The Cerebration Podcast: Expert Talk with Rohini Nilekani on Restore Agency

Jun 05, 2021


This is an edited version of an episode of the Cerebration Podcast, a co-learning series hosted by ShikshaLokam in collaboration with the Societal platform team. In this episode, Rohini Nilekani discusses the idea of restoring agency and how to become an agent for change.


From a very young age, I was interested in how to change things for the better. When you’re young and full of that kind of superior moral energy, you can be very irritating. I’m sure I was – I used to glare at people who littered and would pointedly pick up the garbage when they threw it down, which is not a good way to encourage others to take agency and create a change. I learned that you had to be less judgemental in order to allow people the opportunity and encouragement to change. As I began gaining experience in the sector, I slowly realised this important lesson. My first foray was with Nagrik in 1992. One of my dear friends had died in a horrendous traffic accident, and so I began to research why we have so many road accidents in our country. India has the highest road accidents in the world – 160,000 unnecessary deaths on our roads every single year. So I set up Nagrik to help citizens participate in making our roads better.

That was the first of many institutions I have been with, and through this journey I have created a theoretical framework for myself, in the continuum of Samaaj, Bazaar, and Sarkaar i.e. society, the markets, and the state. Although these three entities exist in a continuum, the Samaaj must come first. After all, even the Sarkaar and Bazaar are made up of the people, the Samaaj. The Samaaj is at the base, it’s the foundation and our first sector, so we need it to get better and create systems and institutions that can hold the Sarkaar and Bazaar accountable and create a more empathetic and efficient society. For me, Samaaj is the sector in which all my philanthropic work is centred around. This is because I think it is society that can enable a better world. The more we work on Samaaj institutions, the more we will discover good leaders and be able to innovate our way through today’s complex problems. That is where all my hope for my work comes from, and agency is very tied to that idea.

The Imperative for Distributing Agency 

When people are able to have agency, their perspective changes. They go from being hapless, helpless, and hopeless, to someone who wants to do something even if it is out of their comfort zone. Of course, that doesn’t mean we should simply tell the person at the very end of the pipe, “Take your agency.” Agency doesn’t come very easily to those who are the most exploited and vulnerable. So we have to help change the system around people first, so that they are in a position to take that agency. We have tried to do that in the education sector, through Pratham Books and now EkStep, asking ourselves how we can make everybody feel part of this societal mission to ensure that every child can learn and is able and equipped to learn. A child cannot take agency on their own, so how can the Sarkaar, Bazaar, and Samaaj enable agency for that child.

Through the Akshara Foundation, we did many things to help children come back to school since enrolment was an issue. At Pratham Books we realised that only publishers had the agency to publish books and that there was a lack of children’s books in India. So we created a platform where writers, illustrators, editors, and translators were given the agency to put out books without waiting for publishers to accept their stories first. We managed to distribute the agency for publishing, writing, illustrating, editing, and translating, and the result is tens of millions of readers who suddenly had access to wonderful books in a variety of languages, to read anywhere and for free. Therefore, there are some things that can be done to reverse agency. It’s not always easy but the possibilities exist. For example, Gandhiji didn’t give a speech about agency, he simply saw that the salt tax was not correct and decided that he would take his agency back. He internalised the locus of control by picking up salt and saying, “This unjust law doesn’t work for me. I’m taking agency back with a fistful of salt.” He did this without violent protest and proved that agency did not lie with the colonial chap with a stick, but with the farmer in his fist. Today, it’s possible to work with many institutions to help the government do its public services better. In the design of our programs and portfolios, we can try to see how more people at every level are able to work more effectively or to their strengths, thus distributing the agency to be effective.

When we talk about restoring agency, we have both a moral and a strategic imperative. Moral because all of us want power over our own lives and circumstances. All of us also want to reach our highest human level and we want the agency to help others as well. The strategic imperative to work on distributing agency is that all our problems have to be solved in their context. We cannot sit in America and solve the problems of Chennai, or sit in Delhi and solve the problems of Bihar. Problems have to be solved locally by people in their own contexts. For that to happen, we need democratic, decentralised power – the power to make change, to be flexible, make small shifts, and help more people understand the complex issues that impact their life. These are all ways to restore agency and to become both more empathetic and more effective.

With Agency Comes Responsibility 

Agency is a big word and sometimes it can be frightening. Often we wonder how we can be responsible for restoring other people’s agency when we don’t feel like we have agency ourselves. But I’ve found that there is always some way to increase agency. On one of my visits to Bihar, I travelled to the islands of the Kosi river, in the backwaters where the most vulnerable of India’s communities, the Musahari people live. I went to an island by boat and I will never forget their faces. They are not far from the District Magistrate’s office but almost none of the officials had bothered to go to that island and visit the people there. They were suffering and completely neglected by the system. When I was there, people told us about their problems and how hard it was to get access to healthcare services. The District Magistrate told me that it’s very hard to go there and that they need tens of crores to spend to build a bridge so that administrative officials can go there and help those people. Meanwhile, one little fellow came up in a boat with a tin box to sell ice cream on that island in the middle of nowhere. This ice cream vendor had taken the agency to make his own livelihood there. So in any situation, there’s always an opening where we can either take agency or help give agency, and it should be a discussion, a dialogue, a thread of hope. It should not be something that is pushed down the pipeline to the people at the bottom. Instead, we must find more words to describe agency so that people really understand what we are talking about. We need more stories in more languages, so that the word agency is unpacked for people to understand that it simply means allowing everybody to be part of the solution and not remain part of the problem.

A problem arises however, when agency is conflated with power because power is often seen as a zero-sum game i.e. if you have more power, I will have less. So if we hand over agency to someone else, it may seem that we have less, but that’s not what real agency is about. We need to move from a zero-sum game to shared power. Sometimes it is true that if I get more agency, you may get less. But we must overcome that fear by demonstration. For example, if I’m a very good school leader – my students and teachers are happy and my infrastructure is good, but despite this, the SDMC thinks it is better. They may have a reason to think they’re better but I worry that it’ll take my agency away. We need to acknowledge the legitimacy of this fear, but then also try to help people to be open to experimentation. As the school leader, I may be worried, but what if my work became easier? Can I shift some of the responsibility? Agency and responsibility have to go together, so if the SDMC gets agency, they also have responsibility and accountability. In that case, school leaders may actually be grateful for the SDMC sharing some of that power and being responsible for the library maybe, or the toilets or attendance. Perhaps that will work out better for everyone and the school leader will be able to focus on other things. So we need to learn to address the power dynamics and channelise it in a more positive way.

In terms of working with the government, I think we need to reassess how we approach it. Before you reach out to them, you must do your research and understand the mandate of the government office and the officers that you’re contacting. I learnt this the hard way, after many years of going in blind and not knowing anything. Once you approach them, instead of asking them for the agency to do something, your approach could be asking them how you can help them. Explain what’s possible for you, how it overlaps with their mandate and offer your services to them. If you give a little opening to people, they are more likely to respond than if you want to force them to do something that you need, especially government officers. There are many good government officers who are open to help from capable citizens. They recognise that it’s a load that needs to be shared. As you build trust and show evidence that you can do good work, you will get a good response. Humble persistence does pay off. In the end, there is no cookie cutter model for restoring agency. We may have to do different negotiations at different levels, so when we’re doing agency at scale, we must remember that we need to tackle it in context. 



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