Bangalore’s Shapeshifts: A Personal Journey

Bangalore’s Shapeshifts: A Personal Journey

June 14, 2019 | Philanthropy

This a talk Rohini Nilekani gave on the city’s role in her work as a philanthropist and social innovator. This was as part of a sponsored a bi-monthly curated talk series called “Speaking of the City”  curated by Bangalore’s World-Famous Semi-Deluxe Writing Program at Shoonya. Writers, artists, journalists, scholars, architects, scientists, entrepreneurs, historians, geographers, activists or anyone who has worked on and for Bangalore is invited to speak of this city.




“Dhanyavadagalu,” first of all, for coming here. So, actually when Zac and Anjum told me to speak here, I must admit I got very nervous. And I’m still a bit nervous, not because I don’t speak in public, I probably speak in public far too often, but I didn’t quite know how to talk of myself and the city. But then I felt it was a great experience to put those two things together and see if it was more than the sum of its parts. So I do hope I won’t bore you all to death. I see many friends and familiar faces, so I’m very grateful.

So, I thought I’ll divide this into three or four parts. One is, of course, how I became an accidental Bangalorean, many people know about that, but still, I’ll just mention it again because I think it’s important. Then I’ll just talk about the decades we have spent here, raised a family, a few anecdotes from there. Then I’ll talk about a little bit of my writings, since this is all about writing, and whether it has anything to the city or not. And then I’ll talk a little bit about the work and all the amazing people I have had the real good fortune to meet and support.

And I’ll end with, I guess, something about the… No, I have to talk to you about the elections of 2014, and then I’ll just glimpse into the future. So that’s how I’ve structured it a bit. But I might go back and forth, otherwise it’d be too chronological. So it’s 35 years since we came to Bangalore, we first came here in 1984. That’s three and half decades, that’s most of my life, and certainly more than I spent in the town I was born and grew up in, which is Bombay, now Mumbai. So clearly, I am a Bangalorean now, there’s no two ways about it. Two things I miss about Mumbai still, every day: One is the panipuri, Bangalore simply has no chaat to speak of, and it should be ashamed of itself. And two, is the ocean, which is kind of hard to create. But otherwise, Bangalore is now my home, I’m a Bangalorean, and very proud of it and very happy so.

But we could easily have been in Chennai. Because at the time when Infosys got its first India client, it was a toss-up between Chennai and Bangalore. I’m telling you that was really lucky, ’cause the weather in Chennai and the weather in Bangalore simply don’t compare. So I’m very happy that it tipped towards our side in Bangalore. And we set up our little home first in 4th T Block, well that was because… Actually, Infosys and Wipro were the third wave, the public sector institutions that came in the ’50s and ’60s brought in new kinds of migrants. And then we know what happened in the early part of the century with IISC, etcetera, but I won’t go back that far.

So after the public institutions like BEL, HMT, ITI, etcetera, so it brought in a lot of new people and a new culture into Bangalore. After that, in the ’70s, there was a phase where, of course, were the government factories and stuff, but also the hardware industries, so they came in later. And it was only in the ’80s that, actually, the first satellite station was… Earth station was set up by Texas Instruments, created the first offshore software plant in India. And what they began to call as body shopping. But basically because of the satellite-linked earth station, they were able to allow programmers to code here and buzz up all the code up in… Through the satellites back home to America, and that started, really, the IT revolution. The government itself decided to set up Electronic City. And then it brought in a lot of these companies, Infosys, very clearly a major one among them.

And that’s what really began our journey to Bangalore, which was great for Nandan, because he was coming back home. He was born here and lived the first 12 years of his life in Bangalore. So, it was for him, a kind of homecoming, but it was new to us. And Infosys then… To just continue a bit on the IT side, they were… They, of course, became big quite soon, and the story of Infosys captured media attention quite early on. In ’92, the IPO happened, because Infosys had set up its first… India’s first software company to set up its own five-acre premises in Electronic City, and the next year, ’93, was their IPO. And after the IPO, honestly, our lives changed, because it was a public company, always facing the media, always telling a very new story of middle class professionals who wanted to beat the dynastic capitalists, I suppose, at their own game. And prove that, by remaining true to your values, you could still create… Ethically you could create real wealth and, really, an institution to be proud of for many, many people. A lot of people from the city as well. So that was the Infosys story. And our lives ran parallel… For all those three-and-a-half decades, I think our lives ran parallel till Nandan left Infosys to join the government. But then came right back two years ago. So we are back with that story of Infosys continuing like a thread through our lives in the city.

So, we were young, relatively, and I began with a little house in 4th T Block, Jayanagar, with a landlord called, as I remember now, D. Linge Gowda, who had just run a unsuccessful election campaign as a Congress candidate against, of all people, Ramakrishna Hegde of the Janata Party in a Kanakapura by-election, and had lost. And now when I think of it, that pattern was to be repeated by his tenant 30 years later, in 2014, who also on a Congress ticket, lost against the future avatar of the Janata Party, which is the BJP, to Mr. Ananth Kumar. But that’s a story I’ll come back to later. So it was great to have been, to have that very nice family, the Gowdas and Aunty… The wife. I’d brought my first standard Kannada textbook. And every evening, for half an hour, she used to sit with me on the steps going up to our little flat and help me to learn Kannada in the way it should be taught. And the first words I had to learn was, of course, “Swalpa adjust maadi.” was one thing that she decided that I should know quite quickly. And its thanks to her that I was able to get a bit of a grounding in Kannada and also learn about local food, because she used to call me down to her kitchen to have “akki” roti and all sorts of stuff.

Nandan was, of course, always away. But with that firm foundation, I was actually able to be confident enough to make full public speeches in Kannada, and I always hoped that my extreme enthusiasm would make up for my extreme poor grammar. And made many, many mistakes along the way but I found the Kannada people, the Kannadigas, very, very supportive to somebody who was trying learn the language. And that love always overcame my shyness while speaking Kannada in public. So that was something to say.

We brought up our children here, in this beautiful city. And I tell you, it was a great place to bring up the kids. And I outsourced a lot of parenting to Valley School, thank God for Valley School, because with 100 acres for the children to play in and Krishnamurti’s philosophy of “no reward, no punishment,” the children were happy to go to school and as happy when they came back. Except for the ragi mudde, ragi porridge which they had to drink at 11:00 o’clock, I think they had a marvelous 10 or 12 years in that school, for which I am eternally grateful, for the educational institutions of the city, and so many great ones, as we all know. So its a great place to raise kids. Because in those days, of course, it was not this teenager-overrun-by-hormones kind of place that it has become. So it was a marvelous time to raise kids in this city.

I do remember those days when I used to take Bus Number 20 to go to work, or we took two, three buses, shifting from Majestic because we had to go to Malleshwaram, where all Nandan’s Chitrapur Saraswat relatives lived. And so we did lot of bussing. My father-in-law, particularly, was a great supporter of anything to do with the public sector. And if he saw an empty bus, we had to physically stop him from going there, ’cause it didn’t matter where it was going, he would say, “What a beautiful public transport, we should go in it!” and we said, “But we don’t want to go there.” So we had to physically stop him from going to empty, beautiful buses. But he taught me to go all around the city in several buses. And the roads were… It was a much better experience then than it is now. But I do feel that public transport used to be much better. I think as the city grows, we are going to have another five years of nightmare. But then we are going to have our metro, then we are gonna have all those zillions of flyovers which our politicians want to build, and we’re going to hopefully zip through the city again. But don’t try to walk.

I remember my first car was a Maruti Omni, and I could take it everywhere in the city. In those days it was not so bad to drive or to park. And I even took it to BVK Iyengar Road to buy some lights. And I remember parallel parking in a very narrow spot. And a policeman came up to me and said in Kannada… But he said, “Even though you are a woman, you’ve parallel parked quite nicely, madam.” I said, “Thank you, sir!” But that was something I didn’t forget. In a very friendly way he said it, without absolutely any self-consciousness at all. I do remember, as a journalist I used to write for local papers. One of the earliest things I remember doing was marching with an organisation called Vimochana, which worked with women’s rights. And we used to have placards outside people’s houses where there had been dowry deaths. I went there partly as a participant activist and partly as a reporter. I remember so many incidents where sometimes the police would come and crack down on all those things.

I remember having to go to report stuff at the BBMP office. And one of my priciest goof-ups was when the officer I had gone to meet was not in his seat. And very kindly I asked his colleagues, “Lanchake hogidaara?” So I learnt much later that that was not the smartest thing to say, but I was innocently asking whether he had gone out for his lunch. Then, of course, there was the same old haunts, everyone used to go to them, Koshy’s, Vidyarthi Bhavan, MTR, you name it, Lalbagh, Cubbon Park, we did all the things that most Bangloreans used to do then.

I even did a little adventure, I went through a crazy phase, some of the people here will remember it with extreme horror. I went through a phase of wanting to do Urdu shayari, and I went and actually took lessons from an amazing gentleman called Khalil Ur Rehman, who was DIG Intelligence… And said, “Why not! I’ll teach you Urdu.” And I used to go to the police headquarters and I used to wait quietly there till he had finished all his work, and he used to spend half an hour with Ghalib and me. And it was the most incredible experience. Then I realised I was completely wasting everybody’s time and gave up… Gave him back his evenings. But these are the kind of people you meet in this amazing city who give so much of themselves. So it’s been an amazing journey. It did… Since I came in ’84, I did try to write. Right from 1984, I used to write for several… India Today and other papers… Including the local papers whenever I got a chance. And then in 1987, I joined Sunday, it was a post-Akbar Sunday Magazine. And Vir Sanghvi had taken over as Editor, he’d been my editor in Bombay, so it was easy to agree to join.

In fact, my predecessors was Gauri Lankesh, and as I was leaving, Prakash Belawadi joined, ’cause I had to leave, because I had small babies, and we had to go to America. So my predecessor was Gauri Lankesh and after me was Prakash Belawadi. So I was in excellent company at Sunday, though I couldn’t stay there very long. And I continued writing, I did script writing for extremely boring documentaries because I had to keep myself busy. I did a lot of children’s writing. And then, of course, I did my first novel called Still Born, which was definitely inspired… The heroine was Poorva Pandit, who lived in Basavanagudi, and who wanted to… Who very much… The story of Poorva Pandit, the journalist in Bangalore, was about a Bangalore that was growing into new media, that was growing into buildings of glass and concrete, where Basavanagudi itself was changing.

And I’ve just recently learned that, in fact, Basavanagudi is one of the oldest settlements of this new city we call Bangalore, that it was set up in 1895 as a refuge for people who were escaping the plague. And later on, it became a fairly planned part of Bangalore. So Poorva Pandit in Bangalore was very much… So the city was very much at the background of my novel. And, in fact, she did use technology to solve her problems in that novel. And one of the inspirations for that was Atul Chitnis, who was really the pioneer of the open source movement in Bangalore. So I went and met him and made him tell me some ways where some ethical hacking could be done so that Poorva Pandit could find out who was doing what to whom. And so the characters of the city also found their way into the novel, including Dr. Sudarshan, who has been working for decades in the BR hills with the Soliga tribals there, and the story is partly based in that area as well. So I would say definitely, Bangalore and Still Born and… Jayapriya is here, without whom Still Born would not have happened. It was my first novel and her first….

Yeah, she set up a literary agency just then, so it’s special to both of us. And then I did go on to do more writing, lots of journalism, also another book called Uncommon Ground which came out, which was based on a television series I did when I interviewed corporate and social leaders together. So I got Anand Mahindra to speak to Medha Patkar. I got Aruna Roy to speak to Sunil Mittal and so on, as a series. And then I put that as a documentation ’cause I thought it needed to be documented into a book which was called by the same name, Uncommon Ground.

Now it’s high time I wrote my third book, as Usha would remind me. And I must say, the inspiration from so many city writers that I have been meeting over the last so many decades: There are, of course, Anjum and Jack and Spoorsha… Zack and Usha right here, there’s Raghavendra, there’s Prem, some of whose articles I simply cannot understand. And there’s Raghavendra, Usha’s husband, there is Shriram, there is Vivek Shanbagh, and Anita Nair. There’s Lavanya and so many others, Shashi, of course, Deshpande, with whom one has had the honor to interact and learn from, on how to have a deep commitment to writing. Even if there are breaks, Shashi always tells me, “Dont worry. Write, write and write.” So let’s see what happens. Next time I come, I hope there’ll be a book under my belt, another one. So writing… And, of course, Girish Karnad, just having had that extreme fortune to have familial relations to Nandan with their family, and to have occasionally been able to get his blessings on things like Ratam Books, etcetera. It’s a great time to remember, that even if Girish is no more, his work will always continue to live with us and be in our hearts.

Now let me talk of my philanthropic work. This definitely, I think, my philanthropy would have been very different if I had been in other places because this is a city of reformers. In fact, I keep joking, “There are more reformers per square inch in Bangalore than in any other place in the country.” So it’s like a landmine of reformers, you have to be very careful, you can trip over them anytime. And they have feisty arguments with each other, so it’s a very difficult space to navigate but also extremely intellectually exciting. The kind of passion and commitment one sees here, the kind of open… And there are many people here who belong to that… The kind of open-mindedness, the kind of broad-mindedness, right? That we see here, the openness to new ideas. I don’t think there is another city in India just quite like Bangalore.

And so it is a dream for someone who has suddenly accumulated far too much wealth and needs to give it away. Because it’s the people: You have to support people, you have to support individuals, you have to support ideas, you have to support institutions. And there is a cornucopia of choices for me and Nandan in Bangalore, so I’m very grateful for that. I don’t see how my philanthropy could have been like this if I had been in Bombay or Delhi or Chennai or anywhere else, for that matter. So I’m very grateful for that because I learnt a lot, there was a lot of time and space to experiment, and amazingly passionate and committed individuals who were all trying to create the better society. So I have been very lucky in that.

I’ll mention just a few things that one was able to support. As soon as the child… The little one, my son, was able to talk and tell me that he was safe or not on his own, I set up something called Nagrik, because one of my very dear friends had been killed in a horrible accident on his way… Of all things, he was rushing to Bangalore to get an interview to Bangalore Club. See, Bangalore Club is a very important institution in this city and people think it’s worth driving all night so that you can make it for the interview. But, unfortunately, an awful truck driver ran him down, and that was a real tragedy. So out of that we started something called Nagrik including Kiran Mazumdar, Jagdish Raja, all kinds of characters came together… Muralidhar Rao, the eternal activist, and we set up Nagrik for safer roads. It was a bit of a disaster, I might say, it was ahead of its time. We didn’t have any clue how to do proper institution-building. But we spent a lot of time at the city’s… Now it has 30… Then it had 32,000 junctions. But we spent a lot of time at these junctions trying to streamline at least the movement around that. And I learnt a lot in my first steps on how to actually engage in public life. So nothing lost, the city didn’t gain much but we’d learnt a little bit. And that helped, I think, in the later institutions that I supported or started.

So, in 1999, I was lucky enough to be invited to join Akshara Foundation. The goal of it was to get every single child in Bangalore in school and learning well by 2003.

Well, it’s 2019, I think just a few children are still left. But we did a pretty good job of mobilizing the mood of the government and the citizens to make sure that all the public schools were doing a bit better than they could have been and to set up more than 1,000 preschool centers that we call “Balwadis” as part of the Pratham network. And Akshara Foundation really taught me a lot about the city in ways I could not have, however many buses I went on and how many walks I took in Lalbagh. Because we were able to go into all the slums of the city, wherever there was acceptance for the idea of setting up a preschool center or where the government schools were willing to let us set up remedial education centers for the children, for all of which we needed citizen volunteers. We needed people who would believe in the idea and give off their time, because its not like they were going to earn a fortune by joining us. We used to give a very minimal stipend. In fact, MS Sathyu once fought with me on this saying, “How can you give only 500 rupees?” We said, “If you could find more money, we would give more.” But sorry for that aside. So for the princely sum of 500 rupees or 750 rupees, and we tried to…

Hundreds of people came forward to set up Balwadis in their own little homes, sized just about this much and bring in 20, 30 children from the neighborhood and spend three or four hours with them, trying to teach them and get them ready for school, it became a movement. And I am very proud to say that for several years, we were able to sustain that. And then, that’s when I got to see how the people at the margins of the city live, with how much courage, with how much risk-taking ability and with an absolute can-do attitude, especially when it comes to their children. That they would do anything for their children’s future and that education was going to be a very important part of it.

And the kind of support that we got from rickshaw-walahs and so many people. And especially I remember that young Muslim women came forward, in the hundreds, to become teachers, volunteers, to set-up things in their own home. Very often, they would not have had been allowed to go outside to work, many of them, not all of them, but this was seen as a safe space for them to go and engage in teaching young children. So it taught me a lot about this city. I’m still grateful Akshara Foundation still thrives, is now doing work in many states, its math program is doing marvellously well, fully funded by the government. And Ashok Kamath who just became the Namma Bangalore Achiever was the chairman and continues to do splendid work.

I got a great chance to set up Pratham Books as well because I was part of Pratham’s network all over India. We were creating many, many eager new learners. But they had nothing to read, except the beautiful textbook which was sent home to them from school. There are very… Its such a tragedy, there were very few children’s books that were attractive, engaging and in their own language for children to read. So we set up Pratham Books, I took on the responsibility to set it up in Bangalore, together with Ashok Kamath as well, who did most of the running of the institution. And the goal was a book in every child’s hand. And in its 15-year journey, I’m proud to say, I was there for 10 years, Suzanne Singh continues to take it to newer and newer heights. We have reached tens of millions of children. Not only in this city, where we could physically go to children with our books, but through the country and even throughout the world. So that was a really joyous experience that we were part of, and it continues too. I think a mark of a good institution is when the founder can move on and the institution can do better. And I must say, all the institutions I have left have done far better after my leaving them than when I was still there, so I must be a very good founder.

So Arghyam came up first as my idea of experimenting with philanthropy, because we came into money suddenly when we participated in the American Depositary motif that we did at Infosys. And I came into 100 crores. Now I didn’t need 100 crores for my own life, we were doing reasonably well. So I decided to put it all into the foundation. But I didn’t know what to do with it, it’s not so easy to do well with a lot of money. So I just first decided to learn some philanthropy heavy-lifting, and I did absolutely random things, like we saved… It’s not random, we saved many children’s lives by helping them get to a respirator on time, and we set up yoga centers, we did some air pollution monitoring, it was really, early now when I think of it, air pollution monitoring, my God! Now it’s become so fashionable. We did that in 2001. And all sorts of things till I realized one day in April 2005, that if one wants to be strategic and long term and solve a real problem of society, it would have to be water.

So April 2005, Arghyam focused fully water, for the last 14 years we are working all around the country with various organizations. And hopefully, I’ve made some impact in the water sector. I must admit we didn’t do too much work in Bangalore. I was a bit nervous of tripping over our reformers. So we decided… I thought that if I focused on Bangalore, I wont be able to do anything outside Bangalore. It would overwhelm and consume us. So most of Arghyam’s work is in fact outside this gorgeous city, except for some peripheral work I’ve been able to do with our marvelous lake-saving communities. And you know how well that has taken off.

And then last thing we had to set up ourselves was EkStep. Nandan and I began to work for the first time in 2014, and our marriage still continues, so we must have done something right. Because we had very different approaches and I didn’t know if this partnership outside the home will last for more than 10 days, but it’s been almost five years. And we have been able to bring a whole new lens to how do you bring learning opportunities to 200 million children, which we have promised ourselves we will achieve by the end of 2020. And we think we are on track to do that, but this is not the space to tell you how. Some other time. But apart from these institutions that we ourselves were able to found… And Nandan founded eGovernments Foundation, and he was heading BATF, the Bangalore Agenda Task Force which again, taught us a lot about the city and how its innards functions. How all our public sector agencies actually work against each other and how streamlining that is a really massive task, which till today is incomplete.

So were able to set up institutions but we were also able to support marvelous people setting up their own institutions. Whether it was BIC, whether it was ATREE, whether it was Takshashila, whether… New think tanks, new ideas, IIHS, which is the Indian Institute for Human Settlements, which is the first such institution which says, “As India urbanizes, we are going to need many more urban professionals.” And how do you build capacity at scale to manage urban settlements? So IIHS… Each one of these institutions was backed, was set up by fiery, committed, intelligent, passionate people who were able to build both teams and institutions, and Nandan and I have been really lucky to be able to support some of them.

Like you said, on the arts and culture side, it was also very exciting to find these entrepreneurs or whatever, whether it was… Obviously Arundhati at Ranga Shankara, she… You know how hard she worked to put up that theater in her husband’s name, and also because India… Bangalore needed to revive its cultural spaces. And she worked so hard at… And she had almost got there. And one day she felt that she just couldn’t go on. And she called us and the next day, I’m not bragging, but I think it’s an important step in Ranga Shankara, which she herself brings up. We realised she’s almost there and she needs this one infusion. And the next morning, I went with a check of 50 lakhs. And within a few weeks Ranga Shankara was up and running. Today she has much support, and they do 300 and more plays every year. They have completely revived the cultural space of the city. So I feel very, very proud to be a small part of that.

And similarly, many other things like that. The Devnandan Ubhayaker Yuva Sangeet Utsav is a small festival but it has given a big space for young Hindustani musical talent to showcase itself. Young ones, Rashid Khan… I mean, all the big names that you would learn in Hindustani music came… Once they were tiny and unknown, to the utsav because that was the platform that Lalita Ubhayaker and Tara Chandavarkar created for them, and I’ve been happy to support it for so many years now. So many opportunities like that, to support individuals, doing so much. Neerelu, Avantika, so many things right now… The festival is going on which Prakash Belawadi… Called Avani, which they are running in the city as we speak, all these things will need some philanthropic capital, and its good to see that Bangaloreans do come forward.

In fact, India is learning how to do crowdfunding, and Bangalore is a very huge part on this movement of people’s-based support. It’s not just the billionaires who can save this country, right? In fact, billionaire funding for social movement should be a very small part of anything that happens in the country, it should be a broad-based, diverse unique space. And I’m proud to say we just did a report on everyday giving. Bangalore’s people are a huge chunk of India’s growing small-giving. So they give diversely and they give to many many causes, and even if they give 100 rupees or 10 rupees or 2,000 rupees or one lakh rupees, or your Bangaloreans… That’s why I love the city, that’s why I love to be part of the city, they’re highly engaged as citizens.

And I think, when we moved to Koramangala, I got to be part of the RWA, the third block Koramangala RWA is something that most people are frightened of because they have strict laws… For rules. So if you park on the wrong side, woe befall you. Somebody will come and move your car. Or if you try to build one extra level on your house without a sanctioned plan, you’ll have to pull down your whole building, because we have people watching and monitoring. And sometimes it gets pretty… What shall I say, heated up in our RWA email and chat groups. But I’m very proud to see how democracy in the first base. We call civil society the third sector, I think that’s ludicrous, it is the first sector and it begins where we live, how we engage with public issues, where we live. So I’m very lucky to live in third block, Koramangala, with all its feisty civic activism.

And that’s also taught me a lot about, how do we protect our commons? How do we prioritize whose needs to be prioritized. I must say our road is called… I’m sorry to say, but it’s called “billionaires road” because Chris is on one side, Rajeev Chandrasekhar is on the other side, Pradeep Khar is on this side. And my friends complain, “And you people always get water and your roads get paved, and quite unnecessarily, even if they’ve been paved before.” I’m not sure that accusation is true, but what is true is that there’s tremendous equity of public services right in my block. Two lanes beyond me, there are people who don’t get as much water as we get on our road. Of course, our road is also at a slope, but even if it had not been, I know some places would’ve got less water than we do, for various reasons of the political economy, which leads me straight into 2014. How long have I already spoken?

Okay, so I’ll close very quickly with the election because that really has to be shared. It is the first time I’m on a public platform to share it, so please give me a few minutes. So the 2014 election is very sharp in my mind, though the 2019 one is already blurred away. In the heat of that awful April, March, we were all campaigning. Some ardent supporters are sitting here two months, I’m still really grateful. And there was Nandan on the Congress party ticket against the most invincible Ananth Kumar. It requires a great leap of optimism on Nandan’s part to think that he could defeat Ananth Kumar. But Nandan is nothing, if not optimistic. And we already know how that movie ended. But it was really the most gruelling time I’ve had in the city, but with a very rapid learning curve, because we learnt to very quickly that by far and above, politics is most difficult profession of them all. I don’t think any other profession in this world comes close. It is 24/7 and the kind of demands to come at you all the time are impossible to manage. So my respect for politicians went up by a 500% in those few months, even though I wouldn’t exactly want to emulate most of their practices. But walking through the slums, through the middle class neighbourhoods, climbing up and down stairwells of extremely fancy apartment buildings, which I didn’t even know existed till we had to trawl all of South Bangalore.

We listened to people all day long, what they hoped for, what they wanted, what they expected. And we learnt exactly what keeps this dysfunctional law, equilibrium politics exactly in place, because it is nothing but a system of patronage and brokerage, because nobody wants to solve it. It suits everybody at some level. And it has just been continuing like this for so long, which is partly why we have the city that we do, and which could be so much better. So, many interesting things happened there, of course, and I learnt a lot. And, really, people live in such difficult conditions: Water, drainage, sewerage, rent, you name it, it’s really a hard living every single… Mobility, where? Public transport, nothing, and they still manage two jobs, three jobs and just somehow manage.

But in some of the higher-end… Middle class, some of the upper middle class… Middle class, I would say, parks, places which have parks nearby bungalows. Once I went and gave my usual speech about how Nandan is great and he’s a strategic thinker and will do long-term reform. And one gentleman got up and said, “Long-term reform and strategy are very good, very good, but we have this man in our neighborhood… And one man, he comes and feeds the street dogs, we need to get him arrested, how do we do that?” So then I would mumble something and say, “you know… ” something, something I would say. Then they would say “The leaves in my park, nobody cleans.” Or they’ll say, “There are so many bumps on the road outside my fantastic apartment. What is the MP going to do about that?” Then I once met a group of, I won’t mention which community, women who were literally dripping in gold and silk, and they wanted the MP to build them a community hall. I think if two or three of their jewelry had been just auctioned or given away, they could have built the hall themselves.

But by contrast, in the slums, most of the time people used to say… When I went, they used to really come around, because most politicians didn’t turn up, and they vented all their five years of frustrations on me. So it was quite interesting. I was really taken back, I was like “We didn’t do all this to you.” But they said, “You’re from the same class, the political class, so who else are we supposed to yell at?” But I must say, they would mostly say:

“Just give use water. Just give us drains. That’s enough.”

They were not really asking for the moon. But of course, once in a while, people used to say”

“If I give you my vote what will I get in return?”

And I used to say, “No, it’s no use buying your vote, that’s not gonna help you, that’s gonna keep you where… They’ll say:

“That’s all correct and what they all say. But you have come to ask for my vote.”

So then I used to leave those people and assume that they will not be voting for Nandan. But there were a lot of people from the BJP also who used to say:

“You’re giving a really good fight! A really good fight!”

And once… And I’d broken my arm by then, so my team said, “Very good, 25,000 sympathy votes you’ll get.” I said “Did you ask me how I’m feeling?” But the others had told and said, “Nothing has happened to her, to get sympathy votes she’s wearing a plaster on her arm just to look good for getting sympathy.” So I got both sides of that. But one person told me… He used to see me in that area often. He said.

“But why are you trying so hard, madam! You will win anyway! Leave it be!”

But, of course, he turned out to be not so right. And a BJP worker definitely… One BJP voter told me:

“I have never given my vote to the Congress. But this time I will. Because he is the right man. But let me tell you, wrong party. Wrong party, wrong time. But the candidate is correct.” So I’m going to vote for Congress for the first time in my life.

But not many people followed that example because Nandan lost by more than two lakh votes. So he got, I must say, I thank everyone of those people, more than four lakh votes in a very one-sided election, where everyone was voting only for Narendra Modi. And they told us, “I’m very sorry, it has nothing to do with Nandan but we have to vote for Modi, you see?” So in such an election there were still more than four lakh people who put their “chapa” on Nandan, and therefore the Congress Party. One really interesting incident and I’ll really stop. We were in a slum and… Every time I went into some slum, some strongmen would come with me. And the modus operandi seems to be to go door to door and knock and say:

“Candidate’s wife. You have to give your vote to the Congress!”

And move to the next door. After some rounds of this, I said “Can we try and add please to this?” Because we upper class, so-called genteel, liberal types.”

So he said, “Okay. Because anyway, these people… Silly and feudal upper class person is telling us something, but no harm done.” So he goes to the next house and he said.

“Eh! Please! You have to give your vote to the Congress!”

So… And then he looked at me for approval and said “We did well?” I said “You did very well, indeed.” So one day at a time, one step at a time. But it was very important to see that the people had absolutely no choice, except… It is a kind of a Mafia but those people genuinely look after their constituencies. I would say much more than all their… They look after all of their needs: Whether it is a loan for a marriage, whether it is putting a child in school, whether it is fixing the water connection, whatever it may be, the politician has to be there. That’s why you have all these all strongmen around, the “baahubalis” or whatever they are called, so that they can serve the day-to-day needs of their constituents, who will always go at any time of the day to seek that help, fully expecting to get it. So those were some of the kinds of things I learnt.

And I must admit I was a bit relieved when Nandan did not win, because… People really get angry with me when I say that. But I think it would have been impossible for Nandan, who is not… Who doesn’t really quite work with the crowds as politicians need to. And Nandan’s time has been much better used in other kind of systemic reform, I believe. But, of course, the man who feeds the stray dogs at 1:00 AM remains un-arrested after five years. And so with that, I come to an end looking into the future.

Sometimes I feel that this city used to be one city, now it is many cities. In these 35 years, it has become many cities. From eight million people, it has become 13 million people, that time it was 6.5 million, now its 13.5 million people, it’s gone to 800 square kilometers. It’s a city I no longer know in many ways, because in some ways, our lives have also… Are restricted while they have expanded. And I feel that sometimes I don’t know the city. And though my political ideology was groomed in Mumbai but my political sensibilities were very much developed in this marvellous city: The city of ideas, the city of reformers, the city of curiosity, the diverse cosmopolitan city of many, many cultures.

But one thing I do know… I never expected, no matter how it grew and how dysfunctional it became, in terms of public infrastructure, that it would ever be a city where Gauri Lankesh could be shot outside her own home, and where some trolls could actually say good things about a man like Girish Karnad dying. So I feel that no matter how much the city becomes unfamiliar, all of us have a lot of work to do to keep that idea of the city alive, which has been there for centuries, this is one of the oldest settlements, human settlements in India: Of diversity, of mutual respect, of a cultural exploration, of looking forward, not back. And so there’s miles to do, lots of work to continue doing as citizens of this utterly marvelous city to which I now belong. Thank you very much. Dhanyavad.

अरबपतियों से भी ज्यादा दान देते हैं आम लोग

अरबपतियों से भी ज्यादा दान देते हैं आम लोग

May 25, 2019 | Philanthropy

हमारे जीवन के कई सपने होते हैं जो हमारे परिवार, बच्चों और उनके भविष्य से जुड़े होते हैं। जीवन की हर प्राप्ति हमें कहीं न कहीं संतुष्टि और खुशी अवश्य देती है। लेकिन आज के समाज में मैं देखती हूॅं कि जीवन में उन सभी आशाओं को पुरा-पुरा करते कहीं न कहीं हमारी खुशी गुम होती जा रही है। आखिर वो कौन से कारण है जो हमारी खुशी को हमसे दूर कर देते हैं और पारिवारिक सम्बन्धों में दूरियां ला देती है। अगर हम सारे दिन की दिनचर्या पर ध्यान दे तो हमें यही लगता है कि यह परिस्थितियों की एक श्रृंखला है जो लगातार फिल्म की तरह चलता ही रहता है। कोई पल हमें खुशी देता है तो कोई पल हमें उदास भी कर देता है। अर्थात हमारे मन मुताबिक कोई कार्य करता है तो इससे मुझे खुशी मिलती है। इसका मुख्य कारण यही है कि हमारा वर्तमान जीवन व्यक्ति और लोगों के ऊपर निर्भर कर रही है। सुबह का एक सीन आया कि बच्चे स्कूल जाने के लिए समय पर तैयार तो हो गए लेकिन उनको लेने के लिए बस नहीं आयी तो मुझे गाड़ी निकालने के लिए जल्दी-जल्दी जाना पड़ा। पहले वाले सीन में खुशी थी लेकिन दूसरे सीन खुशी गुम हो गई। फिर अगला सीन आता है स्कूल समय पर तो पहुंच गए, फिर याद आया कि बच्चे ने जो होमवर्क किया था वो नोट बुक तो घर पर ही रह गई। ये सारे ऐसे सीन हैं जो हमारे मानसिक संतुलन पर प्रभाव डालते हैं। क्योंकि मैंने अपने मन का कंट्रोल पूरी तरह से परिस्थितियों के ऊपर दे दिया और मैंने सोचा कि ये तो नॉर्मल है ऐसा चलता ही है। फिर धीरे-धीरे दिन प्रतिदिन जीवन की चुनौतियां बढ़ती गई जिसके कारण हमारे जीवन में परेशानी बढऩे लगी। फिर हमने अपने जीवन को देखना शुरू किया हमारा जीवन कहां है। तब मैं अपने आपसे प्रश्न पूछती हूॅं कि सब कुछ तो है, एक अच्छा पति, एक अच्छी पत्नी, दोनों जॉब में हैं, अच्छा खासा मासिक वेतन घर आ रहा है, दो स्टोरी मकान बन चुकी है, बाहर दोनों के लिए अलग-अलग गाडिय़ां हैं, बच्चों के लिए भी सबकुछ है, फिर हम खुश क्यों नहीं है सब कुछ होते हुए भी अंदर खालीपन क्यों महसूस हो रहा है।

हम सभी को यह मालूम है कि हमारा जीवन चार दिनों का नहीं है। यह तो एक लम्बी यात्रा है जिसमें स्वाथ्य रहना बहुत ही आवश्यक है। इस यात्रा में जीवित रहने और शरीर को स्वस्थ्य रखने के लिए भोजन बहुत ही जरूरी है। यदि हमारा स्वास्थ्य अच्छा होगा तभी हम ठीक तरह से काम कर पायेंगे। लेकिन कहीं न कहीं हमने इमोशनल हेल्थ और शारीरिक हेल्थ को अलग-अलग कर दिया है। अगर उसको भी हम जीवन में उतनी ही प्राथमिकता दे जितना शरीर के स्वास्थ्य को देते हैं तब हम जीवन की यात्रा में ठीक तरह से चल पायेंगे। अब पांच मिनट पहले हमें पता चला कि बच्चे को स्कूल छोडऩे जाना है। अगर उस समय मैं शांत रहूं, स्थिर रहूं, छोडऩे तो फिर भी आपको जाना ही है, गाड़ी तो आपको फिर भी चलानी ही है, लेकिन गाड़ी हम दुखी होकर चलायेंगे, मन में बहुत सारे विचार आयेंगे। अगर हम इमोशनल हेल्थ को भी उतना ही महत्व दें कि ये सब परिस्थितियां और हमारी भावनायें अलग-अलग नहीं है, यह तो एक पैकेज है। जो हमें परिस्थितियों के साथ मिलता है। यदि मैं इमोशनल रूप से स्वस्थ हूॅं तो मैं परिस्थितियों को बहुत ही सरलता से पार कर सकती हूॅं। लेकिन हम क्या करते हैं पहले परिस्थितियों का सामना करने लग जाते हैं फिर बाद में इमोशनल हेल्थ के बारे में सोचते हैं।

आज स्वास्थ के प्रति इतनी जागरूकता क्यों आयी है। इसके लिए हमें ज्यादा पीछे जाने की जरूरत नहीं है। हम सिर्फ एक पीढ़ी पीछे जाते हैं और सिर्फ अपने माता-पिता को देखते हैं। वे कभी भी पैदल करने नहीं गए, उन्होंने कभी मिनरल वाटर नहीं पिया, उस समय भोजन का इतना ध्यान नहीं रखा जाता था। हमलोगों के यहां साधारण भोजन बनता था और उसे ही हम सभी लोग आपस मिलकर खुशी-खुशी से खाते थे। लेकिन आज हमारी भावनाओं का दवाब शरीर के ऊपर इतना ज्यादा है कि कोई न कोई समस्या शरीर के साथ चलती ही रहती है। क्योंकि हमने आत्मा के स्वास्थ्य का ध्यान नहीं रखा जिसके कारण सारी समस्यायें आनी शुरू हो जाती है। अगर हम आत्मा के हेल्थ का ध्यान रखें तो मन पर जो इतना दबाव है उसके लिए आपको ज्यादा मेहनत नहीं करनी पड़ेगी। अगर आप दो-तीन लोग इक्_े जॉगिंग कर रहे हैं तो आप उस समय स्वयं के मन की स्थिति को चेक कीजिए कि मन में किस प्रकार के विचार आ रहे हैं। हम स्वस्थ रहने के लिए जॉगिंग कर रहे हैं लेकिन मन में नकारात्मक विचार आ रहे हैं। तो हमारे इन विचारों का प्रभाव मन के साथ-साथ पूरे शरीर पर पड़ता है। जब तक आप यह स्वयं अनुभव नहीं करेंगे कि हमारी भावनाओं का शारीरिक स्वास्थ पर कितना गहरा प्रभाव पड़ता है तब तक आप स्थिर नहीं रह सकते हैं।



Everyday Giving in India: Harnessing the potential of a billion givers for social impact

Everyday Giving in India: Harnessing the potential of a billion givers for social impact

May 2, 2019 | Philanthropy

From September 2018 to April 2019, Sattva undertook a first-of-its-kind study on the everyday giving ecosystem in India, with the support of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies. The study does a comprehensive mapping of the giving ecosystem, including the givers, the NGOs that engage with retail givers, online and offline giving channels, and the enabling ecosystem, their practices, successes and barriers, and provides actionable recommendations into unlocking more potential from India’s everyday giver.

In Rohini’s words, “Kindness to strangers is an idea that has deep philosophical roots. It is a vision of humanity that transcends all religions and also tribalism. It is a cosmopolitan, universalist idea that allows ordinary people to stretch themselves. While it is natural and desirable that we give of our resources to those we know and trust, or to those who are like us, there is also something deeply ingrained in us that allows us to feel empathy to the stranger in distress. We can, if we are mindful, see ourselves in that stranger. And we respond with the same kindness that we would hope to receive ourselves. This report on Everyday Giving is about all kindness, but perhaps especially about kindness to strangers.”


Key findings of the report [PDF]


Full report [PDF]


Technical appendix [PDF]

Sketches from the three sessions are below.
A Billion Givers – a participatory dialogue on ‘Everyday Giving in India’ with the giving ecosystem


Strengthening our citizenship muscle: Everyday giving in a participatory democracy


Innovation and growth potential of the formal everyday giving market in India

Link to Sattva Site

This is a first attempt at uncovering the everyday giving market in India. We deeply appreciate your feedback, comments, and suggestions. Please write to:

Rohini Nilekani’s Comments on Philanthropy: It’s time to up the game

Rohini Nilekani’s Comments on Philanthropy: It’s time to up the game

March 14, 2019 | Philanthropy

Rohini Nilekani’s comments on a panel discussing Mr Azim Premji’s new commitment to philanthropy totalling $21 billion. The panel discusses whether there are lessons in compassionate capitalism here for India Inc? What is the future of philanthropy in India? What are the challenges? How can India increase the effectiveness of charity?

Watch Panel Discussion



00:11 Supriya Shrinate: Thank you very much for joining us on this very special addition of the India Development Debate. So this is a personal favorite. Wipro promoter Azim Premji is famously frugal in his personal life but when it comes to philanthropy he perhaps shows India Inc the way. His total commitment to philanthropy now amounts about $21 billion making him one of the biggest philanthropists globally. While more entrepreneurs have been joined by giving pledge in recent years most of them are first generation entrepreneurs and almost all of them are from Bengaluru, the gap between the super-rich and the poor continues to widen in India. Are there lessons in compassionate capitalism here for Indian industry? What is the future of philanthropy? What are the big challenges for those who want to do it and how can India increase the effectiveness of charity? That’s exactly what we are discussing right here in the India Development Debate and I couldn’t have asked for a better panel. I’m Supriya Shrinate and joining us right here on this show this evening are Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, chairperson-MD BIOCON, Rohini Nilekani, author and social activist and of course Anant Bhagwati, director Dasra and thank you very much all of you for being with us.

01:14 SS: Kiran if I may start with you. Like I said Azim Premji lives a frugal life but as far as philanthropy is concerned he cuts no corners. His generosity has won him much praise. The question that I think a lot of people would want to know and perhaps be inspired from is, what makes someone give away so much of his wealth and does this set an example for Indian industry to follow?

01:43 Kiran Mazumdar Shah: Azim Premji is an exemplary philanthropist. He truly believes in giving back because he believes that wealth creators are very fortunate and they must give back so that society benefits in terms of the wealth that has been created. And I would like to say that these sentiments are something that we all echo because as first-generation entrepreneurs, we certainly shared these sentiments and of course, each one of us. I speak for Rohini and myself, for sure. Believe in giving back and we believe that philanthropy is a very, very essential part of wealth creation. So I just believe that whatever you refer to it, whether it’s called Compassionate Capitalism or whether it is about philanthropy, I think this is something which we owe to ourselves as wealth creators.

02:44 SS: Fair point. Of course we owe that to ourselves and I think I have a shining example of people on the show who’ve done that and Rohini Nilekani, you have all donated a large part of your wealth for philanthropy. Almost, in some instances this is almost half of it. What has really been your motivation and what are some of the challenges in philanthropy as far as India is concerned? And I think one of the questions that a lot of people who want to do it dissuade themselves is, have you ever felt demotivated in your journey because of the challenges that come up.

03:17 Rohini Nilekani: First of all thank you, namaste. Thank you Supriya. It’s a pleasure to be on the show. I’m so proud that Azim and the family who stands so strongly behind him have been so warm and generous and they’ve really set targets for us and goals for us to aspire to. I’ve always believed, even long before we became wealthy, that wealth has a great responsibility toward society. It’s no use some people being wealthy if all of society is not benefiting. So, as Kiran said, wealth creation and philanthropy, how you use it for the better of society to me it just goes together. You cannot separate those two things. So obviously for us it is quite easy to embark on the philanthropy journey. We have publicly committed to give away at least 50% of our wealth and since you asked about challenges, the real fact is that while all of us; Azim, Kiran, Azim’s family, Kiran’s family and us, we’re so committed to doing this, there are many challenges to giving it away well. One is, as we keep saying the absorptive capacity in the field also we need to encourage new civil society actors. So, along with our desire to give away wealth, we have to face these challenges and we have to also invest in the philanthropy ecosystem, so that more people can join and give away better and better. That’s what I feel about where we are at this stage of Indian philanthropy.

04:45 SS: Oh yes, absolutely. There is a report that I’m going to generously quote from and that report is the Bain report of 2019, and Anant Bhagwati to you then. Individual philanthropist account for about 60% of total private funding in fiscal year ’18 in India. You see the break down and it reveals that about 80% of this figure comes from Azim Premji. Take out that contribution across the year and the segment has actually seen a decrease. Is it worrying that we are seeing a lot more addition of rich people to the country? The ultra HNIs have grown at a rate of 12%, expected to double in terms of volume and wealth by 2022. And you know, many people wonder is philanthropy really growing in India or is it dependent on the same few individuals and foundations who give generously? Some of those people are right here on my show this evening.

05:40 Anant Bhagwati: Yeah, and thank you so much for having me and hi to Kiran and Rohini. It’s an inspiration to hear from you. So, I guess here’s the little bit of nuance here, which is as is all situations, India is a story of many realities. So I think the first reality is it’s a young country, wealth creation in India is actually decades old. It’s not very, very old, and the realities, there are sub-segments which are giving more, especially first generation entrepreneurs, the IT sector. So I think that’s very, very positive, and I think the second positive is the conversation level has been extremely high. So, the intent and the conversations is high, it’s never been higher. Now, if I swing to the other side of looking at…

06:34 AB: Why the reality is not as strong as the intent? I think there are two parts. I think Rohini mentioned this. There is both a supply-side issue and there’s a demand-side issue. So on the supply-side issue, I think the reality is a lot of wealth in India still is what I’d call legacy wealth. So this is wealth coming from the great grandfather to the grandfather and down, so the question is, is it incumbent on the people having the wealth today to actually pass it on or is it the incumbent for them to actually share? And I think that’s, that if you start building into the why, I think that’s one big thing. And it’s quite a big difference between, if you look at how the US gives, where it’s almost 2% of the net worth, whereas in India it’s 0.2%. So there’s a stark 10X difference. But at the same side, there’s a demand-side problem which is who do you give to? The largest nonprofit in India is small so that’s also has to be solved.

07:34 SS: So Anant, yeah okay. So Anant give me a minute because that’s exactly the question that I have for both Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw and Rohini Nilekani. And Kiran there’s a gap in terms of… If you actually just go by what the law says, CSR and I’m not just talking about individual philanthropist, I’ll come to that in just a bit. If you actually just look at the law, the new Companies Act and all of this and people are supposed to give 2% of their annual three-year net profit, but unspent budgets remain a big, big, big bother of concern. Yes, utilization rates have gone up, but 15% of those budgets are left unutilized. Is it a challenge for someone like you that you want to do so much for charity, but are the avenues of where you do very restricted?

08:28 KS: Yeah, I think we need to broaden the scope of CSR at least at the corporate level because I think we are getting too fixated on very small areas and like Rohini very correctly said that the absorptive power of all that we can do to make an impact on society are small and not scalable. In many cases we find that we want to do a lot more, but scaling is a big challenge for all of us. So I think what you tend to see is that even Azim, myself, Rohini, all of us are trying to build and invest in creating large institutions. For instance, all of us have contributed in some way to building educational institutes, the Azim Premji University. I have basically contributed to creating the Krea University and of course I’ve also actually invested a part of my philanthropy for creating a cancer hospital. So I think this is for us an easy opportunity to invest in something that is real and of scale. But when you try to really make the real impact on society in other ways, I think we really need to find models and we need to find NGOs or institutions that can actually utilize these philanthropic contributions in a much more meaningful and impactful way. So I think that really is the challenge, but a country like India has so much to do for society that I think we need to broaden the scope of what is permissible even under the CSR norms that the government has laid out for corporate India. Public infrastructure for instance is something that we should also allow.

10:31 SS: Oh, yeah absolutely. You make a very important point about having the institutions of the network. And Rohini Nilekani if I may ask you, you’ve got foundations like Omidyar or Bill and Melinda Gates or USAID, they have invested in intermediary organizations to build what is really called the strategic philanthropic market. Do you believe that is where the focus needs to be? I mean other than pledging and of course the money comes from generous souls like some of yourselves, but the building up of institutions and foundations, we don’t have a very strength in domestic philanthropy markets, so to say because we don’t have these intermediaries. People are inspired, yes, but where are the avenues to do so has not been done. How can that be done?

11:20 RN: Yeah. So I’ve three quick points to make Supriya. One is, yes you’re right, as I said earlier we must invest in the philanthropy ecosystem, in the intermediaries. I think that’s part of my portfolio, what must I do to encourage the philanthropy ecosystem itself, that’s why Azim, Kiran, myself, we are part of the India Philanthropy Initiative. I support organizations like Dasra and many others that are intermediaries. I think that’s very important. But I did want to bring up something that for years we have all been saying whenever there are shows on philanthropy, we have been saying what Anand pointed out, that a lot of the money is hereditary and so it’s very hard for the ultra wealthy to give forward, but now I want to challenge that because a lot of the old wealthy have also become the new wealthy. Especially those of them who understood that protectionism didn’t serve them, that opening up to global competition in fact made them stronger. And so they themselves in this generation have added a lot to the family wealth.

12:17 RN: So I think they can afford to be bold and not say we have to keep it all for our children and really come out and very transparently give more. And to the question of where will you give and how will you make impact, I think it’s time for Indian philanthropist to strike out boldly. If some of them can build such huge successful corporate empires, why can’t they also build huge successful scaled up societal mission kind of thinking and actually create that scale? Some of us have been doing that work, we call it societal platform thinking and we’ve developed a kind of framework for scale which I’m happy to share with anyone who wants to listen. But I think the time has come to challenge the old wealthy because they are also the new wealthy now, to give more and also to challenge them to be creative about generating scale themselves and not necessarily wait for Indian NGOs to step up because they are doing as much as they can, but they need much more from our side as smart givers.

13:18 SS: No, absolutely, but before I go across to Anant, I will take a quick round two of questions with both you and Kiran and then go to him. Kiran for a country that is estimated to produce 70 new dollar millionaires, which is people with a net worth of seven crore every single day between 2018 and 2022, according to some reports. The question to ask is, what can we do to encourage them to become philanthropists? And, one of the suggestions that has been put on the table is that there is just too much emphasis on UHNIs, the HNIs, the traditionally rich. Why are we not looking to scratch the surface of mass market of everyday givers? And, do you believe tracking the small ticket individual, the retail giving is going to expand the pie, so to say?

14:10 KS: I think unless you make philanthropy as something to be really proud of, something that inspires people to do, you are not going to be able to really create that philanthropic ecosystem. So, I really believe that people should want to give, people should really believe that the giving culture is a very important culture. And I don’t see why this can’t be a very strong culture in a country like India with its plethora of challenges because I think that’s what it’s about. We’ve got so many things to solve and so many such… So many societal challenges to overcome that it must be a natural kind of giving culture that we have. And, let’s face it, India has had a very philanthropic DNA about it because if you look at modern India, I think a lot of modern India was very impactfully built by, through philanthropy. The Tatas, the Birlas, they have actually invested in a very philanthropic way to create the educational ecosystem, the healthcare ecosystem and many other aspects of societal needs. And I think today’s generation has to basically take that forward in a much bigger way.

15:40 SS: No, absolutely. And, I agree with you that let’s not wait for that to happen, let’s build the ecosystem. But to build that ecosystem, and let’s get drawn really to the brass tacks and Rohini Nilekani, the current funding growth rate will lead to an annual shortfall of about 4.2 lac crore rupees, according to some reports, the social development goals have to be met by 2030. All of that said and done, but none of this will happen till more and more people come forward and give more. How should India ensure that the culture of giving gets appreciated, gains momentum? How do we promote that culture? Does it need to be done at a societal level, the interventions at school? What must be done?

16:26 RN: Thank you. I think a lot needs to be done and you are playing one important part of it. I think the media spotlight on this question and the public pressure especially on the wealthy has to be kept up. What is your money doing for all of society? I think that’s very important and you all are doing it. So, thank you for that. The second thing is to your earlier question, I think there are a lot of givers in this country, we don’t really have enough data, and some of us are coming together to put out that data. I hope in a few… It will take some time, but that’s being done. A report on everyday giving that we have done with the Gates Foundation is coming out very shorty about how many people are willing to give, how much? So, I think the culture exists, we have to understand it better and then increase it even more. Recently, I heard something very heartening. I won’t give away the source because they are going to create their own announcements around it, but even middle income people are willing to step forward publicly and say that they are going to give some more of their money steadily and visibly.

17:33 RN: So, I think many things are converging. We put up, keep on the public pressure, we keep the spotlight, we have some transparent data, real data emerging. And I think, we’ll feel much better about the giving culture in this country. I feel quite hopeful. So, public participation in creating public goods, never has there been a better time for someone to do so much with so little. If we all can contribute to creating digital public goods for instance, the knock-on effects of doing that are so large that I think even if you forget the ultra-high net worth individuals, even those with a much better developed giving muscle who may be less wealthy can have really serious knock-on effects and impacts when when so many things are converging. At least, that’s what I believe.

18:24 SS: Absolutely. I think Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw wants to come in to make a point there. Go ahead, Kiran.

18:32 KS: No, I just wanted to say that corporate social responsibility is also playing a very important role in basically creating a value for organizations. We know that many of these areas where we are being evaluated in terms of best employers, the judgment call when it comes to the quality of companies, I think CSR is also being one of the factors that has been considered when they evaluate companies in these kind of ways. So I think it’s about… It’s almost becoming a part of good governance, to see companies really investing in society and impacting society in a positive way. So, I think you’re gonna see that it will have a cascading effect on companies to do good for society. Because today you can see that the world over, I think companies, people and societies are extremely angry about companies who don’t care about society. I know that in my own pharmaceutical sector, you can see that the corporate greed that the pharmaceutical industry has shown worldwide is not going down well with patients and societies and people at large and governments for that matter.

19:57 SS: Oh, yes.

19:58 KS: And so, I think as a humanitarian industry, I really believe patients should be at the center of what you’re achieving, trying to do.

20:07 SS: Absolutely. No, you’re right. I think there is a demand for this to be done at a company level as well, but Anant I’m sorry, I kept you holding. But let me come to you, you know India is committed to 17 of those sustainable development goals, the national institute of transforming India created an SDG India index, and of course, there are nodal ministries that are attached. A, is that the best going forward? And B, are we going to see philanthropy follow where the government’s focus is going to be? So for instance, the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan saw a lot of philanthropy follow there. Previously education saw some more follow there. Is it a given that philanthropy will follow where the focus of policy making is going to be. That’s where private philanthropy is going to follow, and that’s how the ecosystem will build?

20:57 AB: Right. And I think if I just build on that point, I think three points there. So I think the reality is you look at the size of the addressable problem, coming from a background of the for-profit sector. The for-profit sector always talks of the addressable market. If you apply the same language here, it’s the addressable problem. That means there are 200 million adolescents who potentially let’s say have a problem. So, moment you start saying, “What percentage of my addressable problem, India’s problem am I addressing?” It becomes quite clear that you have to work with the government, and philanthropic capital is a catalytic capital. The reality is if you just do the numbers, you’ll see that if this capital works in unison with the government to either solve certain missing pieces, or make it more effective, that’s where it actually moves the needle.

21:48 AB: And I think that brings me to the second point, saying what I think Rohini mentioned, the societal challenges, and the societal solutions, eco-system solutions. They will need money, they will need big giving, they will need duration. You cannot say, “I will only give you x for one year, and then I’ll monitor 100 inputs, and then next year I’ll not support you. It has to become much more strategic, longer-duration, and laser focused on swinging the needle on certain addressable problems of India. And the reality is unless we start thinking at minimum the size of a district, if not many districts, if not a state, look, it will not move the needle. And I think that’s the real worry. Lot of action, lot of talk, but unless this approach changes, and we up the game, we will not move the needle over the next 10 years. So I think lot of optimism, but also the need for actually doubling down, and going all in now.

22:42 SS: No, absolutely, one last question. And I can’t borrow enough time from the next show, but Rohini Nilekani quickly a last word to you. Is it time like Anant is saying to shift the focus? Is it time to move the needle, and focus on outcome-based philanthropy? Yes, the intention has been very good that you’ve intended to give 50% of your wealth away. But the focus, perhaps the life cycle of philanthropy now needs to focus on output base. What sort of effect and impact is it going to create? And that should be measurable.

23:18 RN: Well, my philanthropy is not about that, but I want to say something to Anant’s report they are absolutely right. It’s time to up the game. So I would say to you, “Of course, we care about impact, but it’s very hard for us to give attribution and causational. It’s mostly co-relation. So it’s very hard to say “I did this and therefore impact happened”. But what I think we should not forget is that we have been saying this that philanthropic capital is risk capital, it’s innovation capital. Let’s up the game on the Indian wealthy and Indian giving hard to think about going to new areas, difficult areas. We used to call it human rights. If you want, we can call it justice. There are many, many things we need to do so that the remaining 300, 400 million people who need urgent help can be brought to the level of the others, and we have to look at issues of justice, of mental health, of gender, of so many other things that we have under-invested in through philanthropy.

24:15 RN: So I think one thing is working with government, and that’s marvelous. But I think opening up new areas, slightly riskier areas, and putting risk capital, and innovative capital where it is needed, we need to up the game on that so much. Outcomes will come if you do it right, but focus on risk, focus on accepting failure just like the corporate sector just accepts failure there, learn to accept failure, build relationships of trust, and that’s when you’ll find the impact down the road. The process has to be right. It’s time to up the game.

24:51 SS: Right. I usually do a sign out of a show all of you leave me very humbled. And I will only say may your tribe increase. Thank you very, very much. It’s an honor to do the show with all of you. Thank you very much Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, Rohini Nilekani, and of course Anant. Thanks very much for being with us in this edition of the India Development.

Embracing Risk: Solving our Societal Challenges

Embracing Risk: Solving our Societal Challenges

March 9, 2019 | Philanthropy

Rohini Nilekani’s keynote talk on Embracing Risk: Solving our Societal Challenges at Dasra Philanthropy Week 2019 in Mumbai. India cannot solve its societal challenges, at a scale of one billion people, incrementally. The time to take big risks is now. Rohini speaks about how we can take greater risks, both individually and collectively, how we can embrace failure as an opportunity, and how we can mitigate the downsides

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So Namaskar to everybody. It gives me great pleasure to come to Dasra functions. I’ve been there watching them, and very happy to see that it is one of the intermediary ecosystem institutions in philanthropy that has been able to perform at some scale, and from the get-go, their theme has been collaboration, everything has been designed around that. So I think for that, let’s just take a second to give Dasra a big hand.

So we’ve all come a long way in the philanthropy sector in India. Apart from the older, very well-known philanthropist, we are seeing the arrival of so many new and very serious and committed philanthropist to the sector getting engaged, and yet as we look around, we see that no matter which sector we are engaged in civil society institutions, as corporate CSR agencies or as philanthropist, that whichever area we tend to engage in, the problem seems to rush ahead faster than our approach, our solution, and we don’t seem to quite get there. You saw the presentation just before, and even today 70 years later, after so many people working in the area of education, so many civil society organizations, most of the philanthropy has gone to the education sector. But if you look at this year’s ASER report, it feels like we might have failed our children, even now so many of them cannot do division, multiplication in class five. Where are they going to land later, we know that.

So it’s very important for us to understand why perhaps that we have not achieved as much as we would like to, though we have done so much. And I really believe in the power of intent, so I think we are going to do better, but societal problems are very complex, and none of us individually or even as sectors like philanthropist, civil society, markets, state, we cannot achieve those things on our own. We know that. Not even if just two of those collaborate. It really requires the whole continuum of samaaj, bazaar, and sarkar, civil society, states, and markets to work together with reduced friction to actually solve very complex societal issues, which is why we come to collaborative action, which is why we come to collaboration. It is absolutely essential, because different actors in these sectors offer, excuse me, offer different skill sets, and have different context from which to come at a problem from multi-sides on.

Luckily, there is a lot more opportunity today to be on collaborative platforms, such as Dasra itself or Co-Impact, which is going to be talked about here I’m sure. We have several others. There’s the India Philanthropy initiative. Some of us got together to look at an area like independent media, and have set up a collaborative giving platform called IPSMF, a very new and exciting area that we’re looking at in collaboration is climate change with some of us led by the Tata trust have set up, The India Climate Collaborative, and it has fairly ambitious goals to spur the ecosystem around working on climate change. So there’s tremendous opportunity right now to think of collaboration, and I think I’m sure today and tomorrow there’s gonna be a lot of talk on it. I’m just highlighting that, this is essential. In our work, my husband Nandan and I over the last four, five years have begun to see how we can create a framework around collaboration. We are calling it Societal Platform Thinking, and my colleagues Sanjay Purohit and others are going to be speaking to this tomorrow.

But collaboration is easier to talk about than to actually do, because it is not at all easy. There’s a lot of friction to collaborate, and maybe two reasons that we cannot achieve the outcomes that would come only through collaborating is that we are not able to take enough risk, that we are not able to really embrace risk. We don’t know perhaps how to trust, how to let go, how to get out of our comfort zones and do things that we now might fail. So embracing risk is a lot about failure and the ability to trust. When I say trust, it means if you are a philanthropist, you have to be able to trust your grantee partners, give them enough flexibility to change what they’re doing based on context, the ability to not ask them to give ridiculous amounts of reporting, so that you feel are doing all right as a philanthropist.

You have to be able to lead with trust, and I’ve found at least in my 30 years old journey in this space that the more I’m able to trust, of course there are some caveats to whom you work with. You should be able to work with trustworthy partners, but once you start off with the relationship of trust, magic happens. I’m sure you all know that, but I just wanted to highlight that is a very key thing if you want to achieve social outcomes. The embracing risk and allowing ourselves to trust, it really opens up our minds and opens up spaces for us to act in. We have to be prepared when we embrace risk, of course, to embrace failure. And once you say, “I’m willing to fail.” It allows you to go where you have not gone before with much more confidence.

So today, for example, I think the need of the hour, as our economy is growing, and as our government is able to do much more social spending, there’s a lot of attention being paid to how we can implement government programs better, and certainly CSR has become even better doing that over the last few years. There are many civil society organizations that helped government achieve its own mandate better at the implementation level. But there are so many areas of society that don’t get looked at enough, where government is not necessarily doing enough, and where we as philanthropist and civil society organizations need to do much more. Look at issues like mental health. Look at the disability panel that was speaking today calling us to do more action, look at issues like justice, access to justice. So many other issues, new issues on environment, livelihoods, that perhaps if we were to embrace the risk and not fear to fail, we would go into those areas as a philanthropist, as new CSO organizations and innovate stuff that could get us out of the usual rot of our societal problems.

Because otherwise, we keep saying that social sector doesn’t scale, social sector, even if the organizations don’t scale, it is the issue that has to be played out at scale. And here as well, philanthropist, if corporate philanthropy and personal philanthropy are able to say, “Alright, I’m going to go into slightly risky areas such as justice, and allow people to innovate, to fail a little perhaps, but then to understand why they fail in trying new things.” I really believe that 10 years later when we come back to look at what’s happened in this new age of Indian philanthropy, we will be able to show something new that perhaps has not been tried before. Sometimes I wonder if we are suffering from a lack of imagination. When Vinoba Bhave started Bhoodan and Mahatma Gandhi started the Salt Satyagraha. They were thinking at a universal human level of change and maybe now when we talk about one district or even 10 districts at a time, maybe, that is not enough. At least some of us should be able to say that we will go beyond just doing incremental things, and that means…

That means, talk at a much larger scale, at an population scale, how can we bring change at the population scale? There is a method to achieving that. Intent is not enough and the collaborative frameworks that you need for that need to be designed for scale that is always very important. My colleagues will talk much more about this tomorrow. Failure. Again, I want to touch for a bit on failure, because I don’t think we talk enough about failure in the sector. Failure can lead to a lot of stuff, very interesting stuff. Certainly in 30 years, we have failed repeatedly in the work that I do. And in an article I recently wrote, I was thinking of how Gandhi actually failed as a lawyer here. He just couldn’t get his practice together, and then he embraced risk and set off in a boat to South Africa and look what one failure led to the transformation of humanity in some sense. So we should not be afraid to fail, but then immediately thereafter, to embrace risk and set out to sail to shores yet unseen.

I felt three lessons from all the failures that I was able to, I hope, embrace in 30 years of working in the social sector. Some of the three quick lessons that I just want to talk is, sometimes when we started Nagrik for safer roads for example, way back in 1992. I think we didn’t understand the root cause why our roads are not safer, and when you don’t go deep enough to analyze an abstract whatever problem you’re working on, you tend to work on just bandaged solutions and the whole thing collapses under its own weight. The second thing I understood when I worked in Akshara foundation Pratham Books Arghyam and now EkStep is that you need to clearly de-market, the role of Samaaj, Bazaar and Sarkar and not confuse it. Allow Samaaj to do what it does best, allow Sarkar to do what it does best, and encourage Bazaar to do what it knows how to do best. But if you force Bazaar to go below the line of profitability, if you expect Sarkar to do what citizens should be doing, if you expect citizens to take on the owners of what Sarkar should be doing, it tends to create confusion and not achieve the societal outcome you need.

And the last thing I learned was, and this is very important for philanthropist to really understand, is that, if you really want societal level transformation, none of us have the answers, right? But there are people who have answers in their own context. How do we distribute the ability to solve. A very key way to distribute the ability to solve instead of pushing one solution down the pipe is to open up, to create platforms and to allow public goods to be created from the work that we do. So for example, in Pratham Books, once we realize that were to open up the creation, the distribution, the sale of books, the translation, once we a created a Creative Commons platform where everybody could do what they do best, we were able to scale to tens of millions of children. So this is a very important lesson. When philanthropic capital is being used, that capital in the hands of government would otherwise be taxed, right? So, we owe it to the work that we do, to the ambitions that we have that we deliberately work now, especially now in the digital age to create open digital public goods, so that other people can build and innovate on a platform that we help to support as philanthropist in areas that perhaps people have not been bold enough to go before.

So I would like to close because I see the two minutes sign, that maybe today, at the end of two decades of work of Dasra, the beginning of a third decade in some sense, Dasra’s journey is synonymous with new age of Indian philanthropy. As we begin this third decade and re-dedicate ourselves, let us all say today, no matter who we are, no matter what work we are doing, that we commit to saying that, at least in one area, we will not just do incremental but transformational and we will do that through collaboration, we will do that through embracing risk, and we will do that without fear of failure. So on this International Women’s Day, let me again say, thank you so much for the opportunity. I’m sorry, but like a bad penny, I’m gonna turn up at the stage again tomorrow, but I’ll say, something different. I hope not to bore you again. I very much look forward to the rest of the day. Thank you Dasra. Thank you for the opportunity, thank you for this great audience and this actually beautiful stage where I used to come 50 years ago to watch Manoj Kumar teaching us lessons in patriotism. Thank you very much.

Samaaj and Bazaar: Congruence over Divergence

Samaaj and Bazaar: Congruence over Divergence

March 8, 2019 | Justice

Rohini Nilekani’s keynote talk on Samaaj and Bazaar: Congruence over Divergence at Dasra Philanthropy Week 2019 in Mumbai. We often set up Civil Society (Samaaj) and Markets (Bazaar) as opposing binaries. In this talk, Rohini proposes that they have more in common and more to gain, collectively, in collaborating to uphold the Rule of Law. What’s good for justice is good for everyone.

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I’m so sorry I’ve come back again to this stage, but some of you were not here yesterday. And to those who were here yesterday, I promise I’m going to say something new. First, again, to say thank you to the staff. You’re all here because of them. And as I said yesterday, it’s the one institution that has lasted and has created some kind of ecosystem improvement at scale. Neera, that was such a touching speech. I think we should give Neera, Deval, and Dasra a hand.

And I am very proud to be associated with them. Many of you have heard me talk a lot about the continuum of samaj, bazaar, sarkar, which is state, civil society, and markets, and how for a successful society, all these three have to work in fine balance, and that actually the base of it all is the samaj. If you don’t have good… So civil society institutions, moral Leadership, collective action by citizens, you simply cannot hold the bazaar, the markets, and sarkar, the state to account for the larger interest, public interest, and we have seen in history repeatedly that the bazaar can become too powerful and oppressive or the sarkar can become too powerful and oppressive. And my philosophy and my philanthropy… In life itself is how do we all together create a successful society by being the best citizens we can be? Because we are citizens first, we are not subjects of the state first, we are not consumers for the market first, we are citizens, and we are duty bound for our own sake to help build out that good society. I’m sure you heard all this before.

But today I’m gonna talk about the congruence of interest between the samaj that is society, and bazaar that is the market. So, it all starts with the rule of law, right? We all want the rule of law to be upheld, and in fact the bazaar, the modern corporation as we know it would not even exist if rule of law had not created the limited liability company from 300 years ago, and whoever wrote that is going to go down as a hero in history, we don’t quite know the origins of that. But because of that it has allowed tremendous innovation to flourish in 300 years, and also allowed for the absorption of failure, because wherever there is innovation, there is failure. So companies can fail without going under themselves because of the rule of law.

So for their own sake the bazaar sector, corporations have a great self-interest in upholding rule of law. They need the enforceability of contracts, otherwise they simply cannot function. So for their own sake, the bazaar very much needs rule of law to be upheld. But even outside its gates, the bazaar needs to up… The rule of law to be upheld in society at large, because no business can thrive without social stability outside its gates. We all know the cost. I won’t go into it. We know the cost in India of riots. We know the cost in India of bandhs. We know the cost in India of lynchings. We know the cost in India of several deeply dark social unrest that has taken place in this country from time to time.

We know what happens when the ultra-left Maoist actually stop businesses from going into areas, which could do so much better with economic development. So it is very clear that outside their gates too bazaar has a deep interest in a socially just environment. And samaj spends a lot of its time, institutions of the samaj, many of which are in this room today, civil society organizations driven by passion, driven by commitment, driven by a clear political understanding of what we just said that as Martin Luther King puts it always so eloquently that “injustice anywhere is prevent… Let me just quote him absolutely “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” It is a very powerful quote. And many civil society organizations, human rights organizations, those who look at issues of access to justice truly believe this, and a great personal risk sometimes coming up against the State, coming up against the power of corporations, they go out and create institutions, Moral Leadership, and access to people who would otherwise be left out.

Now corporations can’t do that. So the point is, this is a point which I think most of us understood, but it’s not articulated enough. Corporations cannot go out and uphold the rule of law and take that kind of risk themselves. Civil society can and does, but the case I’m therefore making that there is much more congruence between civil society organizations and corporations than is understood or articulated.

Let’s take some examples. Nike for example had terrible labor practices as we almost have read, and many, many civil society organizations put a lot of pressure on Nike to improve its labor practices. It actually took that on as a challenge. And you can please go ahead and read about it. But it did serious efforts along the whole supply chain to make sure that nowhere, not just in its own gates, but in the gates of its contractors or anyone else, that labor practices were steadily improved. There’s no such thing as perfection, but they kept on evolving. And today, Nike is known for having done that. Similarly with other companies in the world. The beverage companies had to go through a lot of internal processes. Coca-Cola, Nestle, and they’ve reached a point where they’ve actually promised the world, that in eight more years they will reduce 90% of their single-use plastic, and we have to hold them to it.

The Greenpeace for example, to take. Greenpeace has always been fighting, and known as an activist organization. But many corporations which has worked with them understood that that activism is actually good for them inside their… Even for their profitability. And many of them have aligned actually with Greenpeace’s goals. A small example Ananth in the room was just telling me is that when he was in Greenpeace, and they started a campaign in Bangalore for e-waste, against e-waste being just dumped here and there. And they tried to help it get streamlined. Companies like Wipro enforces all the techy companies in India actually. First thought these people were… What are they saying? “We do such a good job.” But then they began to align behind it. And in fact, became the leaders of sustainability, not just in Bangalore, but in the country. So the point I’m making is if you open our eyes to it, there’s a very clear alignment between these two sectors.

I would say, yesterday the Bain philanthropy report said it’s time to up the game. I’m here to say it really is time to up the game. Indian philanthropy is still not taking enough risk and what’s the use of philanthropy without risk? It’s very good to keep honoring service delivery improvement, but it’s time to look at our society as a whole, and for the philanthropy sector to step up and get into more slightly risky and ideal areas such as access to justice. And I just outlined why.

Not only does samaj and bazaar have a serious alignment on this issue, it also helps them to make sure that the State does not abuse its own power. Many corporations… I bet people in this room have been subject to the abuse of State power in running their own businesses. And as citizens, sometimes I feel when we wake up in the mornings, we have already broken three Indian laws because we have so many laws and they’re written so poorly. So, if this alignment is understood and worked on, it also helps curb the excessive power of the State. I’m not talking about any particular government though some governments can be worse than others, but it is the truth that all power will be abused when it can be. It is up to the balance that we drive that can prevent that.

There is a lot of opportunity for philanthropy and existing civil society organizations to move further into the space of upholding the rule of law, upholding constitutional values, because all of us need, all of us as citizens, as samaj sector people, as civil society organization, all of us need well-written laws. All of us need equal access to caution to the justice system. All of us need an independent, impartial, and efficient judiciary. All of us need effective public institutions that help uphold this rule of law and empower the bazaar and the citizens of this country to live as they want to live.

BCG has been doing this work on total societal impact. And you can look up their report, but it has become very clear. And there’s been a lot of research on this, that the non-financial side of business is very linked to the financial side of business. And they’ve repeatedly shown through exhaustive research that those companies that also do good when it comes to ESG, which is the environmental and social issues of this world, consistently are also showing that they do better in the long run on their bottom line. So, there’s a real convergence of interest in this.

And this is my plea to all of us, to commit ourselves that we will, like I said yesterday, it’s time to take big bets to pledge that we will no longer do just incremental work, but that we will try to do something disruptive and transformational. Today, I am saying we should move forward and take the risk of working in this whole area of rule of law and constitutional values, because the time has come.

I’m gonna leave you with a quote from Frederick Douglass, “Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is organized to oppress and rob or degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe.” I’m not suggesting we’re at that stage at all, but I’m suggesting it is we who could make sure that this country’s promise of independence will be met, and met in abundance. I say again, let’s take a pledge to ourselves that we will work. Here we are with Dasra in the philanthropy sector. Dasra is going to open up a whole portfolio on these issues of justice, of system reform in the justice sector, upholding the rule of law, allowing access to all people to the same things that you and I take for granted every day. I think it is an important time for this country to do this. And I hope we can all do it together. I think we can. I know I will. Thank you very much.

We need to talk about failure in the social sector: NGOs must fail to succeed

We need to talk about failure in the social sector: NGOs must fail to succeed

January 22, 2019 | Philanthropy

A lot of ink is spilled and awards are bestowed each year celebrating the success of the social sector—and there is much to celebrate. But the truth is, if innovation is essential to the ultimate achievements of the sector, we should spend less time on success, and more time on failure. We lament the inability of the social sector to scale, but we do not support organizations to innovate on a continuous basis. We know that acceptance of failure is an essential part of innovation, which in turn is required for successful outcomes. Yet, we do not bridge the gap. Progress on this issue will require candid communication between social entrepreneurs and the philanthropic community. Unfortunately, such candour is rare. This article presents the perspectives of two sector leaders: Rohini Nilekani, philanthropist, social entrepreneur, and writer; and Kyle Zimmer, award-winning social entrepreneur and Schwab Foundation Fellow. Hopefully, it will spark further conversations within the sector.





Are we suffering from a lack of imagination?

Are we suffering from a lack of imagination?

December 18, 2018 | Philanthropy

The pace at which social problems are outpacing our solutions underscores the need for bold philanthropy, audacious goals and capable, committed leadership in social sector organisations, says Rohini Nilekani, founder-chairperson of Arghyam and co-founder of EkStep.


How do you think Indian philanthropy has evolved over the years?  How have the approaches and discussions around giving developed?

I think Indian philanthropy is at an exciting stage; it is continually evolving. One of the most interesting things is that the ecosystem of philanthropy is evolving too, along with philanthropy itself and the idea of giving. Like yourself [India Leaders for Social Sector], there are many ecosystem players that are coming up, looking at leadership in the sector, matchmaking between donors and recipients, building the capacities of the sector, looking at bringing new issues to the  fore,  and so many other things [such as] auditing the sector. And, of course, with so much more wealth creation happening in the country, the spotlight is on what that wealth is doing for the country – I think we are seeing many interesting developments in Indian philanthropy

Is that increased philanthropic wealth doing enough?

No, I think we need the philanthropic muscle in India to be exercised much more. There are some constraints, though, as to why that’s not happening as much as we would like to see.

One factor is the trust deficit. Although the wealthy want to give, there is a lot of philanthropic capital all dressed up and with nowhere to go, largely because of this trust deficit.  How do you give, who do you give to, how do you get impact? You still don’t feel very sure, because of which many of us just land up creating our own organisations, trying to create the change ourselves.

I believe that a healthier thing is when the donors – I am speaking about the super wealthy—find enough channels to give through so that there is no burden of doing things themselves: because we do need a thriving civil society in a democracy. Civil society actors come from passion, from vision, from innovation, from being tied to their communities and from having deep and great context. Having a thriving civil society in a trustworthy, trusting relationship, with donors is something I consider ideal in a democracy. I think we are a little far away from that.

What opportunities must Indian philanthropy invest in to make a larger, lasting impact?

Building the capacities of the system is important. Unless the pipeline opens up to receive funds, you will not see philanthropy grow.  I talked about trust before – that’s important too. But also models of how things are really working in, say, education, health, environment, climate change, livelihoods… there are a hundred things where philanthropy should invest in, including the arts and culture. We need museums, we need performance-based culture to be supported, we need new institutions that allow people to understand the world around them. Different people are working in these areas based on their passion.

But I also think that when we talk of the disparities in India and how far behind some people are left, we have no choice but to go back to talking about the human rights framework. Some donors feel uncomfortable about this because of various things they don’t quite understand: does that mean hyper activism, does that mean getting into trouble with the state?

No matter what you call it, it is about caring about the 300 million people in this country who are our fellow citizens, who need to be supported, who need help across the board. How can Indian philanthropists, those who want to change the world for the better, start thinking a little innovatively to work with this segment?

We need to look into the future, for what’s coming at us, whether it is livelihoods, the future of work  or climate change—that’s where philanthropic capital should want to step in because they can afford to take risks, they can afford to do the things that the government cannot afford to do, things that civil society doesn’t yet have the support to imagine doing. This is the kind of challenge and opportunity for the Indian philanthropic sector.

Do you believe talent can be a limiting factor as organisations in the social sector aim for scale and sustainability?

With 1.3 billion people, we shouldn’t have to talk about the lack of talent. I think the talent is there, the grooming of the talent needs to be taken very seriously. In this sector, we must not forget to ask if there is enough commitment: if we can draw people’s commitment, people’s passion, people’s real need for their lives to have meaning, then I don’t think talent or human resources is a problem.

Having said that, because of the way the sector is growing, we really need different kinds of skills for the specific things that we need to do. I think people are recognising it. People like ILSSare coming into the sector to create the necessary talent, but we have some years to go, no doubt about it.

What can civil society organisations do to develop their leadership pipeline? How can funders help this effort?

I think we have a succession crisis in the sector right now. Many of the organisations came out of some cataclysmic events in the sixties and the seventies that brought out this amazing moral leadership in this country, which has for the last 30-40 years built a very solid civil society foundation. We are seeing succession issues in many of these organisations: after that one dynamic founder is gone, then what? We do have a leadership crisis in the sector. What ILSS and some others are doing to create the next generation of leaders is very important.

Inside organisations people really grapple with creating leadership. So, if CSR could support short courses for organisations to build their leadership, it could be very useful. Funders need to support much more institutional capacity and much more sector capacity. Leadership doesn’t come out of a vacuum and if funders could begin to think like this, it would really help.

Given the current context, what skill sets would you like to see in the social sector?

Of late I’ve been thinking, is there a lack of imagination, are we suffering from a lack of imagination? I mean, look at how the problems are outpacing the solutions. I’m not criticising; I see myself as a part of the sector so, if anything, this is a reflection rather than a criticism.

When Gandhiji just picked up a fistful of salt, what was he launching? When Vinobaji was talking about bhoodan, what was hisimagination? It was not for one district, it was not even for one nation, it was for all of humanity. When Jayaparakashji started the Sampoorna Krantiand Sarvodaya, they were talking about transforming humanity itself. Have we lost some of this spirit? How do we spark our imagination to think much bigger?

The second thing is that, while we unleash our imagination, we should also be putting our noses to the grindstone to be much more rigorous in finding out what really works and how to build systematic structures around it. That is another skill we need to build.  One more thing I would like to add is about sharing and collaboration: so, for example, if you are working in education, being curious to know what someone is working on somewhere else and being able to reach out for that.

How can the talent in corporate India engage more deeply with the social sector?

It would be great if corporate professionals, who’ve made a success of their lives, could see the kind of problems that are emerging and how they can apply their skills to solve some of those. It would be great if they start to reflect on how they would like to see the world become better and then agree to spend some of their personal time understanding that issue — because they are not just professionals, consumers, or subjects of the state; they are citizens first.

And to be a citizen means to engage with other people and to take responsibility for creating a better society because today we are more interconnected than ever. So, when we get out of our offices and cabins, how can we reconnect with all the other things that really make our lives meaningful beyond our jobs? There are so many opportunities now; there are so many young people with amazing ideas, who want to engage corporate professionals. Go and find out who’s nearest to you and I promise it will make your life richer.

What is the one cause that is closest to your heart?

The common thread in all my work is around giving people a sense of their own involvement in resolving whatever the situation may be. Whether I work in water or environment or in issues of young males in this county or the climate collaborative, that’s at the core: how do we distribute the ability to solve, how do we help people collaborate with each other? No amount of pushing solutions down the pipeline can create anything sustainable. So how do we build the strength of the samajsector? That’s the underlying issue that I care about.

A new area I am working on are the 250 million young males in this country – from puberty to the age at which they are supposed to be settled with jobs and families, but are not–and the frustration, the restlessness, the helplessness, the fear, the insecurity associated with being forced into patriarchal identities without even having thought much about it, without having role models or family connections sometimes.

How little we have done for that cohort in this country! Can we devise programmes that allow for more positive modelling for these young men so that they can be the best they want to be? This is something I have been engaged with, primarily to empower the young males themselves, but also because if we don’t focus more on them, we are never going to achieve our women’s empowerment goal. Empowering women is absolutely necessary, but to send an empowered woman into a disempowered situation gives her very bad choices.

The most ambitious thing I’ve done so far is in the context of societal platforms thinking. Societal problems are so complex that they require samaj, sarkaarand bazaarto work together; but it’s very difficult for them to work together in a really effective way. So, what can we do to reduce the friction and enable these sectors to collaborate? Can we create a technology backbone? How can we keep unpacking the commonalities across these sectors so that contextual solutions can be built on top of them? How can we build something that is unifiedbut not uniform, so that we can allow diversity to scale? How can we allow real collaboration and co-creation, and at the same time create an engine that will offer all the data when it is needed and also allow people to learn? It’s a big play; it may work, or it may not work, but we’re very excited and enthused about it.

What role do you see for technology in the civil society space?

I’ve begun to realise that if you want to respond to problems at the scale and the urgency at which they are spreading, civil society really needs to rethink its relationship with technology. I risk saying that when we see emergent backlash against technology for various good reasons. When you’re going to be technology-led you’re going to have problems, if you’re technology-enabled, you’re going to have different opportunities.

A very crucial thing I’ve learned is that when the young people of this country are going to be digital citizens, civil society has no choice but to be digital. Even to be able to respond to the abuse of technology, it has to learn to act in technology domains. At Arghyam we are trying to see how we can be an infrastructure provider instead of just a donor.

A digital civil society, where you offer checks and balances on a digital age, is something we need to strengthen in India.







Asia’s 2018 Heroes Of Philanthropy: Putting Wealth To A Good Cause

Asia’s 2018 Heroes Of Philanthropy: Putting Wealth To A Good Cause

November 15, 2018 | Philanthropy

Nandan & Rohini Nilekani, 63, 59. Cofounder, Infosys; founder, Arghyam

Pledged to donate 50% of their wealth in November 2017 under the Giving Pledge and said, “Wealth comes with huge responsibility and is best deployed for the larger public interest.” Past contributions include $5 million to the premier Indian Institute of Technology Bombay in Mumbai, Nandan’s alma mater, and a $21.4 million endowment to Arghyam, a foundation set up by Rohini, which addresses water and sanitation issues. The two have also set up the EkStep Foundation, an open-learning platform that has pooled resources to advance literacy and numeracy.

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Asia’s 2018 Heroes Of Philanthropy: Charity Is New To India’s New-Economy Titans

Asia’s 2018 Heroes Of Philanthropy: Charity Is New To India’s New-Economy Titans

November 15, 2018 | Philanthropy

Among the newly rich, the idea of social philanthropy is just settling in, says Rohini Nilekani, wife of tech billionaire and Infosys chairman Nandan Nilekani and founder of Arghyam, a foundation focusing on water and sanitation. The Nilekanis are among India’s leading philanthropists and one of the seven Indian families to sign the Gates-Buffett Giving Pledge.

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