The Conversation Series I From Self To Society: The Role Of Active Samaaj For Social Change

Nov 01, 2022


In this session of The Conversation Series, Rohini Nilekani, Chairperson of Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies and a committed philanthropist, shares insights into her journey from self to society, and recounts personal stories of how she arrived at this philosophy of a strong Samaaj as the foundational sector. The author of ‘SAMAAJ, SARKAAR, BAZAAR: A Citizen-First Approach’ addresses questions such as: What does it mean to reclaim our role as citizens? What does this ‘citizen-first approach’ entail? What is the role of citizens in co-creating good governance?

This is an edited version of an episode of The Conversation Series, hosted by Ahmedabad University. In conversation with Prof. Jeemol Unni, Rohini Nilekani discusses her journey in philanthropy and her philosophy of building a strong Samaaj.


I was born in 1959, and when and where you were born really has an impact on how you lead your life. Of course, that is true of everybody. I think that time in India, there was a certain outlook, where citizens were called upon to reflect on the state of the nation, on our contribution to the nation. Politically, there was a lot of salience to the idea of citizenship. And I grew up in those times. In my family, my parents were first generation urbanites. And we were lucky to be in Mumbai, which was an amazing city in those days, where the public infrastructure was actually very good. So the difference between public and private infrastructure was really not as great as you see in India today.

The way we were raised reflected the ideals in the country at that time as well – to believe in service before self, in responsibility, in duty, and in integrity. The big example in my family was always of my paternal grandfather, Babasaheb Soman, who in 1917 was among the first group of volunteers that went to Bhitiharwa in West Champaran to help set up Gandhiji’s first Ashram. He was a lawyer, but he gave up his profession. He never really was able to focus on his profession, because he was very much involved in the freedom struggle. I often think about what that kind of sacrifice means and how this country stood on the sacrifices of people – the bigger ones we know, but so many ordinary people like my grandfather as well. So I think background, culture, and upbringing matters. I think location matters. Being in a cosmopolitan city like Mumbai, where everybody was trying to make something of their lives, all those things had a huge influence on me.

Restoring Primacy to Samaaj 

15 years ago, I was traveling for work related to Arghyam, my foundation for water that I set up in Bihar. One of our partners was Prem Kumar Varma, who unfortunately passed away during the pandemic. On my trip all those years ago, he was speaking to me about Samaaj, Sarkaar, and Bazaar. He was a protege of JP Narayan, whose Sampoorna Kranti movement animated a lot of the politics in North India for several years. However, Premji’s conversation on the role of the three sectors stretched far beyond the 60s, back to two centuries ago, when he believed that Samaaj was more meaningful and the role of the Sarkaar and Bazaar were somewhat limited, even during the time of monarchies. That balance has changed a lot in the last century. Today, we are seeing the powerful rise of both the state and the markets all over the world. And so the question is, “How do we restore primacy to Samaaj?” Because all of us are Samaaj. Sarkaar and Bazaar came out of Samaaj. So the political questions about power today are really about how we can restore that primacy to Samaaj. At least in my opinion. And that is why I wrote the book, Samaaj, Sarkaar, Bazaar: A Citizen-First Approach. Because that philosophy has animated my work.

For thousands of years, people have discussed citizenship and the idea of Samaaj, whether it was Aristotle, or whether it was in any kind of context about people and their lives. So, all of us are Samaaj. Samaaj is the whole human tribe. And whether we work in Sarkaar or we work in Bazaar, it does not take away from us belonging to Samaaj first. And I think as long as we understand that very clearly, how we will behave in Sarkaar and Bazaar will change based on whether we understand, of course, that whether we are CEOs or chief ministers, we are humans first and citizens next. So I think Samaaj is all of us. Samaaj is all of the institutions that we belong to. And there could be many, many identities. In India, we are part of so many caste groups, unfortunately, but that is the living reality. I could be part of my neighborhood association. Of course, I am part of my family, an extended family. But any representation that we have in our communities are representations of us as being in Samaaj. So that is what I mean by Samaaj.

If we all do not strive to restore a better balance between the three sectors, I think the political question of the day is whether we are willing to remain consumers of the markets and subjects of the state. We have been turned into consumers from when we wake up and look at our phones, clicking on something or using some app, to when we go to sleep at night, because all of that is an aspect of the market. Similarly, we have become subjects of the state in our daily lives as well, in some form or the other. As long as that is working for people, it is alright. But when the balance gets distorted, that is when we need politics right? Because it is about the redistribution of power, so that there is a much better balance between the state, society, and markets. I think that many people in many ways, all over the world and in India too, are striving for that better balance. 

For example, there are thousands of very wonderful civil society organizations that work on the Samaaj side, to give people more voice and agency. And I think that is the work of the day. How do we make the Bazaar in all its new forms – which are growing exponentially thanks to technology – more accountable to the larger public interest? Similarly, the Sarkaar has so much more power today, again thanks to technology. How do we keep it accountable to its citizens and not allow it to become a power unto itself? These are living, breathing questions that affect each one of us. So that is what the politics of today is about. 

Today we are seeing several kinds of civil society institutions stepping up to do this work and empower people. It is not just what we used to call NGOs in the 70s who are doing this work now, it is any form of civic associations. For example, in urban India today, there are resident welfare associations. To me, a citizen-first approach is also meant to shift our mental model, to understand that we are citizens first, right? And that markets and states evolved over centuries in order to serve the larger public interest of Samaaj. If we flip the model to understand that we have to be activist citizens first, then it changes how we behave in our day-to-day lives, in the associations that we form, in how we become participants in creating the good governance that we all want. It could be just by participating in a child’s education at the lowest possible level. It could be getting involved in your street level problem, whether it is about waste management or lights, or it could be just about anything. The minute we do that, the minute we step outside into society to solve even the most hyperlocal problem, I think that we raise the citizen in ourselves. And it is an incredibly rewarding experience, as all of us who have engaged in that, however small a way, have already discovered. So, we need a lot more of that to happen. Because it has become too easy now to secede from everything and just remain as subjects and consumers. We can sit in our homes and be unaffected. But I think that is just an illusion.

As I recently wrote, even the elite and the super elite cannot really secede anymore. You know, we have created all these private islands of wealth – we have our own schools, we have our own energy systems, our own water systems, our own health systems. Anything you can think of, we have it. But as I have been arguing recently, if all of that wonderful, private infrastructure is sitting, as it does, on a very shaky foundation of public infrastructure, eventually that too is going to crumble. So how do we participate in making the public infrastructure foundation much stronger and more resilient? Because if anything, the pandemic has shown us just how deeply interconnected we are, and how nobody can escape from viruses, floods, climate change, and more, right? So we have to go out there, outside of our homes and families, to participate in creating the well-governed society that all of us crave to belong to. And it is an ongoing process. There is no endpoint, we have to keep continuing. Solutions sometimes create new problems. So we have to keep on evolving the solutions. And we all have to participate. All of us have diverse skills, and we have to apply those diverse skills, I believe, to build the better Samaaj that everyone wants to belong to.

Philanthropy and Urban Governance

With the rise of the 1%, the world has gotten split, right? They became so wealthy, and I belong to that class. We became so ridiculously wealthy, that we had to elevate the idea of philanthropy. Suddenly, I found myself a philanthropist and I had to deal with the responsibility of my wealth. On the other hand, charity is something that human beings do all the time. And in India, we know that people are incredibly charitable. There is enough data to suggest just how much charity ordinary people of this country do. Hundreds of crores were spent by ordinary Indians during the pandemic. And institutions like GiveIndia were able to raise more than 350 crores, just from ordinary people who felt the need to share other people’s sorrows. So, there is a sense that charity just comes from the love of humankind, the need that we all are wired to have – to relieve other people’s suffering. But philanthropy nowadays, at least, is aspiring to be more strategic and to address the root causes of inequality. That is what good philanthropy should be doing. So it is a fairly simple difference between charity and philanthropy, and I think it has been created because of the rise of extreme wealth inequality. What are the wealthy going to do with their wealth? They better give it forward, because no society will tolerate so much disparity for too long. So, the responsibility of wealth must be seen to create better societies.

We have seen examples of what happens when the wealthy do not take responsibility across history, when wealth disparity creates more suffering at the bottom and more secession at the top, leading to turmoil in society. So there is a responsibility of wealth. Yes, we need wealth creation. Yes, wealth creation must come from innovation, from providing better services and goods. But those who acquire that wealth have a deep responsibility to give it back. Wealth has a responsibility and extreme wealth has an extreme responsibility. So that is what philanthropy should be about.

However with the rise in wealth inequality across the globe, India is an interesting outlier in some sense, along with some countries in Africa as well. Today, research after research, survey after survey, shows that Indians still feel very optimistic about their future. Ordinary Indians, whenever they are surveyed, say that they still feel there is headroom for them to grow. It is societies where you have seen young people feeling very economically stagnant, who have lost hope that they will have better futures than their parents did, for example, where the question of inequality hits hardest. This has clearly influenced the politics of so many countries. But in India, people still feel hopeful about their futures. Very often, I ask certain taxi drivers or other people and they seem to not yet resent the wealth creation that is happening in this country, because they are seeing it as dynamic economics. They still feel that they can participate in this growth, and that it is a wide growth. Now, it is up to this country, its government, its policies, and its entrepreneurs to make sure that people continue to feel that they can participate in this wealth creation, and in this growing economy. So we still have a few years left to get it right.

When Nandan decided to stand for the Lok Sabha seat of South Bangalore in 2014, I had to take a dip in electoral politics myself. One night, we were on the streets at people’s doors, telling them why we believed they should vote for Nandan Nilekani. Of course, different people had different responses to us. But what astounded me was that  whether they were the elite living in high rises with swimming pools, or whether they were people living in shanties and slums, they all wanted the Lok Sabha MP to directly address their local level problem.

We know that there was no sophisticated and nuanced understanding of the different three tiers, because nobody tells us and we do not discuss these things. We do not discuss the real role of our legislators. And that conversation is missing from the media and it is missing from the public discourse. So I cannot blame people for wanting the most basic amenities in their lives to work, right? That is stopping them from reaching their own potential. For example, it is hard to get to work if there is not enough water, just the very basic things. I took that for granted in Mumbai, even though we were not wealthy, we were ordinary, middle class people. But we could take public services for granted in Mumbai at that time. Nobody can take public services for granted anymore.

So, voters are impatient and want every politician to serve their personal needs. But unfortunately, that is very short sighted on our part as voters. Because what we need to hold a politician accountable to, at least at the MP level, is making the good laws, the good regulations, and the good policies that will actually enable the executive to do its job, and create that public infrastructure. One elected representative is obviously not going to do it for anybody, it is impossible. You would need to be a superhero to do that.

I think that is why I say people expect too much, and too much of the wrong thing from their politicians. If we allow our legislators to participate vigorously in the creation of better laws, we would see greater improvements. In my book I have argued that better laws make for good societies, and good laws make for good societies, if they are implemented and upheld. Rule of law matters. And that is what we must hold our politicians accountable to us to do, among other things. Of course, they also have to hold the executive accountable. But if we have the right policies, the right laws with deep public discourse, I think that is half the battle won. So we need the voters to shift a little in their expectations of their politicians.

Today in India, the 74th amendment is completely unrealised. We do not even have a functioning municipality in Bangalore right now – there is no mayor, everything has been suspended. People are so frustrated. We need elections to happen. We need to elect our representatives in our cities. I think very few cities have achieved the kind of 21st  century governance that our cities need. And unless citizens get involved, it is simply not going to happen. You cannot sit at home and consume good governance. You have to co-create it. You have to be out there and demand it, fight for it. More than fighting, you need to work for it. That is harder. If we do not do that, our cities will remain dysfunctional, and unfortunately we are seeing it more and more in Bangalore. Government after government is struggling to cope with the growth of the city. And there is so much work ahead in urban governance.

Participating in the Digital Future

The digital age really compounds change. Change becomes so much faster, and everything is so much more complex because of the digital revolution. And there is no escaping the digital age, right? So we have no choice but to be digitally savvy. For people my age, it is a bit harder, but for my grandson’s age, it seems to come as naturally as playing games. So there are obviously new challenges facing us in this digital age. And it makes being a citizen in some sense even harder. If digital is done right, it will reduce the distance between the citizen and the government, and between the citizen and the markets. But if not done right, then actually you get layers and layers of non-transparent markets and states.

So, the task before all of us is to become savvier as digital citizens. And the task before civil society organizations in India is to give up any reluctance to join the technological age, and actually create a thriving digital civil society. Because we need a digital civil society to hold the digital state and digital markets accountable to the public interest. And within the public, within the Samaaj also, there is so much competition, rivalry, and conflict. This is playing out in the digital space today, whether it is through social media or something else. So you need digital checks and balances in the digital age. The digital age is also new, and so society is still developing the new norms that will govern civility in the virtual world. But it has to come. I really believe that people are totally fed up with the crazy polarization, the hate spewing, and anonymous hate that is spreading.

I believe people are fed up. And these things cannot keep on going endlessly. So something will come to balance this out. We need new norms. We need new forms of behavior online, which are much more civil than we are seeing today. Some organizations are working on that. And it is collectively our responsibility to create a very different digital future. But I believe it will happen. It has to happen.

The digital divide in India is an issue we have to address, but let us also look at the positive side. There are more than 700 million smartphones in India. Even surveys like ASER, the education survey that Pratham carries out, showed a rising number of people deciding to join the virtual learning community by buying the family’s first phone during the pandemic. Of course, it is not perfect, but there is a growing segment of people that have access to smartphones, and we have to keep pushing so that every single person has access to cheap data and good smartphones, because there is really no escape. So much of life is happening on those virtual devices. So actually India is in a better place than many other countries.

I would say India has one of the most sophisticated, open, public, digital infrastructures in the world. And I truly believe, after seeing Nandan’s vision for universal access to digital public goods and services whether in the markets or in our relationship with the state, India is in a remarkable place. If we really build out the remaining parts of that digital public infrastructure, I have truly begun to believe that it is the foundation for economic democracy. Of course, nothing goes in a linear fashion. And if people do not work for it, it is not going to happen.

But if we work for it, if we spread awareness for it, if there is an almost civic movement, these tools which are now allowing market transactions to be leveled out and allowing citizens to reach out and make demands of the state, if you get that right, these are the tools for economic democracy. And economic democracy, social democracy, political democracy are very closely tied. So, I try to be optimistic on this. But really, the future is what we make of it. So there is really a lot on Samaaj’s plate right now, with all these changes happening around us. But good things are happening in terms of digital public infrastructure. And we need to participate in democratizing that further.

I derive a lot of my positive energy from meeting young people in this country wherever I go. And I always come back feeling optimistic about being such a young country. Young people are usually optimistic, idealistic, and energetic. And we are very lucky that for the next 20-30 years, India is going to remain a young country. So universities have a big role to play in this, because from ancient times, they have been the cradle of politics, whether we like it or not. And I do not mean politics in terms of electoral politics at all. That could be one of the streams that emerges. But I mean politics in terms of being continually concerned about the distribution of power in society, right? Young people have to be seized off what is actually happening in the real world, and what happened in history about the distribution of power in society. And whether you are studying mechanical engineering, computer science, or sociology, it does not matter. I think to really be able to understand the distribution of power in society, those years in university are the crucial formative years when you develop your worldviews, where you have time to think of the past, and not just rush into the future. So universities have a huge role to play, I believe.

I went to Elphinstone College, Mumbai from 1976 to 1979. So can you imagine those are the Emergency and post-Emergency years? There was thriving discourse. I do not think I was as much in class, as I was in the corridors of Elphinstone College. But everybody was talking about what it means, what emergency powers mean, how does it affect us as citizens? What should we be doing? What is resistance? What does resistance look like? And within two years, fortunately, we came out of that darkness and that real enthusiasm for the new government, and of course all kinds of things started to happen pretty quickly then. But imagine, those years in this country’s political life is when we were in college. And I think it was as much of what our college did and did not do, so that we could allow our minds to be free. I think it was a remarkable experience for us at that time. I am not suggesting that students continually disrupt their learning life. Because really, today, what they learn has become so important to develop their capacities, because the future of work is changing so rapidly. So to get those foundational, resilient sort of capabilities in your school and college has become even more important. So you have to focus on your studies. But this is also the time when you have to ponder about the distribution of power in society. So universities have to allow for that freedom.



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