to them and their larger interest, it’s not an automatic process, and it will never be.
2:06:36.4 RN: Because otherwise then it’s what Lewis Mumford, 50, 60 years ago, a colleague recently reminded me, talks about the magnificent bribe. Otherwise all of us will be constantly doing the work of the state and the market, and we don’t want to do that, we want to be with our families, we want to watch TV, we want to do… See, you can tell my age because I said watch TV I didn’t go on…
2:06:57.3 AV: You wanna watch TV [2:06:57.4] ____.
2:06:58.7 RN: What is that? What is TV? But so he calls it a magnificent bribe. The technological imagination is that we’ll give you a wonderful stuff, all you have to do is participate in this magnificent bribe. It is what’s happening on social media, your devices, and many of us, without thinking about it enough are willing to give up many freedoms for conveniences and again, it’s evolutionary biology, of course, that’s what you should be doing, but at some point that becomes counterproductive for you and society, and that’s why that eternal vigilance, especially in a digital age, is even more slipperier slope that they say that you are being consumed rather than consuming things.
2:07:41.4 RN: So that’s why the discourse of Samaaj is so important, that’s why I believe in it so deeply, because the state and the markets can become inordinately powerful. Well, is because Samaaj is fractured. Margaret Thatcher said, Wow, how can you go and meet society? What is a society business? And there’s no such thing. Which I don’t agree, I think you can meet society.
2:08:01.9 AV: I think she meant it in a different context, so I agree with you in this context.
2:08:04.3 RN: Maybe, maybe. You’re right. Right, right. I’m paraphrasing too much, yeah.
2:08:07.1 AV: Yeah, but I agree with her in that context, because often people will invoke society to justify clamping down on individual rights, and at her point was that individual rights are foremost and paramount and then you talk of collective good, but different, yeah.
2:08:19.8 RN: Right. Right, no. I paraphrased it wrongly perhaps but I think you can meet society, it’s not that you can’t. What is society? It’s a bunch of people and you can listen to them and hear them, they can talk to you, and they can meet you, you can meet society. There maybe I disagree but if you’re talking about the trade-off between individual rights and societal, good, and in fact, now that you’re saying this, this is something that’s been coming to me in the last few years that maybe one of the big issues of our times is really an age-old divide between the limits of individual freedom and the growing of public order, and it’s almost like you can draw a line down the globe somewhere, somewhere, I don’t know, somewhere along Turkey or something, where this side of it, the so-called East, was willing to value public order higher than individual freedoms, and then in the West, of course, very high premium on individual freedom, individualism, and maybe those things are what are playing out in societies and nations today, all over again.
2:09:31.5 AV: I love the way you carve Turkey.
2:09:34.7 RN: I don’t know, somewhere… What the British used to do sitting in their offices and draw imaginary lines across countries.
2:09:40.2 AV: [2:09:40.8] ____.
2:09:42.8 RN: [2:09:43.0] ____ Somewhere there, this side of Europe where the enlightenment all happened. The mystic religions, the Eastern religions even the Abraham… Well, really Islam. And this side towards the East right beyond China, Japan. Just a very broad generalization, and I recognize the limits of that, but all I’m saying is, again, that big word culture, but that individuals in some sense are willing to restrain their freedoms for families, communities, religions, their tribes, their cultures, their nations. I don’t know, maybe that is the idea playing out today in more ways than we understand again, you can see the clash between the ideas of individual freedoms and the state in many countries putting what they see as reasonable restrictions on those freedoms.
2:10:41.9 AV: Yeah, I absolutely agree. And it’s not just individual freedoms versus the state, which is a constant battle, requiring eternal vigilance as you said, but it’s also the clash between individual rights and group rights and there also it is a trade-off.
2:10:56.3 RN: Exactly.
2:10:57.4 AV: I think the most incredibly toxic and dangerous thing we can do is privilege group rights over individual rights because that has led to so much that has gone wrong in the 20th century…
2:11:07.4 RN: Again that’s what Mahatma Gandhi fought for, individual rights.
2:11:09.8 AV: Individual rights and so much that is wrong with modern politics, but I see the flip side of it also.
2:11:13.6 RN: Yes.
2:11:14.4 AV: I see the comfort that people take in community and in being part of a tribe. And there is a flip side to it like though frankly, in these modern times, I see the toxic side much more from both the left and the right, the tribalism, and the identity politics is just tearing us apart.
2:11:28.7 RN: Yeah, agree.
2:11:32.6 AV: You know we were talking about citizen apathy.
2:11:33.3 RN: Yes.
2:11:33.6 AV: About people just kind of not caring for their duties as citizens as a part of society, but just saying, [2:11:40.0] ____ And you’ve also spoken in your book in various places about elite secession where elites have had the privilege of building their gated communities, taking care of their own water and generator lagao electricity kar do, and getting away from it. But as you point out that there are some things elites can’t secede from, they can’t… They breathe the same air, they drink the same water by and large, and they suffer under the same laws, and these are just things that even the elites can’t secede from.
2:12:14.5 AV: Give me a sort of a sense of, and this is a question that arises out of this but is kind of tangential, and I just to give perspective on all the work that you’ve been doing is give me a sort of historical perspective of what has been happening in India in terms of civil society action over the decades, like you’ve pointed out in your book about civil society organizations, how you have one wave in the ’70s where there is all the enthusiasm, so many things are happening around the world, you have another wave in the ’90s as the markets open up and all that, then you have another wave perhaps in the 2000s with technology coming in and all of that, so give me a sense of this broad movement of people’s participation as citizens and what’s been happening there.
2:13:03.2 RN: Yeah. Again, I’m no expert, Amit, I’m just a…
2:13:06.3 AV: You’re a practitioner and therefore whatever you’ve seen.
2:13:08.3 RN: Yeah. So in India, obviously, after the freedom movement, everyone must have heaved a sigh of relief, “ke apna country hain” now, let’s get down to the business of building this nation in our individual capacities as whatever livelihoods we are engaged in and the state was busy keeping India united in the first place. Such a difficult decade. ’47 to mid ’50s, but… To ’56 in fact, but so I don’t know enough about civil society in that first decade, what exactly new was happening, but say definitely, I know especially from the late ’60s, the Bihar famine seems to have triggered a lot of the first early pioneers of civil institutions, they left… They were highly educated, some IIT people, people like Bunker Roy and others who had gone to college, could have taken any corporate job, decided to give up everything and look at fundamentals of society why do we have famines, why are so many people poor, what can be done, what is voluntary.
2:14:08.7 RN: So that first wave in the ’60s and continued into the ’70s this time with more foreign funding, a lot of… Ford Foundation, Rockefeller, many others came in to support broadly issues of justice rights, some working very closely with the government passed… After the Green Revolution, etcetera also. They spawned professionals in civil society working in their offices here again, looking at various issues, there were so many issues to worry about whether it was food and nutrition, agriculture, urban… Well, urbanization not that much was done then but just basically issues of expanding rights and expanding access to justice a lot of work was done education, healthcare, women’s rights, so much work began to happen in the ’70s, and ’80s.
2:15:01.2 RN: Then again, as you yourself said after India opened up, there were new issues to worry about, a lot more people, a different kind of class was being left behind, so understanding how they could participate in this economic surge that was going on, I think that took the interest of civil society, a lot. The Bangladesh refugees that came in also spawned a whole… MYRADA came out of that, the settlement of some of those. So many incidents global and in our neighborhood spawned new waves of civil activism and you’re right that the digital era has spawned the latest lot of leaders and organizations who are trying to use the benefits of the digital age to reach many vulnerable left out people, and yet at the same time also try and hold the digital era accountable, the states, the markets, and civil society more accountable in a… Because the digital age has brought new issues, new exclusions and how do you hold… Again, same framing justice, equity, access, but in new waves, like I kind of described, I’m sure there are experts who describe it differently, but this is what I have seen.
2:16:16.9 AV: And is there, has there been a deeper involvement in these movements from people at large and especially moneyed people, because of course what is happening after the ’90s is there are many more people with money, there’s a burgeoning of the middle class, 300, 400 million people come out of poverty, there’s a lot of that happening, equally, there is a class of the elites and the super-rich, which is forming and… So what’s happening there? Are these new elites, for example, also rushing in enthusiastically, where… Perhaps in absolute numbers greater than they were in the past because the numbers are so huge…
2:16:53.1 RN: Yeah because the numbers, the base…
2:16:54.9 AV: Yeah, but…
2:16:57.0 RN: I think the middle and upper middle classes are engaging more in civic issues in urban India. Definitely, RWAs for example, if you take just one civic institution, they are very vociferous about their rights and their… And they also band together to improve their own neighborhoods. I live in 3rd Block, Koramangala in Bangalore which is of course very… An elite neighborhood, but not all of it is elite, some of us have become very wealthy but the rest of them are wealthy enough, but see, they are… How much time my neighbors give to civic work to gather all of us, we work together, all of us, we have secured our park, we fight court cases, Koramangala is very active that we…
2:17:43.5 RN: Just recently, my neighbors did a big vigil because one expressway has been just stalled for years, and it’s made us also frustrated, so I see a lot more of this kind of civic activism, especially in Bangalore for the last 20-25 years definitely, and I can see it only growing because our people are becoming more innovative about how to create like flash activism, something will happen, my god, the word gets around and they gather, which is kind of a new way of doing things, and young people are getting involved. So I feel that young people and the middle class in urban India is finding new ways to participate in this great big experiment of democracy that we have going on in India.
2:18:32.1 AV: Yeah, and you said it RWAs have… I think RWAs are actually, if someone is looking for material for satire, there’s a lot there because…
2:18:41.4 RN: Oh, definitely. [laughter]
2:18:41.8 AV: RWAs have become such fertile playgrounds for wannabe uncle dictators who…
2:18:48.7 RN: Oh, yeah.
2:18:50.0 AV: Like, in the place where I used to live when COVID started, I don’t live there anymore, but the RWA of that place sent homeopathic medicine to every flat because that guy’s relative was a homeopath or whatever, and I was like, “What are you even doing? What is… ”
2:19:03.5 RN: The pandemic offered many people new spaces to exercise petty power.
2:19:06.9 AV: Yeah.
2:19:09.5 RN: And now when the state’s officials have discovered that it’s up to citizens to now push that back again, which is not so easy, every beat cop could push you back into your home without even using much coercion. We just went.
2:19:23.0 AV: Yeah.
2:19:24.1 RN: It’s hard to give up power. Somebody said to me that a stick is never given away, it has to be taken away.
2:19:28.6 AV: Yeah, with another stick sometimes.
2:19:32.3 RN: Or with again, if you have five people one stick won’t do much.
2:19:33.9 AV: Yeah.
2:19:34.5 RN: So it’s the force of a collective action is that what I believe in, but yeah, no, of course, you can have, but I’ll tell you even though it’s a meme now, some dictator uncle in a RWA who’s exercising. But that’s also dynamic dictatorship. Some other uncle can also come and push away this dictator, and so long as there is mobility of power and people kind of know and they also won’t take that dictator that seriously in that RWA beyond the point, he can’t do much. Okay, so there… Because here there is proximity to that power. In an RWA, there is proximity, even if somebody’s using their power in a bad way, there is enough proximity that you can actually turn that situation around if 10 of you get together.
2:20:27.0 RN: So that’s what’s interesting in these things, they can be pretty… I know how much in my building, oh my god, the general body meetings and somebody’s standing up and saying this and that, we… But that is the practice of how human beings will organize themselves. That’s exactly how it’s going to be. Both the good and bad of it, but eventually it is constantly a movement to improve their surroundings. So there… No, sorry, this is the practice of democracy, this is exactly how it is going to be.
2:20:58.2 AV: Yeah. And in a sense what is good about RWAs is that there is a direct link between power and accountability, which sometimes gets lost in, because our governance otherwise is so centralized but this is…
2:21:11.4 RN: Yeah. We are so far away as citizens from the seats of real power, right. How do I get… How do… Okay, I am in a extremely privileged position, but how do normal people get heard otherwise, because our system of electoral democracy doesn’t really mean… In villages it is different in rural India it is quite different, because the 74th amendment has not really stuck yet somehow, it hasn’t. It’s such a sensible amendment, but it’s not yet been realized, you don’t even know who your counselor is, and in some cases, you don’t even have the elections with some excuse or the other, so the seats of real power have become very distant from the ordinary citizen in… Especially in urban India.
2:21:53.4 AV: I want to also take another digression, you spoke about how in Bangalore civil activism has increased and the young are taking part, and a lot of that participation by the young is incredibly hearty, like if something gave me a lot of hope for example, during the CAA protest, it was young people on the streets waving the preamble because at least then there is awareness of it, you’re thinking about your rights, that’s mind-blowing, but what we also see from the young is perhaps a mistake you pointed out in yourself where the first time you picked up the rubbish that people were leaving, it was almost self-aggrandizing in a sense that look, I’m better than you, there is that sanctimony.
2:22:33.9 AV: And I find that what social media has exacerbated is that it has these incentives built in for posturing, posturing, posturing all the time. Back in the day, to be known as a feminist, you actually had to do real work in the field, improving the lives of people and so on, today you can just go out there and put a few snarky co-tweets and show your outrage and so on and so forth, and that feels, it’s a very cheap way of sort of signaling what you are, and I’ve done a bunch of episodes with various feminists from Manjima Bhattacharjya to Urvashi Butalia and all of that and Kavita Krishnan notably who pointed out how a lot of these online feminists, so to say, online activists are not engaging with the complexities of the real world where everything is not cut and dry, black and white, you really have to wade into murky waters.
2:23:28.0 RN: Exactly right. So what I would say is this, having thought about this for a while now, is that I think we are in a transition period, see, the technology is pretty new. And the public norms around this have not settled yet. It may take five, 10 years even. How should you behave in the digital sphere? What is going to eventually work for you? So maybe that initial my god, I can say anything with anonymity “koi bhi pakadega nahi mereko” and I feel so good. My god, I can vent.
2:24:03.0 RN: And now there’s enough written, we don’t need to repeat it on this podcast about why the technology, the attention-seeking, the clickbaiting, all that… We know what the rewards are, how they are aligned, we know what the rewards for the market are, we know what the rewards for people are so we won’t talk about that, but I do feel that now you can hear people talking about how this must change, and I think we’re at the beginning of that change, and I think some new norms will come around how to behave, and I think of course, regulation may also come, but I wish before all the harsh regulation comes, some of this… I really hope we are at peak polarization, peak venting and that in the next few years, I think some new norms will develop because it’s not really working for anyone anymore, it was fun while it lasted, but I think at some point, it will have to settle and it will settle.
2:24:52.4 RN: Most new inventions people do overdo things, but then new discourses emerge, new restraining factors emerge, and we will see that. So the way I would see it as a slightly older person is that we are in a transition, and so I’m hoping that in a few years, it will be different.
2:25:12.2 RN: I love the term peak polarization, if this actually is peak polarization and things get better “aapke muh mein ghee” I can’t say “shakkar.”
2:25:19.1 RN: Just tell me how can it get worse. Can you describe anything worse than this, I can’t think of something much worse than this, so it’s probably at its peak.
2:25:25.9 AV: See, I look at the incentives both within social media and within politics, and I’ll briefly just talk about. Within social media the incentive is you go online, everybody wants to feel they belong to a tribe, you find your tribe, and then you want to raise your status within your tribe, all natural and rational, and how do you raise your status within your tribe by attacking people on the other side, never engaging with arguments, or attacking people on your own side for not being pure enough and any kind of nuance will have you beaten up by every side, so it creates an incentive where you keep pushing towards the extremes, and this is social media, and these are vocal minorities, I think the silent majority is kind of more sensible, who knows there are many sides to issues and all of that, but they’re scared to speak up.
2:26:13.8 AV: And the incentive within politics is that today, like earlier, I think and this is something that in my mind is a thought in progress, so I haven’t gotten anywhere with it, but earlier we used to talk about the median voter theorem, that ultimately you’re going to go towards the center. So you’d look at American elections where your Republican and your Democratic candidates in the primaries, they will swing to the extremes for the true believers, but they are pretty much adjacent to each other in the main election.
2:26:42.6 RN: Eventually, yeah.
2:26:43.8 AV: And I think in 2016, this broke down because I thought the candidates were gonna be Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush, and they’re pretty much identical, some interest groups differ on each side, but they’re basically the same.
2:26:56.4 RN: Agree.
2:26:57.6 AV: And suddenly you had Trump and everything changed, and the Republican party has pretty much been demolished, all their values just wiped out by this man who stands for nothing that they stood for. And equally on the Democratic side, there is again that push to the extremes…
2:27:12.5 RN: Extreme left, yeah.
2:27:14.7 AV: Extreme left, which is happening, and even within Indian politics, how do you really shine in your party, for example, if you are in the BJP today and there is really one big game in town. The way that you stand out within a party like that is by going more and more extreme. Like I think of that notorious Dharam Sansad video from I think, December 2021. And the reason you had all of those sadhus giving one incendiary speech after the other was that they were competing with each other for attention, and the only way is to get more extreme and more outrageous. If you have one guy speaking, it would have been more moderate than any speech made there, but so I see both the incentives in social media in terms of posturing is driving you towards the extremes and within politics, but I agree with you that at some point my brain can’t compute something’s gotta give.
2:28:06.8 RN: Yeah, and the media talks more about the Dharam Sansad and who said what, than anybody else. People are not sitting around thinking about what some sadhu said in an incendiary manner or what any of the groups said from all sides of the religious sphere. Apparently, in that sphere, there is, as you said, rational reasons to increase your power base by being more inflammatory, but tell me, how many people are thinking about this in their normal lives and how many people actually hold moderate views, so… And more sensible views.
2:28:40.5 RN: Most people actually, if you just go a little below the skin, that’s why one of the reasons, one of the portfolios that we have set up, I did this show on NDTV some time ago called Uncommon Ground, where I asked corporate leaders to talk to the counterparts in that sector in the social realm, so like Medha Patkar was in conversation with Anand Mahindra, and so on and so on. And I really found that there was a need and a space for that kind of dialogue, so one of the things we’re trying to do is to help build the societal muscle for dialogue and conflict reduction, and it’s actually a muscle.
2:29:20.1 RN: Now, suppose you and I have opposite views about something, we can sit around shouting at each other, or we can suspend judgment and perhaps learn from each other, and you may not change my mind and I may not change your mind at all, but believe me in the human mind things marinate and at the right time in our evolutionary learning part, I will remember something you said, and, “Maybe he was right,” I will think if not today, three days later, if I had given myself and really it’s a reward to myself, the time and space to listen to you. And I think people are thirsting for that, and I think it is up to civil society to help create those spaces, and we’ve got a great response, a very small attempt to begin with, but we hope to expand that, and I think young people, especially maybe searching for those spaces, and it is up to us to create them.
2:30:09.3 RN: The political field is like that for the electoral vote, things like that will happen, but most of citizens’ lives are way beyond all those very fractious, contentious issues. Arrey, we’re just… Every day people are just running around trying to keep their families together and their lives sane.
2:30:31.5 RN: So let’s not exaggerate. And that’s why I am not so pessimistic, because if you go around India and you talk to people as I have to for my field visits, you see much more of the… It’s a 5000-year civilization that’s gone through every conflict known to human beings and accommodated so many things along the way, when you actually talk to people and break down ke “Yeah, but aapko kya lag raha hain” actually, most of them will back off from violent confrontation or any confrontation, there’s so much of “adjust kar lete hain thoda sa” in this country that I have more faith in that undercurrent of Indian society than the very turbulent waves on top.
2:31:21.8 AV: Do you think that there’s a danger in all of us having too blinkered a view of the world in the sense that I don’t get around in terms of just going around meeting people, engaging with society, even a fraction as much as you surely do, and therefore my view is restricted by what I am taking in through the media that I consume, and there is a danger there because once I consume one piece of media, the algorithm will push similar things towards me.
2:31:49.1 RN: Lead you to the next.
2:31:50.4 AV: Will lead me to the next, and before I’m in my bubble, somebody else is in his bubble, but your point is that no, the real world is so complex and this shit doesn’t matter and don’t go by any…
2:32:00.0 RN: Don’t go only by that, it doesn’t make any sense, diversify your points of input and use real people for that. Use your neighbours, for example. We learn a lot from our neighbours. Nowadays you don’t even need to meet your neighbour anymore, you may know someone across the world much more intimately than you know the person who lives in the flat next to you, but I think reaching out to real people more and engaging in more non-fractious discourse is I think some of the abundance that we can harvest around us, it’s abundantly there. We have to harvest it.
2:32:35.4 AV: So let’s go back to your personal narrative that you have sort of… You work on Nagarik for a while and it’s kind of heartbreaking, doesn’t work out, but then in 2000, you help Pratham set up the Akshara Foundation which is a Karnataka branch in 2001, you set up Arghyam to work on water issues. So tell me a little bit about this journey from learning from what went wrong in Nagarik to moving on to these areas and why these specific areas. Take me through a bit of the journey.
2:33:04.4 RN: Yeah, no again, circumstance. After Nagarik sort of wound down, I was doing very small…
2:33:10.8 AV: Why did it fail, by the way?
2:33:11.4 RN: It failed because I think we didn’t put the Nagarik in Nagarik as I keep joking now. Forgot about that, now you are just thinking about, you know that we have to solve this problem, but you can’t just solve problems by wishing them away, so the Nagariks have to be very interested in whatever calls you are espousing and I think it was ahead of its time. Traffic safety was not on top of people’s minds, though it should be, by the way, 160,000 people die on Indian roads every year. That’s a shocking number, considering how few vehicles we have on the road compared to our population, and how many of them are heart-breakingly young people who die quite unnecessarily on all really haphazard roads, but even today, there is not that much of public agitation about this 160,000 number. Is the highest in the world.
2:33:58.2 AV: Is dispersed all over the place if they were visible, if there was a massacre in one field everybody would be going mad.
2:34:03.7 RN: Possibly. So we were probably on the wrong… We were just… Had a wrong mission, and so we couldn’t gather the enthusiasm. So if you don’t get the people behind it, if you have not tapped into what is already an angst, then it’s an uphill battle, you are going against the stream. And we were also very new at, there’s so many things that I would do differently now, we didn’t know there’s always going to be a learning curve, so that’s fine, but we are very sincere, let me say. So that sincerity is still important, but so that we had to wind down because it was not going anywhere, and then I was actually just like ripe for doing something big. And C. V. Madhukar was with Pratham at the time. Here they are already established with the State Government of Karnataka, took the lead on setting up Akshara foundation as a public-private partnership, and he came home and it was just the right time because the kids were a little group and I had free time and I put myself into it. It was that in Karnataka, at least in Bangalore, every child should be in school, and it was a big enough mission that I wanted to sink my teeth into it, so I got lucky that I got drawn into Pratham and the Pratham network and really we did a lot of work.
2:35:18.4 RN: We did a lot of innovation. We did get a lot of children enrolled, we did a lot of bridge courses, we’ve worked very hard on preschool education, helping neighborhood set up their own pre-schools, where sometimes children were charged, sometimes not charged, especially in many Muslim localities when young Muslim girls became balwadi teachers and helpers and all the children will come. It was really wonderful community feeling, and we achieved a lot. I went on to the Pratham board and then I set up Pratham Books because… And that’s one of the most joyful parts of my work life. We don’t… Never think about this. But you and I had books. I mean, you said we didn’t have too many books and that remains true for Indian children, but I had Kamal Book House down my road, and it had a few hundred books, right. That’s much better than nothing. But most children in India, 15 years ago, had zero access to books. All my childhood was about the joy of reading.
2:36:18.2 RN: I mean, you cannot separate my idea of childhood from reading, and how many children have never had that joy, to me, it was just… It’s an [2:36:26.5] ____ thing to think of. So when we started Pratham Books, that’s what we wanted to do is to democratize the joy of reading, and we really disrupted the publishing industry for children’s publishing if I say so myself. It was not me alone. Obviously, it was so many, many, many of us. But today, the success is that there have been almost 100 million reads across the years of everything that Pratham Books and story we have put out. Children have for the first time in their life’s got a book to hold in the hand, which has a marvelous story with colorful illustrations in their language. And so that’s what we did from 2004. In the meantime, in 2001, I set up Arghyam but I didn’t have that much money till I told you the ADR came in 2004.
2:37:11.9 RN: But I wanted to learn the ropes of giving forward, by then we could see the money may come. And so that’s what I did and learned that you have to first listen, you have to first listen and then decide what needs to be done.
2:37:31.5 AV: And tell me a bit more about Pratham Books and reading, because I keep talking to people about the importance of reading. That’s how we grow, that’s how we… We make sense of the world by joining dots, the more we read, the more dots we join the more nuanced and complex our view of the world is and all of that. But the counter-view is that in every generation, there’ll be a certain percentage of people who read and others are just not interested, and I wonder if that’s true, and I think it cannot possibly be true. I think that everyone can read. Some of it can be… Some people might be more inclined to reading than others, but if the circumstances are right everyone can read and simultaneously I see in small-town India, in young India, there is this hunger for knowledge. Right, so what was that experience with Pratham books, like especially what was your thinking going in and how did that thinking evolve about what the challenge is? And then what are the pivots you made and what did you learn from that?
2:38:31.0 RN: Yeah, this story is told often so I say it very briefly that when the network Pratham, we started a read India campaign and trying to get children to read. Imagine not being able to read. Just imagine not being… Today, if one of us goes into… Say, for example, you go into Tamil Nadu, most of the signs are in Tamil, and if you don’t know Tamil, that’s how you feel if you can’t read and it is horrible. A whole part of the world shut out for you if you can’t read. And so a lot of children had begun to… Learned how to read through all our campaigns, young children, but they have nothing to read, and you cannot sustain a reading habit without something to read.
2:39:14.2 RN: And so our first job was to just make a lot of reading material accessible and available to the children of India in their own languages, and so that’s what we started to do, and what it meant was… Since they were not that many writers, especially for the kind of money we were willing to pay, and there were not the many illustrations, and there were not that many translators or editors, so how are you going to do it? So actually Madhav Chavan, Rukmini Banerjee, and myself, we used to write many of those first stories and some of our team members, and then we started attracting more and more.
2:39:46.4 RN: This is a nation of storytellers, we attracted people from every corner of the country voluntarily sending out stories, not even expecting money, nothing, and that’s how the movement began, and whenever we took the books out, we had to learn everything about publishing. My colleagues Ashok Kamath and all. We didn’t know anything about how paper was printed on nothing. We had to learn everything from scratch. And he did such a phenomenal job and we built such a phenomenal team that we were soon able to get thousands of books out into the hands of children through the Pratham network. I have seen with my own eyes, a child receiving a book like, “This is mine? This is for me? For me, this book?” “Yes, it’s for you.”
2:40:30.2 RN: And then how they’ll sit and look at it and treasure it and love it. Everybody loves a good story. So when you give children good stories, they get attracted to reading and it’s criminal not to let children have books, good books to read from the age of two, I think from the age of two, children should have lots of books to touch. I think it should be from the age of six months. My grandson, certainly… My children got books at the age of three to four months, and they had relationships with books from that age, and that’s the correct age to introduce books to children and never should a child be deprived of a book because they can have a personal learning journey, the system will teach whatever, but your personal learning journey, your learnability, to teach yourself to learn begins with good books or any books for that matter, when you are very, very, very young.
2:41:22.2 RN: So we were able to do that and build out the community, find all kinds of business models to sustain it, philanthropic models to sustain it and today… I mean, Pratham books is a success story, very much in its own right with the new teams that are running it, but I think we have definitely put books into children’s lives, and that makes me personally incredibly happy because we said democratize the joy of reading. That was the societal mission that we subscribed to and try to make happen, and I think we have succeeded, and even today NIPUN Bharat, the governments programs, we are looking at foundational literacy very seriously for the first and national curriculum framework is out. Lot of plans to get very little children to be fluent, to have more words heard and read, to understand simple arithmetic. I think it’s a serious national mission now, the ground rod has been laid before, but now I think the state governments and the union government are very serious about this and Samaaj has to get very, very serious because even if we have only X number of teachers, how many caregivers do we have around the child? Millions.
2:42:38.6 RN: If everyone does a little bit to help a child in their vicinity, can you imagine what that magic that can do and it’s easy. So if we focus on the abundance again, I think this is the time, and it’s a reducing problem, Amit, because today about 25-26 million children are born every year in India, but the rate of growth of the population is dipping quite dramatically actually, so that number will keep reducing, so in fact, the problem is reducing in size and scope. So I think three to five years we should be able to do this.
2:43:14.2 AV: It strikes me that one of the gratifying things about doing work like this is that you can have a massive impact sometimes at scale, right. And it’s a massive impact of so many kids are reading again, it’s huge, but as humans, we also tend to want immediate gratification, we also tend to want something that is measurable. If you build a big business, you can sell out, you can make money, you can do all of those things, it’s visible, it is there, you can say, “I built Infosys” or whatever it is. But when you work in the social sector, one, of course, there is a problem of scaling and we’ll come to that later, but even when you do scale. It’s not measurable in a concrete sense, you just know that “Man, I’m proud of… This is huge.”
2:44:06.2 AV: And that you know after the fact after it has happened, but in a lot of work that people do in the social sector, I’m guessing that there is no immediate gratification, even if things work out, you will never really the benefits in front of your eyes sometimes, like I think in a sense, all of us are doing we are playing the long game, you do something because it’s a right thing to do the whole Bhagavad Gita, Gandhi thing you do something because it’s a right thing to do, even if you’ll never in your lifetime perhaps see the good that comes out of it, it’s Nablus.
2:44:37.5 AV: So does that mean that someone who… Like a capitalist and a social worker, they are both problem solvers, right. Many of us are natural problem-solvers, “Ki yaar this is a big problem, I want to solve it.” But if you go the capitalism route, say, “I’ll do it for profit, I’ll raise some money, I’ll get venture capital, I’ll do this. These are my measurables.” Your metrics are clear, you get that gratification and that’s a particular thing that’s out there, but in the social sector, sometimes the gratification is not coming, sometimes whatever good you do may be invisible, so you have to find other ways to motivate yourself, and for some people, I guess just the challenge of solving a problem is enough, but for some people, even that might not do so in your experience as someone who’s been peripherally part of the corporate world, in a sense, you’ve interacted so much with the people within that world, and at the same time, your world is really this world of social work, of making change happen within Samaaj per se.
2:45:39.8 AV: So what are your thoughts on this? Do think fundamentally different kinds of people get attracted to it, for example, one thing that you have pointed out in your book, and we might talk about it in more detail, is how when someone who’s built a successful company will try to do something in social work, they’ll lose risk-taking appetite. They’ll just approach it differently. So what is a difference in mindsets? I don’t want you… I mean, obviously, I know you don’t want to generalize or paint broad strokes, but in general, these are such different challenges, do they require different temperaments? What kind of adjustments did you have to make? How much did this change you?
2:46:13.5 RN: Yeah. No, you’re right. It probably is different. They are different worlds with very different metrics, no question about that, and in the corporate world, of course, there’s a broad consensus on if you make profits, you’re successful, if you don’t, obviously your shareholders are losing and obviously your enterprise is failing. And then all the consequences of that have to be born. In the social sector, so we have a lot of failures with different kinds of consequences, and the metrics are very hard to agree upon. Most social sector work doesn’t allow you to work at population scale or even though, for example, Prathams mission statement is, “Every child in school and learning well.” It doesn’t mean that actually, every single child will be able to be in school, that’s a big hairy audacious goal. You set the target, everybody moves. It may not happen in your lifetime. But in that sense, you can have a big broad mission like that, but the interim goals are very hard, whereas your quarter se quarter thak culture is completely taken over the corporate world and you have to deliver quarter on quarter, in fact, that’s in some sense much harder. Here the time frames are much longer in the social sector.
2:47:24.8 RN: But you’re right that people want to have quick wins, that naturally, we all want to see success, but that’s why much of the discourse on the social sector is how to create sensible mileposts. Every child will not be by tomorrow in school. But what are the indicators that at least you’re on the right path, and I think a lot of work has gone into developing interim metrics which help you to know that, and most people who come into it come from such high intrinsic motivation that that much sustains them unless you’re making really big mistakes, then you have to course correct, so does it require a different mindset? Yes, if you’re looking for quick wins, and if you’re looking for very clear definitions of success, and if you want to achieve monitory visible goals, then maybe the social sector is not the right place for you, but I’m seeing so many more corporate people walking out and coming to the social sector, because at the end of it, fine, you want money and you want prosperity so that your children can also be in good schools and universities or whatever, but you know there is a diminishing return even to that kind of wealth.
2:48:35.8 RN: And many people are left dissatisfied. Really, so many people I meet, of course, it’s obviously self-selection, they’re gonna come to me, but people want more than anything, they want meaning in their lives, they really need meaning, they need to feel part of something good. So long as they are in that mindset that we are doing what all entrepreneurship is social, as some of my friends say that by creating jobs, by creating profits, we are spreading wealth, we are spreading prosperity, so it’s a good thing, but if that is still not giving them that deep human satisfaction, more and more of the middle management level are trying to come and do something meaningful in the social sector, so maybe it’s also an evolution of the human being that you achieve your material things and then you graduate to wanting to give more of your human self to more human cases, I’ve seen that happen for sure. But yeah, the social sector is a hard space to be even… Even Bill Gates have had… Bill Gates has said that it’s much harder to create social change when we are in conversation, we recognize how much harder than to have a magnificent business empire like Microsoft. So definitely it’s harder.
2:49:53.7 AV: Let’s talk about Samaaj, now. You’ve written so eloquently in many, many pieces about how democracy cannot be a spectator sport and civil society has to take the lead and do things, and I want to double down on this essay of yours where you laid out five challenges before civil society, right. And I want you to elaborate on them one by one and what you’ve learned about them, because just a framing of these has obviously come from hard experience and being on the grounds, seeing things not work out and kind of understanding these. And the first of these five challenges in front of civil society that you’ve written about is enabling good governance. So explain this to me.
2:50:38.0 RN: So for example, in Bangalore, Rameswaram, [2:50:41.2] ____ Janaagraha. So what they wanted to do was to see if people are willing to get more involved in local governance. So they help people to understand that they could actually participate in formation of budgets. What should the money… First of all, that money should be transparent that this much is available, and then you should be able to have some kind of mechanism by which you can input before the state, the civil civic budget is formed. So those are the kind of things, innovations that have been done in Indian Civil Society to enable good governance. Because as I keep understanding and keeps coming back to me that it won’t happen on its own. We all want governance when Nandan’s election campaign was going on. Everybody wanted actually just basic good governance. They were asking for rewards that are not so treacherous, they’re asking for water supply, they’re asking for electricity, they’re asking for more decent housing. Just like very basic building blocks of public infrastructure and yet it is not there. And we can’t unfortunately afford to just sit there and blame the politicians of the state. So one first thing I would share is, how do we participate in co-creating the good governance that we all claim to crave?
2:52:04.1 RN: We all crave it, I could see it in that campaign. Every… Naturally, everybody wants that. And remember how I described Bombay to you, that we have that and how much it helps citizens to move ahead without every day being hassled out of their wits. So, enable good governance is exactly what I mean by those three words. That is the role of civil society, to engage people in becoming more active citizens. Because in a democracy, you can’t sit back and you can’t enjoy the fruits of democracy without that participation. You can just be really lucky to be in a country where that happens automatically.
2:52:43.8 AV: And I guess some of it would be just getting data and making it transparent what government is doing right, what they’re doing wrong.
2:52:51.2 RN: Yeah, so agreed. There are many ways that people have been helping to enable better governance. And you are very right, a big part of it is data. The whole right to information movement, just what work e-government Foundation does is to help government organize its own data better for disclosure and to make the whole grievance and redress process much simpler and more transparent. Today many bureaucrats return immediately information on what grievances have been redressed. Of course, it’s a continual process. So I think there are many innovations in India on this, on open data, on many pathways for addressing grievances, and we need much more of that.
2:53:38.9 AV: The second way, the second challenge before civil society is scaling up.
2:53:42.0 RN: Yeah. And that’s a real huge challenge. Because first of all, they don’t have access to two things, which is money and talent, not necessarily the kind of talent that you actually need, because you don’t just need passionate people trying to change the world. Unfortunately you also need accountants and admin people and legal people and everything. And those people aren’t necessarily intrinsically motivated to come and join this. So it’s very difficult to all to establish organizations ready for scale, even if you had the capital. So it’s a real problem and the way to see it, and this is what we try to do in our teams today to help organizations to scale by thinking differently about what scale means. So if we were to think that what we really want to scale is the mission and not the organization, then the way you design your work will be very different. Because then what it means is instead of me saying… Okay, suppose the thing is every child in school and doing well or whatever, doesn’t mean I will set up 2000 schools and 5000 colleges. It means our work on public policy, or so many of us with such small units, wherever we are.
2:54:58.4 RN: So instead of pushing solutions from the center out, what if we could distribute the ability to solve, then your organization need not scale, but your mission will scale to the participation and co-creation of a million other nodes. So if you think of scale like that. But this problem of being able to scale something that civil society has to grapple with. So think differently about scale. You may not be able to scale to a million person organization like corporations do, but if you can scale people’s own agency to respond in their context, then you have succeeded. So opening that idea of scale out a little bit.
2:55:39.8 AV: Can you give an example of that where you took a problem, you took a movement or an organization or whatever, or a mission, and you manage to scale it by thinking differently?
2:55:49.0 RN: So Pratham Books is a very good example. Because see they were… There’s a handful of publishers producing a few hundred books a year. Today there are many more publishers, today there are non-profit publishers, today because of digital technology books are available in your hand, anytime, anywhere in any language. There are 330 languages on the website, on Storyweaver today. So that scale was easy, but books are easy. But if you look at say EkStep where we set up this foundation in 2014, Shankar Maruwada, Nandan, and I. The goal was to be able to enhance learning opportunities for 200 million people by 2025. No, earlier than that, I think 2023 or whatever. The reason we were able to do that is we were looking at this issue of scale and Nandan’s and other’s experience in designing the [2:56:43.2] ____ platform made us think, the team was already thinking differently. I’m not gonna go to every school or something like that. So how am I going to create some infrastructure which allows many, many people to participate and move driving this mission of accessibility to learning opportunities further. And together with the union government, the team was able to develop the DIKSHA platform, which means it’s a platform for teachers, the National Teacher Platform. It then became called DIKSHA, and our teams help the government to achieve this. It was ready just before the pandemic.
2:57:17.0 RN: And over night schools were shutdown, colleges were shut down. Especially schools which we cared about more at that time. And this platform came in really handy to allow teachers to keep talking to each other, learning from each other, how to operate in a completely new environment, a digital environment. How do you teach children virtually? There’s a pedagogy that you have to develop to teach digitally. And so the platform came in really handy. Twelve million teachers came onto that platform. In the height of the pandemic, there were billions of transactions every month on that. Now it has come to some steady state because schools have opened again. But that’s what… If you can design not for a one to many, but a many to many interactive situation, where people can learn from each other and then take it out to scale locally in their context, that seems to us to be the example of one way to scale up fast while distributing agency, not solutions. That’s some of the kind of thinking that we are doing. And right now, what we call the societal thinking team, is enabling many, many, many social entrepreneurs to take the missions to scale.
2:58:36.1 AV: That’s a lovely distinction between distributing agency as opposed to distributing solutions. And the moment you said 12 million, my [2:58:42.1] ____ mind translated it to 1.2 [2:58:44.1] ____ and just went, “Wow.” So absolutely phenomenal. And the third challenge before civil society, which you kind of touched on while talking about scaling, is creating effective partnerships.
2:58:56.3 RN: Yeah. So what happens often is because in the social sector, see, you have to really position yourself for that scarce donor capital, and therefore, rather than think in terms of collaboration, you think in terms of competition. So it’s not these are for the market sector. This happens here too because of very scarce philanthropic capital. And so rather than focus on collaboration, you focus on making your own work look very good to the donor. And that is natural. But then at some point you realize that’s not good enough, that unless you bring in those strategic collaborations anyway, you won’t get anywhere and your donors won’t be happy.
2:59:35.3 RN: So I think learning how to partner effectively is a big challenge for social organizations, but we are seeing more of it, we are seeing more of it. Because especially say, for example, in the environment sector, the environment NGOs need to collectively have a voice to speak to the government on, because their issues are so critical for all of society. And if they are going to be in isolated silos, they’re not going to be able to forcefully, impactfully speak to government on policy matters. So slowly those collaborations are happening, and I think more importantly, donors are evolving to see that too, “That I need not put all my dollars, donor dollars into one thing, but rather encourage collaboration. And that I will therefore allow the distribution.” They can also decide. Sometimes… Say ATREE, which I have been involved with for a while, they get allocations to help other organizations, so then a grant can be made forward. But today the government is coming down on forward granting, so unfortunately that form of collaboration is getting restricted.
3:00:42.7 AV: The fourth one was capacity building of the third sector.
3:00:46.2 RN: Yeah. Now, who’s gonna pay for this. That’s why it’s such a challenge. Somebody has to pay for the capacity building. Today, for example, the government have so many regulations, for any outfit to be ready to comply, you need capacity, it’s not automatic. How many new rules, you have to have certain kinds of bank account, certain kind of reporting, so many ministries to report to. You need to build up first for compliance, all compliances and all transparency that is required. Who’s going to pay the money to allow these organizations to be able to develop the capacity to comply and to grow, and to be more and more effective. A huge dearth of capital for that. Huge, huge dearth. So I’m very happy to say that recently, with Edelweiss, we started a fund called GROW. So 100 organizations have been selected and a pool of philanthropic capital has come in, and that is going to help these 100 organizations to build the capacity. And two, three more funds like that are in the offing. So it’s happening, but it remains quite a challenge considering how many NGOs we have that need that.
3:01:54.9 AV: And is it also a challenge… I’ll take a digression, and we’ll come back to the fifth point, but is it also a challenge, like you pointed out, when the state takes an aggressive attitude toward civil society initiatives, whether it is all the FCRA regulations that kind of came in to stop foreign funding and so on and so forth? Or just the general distrust people tend to have sometimes towards [3:02:16.6] ____ and all of that. How does one deal with those challenges?
3:02:23.6 RN: Let me be very honest. It is a real challenge right now. There seems to be a deep mistrust of the social sector, and I wish there wasn’t because I know many of these people and they’re genuinely just trying to do good for the people and the country. And I think… I believe that if you start with trust, you end up with trust, you can end up with more trust. But if you start with distrust then it’s kind of difficult to get that trust back. And there is no blame on only one direction. There are a lot of stuff that could have been done differently in the last 40 years, but I do wish that even people would recognize the value of civil society in a democracy, it’s absolutely essential. And governments around the world seem to have become much more sensitive about dissent and people clamoring for rights. And I wish that wasn’t the case because there is no state good enough or powerful enough to be able to reach the first mile, where the real vulnerabilities are. You will need intermediaries, you need good people, you need people who are willing to give of their time, we talked about volunteerism and need to do good deeds. We need those people to help us reach the last… What people call the last citizen, I call the first citizen of this country and…
3:03:41.0 RN: So I wish there would be much more trust between the state and civil society organizations, recognizing that they have to sometimes be at odds with each other. You can’t be very, very friendly because you need to be able to point out to the state what is going wrong and the state should see actually civil society organizations as a very welcome mirror that allows you to course-correct. I hope that will happen and that we will have a slightly less fractious relationship between civil society organizations and various government in the country.
3:04:17.6 AV: And your fifth point, the fifth challenge before civil society was unleash creativity of the civil sector.
3:04:24.0 RN: Yeah. So in that sense, sometimes you know, there are some old ways of doing things, you get used to doing things in a particular way. What I meant was that we need much more innovation, we need fresh thinking. And I think that also comes with having fresh leaders in the sector. And we are seeing a lot of young people. Actually one of my portfolio is precisely to support young leaders creating new organizations. And I must say they think very differently from my generation and beyond me also. First of all they think digital. First of all, they think of… Quick… They’re ready for quick cycles of success and failure, like they have a very different risk appetite, I think. They’re willing to fail faster and try new things, so we need much more of that. That is the creativity that needs to be unleashed. I also think people need to be able to tell their stories much, much, much better. One of the reasons for the distrust is you really don’t know. The civil society has not been able to tell it, a few organizations have, but many simply haven’t been able to convince both the state agencies and their own civil society at large that what they are doing is incredibly powerful. So that creativity in communication, we have to support in building.
3:05:40.7 AV: Let’s talk about philanthropy now to kind of zoom down on that, and you’ve quoted Swami Vivekananda in your book where you say is, “Take risks in your life. If you win, you can lead. If you lose, you can guide.” And then you point out that Indian philanthropy doesn’t take enough risks. Again, the same thing as a capitalist start-up, me, I’ll have a moonshot idea and I’ll do crazy things, but in the social sector, I’m just playing it safe, going within certain guardrails, not kind of trying hard enough. What experiences brought you to the conclusion that we don’t take enough risk and how did that change the way that you operated in terms of thinking about risk?
3:06:22.9 RN: Mostly wealth is in the hands of the capitalist. I’m a bit of an outlier in that. So the way they do, their failure is glorified. In the world of all the backers of crazy ideas, failure is glorified, and there’s… If you fail there’s more capital to help you in your next venture. Now nobody’s… Those same people want to succeed all the time in their social ambitions. One is because they don’t know how the sector veers and those who have tried to, have understood and have course-corrected, but change their way of… Change their expectations. But till then it is quite natural for them to think, “Why can’t you have more impact and show me.” So then they stay in safe areas. They stay in safe areas like education. If you set up a college, you’re fine. If you set up a university or a college, at least you know you’re doing the right thing, definitely benefiting people. But there are so many million things remaining to be done. This country’s infrastructure hast still to be built out for this century. And there’s just so much work to be done and how much can the state to do it? Can’t do everything. So I wish people would take much more of this, whether it is just… There are a hundred things that need to be done, but most of philanthropy capital is going into education and some into healthcare, while there all these other million things.
3:07:44.9 RN: For me, it was easy because one is, as I said, I don’t come from the business sector, but as a journalist, because of all the things I told you in my life, I wanted to do different things, and that’s why my portfolio is slightly different from a lot of other people. And basically, the way I develop my portfolio is look for ideas, individuals or institutions that are doing something right. And of course, integrity is the first thing one would look at, commitment is the second. And then it doesn’t matter which sector, my portfolios get built out because I found ideas, institutions and individuals that were willing to do so much and put out so much of good stuff out there. So that’s one way to frame what they’re going to do, and a lot of people come to us actually to Nandan and me, young people especially, how should I do philanthropy? And so that’s where we say, “Be ready to take more risks, be ready to fail much more.” Just like you do a venture capital willing, one out of 10 investments, they want to succeed. Similarly, it should be in the social sector. If one out of 10 succeeds, the impact is completely outsized, completely. So you need to bring that same mentality here, don’t play it safe, that’s not what philanthropic capital is. It’s not a safe harbor at all, it is… Genuine societal risk capital is very, very badly needed.
3:09:11.2 AV: On a very insightful essay you wrote, you spoke about how there are three key things that you need to create an enabling environment, trust, patient capital, and allowing the conversation on failure and innovation to be upfront and transparent. So let’s talk about trust. Like at one point you write, “One factor is a trust deficit, although the wealthy want to give, there is a lot of philanthropic capital all dressed-up with nowhere to go, largely because of this trust deficit. How do you give? Who do you give to? How do you get impact?” Like simultaneously, there’s a question with follow-up question waiting to be asked on what do you think of effective altruism? And that must be something that any… The wealth face. How can I get most bang for the buck? But before we even get there, there is a trust question. So can you elaborate on this a bit?
3:10:02.4 AV: Yeah, I think I’ve often said to my friend, in civil society… There is also a fault from the civil society sector that we haven’t built bridges of trust to the India’s wealthy at all because there’s foreign money coming in, which seem to be politically and ideologically aligned toward India’s civil sector. India’s civil sector has been a strange mix of Marxism and Gandhism. In the past, at least. Now, we are seeing a lot of other kinds of organizations coming up and they seem to have been in alignment. Worrying about the rights of the smallest guy, and how do you create the systems to reach that person is I think more or less what people are broadly speaking of doing, and there’s alignment for that. So they did not really make any great effort to reach out to India’s new capitalists. New capital is also busy from ’90s onwards, but that didn’t happen.
3:10:53.1 RN: So first I will say, every time we point one finger, three are pointing back at us. So I’ll start with that. But on this side also I think, yes, they want to do philanthropy, they have excess capital, they want to deploy it, but remember, our political ideologies matter in such situations. As I said, this… Our sector is quite a bit to the left. And I don’t think the capitalist political mindset is left. Gandhi can okay to some extent, reach out to the vulnerable, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and all this, fine. But after that, when it comes to political rights, I don’t think there was much discussed, debate, understanding from the side of the industrial capitalists and no attempt on this side, I feel, to bridge any kind of… ‘Cause if people understood each other, they would probably be more space opened up. So the trust deficit has been a long time coming. But today there are many new kinds of organizations that are much more savvy about how to communicate to India’s new wealthy. And so you are seeing philanthropy on the rise, not as much as you would need or want but because these bridges are being built, some trust is developing, but trust comes slowly.
3:12:07.8 AV: And I guess you’ve seen this from both sides. You’re involved in social work, at the same time, you’re also giving money. And when you’re giving money, with that hat on, like how does… At some point, at one level, you give money to causes you care about. So I want people to read, and obviously I care about water, so you give money there. So at one point it’s just driven by that inner conviction, but at another level, it is also about how can I be most effective, get most bang for the buck as it were. And you can even hear, like you said, it depends on risk appetite, you can take a lot of equivalent or fixed deposits, I guess, and make safe bets in safe areas, and the typical silos. Or you can take a venture capitalist thing and try ten moonshot ideas and see what kind of works. So tell me about how your approach towards… I won’t even call it giving, I’ll call it investing if I may, is that an apt term because the returns are not monetary, but they’re psychic I guess.
3:13:04.7 RN: Investing for a good so much.
3:13:06.7 AV: Yeah, exactly.
3:13:07.2 RN: That’s what I want to do. So which is why, actually it doesn’t matter which sector. Of course, there are some sectors I care about more than others. But as I said, throughout my book, I say and throughout my work, it is apparent that whatever I do is how can we build a resilient strength of Samaaj to solve its own problems. And that’s where I see the role of civil society. So whichever sector, that’s why I have so many different portfolios. People say, [3:13:33.6] ____. Why are you opening one more portfolio. For me, it’s not the water, education, environment. It is that underlying strength of the Samaaj to unleash its creativity, its innovation, its leadership and its participation. Actually that’s what I want to invest in, in whichever sector, because I think that is going to create the stable foundation on which the next layers of productivity, efficiency, equity will happen. So no matter what I do, that is where we are coming from, at least that’s where I’m coming from. Nandan has his own very different philosophy. So for me, that doesn’t matter so much which sector.
3:14:15.4 RN: This is what we want to increase, social capital, actually. You increase social capital. The ability of people to act as citizens in their context, to create a better society that they also can belong to, in whichever way. It doesn’t matter which way. That… And we saw bits of that emerging in the pandemic, the pandemic taught all of us so much. But that’s really been my philosophy of what you’re calling investing, that no matter which sector. If we are not doing, those are the metrics we are looking at. Are we doing that or are we not doing that? It takes time. Five years, 10 years, 15 years. Some of the things we have started will take 45, 50, 100 years, I don’t know. And some solutions create the next set of problems, so we don’t know, it’s an on… There’s no end point, which is right because I don’t believe there’s a sharp end point. Again, the ends and means. The means of getting to any end is to create the active Samaaj. So that’s where I invest.
3:15:17.3 AV: So I’ll take a digress of questions, since you mentioned Nandan’s approach to investing as well. And what sort of… And the first is about the commonality in the sense that, what our mutual friend referred to earlier told me about you was that… He said, one thing both you and Nandan have in common is that a lot of people, sometimes they will look from the present towards the future and try to figure out what they need to get there. But what you and Nandan do is that it’s almost as if you’re sitting in the future and you’re looking at the present and you’re figuring out how to build a bridge, which I suppose is a vision thing or whatever, but can you elaborate on that? I found that very interesting, and even though it’s not something you said.
3:16:00.7 AV: Certainly it’s something that I have learned from Nandan. Nandan has the amazing ability to look from 100,000 feet and at one foot. He can see from very close by and he can see from very far at the same time. So while he’ll be thinking of that very almost architectural way of systems thinking, he will get his teams to look from here. And the detailed way of building the design into it at the block level is to achieve that goal. It’s something that I’ve been watching him doing for a while now. And I don’t know, I don’t think much of it has come to me, but in terms of the societal mission, I think that we have… And you have to start from there. So, I mean, like we said every… We said a book in every child hand not in every third child’s hand. So it’s a big thing like… Then if you are going to say every, every child, right, not leaving out some children, then I have to design something or support something that have at least a reasonable chance of looking at every child without exclusion. Then how do you design? You’re forced, forced to think about inclusion and scaling the mission, you have to.
3:17:18.2 RN: And then you want to do certain things like I won’t say, “Okay, I’ll start with giving three books to that five children.” You won’t do that, you’ll say every child has to get… Then what do I have to unblock? How do I go from scarcity to abundance? How do I live people to solve? So you have to start thinking and designing very differently once you know that your goal is of inclusion for all, whatever sector. Everyone should have that same opportunity, that same access. And I think that’s what helps to start from there and come back from here to do the actual work.
3:17:57.1 AV: I guess in a sense, rather than give a hungry man a fish, you teach a hungry man how to fish. Building those processes.
3:18:03.1 RN: Yeah, but it’s more than that. You know, we misrepresent people when we say they don’t know how to fish. What’s really happening is their access to the lake is gone.
3:18:13.3 AV: Beautifully said.
3:18:14.1 RN: They know how to fish. They don’t know how to get to the… They don’t have the political or whatever space to exercise their abilities in many cases. And we have to increase that access. People will teach how to fish. What’s the big deal? But that access and that sense that “I can do this, I don’t need you to do this for me.” The state’s job is to make sure the points to that public access are kept viable. That is where I see the state’s job really. People are more than capable of figuring things out for themselves, they really are. So we have to just keep enabling people. Which is why I also don’t like the state’s role of [3:19:00.5] ____ Sarkaar. The state has to make things possible for Samaaj to do better of. So actually, they have to focus on inclusion and access and creating better laws, then society takes over, society knows how to organize, society knows how to innovate. But if channels are blocked, and access, even if he knows how to fish, what is he going to do? Those are the things to think about because today’s lake are digital lakes. How do I give everybody access to a digital lake so that that person can digitally fish. You call this analogy, it’s terrible. But you know what I mean?
3:19:40.6 AV: Not it’s a lovely analogy. I mean, the digital kind of made it, but it’s lovely, I love it. Access to the lake is the key thing here. And this is of course a commonality between you and Nandan. But if I am to sort of ask you about the possible difference between you and anybody else, do you think that being a woman philanthropist, you bring a slightly different gaze to it than others do? Because I’m guessing that many male philanthropists would come to philanthropy after success in business, they would bring with them a problem-solving, engineering mindset, or whatever, and that would perhaps make them… That would perhaps mean that there are some blind spots somewhere. And you are sort of coming at it from a different kind of place, so did you feel that your gaze also has made you look at things differently and learn things differently?
3:20:30.7 RN: No, definitely. Being a writer, being a journalist being myself, a social entrepreneur. Never having to have to worry about each quarter, “Oh did I meet my investors’ expectations?” That disciplines you in a completely different way. I was lucky that I got to do what I love to do, and to write and to start… I’ll be a social entrepreneur. So obviously my gaze will be different, it will be. I have not seen the world of market regulation, of that constant need to feed the information for your investors. That’s a whole different race. Very hard, very hard. And actually, you’ll bring that with you if you come into this sector. Because I was just able to be fairly innocent in that sense, and just go with whatever that issue that I was involved with and see who’s doing what good work. So actually much easier, much, much easier for me.
3:21:26.7 AV: The other key thing to an enabling environment, which you mentioned, was patient capital and at one point you write, “I know how difficult it is to have to respond to donors who don’t understand the ground reality. The reality is that things keep changing and you need to be able to respond to the changing situation in a flexible manner, whereas if you’re stuck with some programmatic kind of back donation or something very specific, it really makes the organization very rigid and makes people very anxious about reporting to the donor.” So one element is a donor should be able to recognize that failure is honorable and that it’s a probabilistic game and have that kind of mindset, but the other aspect of it, which I also wanna ask about is that sometimes what can happen is that donors can be restricted by their own thinking, by the kind of guard rails that they put on any project, by the way that… And also by the systems and processes around it. Like our friend, Shruti Rajagoopalan, for example, what she and Tyler Cowen do with Emergent Ventures is just saying that we’ll remove our biases from the question, we’ll pick people that we believe in, and then we’ll give you money and we won’t come back to you, you do what the hell you want. And that seems to me to be a disruptive and a very interesting and a delightful model as well. So what’s your thinking on this whole ecosystem?
3:22:46.2 RN: Look at innovation, MacKenzie Bezos brought in. Of course, they do some due diligence, she has agencies doing due diligence, but after that, she’s doing exactly what you say. She’s saying, “I’ll give you X million dollars, do what you have to do. I will come back at some point.” But she’s beginning with patient capital backed by trust and with obviously some data and knowledge. So those kind of innovations are what we need. Patient capital is the name of the game, both in the venture sector and in the social venture sector. So yeah, more power to patient capital, if you can get it. There’s so many rich people, Amit, in this country, so many. And we are not even counting the politicians. But more of them and many want to, we have to make it easier for them to give much more.
3:23:35.1 AV: Okay, so here’s a question for you before I move on to my last question as it were, but this digressive question is that supposing someone listening to this is a person with capital and they want to invest it in society in some margin, they want to give and they’re looking for causes, and right now they’re just confused, like “Where do I give? How do I measure if it is the right thing to do? How do I measure my money is being put to good use? I want to enter… Is there any enabling organization that helps me?” Etcetera, etcetera. What advice would you give to investors?
3:24:05.6 RN: There are plenty of organizations now, five or six of them, there is like Naz, of course there is GiveIndia, there is Dasra, there’s Samhita. There are five or six, at least, if not more. There is Bridge Plan India, there are so many that will help you right away. And you know, some people go to other philanthropies who already started their journey as you can learn from them. But don’t hesitate at the door. You know all you have to do is give. Okay, fine, it won’t be used well, and then you’ll think again. But don’t hesitate at the door, just jump in. Don’t wait for advice. The best advice you need is, your own action will give you… Show you the light. Do something even if you fail at it. But that hesitation is causing analysis paralysis. Okay, I’m saying to people, you have excess wealth, you want to do good with it? Do don’t wait, just do any… Okay, I don’t know, restore an archeological monument or I don’t know. Anything. There’s so much to do in India. Do anything. And the minute you actually do it, within six to nine months, you’ll know what to do next, that I will guarantee. Of course, take advice, go to intermediaries, but in the meantime, just do something with your money that is in any area that you like. That is really the best advice.
3:25:26.3 AV: Bias for action. So as I go to my last question, what I really urge everyone to do is just to pick up your book, Samaaj, Sarkaar, Bazaar. And also you’ve got this lovely message for the young, which I will quickly quote, where you exhort the young to “Stay curious, stay connected, stay committed”, and then you also say, “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”. But my last question for you is about none of this, because now people can just go and read your book and it’s about time, but my last question is like a traditional question for guests on the show that for me and my listeners, I’ll ask you to recommend books, films, music, any kind of art that you care deeply about and love so much that you wanna share it with everyone?
3:26:12.0 RN: Oh dear, these questions I always don’t like because I always forget what I wanted to say. Books… Oh my goodness, where do I begin? I don’t know, look up Lewis Hyde, just an unusual recommendation. Look up Lewis Hyde’s books, read as many bio… I cam late to this, read as many biographies as you can find. It’s kind of like listening to Amit’s podcast, I guess?
3:26:36.7 AV: Which are the most memorable biographies.
3:26:38.3 RN: I just noticed this recently I’ve been reading… I’ve read just recently even, I’ve read [3:26:44.0] ____ of course, I read the Savarkar one and I read all the big name ones. But I’ve been reading others of people who might… I’ve read [3:26:51.4] ____. A lot of women, as you can see. Also [3:26:55.6] ____, and a lot of people who’ve written slim autobiographies. But read autobiographies and biographies, I see… I think it’s teaching me a lot rather than just reading about people, especially reading in their own voice, really gave me a lot. And even biographies. I’ve read two volumes on Savarkar as well, and I’ve been reading Ramachandra Guha as well. So you get two completely different perspectives.
3:27:27.5 RN: Read diver… Rather than mentioning books by name, like I always have a pile of books, and I always try to read one fiction and one non-fiction at the same time. And rather than mention books, I would say read different kind of books and go out of your way to read books of authors that you may not agree with. My friend, Mani, sends us bucket fulls of books, many of them are different… Say things different from what I thought I believed. But any book you pick up will teach you something. So more than name, a long list of books, I can put them out on my website later, now that you’ve asked this question. But always have a pile next to your bedside. Always have one fiction, one non-fiction. Read a lot of biographies and autobiographies and go out of your way to read authors whose opinion may be different from yours. That’s how you create the good… A good reading society becomes a good thinking society. A good thinking society will eventually have more curiosity than certitude. And I think that will help all of us move beyond polarizations to more empathy and acceptance. Not just tolerance, but respect.
3:28:45.3 AV: Wonderful, and I’ll end with something that you’ve said somewhere, I don’t know where I picked it up, but I absolutely love this phrase, “Humble in approach, but not modest in ambition.”
3:28:56.7 RN: We can’t afford to be modest, look at what we are all facing. We can’t afford to be modest in our ambition for society. But if we are not humble in that approach, arrogant people make a lot of mistakes, a lot. And we can’t afford those. Things are so urgent around us right now that I think… And humility comes immediately when we eventually realize just exactly how ignorant we are.
3:29:23.8 AV: When you engage with the real work.
3:29:28.1 RN: That’s fairly obvious, but more than that, every morning, keep a mirror in front of you, not just to do your make-up, but to really look at yourself. And maybe every evening try to put yourself in someone else’s shoes.
3:29:43.8 AV: Such wise words. Rohini, thank you so much for coming on the show. It’s an honor.
3:29:46.7 RN: Thank you, Amit. I do want to say you’re a phenomenal moderator and you do so much hard work, so no wonder your listeners appreciate you so much. Thank you, Amit, for what you do.
3:29:57.3 AV: Thank you. Thank you so much.
3:29:57.9 RN: Namaste.