Rohini Nilekani is the Founder-Chairperson of Arghyam, a foundation she set up for sustainable water and sanitation, which funds initiatives all across India. From 2004 to 2014, she was Founder-Chairperson and chief funder of Pratham Books, a non-profit children’s publisher that reached millions of children during her tenure. She has written several books for young children, published by Pratham Books including the popular “Annual Haircut Day”. In 2017, she was inducted as Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. A member of the Advisory Board of the Well Being Project from 2019, Rohini Nilekani is a committed philanthropist. In 2017, she, together with her husband Nandan Nilekani, signed the Giving Pledge, which commits half their wealth to philanthropic causes.
Please describe your childhood and early years.
I was lucky to have a happy, carefree childhood in Mumbai, which was then called Bombay. We had lots of friends and cousins, we played outside a lot – cricket, lagori , badminton and many indoor games too, like carom and Mikado. I am the middle child, and I had fun fighting over small things with both my older and younger sisters. Maybe it helped to create the strong bond we all share now! Our parents were very encouraging with us girls and helped us to be well educated and independent. And by the way, we had no internet, no TV, no computers and no mobile phones. Yes, you can have fun without those too! All of you are experiencing the pandemic now, but when we were young there were two wars, the 1962 war with China and the 1971 war over Bangladesh. We too experienced difficulties then such as curfew, and having to stay without any lights at all, because there used to be air raids, and rationed food, including sugar, which was hard to get then. Now all of you have too much sugar, na? Many things change, but somethings always remain the same. Difficulties come and they go, and we all learn from them. Why do you give back to the society ? What do you feel when you give back to the society ? In my family, there has always been a tradition of giving forward to society, either in terms of time or talent or money. My grandfathers set an example in this regard. My maternal grandfather set up educational institutions. My paternal grandfather Babasaheb Soman joined Gandhiji’s call to help the people of Champaran way back in 1917. When family members are an example of good values of citizenship, it is easy for their children and grandchildren to follow. The same was true in my husband Nandan’s family. So we truly believe we are the trustees of the wealth that we have been fortunate to receive. We think so much wealth should not be accumulated in private hands. It must be used for the progress of society as a whole. We are not just doing our duty with our philanthropy, and hopefully impacting some people’s lives for the better, but we are also experiencing much joy in doing so, and intellectual stimulation too. Giving forward allows us to better connect with our country’s people and their situation.
How can children get involved?
I would say we have to first be very curious about the world around us. Observe everything that you can, with mindful eyes. You may discover a passion for something or the other. Then follow that passion – whether it is for science, or the environment or cooking or just about anything that is socially positive. Then work hard to follow that passion with commitment and courage, but without losing your curiosity. That will lead you to the answer of “What should I do next?” Like in all the books you read, where your favourite characters always find mysteries to solve, and problems to tackle, you too will find something where you can make a difference. And then, you stay connected to that problem until you , along with others can help make a change for the better. Even if is as simple a thing as planting trees, or growing a plant. Your action matters. So – Stay Curious. Stay Connected. Stay Committed.
How do you chose projects for your work?
I have some areas of my own curiosity, connectedness and commitment, such as access to justice, the environment, active citizenship and more. My team and I work with and fund committed people and institutions in those areas. I truly believe that we need to build an ethical society, or samaaj that can keep active in solving problems in its context and locality and beyond. A good society can also work to make sure that business organisations and government organisations act in the interest of the larger public.
Are academics important?
I think you all know the answer to that. Yes, academics are important, but not only to pass exams with flying colours. Doing as well as YOU can in your school and college will help you to improve your ‘learnability’ for your whole life. For all the new things you will have to learn as you grow up in this complex and fast changing world. So trying hard with your studies is a gift you will give to yourself. I know it can be so boring sometimes, especially now, with online classes. Shall I tell you a secret though? Allowing yourself to be bored without being too frustrated with boredom and without complaining too much about it, maybe the best thing you do for YOURSELF! Life can always be boring and if you can deal with that, you will be a winner! Remember this when you have to spend all those awful long hours studying for some test!
Should we have a hobby ? Are playing games online a hobby?
You have to do what you love doing; you have to enjoy playing, especially with others. We certainly loved our hobbies when we were young. I so loved reading! And I don’t know if this is a hobby or an assignment but I am so glad you have this children’s newspaper. I was a journalist too, and I hope some of you will become good investigative journalists in the future. But nowadays, many of you children have so much access to online games. A lot of research is now emerging that too much online time may not be the greatest for your physical and mental wellbeing. I think all of you should get together and decide how much you should do online and how much out in the real world. If we don’t stop to think about that, it may harm us. But if we ourselves decide to be mindful, it is the best solution. Sometimes it is hard to stop. I know! It happens to me too, when I am playing Scrabble or something online. Then my children scold me “Mama, you need to stop and pay attention to what we are saying!” “Oops, sorry, I say, and I shut down my computer.”
When will Sringeri Srinivas finally get a haircut?
Aah, now that is a very good question. I think it depends on when we feel that we have truly managed to make the Covid 19 virus harmless. Sringeri Srinivas is happy to see that many people are vaccinated, but he feels that we have to ALL practice being safe in public so that there are no more waves of infection. He is impatient to cut his hair, which was very itchy in the summer. No one wants to help him wash such long hair! Take care, be safe. This pandemic too shall pass! And you will be together. with your friends again. Treasure your friendships.
Thank you for inviting me for this interview.