Water Solutions: Leveraging Impact Through Smart Philanthropy
October 22, 2019 | Philanthropy
Organised by Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies and curated by Arghyam, ‘Water Solutions: Leveraging Impact Through Smart Philanthropy’ was a day-long ecosystem convening held in order to bring together like-minded philanthropists and practitioners to deep-dive into solutions and opportunities for action at scale in water. The event kept in mind a strong solutions focus; with information and interactions that forged a positive bias for action in supporting scalable pathways to the water crisis. It highlighted the work of innovative water solutions, working on the themes of Community and Technology, and Governance and Policy, through three distinct lenses of access, quantity and quality of water.
The following twelve water innovators and practitioners presented their organisation’s solutions at the event through a crisp showcase.
Ahead of the event, Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies, Arghyam and Sattva curated a report that focuses on water solutions, and the role philanthropy can play in their acceleration. The report features solutions that focus on community empowerment, technology-enablement and effective governance, which are critical levers for achieving scale and sustainability in improved water access, safety and security. It also profiles 24 water innovators and practitioners and can be read here.
Get, Set, NGO: How non-profit sector is going through remarkable change in India
October 20, 2019 | Philanthropy
The nonprofit sector is undergoing a remarkable change in India, powered by technology, young professionals and committed funders.
“What’s exciting for India is the innovation that’s happening around young entrepreneurs, how they are leveraging technology and how they are building communities that take more ownership,” she says. Rohini Nilekani, founder-chairperson of water and sanitation foundation Arghyam, says she is seeing more young, urban professionals enter the social sector, with a different approach to problem solving. “These are young, highly educated professionals who are looking to create more engagement to collectively solve a problem,” she says, while cautioning that professionalism in the social sector needs to be accompanied by passion and vision.
“Twenty years ago, a more long-term view would be taken. Then, it became a big thing and civil society organisations were spending half their time reporting impact rather than effecting social change. I think the pendulum is now swinging back,” says Nilekani.
WestBridge Capital and Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies in research centre tie-up
October 1, 2019 | CSR
Private equity firm WestBridge Capital and Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies have jointly committed Rs 5.5 crore to set up two new centres at the Bengaluru-based research institution, Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE).
The two will engage with policy leaders on issues such as climate change and look at using the research grant to offer sustainable business opportunities for local communities.
The Centre for Policy Design and Centre for Social and Environmental Innovation — to be set up at ATREE’s campus — will focus on research and formulation of sustainable and scalable policies to address socio-environmental problems. They are expected to tackle critical problems such as invasive species, climate management, and food systems.
“We need to do more research and also create an environment where the research leads to better policy making,” Rohini Nilekani, who is also a board member of ATREE, said. ATREE is among India’s few environmental organisations that do research over long periods to understand the impact of shifts in environment, which is valuable when faced with climate change, she said. Sandeep Singhal, MD of WestBridge Capital, said the growing conversation about climate change triggered the grant to promote environment related issues.
“The situation is like everyone’s house is on fire,” Singhal said. “(Influencing) policies take time, it requires investment”. ATREE, besides providing policy inputs to tackle environmental degradation, is also looking to provide sustainable income for local communities living near forests. It also has set up programmes to commercially exploit invading species such as Lantana in Biligiriranga hills in Karnataka.
“With biodiversity, water and climate change being our focus areas, we intend to look at issues from an interdisciplinary standpoint and to put the research to use to address real world problems. In fact, the Westbridge and Rohini’s initiative to fund the project has triggered interest among other funders too, with whom we are seeing potential participation in future,” Nitin Pandit, director of ATREE, said.
We The People | Corporate Social Responsibility: Should It Be Mandatory?
August 15, 2019 | Governance
India, has become the first country to make Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) spending mandatory through a law. New amendments to the Companies Act have been approved by parliament to make make it impossible for companies to escape CSR. The government also plans to include a specific penal provision in the Companies Act in case of non-compliance with CSR which could include a three-year jail term for officials in companies that fail to spend funds in any given year. Will this make corporate India wake up to its wider social responsibility towards narrowing down widening inequality or is the CSR law another utopian ideal being hijacked by political interference?
The other panellists invited to We The People, to discuss this issue included Nitin Pai, Co-founder and Director of the Takshashila Institute, Harsh Mander, social activist and author, Gurcharan Das, author, commentator, former CEO of Procter & Gamble, Naina Lal Kidwai, former HSBC Chairperson, former President Federation of the Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, head of India Sanitation Coalition, Pushpa Sundar, Founder/Director of Sampradaan Indian Centre for Philanthropy, Madhuresh Kumar, national convener of the National Alliance of People’s Movement in India, and Ashwani Dubey, lawyer, political activist from the BJP.
This is an edited version of an episode of We The People, where Rohini Nilekani and others discuss the 2019 amendment to the Companies Act, and whether enforced CSR stipulations for companies will be effective in the philanthropy sector.
Capital Alone Cannot Solve the Problem
What we’re seeing with the amendment to the Companies Act, is how easy it is to lose public trust when something starts out as voluntary and then the government enforces it as a mandate. Imposing jail time for cases of non-compliance and forcing companies to give, seems counter-productive because it will only create more bureaucratic processes in a country already burdened by so many compliance issues. I do think that the government needs to examine how this law is being framed, and I hope that they will roll back some of these stipulations and find a way to encourage philanthropy without making it mandatory, per se. That the amendment allows corporates a three-year time frame to spend the money, is definitely an advantage and will allow companies to go further than just the annual, short-term kind of strategies. In this sector especially, to really create change, you need to invest not just money, but time, research, and readjustment of strategies.
Of course, we should all exercise our generosity muscle much more. But with any kind of government tax on the super-wealthy, the fear is that personal philanthropy will decrease. So when we’re talking about taxes on wealth, it needs to be framed in a way that spurs generosity in individuals as well as corporations. Governments working in isolation cannot solve all of society’s issues, so philanthropic capital is certainly necessary. However, forcing companies to do this when philanthropy is not their core competency involves a lot more than simply giving up 2% of their profit. It requires setting up departments and really doing the work of trying to implement change, which is not at all easy. So I think the government needs to rethink how to go about this.
The central issue with the CSR law is that it’s as if we’re trying to outsource governance, which is supposed to be the mandate of the state. The fact is that pouring in large amounts of money is not necessarily going to help, because we still don’t have the capacity on the ground to absorb all of it and put it to use effectively. Even in terms of giving during disasters, sending money for flood relief, for example, doesn’t mean the capital is necessarily being used efficiently. Investments need to happen not just in terms of capital, but in terms of building a pipeline for help to reach the people who really need it. We need to step up and create multi-year platforms, and build a lot of trust between the government, the society, and corporates, before we can start innovating solutions. Instead, laws like this criminalising non-compliance result in people trusting the government even less than before.
Gurcharan Das and Nitin Pai both bring up an important point, that each sector plays a certain role in our society. The bazaar or market requires companies to make products, create jobs, and pay taxes to the government, which should be used on education, health, infrastructure, disaster relief, etc. These are the ways that companies improve lives, and the government needs to be cognizant of that. In addition to philanthropic initiatives, the wealth gap needs to also be bridged through economic growth, and corporates play a critical role in national development. Of course, we must also give to causes and try to address social issues, however, that kind of philanthropy needs to be motivated by something greater than the fear of criminal charges. That’s not to undervalue the CSR work happening in this country right now. But what Das mentions does bear noting – we are one of only three countries in the world that has a CSR law. One of these was the UK, and they abandoned this because they realised that it simply wasn’t effective.
The Drawbacks of CSR
Naina Lal Kidwai makes an excellent point, that our current definition for what falls under CSR areas may be too narrow. As chair of the water mission at FICCI, she examined water stewardship, which does not get covered in CSR. However, water stewardship is a key issue for companies to keep in mind when setting up and running factories in India. They need to be using water efficiently, maintaining full compliance with the circular economy and its principles. Companies inadvertently impact the communities they are located in, and doing narrowly defined CSR work after the fact is not a good solution. Instead, we need to widen the responsibility of companies beyond doing CSR, to address the environmental and social impact they have on the areas around them.
Pushpa Sundar also mentions this problem, because the government has simply interpreted CSR as financial allocation. We’ve lost sight of the need for companies to exercise responsibility and good behaviour, and we’re seeing the results of this. For example, the textile industry uses approximately one lakh litre of water to produce just one denim item. Sundar argues that if companies were to treat, recycle, and replenish water sources, that would be a far more valuable contribution than the 2% of their profit. This is one of the inherent flaws in the Companies Act – that CSR is treated as an activity or box to check off, and not in conjunction with a duty towards good governance or good behaviour.
Instead, we’re seeing these funds being used for political purposes, given to programs and goals that the present government approves of. Statistics show that in 2017, the spending for the conservation of the National Heritage category of CSR jumped from 46 crores the year before to 155 crores. This was due to several PSUs giving their CSR money to the government’s Statue of Unity project, inaugurated and unveiled by the Prime Minister. Under the Animal Welfare category, other corporates are spending large amounts of money to fund Goshalas, while issues like child mortality, and eradicating hunger and poverty were ignored and underfunded. So this certainly poses a problem.
The initial hope for the CSR mandate was that it would enable companies to come at societal issues with creativity and innovation, and perhaps problem solve in a way that the government so far has been unable to, however the reality does not quite match up to that. In addition, the new amendment poses a question of accountability. If the funds are not spent within the term of three years, how many people in the company will be held accountable and who will have the power and privilege to get off without any penalty?
The reality is that in many cases, there is a dichotomy between companies that are underpaying their workers, adversely affecting the environment, but then starting a CSR initiative or foundation and absolving themselves of their other responsibilities. But the solution isn’t just to offer money outside their fence, but rather address the problems inside their fence as well, in order to create more sustainable, equitable businesses. However, I’m doubtful that the current CSR law will encourage this. Perhaps we need to look at other models to encourage philanthropy from the corporate sector, like asking companies to align more closely towards SDG commitments that exists internationally, so they can step up and align their businesses better.
The issue with the CSR law is that it is essentially imposing a tax, so I wouldn’t be surprised if companies say, “Why don’t I just give it to the Prime Minister’s relief fund,” to easily tick that box, rather than go through the effort of trying to innovate across societal problems. There’s a lot of work to be done in reframing how we think about accountability and our motives for philanthropy. In order to build up the capacity of social sector organisations to receive large amounts of capital and spend it well, companies need to trust our civil sector entities more.
One thought I had was that if we’re mandating that companies give this 2% SES, why don’t we allow them five years to use it to clean up their act inside the fence. That means improving the way they treat labour, improving their management of natural resources, improving the way they deal with what affluence they put out in the supply chain. It’s as good as saying “Use that 2%, otherwise government will tax it.” This kind of time frame would also help companies comply with SDG goals, etc.
Rather than trying to criminalise people for non-compliance, we can view this as an opportunity for creativity. As the other panellists have pointed out, it’s very difficult to hold the real culprits accountable, and placing that much power in the hand of the state is not what makes for successful societies, nor flourishing businesses either. There are other ways of achieving what we would like to achieve, where companies are serving the communities around them and are socially and environmentally responsible, without taking away from their profitability. So rather than the stringent CSR law currently in place, we can think of a more effective, creative solution that would be beneficial to the markets, the state, as well as society as a whole.
Closing Keynote | Strategic Non-Profit Management India | 2019
July 26, 2019 | Philanthropy
This is an edited version of Rohini Nilekani’s closing keynote address delivered to the 2019 class of the Strategic Non-Profit Management – India offered developed in conjunction with the HBS Social Enterprise Initiative and offered in association with the Centre for Social Impact and Philanthropyat Ashoka University.
People often refer to the social sector as the third sector, but I would argue that it actually has to be the first sector. In the continuum of samaaj (society), bazaar (the marketplace), and sarkaar (the state), the samaaj must come first. Bazaar and sarkaar were created to serve the samaaj. The samaaj includes all of us, and it has simply created the bazaar to serve its economic interests and the sarkaar to serve equality to all people, on a large scale.
However, over the centuries, the other two sectors – the state and the market – have acquired tremendous power. Technological advancement has enabled the accumulation of that power in ways completely unimaginable even a few years ago. It’s crucial that we understand the implications of the accumulation of power by the state and markets. In our hearts, we are citizens first, before consumers or subjects of the state. So we need social organisations that protect the wellbeing of the samaaj, and hold the bazaar and sarkaar accountable.
Balancing the Scales
Both the bazaar and the sarkaar have become extremely successful at driving scale, especially over the last few years. The market will always chase profits, acquire more customers, and accumulate power. Similarly, when the state achieves scale, it’s accumulating a lot of power for its continuing legitimacy. Both these forms of accumulation of power can create tremendous public good. Markets improve our lives in amazing ways every single day. The state enables the distribution of public services in a way that a sole individual could not possibly achieve.
What we really need in the social sector, is a mechanism of checks and balances, to hold these powers accountable to society. Today, civil society has an especially critical role in ensuring that the state increases equity, along with efficiency, and that markets are responsible while increasing profitability. Both the state and the market have also recognized that they cannot achieve success on their own, without the cooperation of the samaaj. Human problems are so interconnected today, that the state and the market are quite open to the intervention of civil society in many areas.
However, there are other threats as well. The three freedoms of democracy – the right to speak freely, the right to associate freely, and the right to practice one’s own beliefs, come with duties, which don’t get talked about enough. People must have the right to speak freely, but without deliberately hurting others; the right to form associations without turning into mobs; and the right to practice one’s beliefs, without preventing others from practicing theirs. So there are duties and rights, but these freedoms are increasingly being distorted.
It’s therefore important for all of us in the social sector to ensure we play a balancing role. While the state and the markets have been remarkably successful at achieving scale, whether the social sector can achieve that has always been a bit doubtful. Sometimes, I wonder if being unable to scale is a failure of imagination on our part. After all, Mahatma didn’t just try to improve the lives of people in the Porbandar District. He wasn’t just trying to improve the lot of all of the citizens of India. Rather, he was trying to transform humanity at its core. His imagination was that big and nothing would come in the way. The trade-off for our independence was not going to be sacrificing our humanity –that was the scale of his imagination.
Vinoba Bhave is another example that comes to mind. He was not trying to rescue land from just one district. He was talking about the redistribution of land, a very primary source of inequity in this country, across the nation. Jayaprakash Narayan’s Sampoorna Kranti was not only about one class or one identity group replacing the other. It was an imagination at a much loftier level. That’s how these stalwarts achieved scale, because of the scale of their imagination and their intent to affect change on that level. I wonder if the social sector now has lost a bit of that zeal for imagination. We all belong to the tribe of Gandhi, Vinoba, and Jayaprakash Narayan, and we need to look to the state and markets to understand how we can achieve scale in this sector as well.
The Need for Societal Platform Thinking
Clearly, the motivation for scale is different in the three sectors. In the social sector, our goal is to improve human dignity, to create better access to goods and services, to restore agency, to increase creativity, and much more. Essentially, it is to give Izzat, Insaaf, Imandari to people. So when our goal is different from the market or the state, it’s clear that we can’t think of scale in the same way that they do.
Over the last 30 years, Nandan and I have been working in very different fields. Nandan has been a successful entrepreneur with Infosys, managing to get some 1.3 billion people another kind of system, as well as doing philanthropic work. I have been working within the social sector, helping individual institutions and ideas spread and grow. Through our work, the goal was to create more public goods in the public sphere, but we’ve also failed a lot in this regard. This is because it’s far easier to make a profitable company or a successful state, than it is to create real, lasting social change. Many wealthy philanthropists I’ve met have expressed the same feeling. They start out assuming that if they can create a successful business, why not a great social sector organisation? But when they actually try it, they find just how hard it is to create scale in the social sector. So we have to understand why scale is very different in this sector.
Since 2015, Nandan and I have been working together on EkStep, with the goal that we will reach the 200 million children in this country with increased access to learning opportunities. We both have different but complementary approaches to achieving this, and through the years, we have developed something called Societal Platform Thinking. When we are trying to solve complex, interdependent societal problems, we have to be careful how we go about doing this. Our methods have to be based on certain morally undeniable principles and philosophies. We have arrived at five of these basic principles, to help us and others get started.
The first thing we’ve learned is that however great a certain solution might be, if our aim is to solve at the root cause level and scale, just pushing one solution down the pipeline will not work. We have to design to distribute the ability to solve. This means that you need to implicitly trust people, and trust in their ability to be part of the solution. It becomes a question of design, where people need to see clearly, and be trusted to get involved in coming up with solutions.
The other thing that we learnt over time is that resources like money, people, talent, etc. are hard to come by. So many things, in terms of public goods, are hard to come by when you’re trying to scale something. So we began to think through this, and we found that if you unpack complex social problems, you often find a core that is common. When you look at the common core, you realize that there are ways to make those scarce resources plentiful. Sometimes there is abundance under your nose, it just exists in different forms. For example, if we think about education, it’s very difficult to find professional, competent teachers. But if we look at the system, there are parents, and para-teachers in abundance. So now the question becomes how to involve them as part of the solution?
Most of the problems that we need to scale for are contextual. The solution that might work in one place, might not work 100 kilometres down the road. There is a lot of diversity in India, and therefore pushing just one cookie-cutter solution won’t work. So how do you design to scale up diversity? How will your solutions work for diversity at scale? For that, in your design, you have to create a unified but not uniform intervention, design, infrastructure, and framework. Unified because we all have to achieve the same goal. There’s no use having a completely disparate kind of structure. It has to be unified but not uniform, so that you can achieve this contextual diversity at scale, which is necessary in a country like ours.
To ensure this, you need a digital tech backbone to distribute the ability to solve because you need multi-directional feedback loops. You need data coming in, not just being delivered at one end, but moving around all the streams so that people can use the data. But while technology is needed, we have learnt that you have to be technology-enabled. If you’re technology-led, you tend to make a lot mistakes about outcome thinking, because technology-led solutions can give you false sense of success. You can just rack up the numbers, rack up some data points, but you may not actually get the social outcome that you want. That’s important to keep in mind, because people today can get carried away thinking that the technology is the solution.
These are the kind of building blocks we are using at EkStep to design, to reach those 200 million people. We’re working with the state, and civil society, and the markets, to move the needle to reach those kids. So in the social sector, when we are thinking of scale, we need this kind of societal platform thinking, these social innovation labs where we can generate ideas, and more importantly, we can fail and learn from them.
Taking Risks and Embracing Failure
We all fail, but what’s important is that we are not afraid of failure. I think a lot about Gandhi, and how one of the reasons he went to South Africa was because he had failed as a lawyer. That failure launched a transformational epoch for humanity. Clearly, it’s how we deal with that failure that matters. Social innovation labs allow for that, that pull and push of failing, getting up, failing again, and succeeding.
However, in this sector, it’s very hard for us to acknowledge failure. Philanthropists are very risk averse. Most philanthropists are very successful in business, and they’ve taken huge risk to get there. But often, when they move to the social sector, they forget how to take risks. Since they are now dealing with people’s lives and futures, and common public goods, they want every venture to succeed. Businesses are allowed to fail. In fact, failure in Silicon Valley is celebrated. But in the social sector, if you fail, you might adversely affect a thousand people’s lives because of your mistake. As social sector organisations, it’s very hard to tell your donors that you’ve failed, but still need more money from them as well.
However, it’s time that we create spaces and platforms where donors, foundations, and members of civil society organizations come together and destigmatise this notion of failure. The question should now become how we do deal with failure, so that we can keep innovating? When we think about scale, we need failure, because without failure, there’s no innovation, and without innovation, there’s no solution for scale. So fear of failure may also lead to fear of scaling, and I think we are stuck somewhere in that fear. We should strive for platforms where donors and civil society organizations can meet in a safe space to talk about these things.
Although we live in a digital age, civil society in India has a lot of catching up to do. Some of my civil society friends are downright techno-phobic, and they assume all technology is bad. This is a huge challenge for us as a country of people who are not digital natives, but need to advance a younger population who are. We cannot afford to stay the way we are, because the accumulation of power is also happening digitally. Unless we understand how to work efficiently in a digital age, and through digital means, we will not have the internal resources and external tool kits to hold the sarkaar and bazaar accountable. The Indian civil sector needs to come into the digital age, which means the donor community needs to support this as well.
At the heart of all this, the motivation for our work is to restore dignity and agency to people. Roosevelt once said, “Look to the stars, but keep your feet on the ground,” and I think that’s what we should keep in mind when we think about scaling our work, especially in the philanthropy sector.
How Samaaj Impacts the way in Which Sarkaar and Bazaar Work
July 22, 2019 | Governance
This is an edited version of a talk Rohini Nilekani gave at the offices of the eGovernments Foundation on how samaaj impacts the way in which sarkaar and bazaar work, and the role of samaaj in eGov’s mission.
The Continuum of Samaaj, Sarkaar, and Bazaar
Since the past 25 years, I’ve been deeply involved in the civil society sector of India, which is very thriving and diverse. Through reading extensively and talking to people, especially at the grassroots level, I have tried to create a certain philosophy for myself through which to view the world. This theory is fairly simple – that there is a continuum of samaaj, bazaar, and sarkaar. But we must understand that samaaj is the foundation on which this system is built. It is not the third sector, as some people call it, but the first sector. Bazaar and sarkaar were simply created to serve the samaaj. The markets and state evolved as responses to the needs of diverse societies, and over the centuries, bazaar and sarkaar have developed from simple management systems, in order to serve the evolving samaaj.
We are citizens first, not consumers or subjects of states and kingdoms. The bazaar and the sarkaar are therefore accountable to the larger needs of samaaj. This is the starting point of all my philanthropic work, and eGov is similarly a samaaj actor first, that is simply working with the sarkaar and the bazaar. As time progresses, this dynamic between samaaj, bazaar, and sarkaar will obviously keep evolving and shifting. But at the heart of it all lies power and power structures, with the potential to pull things out of balance.
Depending on how power structures play out, the fluidity, roles, responsibilities, and strength of these three sectors keep changing. In the last century, both bazaar and sarkaar have become very powerful and extremely oppressive in many parts of the world. With examples like Mao and Stalin, we have seen how the sarkaar can literally take over people’s lives, oppressing the samaaj they should be serving. Post-World War II, as reconstruction was taking place all over the world, capitalism began to advance and make substantial inroads, to the point of even dismantling the Soviet Empire. The markets began to gain an increasing amount of power, which we can see even today. Back then, they called it the military-industrial complex, but the fact is that the market had acquired a lot of power even on the consumer side, affecting the samaaj. Today we have seen how a group of transnational corporations, tech companies who represent the market, have pretty much decided how we should think and feel.
An Age of Extremes
The pendulum has swung too far on either side. In many cases during the last century, we have observed the market and the state colluding. When that happens, the samaaj must be happy with crumbs. The power of the state and market combined is really detrimental to the samaaj. Additionally, the samaaj is not one homogenous unit, and therefore not as united in their goals as the sarkaar or the bazaar. We’re living in an age of extremes, where the mobile phone revolution has seen individual liberties being stretched too far as well. Anybody can do anything they want from anywhere, at any time, which includes the ability to spew hate and encourage violence, without any accountability. So there are issues within the samaaj as well.
On the samaaj side as well, we have seen a response to this kind of accumulation of power, which strangely enough gave individual liberty one last run in these last 25 years. With access to a mobile phone and a computer, you can do absolutely anything, connect to anyone, anytime, anywhere, including all the negative fallout that we are seeing today. We are in the middle of a huge societal correction, where we will see new societal norms being formed around this notion of individual liberty, market power, and state authoritarianism in a digital age. It’s unclear where this will lead, but the corrections happening right now look like upheavals. Recent advances in technology make me fear the power of bazaar and the surveillance state.
While all of this is going on, there is a pushback as well. When power accumulates, there’s always a responsive force that tries to pull it back, and maintain a dynamic balance. A lot of interesting things are happening in the samaaj sector in response to this accumulation of power. We’re seeing the emergence of many civil society actors around the globe who are responding to this accumulation of power by the state and the market. And that is the interesting space in which I work.
Seeing Like a State
This brings me to the reason why this understanding is so crucial when thinking about organisations like eGov. I think eGov has been very successful, working on the supply side for urban areas, which was pretty non-existent before. The team did a fantastic job of gaining the trust of the state at all levels, and understanding the political economy in order to work with the state’s institutions, bureaucrats, and administrators to ensure more efficiency and accountability. But this was done from inside, behind the walls of the state. In James Scott’s book, ‘Seeing Like a State,’ he talks about how the state needs to look after equity, since the market is naturally interested in profit. The main responsibility for maintaining equity on behalf of the samaaj, falls to the state. However, while the state is mandated with the idea of equity, it often is more comfortable with efficiency. This is because efficiency is easy to measure, it is easy to design for, and it is a placeholder for equity. You feel like you’re moving somewhere good when you try to put efficient systems in place.
Scott argues that this is “seeing like a state,” i.e. wanting to organise citizens and issues in a way that is efficient and convenient to deal with. So the impetus is to create visibility for the state, rather than to serve its citizens. Scott describes many experiments, including Le Corbusier’s work, the collectivization of the farms in China, and similar land experiments in the Soviet Union, as examples of actions that were designed to create efficiency for the state, but did not always translate into public benefit. Even with the best of intentions, the way the state sees us is very different from how we would like the state to see us. So the original intention of eGov was to make the state more accountable to the public and to acts of public good. No matter what we achieve from the supply side, if we don’t hold this as a principal value of the work being done, we may end up with negative consequences.
For example, the Grievance Redressal mechanism, even if it’s designed efficiently, unless it actually works on the ground for citizens, it cannot be called a success. It may function beautifully from the state’s point of view, and it makes bureaucrats work more efficiently, since they can process 1,000 complaints at a time instead of just one. However, it may not serve the samaaj well enough or be as focussed on maintaining equity. This is why the lens of the samaaj is crucial for eGov. So now we need to identify the actors within the samaaj who can work with eGov to make sure that all the amazing groundwork they’ve been doing for 16 years gets translated into real public good. This might mean going back to the drawing board, to rethink the designs of some systems that are already in place. They need to be at the centre to figure out what are the challenges for them and how can we redesign to their benefit. While in terms of efficiency, standardizing systems is the most convenient thing to do, in reality these need to serve a diverse group of people. If we’re trying to look at societal platform thinking, where the goal is to address complex societal problems, one of the principles of this is to hold on to and cater to that diversity. This applies to the context of eGov as well. Diversity is at the heart of resilience, so if we want to respect and understand the importance of diversity, especially in a place like India, then we have to be willing to design for that diversity at scale.
Diversity At Scale
When we think of designing for diversity at scale, the challenge is figuring out how to standardize change. Cookie cutter standard mechanisms will kill diversity, but if you believe in diversity as a fundamental principle of good design, then you have to design for diversity at scale. Within the Grievance Redressal mechanism, for instance, the diversity of language has been taken care of, but there may be other contextual, cultural things which we might need to redesign for, to make it effective for both state and citizen.
This is what we’ve tried to do at Pratham Books, where we decided it was time an Indian publisher was able to distribute and democratize the joy of reading. We kept this principle of diversity at scale, to unlock the potential of ordinary people who created a whole reading movement for the children of this country. There are 250 million children in India, the total population of many other countries. So how do we unlock the potential of parents, teachers, writers, illustrators, translators, editors, and storytellers, in order to make a movement? We did this by creating a Creative Commons platform, which allowed everybody to participate, putting a book or a story in every child’s hand.
After I left, the team went on to create other things such as the platform called StoryWeaver, which allows anybody, anywhere in the world to write and publish a story, to translate somebody else’s story, and to illustrate somebody else’s story. Of course, the original has to be acknowledged. Tens of millions of children around the world have benefited by unleashing the imaginations of writers, artists, mothers, fathers, and teachers. But all of this comes from the philosophy that the samaaj must form the base, and the sarkaar and bazaar should not oppress them. Instead, they should unleash the potential of samaaj.
When we think about organisations like eGov, the time has come to shift to the samaaj side and look at eGov’s work from that lens. We need to strive to not see like a state, but like a citizen.
This is an edited version of a talk Rohini Nilekani gave as part of a curated series called ‘Speaking of the City,’ curated by Bangalore’s World-Famous Semi-Deluxe Writing Program at Shoonya. Rohini talks about the city’s role in her work as a philanthropist and social innovator.
An Accidental Bangalorean
It’s been 35 years since our arrival in Bangalore in 1984. That’s three and a half decades, most of my life, and certainly more than I spent in Mumbai, the town I was born and grew up in. So clearly, I am a Bangalorean now, there’s no two ways about it. But we weren’t the first to arrive in Bangalore. Infosys and Wipro were the third wave, but it was the public sector institutions that came in the ‘50s and ‘60s that brought in new kinds of migrants to the city. After the public institutions like BEL, HMT, ITI, etc. entered the picture, they brought with them a lot of new people and a new culture to Bangalore. Then in the ‘70s there was a phase of government factories as well as the hardware industries that were being set up in the city. It was only in the ‘80s that the IT revolution truly began here. The government itself decided to set up Electronic City, and brought in a lot of companies, Infosys, very clearly a major one among them.
That’s what really began our journey to Bangalore. For Nandan, who was born there, it was like a homecoming, but it was new to me – and the Infosys story was new to everyone. The story of Infosys captured media attention in the early ‘90s, as India’s first software company to set up its own five-acre premises in Electronic City. In 1993, the IPO meant it would be a public company that was an emblem for this new narrative: middle class professionals who wanted to beat the dynastic capitalists at their own game. It reflected the idea that you could remain true to your values and could still ethically create real wealth and an institution to be proud of. For us, the story of Infosys has been running like a thread through our own lives.
When we first moved to Bangalore, we lived in a house in 4th T Block, Jayanagar, with D. Linge Gowda as our landlord. He had just run an unsuccessful election campaign as a Congress candidate against Ramakrishna Hegde of the Janata Party in a Kanakapura by-election, and had lost. It was great to be living close to the Gowdas. Every day, in the evenings, I would sit with his wife for half an hour on the steps going up to our little flat and she would help me learn Kannada. Thanks to her, I was able to get a bit of a grounding in Kannada and also learn about the local food, since she used to call me down to her kitchen to have “akki” roti and other snacks. With that foundation, I was confident enough to make full public speeches in Kannada, and I always hoped that my enthusiasm would make up for my poor grammar. I made many mistakes along the way, but I found the Kannada people were always supportive to somebody who was trying to learn the language.
We brought up our children here, in this beautiful city, and I outsourced a lot of parenting to Valley School. With its 100 acres for the children to play in and Krishnamurti’s philosophy of “no reward, no punishment,” the children were as happy going to school as they were to come home. We also did a lot of ‘bussing’ in those days, taking two, three buses to go to Malleshwaram, work, etc. My father-in-law, particularly, was a great supporter of anything to do with the public sector, and he taught me how to get around the city using public transport.
As a journalist I used to write for local papers, and one of the earliest things I remember was marching with an organisation called Vimochana, which worked with women’s rights. 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 and sometimes the police would come and crack down on the protests. I used to go to report stories at the BBMP office, and one of my biggest goof-ups was when the officer I had gone to meet was not in his seat, and I asked his colleagues, “Lanchake hogidaara?” I learnt much later that that was not the smartest thing to say. Then, of course, there were the same old haunts that everyone used to go to, like Koshy’s, Vidyarthi Bhavan, MTR, Lalbagh, Cubbon Park – we did all the things that most Bangloreans used to do then. I even went through a phase of wanting to do Urdu shayari, and I took lessons from a gentleman called Khalil Ur Rehman, who was a DIG Intelligence officer who gave up his evenings to teach me Urdu. These are the kinds of people you meet in this city, who are willing to give so much of themselves to help someone else.
Writing In The City
Since I moved to Bangalore in ‘84, I was writing for several papers, including India Today and local papers as well. In ‘87, Vir Sanghvi had taken over as Editor of the Sunday Magazine, so it was an easy decision to join the magazine. With Gauri Lankesh as my predecessor, I was in excellent company though I couldn’t stay there for too long. I was also writing scripts for documentaries, and doing a lot of children’s writing at the time, to keep myself busy. Then I wrote my first novel, ‘Still Born,’ which was definitely inspired by the city.
The story follows Poorva Pandit, a journalist who lived in Basavanagudi, but it was also about a Bangalore that was growing into new media, that was growing into buildings of glass and concrete; where Basavanagudi itself was changing. I’ve just recently learned that Basavanagudi is one of the oldest settlements of this new city we call Bangalore. It was set up in 1895 as a refuge for people who were escaping the plague. So the city was very much at the background of my novel, and in the story, Poorva actually uses technology to solve her problems.
One of the inspirations for that was Atul Chitnis, who was really the pioneer of the open source movement in Bangalore. 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, where the story is also partly based. My second book, ‘Uncommon Ground’ was based on a television series I did, where I interviewed corporate and social leaders together. I got Anand Mahindra to speak to Medha Patkar; I got Aruna Roy to speak to Sunil Mittal and so on, as a series. I thought it needed to be documented into a book which was called by the same name, ‘Uncommon Ground.’
When I think about the possibility of a third book, my inspiration would have to come from the many city writers that I have been meeting over the last so many decades, including Vivek Shanbagh, Anita Nair, and so many others. Shashi Deshpande, with whom I have had the honour to interact and learn from, on how to have a deep commitment to writing. And I’m always grateful to have been able to get Girish Karnad’s blessings on things like Ratnam Books. 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.
A Space For Philanthropy
My philanthropy would have been very different if I had lived anywhere else, because this is a city of reformers. I keep joking that there are more reformers per square inch in Bangalore than in any other place in the country. It’s like a landmine of reformers – you have to be very careful, you can trip over them anytime. The kind of passion, open-mindedness, and commitment that I see here has convinced me that there’s no city in India quite like Bangalore. So living here is a dream for someone who has suddenly accumulated far too much wealth and wants to give it away. There is a cornucopia of choices for Nandan and I in Bangalore, which I’m very grateful for, because over the years I’ve learnt a lot, there’s been time and space to experiment, and passionate individuals to work alongside.
Early on, I set up an organisation called Nagrik, after one of my very dear friends had been killed in a horrible accident. Kiran Mazumdar, Jagdish Raja, Muralidhar Rao, and many others came together with me, to start Nagrik for safer roads. But it was a bit of a disaster, with a steep learning curve for us. We didn’t have any clue how to do proper institution-building. But we spent a lot of time at the city’s 32,000 junctions, trying to streamline the movement around that. That experience taught me a lot about how to actually engage in public life, and helped me with the other institutions that I supported or started.
In 1999, I was lucky enough to be invited to join Akshara Foundation. Its goal was to get every single child in Bangalore in school and learning by 2003. Well, it’s 2019, and I think we did a pretty good job of mobilising the government and the citizens to make sure that all the public schools were doing better than they were before. We were also able to set up more than 1,000 preschool centres that we call “Balwadis” as part of the Pratham network. The Akshara Foundation really taught me about the city, in a way that all the buses and walks around Lalbagh could not. We set up preschool centres wherever there was a community need for one, including a lot of slum areas across the city, and worked with government schools to set up remedial education centres. These initiatives, however, needed citizen volunteers to run. We needed people who believed in the idea and were willing to volunteer their time, because they weren’t going to earn a fortune by joining us. We used to give a very minimal stipend. So for the princely sum of Rs. 500 or Rs. 750, and we tried to get volunteers.
Hundreds of people came forward to set up Balwadis in their own homes, bringing in 20-30 children from the neighbourhood and spending three to four hours trying to teach them. It soon became a movement, and I’m proud to say that for several years, we were able to sustain it. That’s when I got to see how the people at the margins of the city live, and how their courage, risk-taking ability, and absolute can-do attitude meant that they would do anything for their children’s future, and that education was going to be a very important part of it.
The kind of support that we got was astounding. I remember young Muslim women who came forward, in the hundreds, to become teachers and volunteers, setting up classes in their own home. Some of them would not have had been allowed to work outside of their homes, but this was seen as a safe space for them to go and engage in teaching young children. I’m so grateful the Akshara Foundation is still thriving and continuing their work across many states. Ashok Kamath who just became the Namma Bangalore Achiever was the Chairman and continues to do splendid work.
I also got the chance to set up Pratham Books as well because I was part of Pratham’s network all over India. We were creating many eager new learners. But they had nothing to read, except the textbooks that were sent home to them from school. It’s a tragedy that there were very few children’s books that were attractive, engaging and written in different languages 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, who did most of the running of the institution. 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. Now Suzanne Singh continues to take it to newer heights, and we have reached tens of millions of children – not just in this city, but throughout the country. 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.
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. I personally came into 100 crores. I didn’t need 100 crores for my own life, and 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, so I first decided to learn some philanthropy heavy-lifting. We saved many children’s lives by helping them get to a respirator in time, we set up yoga centres, and we did some air pollution monitoring.
But in April 2005 I realised that if one wants to be strategic and long term and solve a real problem in society, it would have to be water. So from then on, Arghyam focused on the issue of water in India. For the last 14 years we’ve been working all around the country with various organizations, and hopefully, I’ve made some impact in the water sector. Most of Arghyam’s work is in fact outside Bangalore, except for some peripheral work I’ve been able to do with our lake-saving communities. The last thing we set up ourselves was EkStep. Nandan and I began to work together for the first time in 2014, however we had very different approaches and I didn’t know if this partnership would last, but it’s been almost five years now, and we’ve been able to change the game, bringing learning opportunities to 200 million children, which is our goal for 2020.
But apart from these institutions that we were able to fund ourselves, we were also able to support marvellous people setting up their own institutions. Whether it was BIC, ATREE, or Takshashila; new think tanks and ideas like IIHS (Indian Institute for Human Settlements), each of these institutions was set up by fiery, committed, intelligent 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.
On the arts and culture side, it was also exciting to find entrepreneurs like Arundhati Nag at Ranga Shankara. Bangalore needed to revive its cultural spaces, and she worked so hard at it, but one day she felt that she just couldn’t go on. So she called us we realised that she was almost there, she just needed this one infusion. 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 so much support, and they do 300+ plays every year. They have completely revived the cultural space of the city. So I feel very proud to be a small part of that. Similarly many other opportunities to enrich the community came to us like the Devnandan Ubhayaker Yuva Sangeet Utsav, a small festival that has provided a big space for young Hindustani musical talent to showcase itself. All these ventures need some philanthropic capital, and it’s good to see that Bangaloreans do come forward.
In fact, India is learning how to crowdfund, and Bangalore is a huge part of this movement. It’s not just the billionaires who can save this country. In fact, billionaire funding for social movements should be a very small part of anything that happens in the country. We just did a report on everyday giving, and Bangaloreans actually account for a huge chunk of India’s growing small-giving. That’s why I love being a part of the city, because the people here are highly engaged as citizens.
When we moved to Koramangala, I got to be part of the RWA, and that’s something that most people are frightened of because they have strict rules. If you park on the wrong side of the road, woe befall you. Somebody will come and move your car. But I’m very proud to see how democracy functions at this basic level. We call civil society the third sector, but I think that’s ludicrous. It is the first sector and it begins where we live, and how we engage with public issues there. So I consider myself very lucky to live in the third block, Koramangala, with all its feisty civic activism. It’s also taught me to question how we protect our commons. How do we prioritize whose needs to be prioritized? Our road is called “billionaires road” because Rajeev Chandrasekhar is on one side, and Pradeep Khar is on another side. But two lanes beyond me, there are people who don’t get as much water as we do, which leads me straight into 2014.
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. Nandan was on the Congress party ticket against the most invincible Ananth Kumar, and we already know how that movie ended. But it was really the most gruelling time I’ve had in the city, with a very rapid learning curve, because politics is the 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. My respect for politicians went up by 500% in those few months, even though I wouldn’t exactly want to emulate most of their practices.
We listened to people all day long, what they hoped for, what they wanted, what they expected. And we learned exactly what keeps this dysfunctional law, equilibrium politics in place – it is nothing but a system of patronage and brokerage, because nobody wants to solve it. It suits everybody at some level. But it has been allowed to continue like this for so long, which is partly why we have the city that we do.
Sometimes I feel that this city used to be one city, but now it is many cities. In these 35 years, it has become many cities. From eight million people, it has become 13.5 million people. It’s a city I no longer know, because in some ways, our lives have also expanded with it. Though my political ideology was groomed in Mumbai, my political sensibilities were very much developed here – in this city of ideas and reformers, this city of curiosity, the diverse cosmopolitan city of many, many cultures.
But I also never expected, no matter how it grew and how dysfunctional it became, that it would ever be a city where Gauri Lankesh could be shot outside her own home, and where trolls could actually say good things about a man like Girish Karnad dying. No matter how much the city becomes unfamiliar, all of us have a lot of work to do to keep that original idea of the city alive. This is one of the oldest human settlements in India, constructed on the basis of diversity, of mutual respect, of a cultural exploration, of looking forward, not back. There’s miles to do, lots of work to continue doing as citizens of this utterly marvellous city to which I now belong.
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
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.”
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? The panel discusses what that means within the sector and whether there are lessons in compassionate capitalism here for India Inc. The other panellists include Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, chairperson-MD BIOCON, and Anant Bhagwati, director Dasra.
This is an edited version of Rohini Nilekani’s comments on the India Development Debate, exploring the future of philanthropy and the challenges India faces.
Azim Premji and his family have really set targets and goals that we all must aspire towards. Even before Nandan and I came into our wealth, I’ve always believed that the wealthy should feel a great sense of responsibility towards society. It’s no use for some people to be wealthy, if the rest of our society doesn’t benefit in some way from that wealth. Wealth creation and philanthropy must go together, you cannot separate those two things. So it was an obvious step for us to embark on our philanthropic journey. We have publicly committed to giving away at least 50% of our wealth.
However while there are people like Azim, Kiran, and I who are willing to give away these large amounts, we also face certain challenges within the sector in India. A major factor is the absorptive capacity of current civil society organisations. At this stage, they simply aren’t able to absorb and use the large amounts of capital that people are ready to give away. So what we need to be doing now is encouraging new civil society actors, and investing in the philanthropy ecosystem of this country. We need to be involved in creating and strengthening the pipelines for giving, investing in the capacity for organisations to scale so that they can use the money effectively.
The Challenges of Giving
The Bain report of 2019 shows that individual philanthropists account for about 60% of the total private funding in the ’18 fiscal year in India. 80% of that amount is credited to Azim Premji. So while high net worth individuals have grown at a rate of 12% and are expected to double in terms of volume and wealth by 2022, many question whether philanthropy in India only consists of the same handful of individuals and foundations who give, year after year.
When we begin to explore the reasons why other wealthy Indians don’t give more, it comes down to a question of wealth creation versus wealth inheritance. As Anant notes, first generation entrepreneurs and wealth creators from the IT sector for example, are willing to part with large sums of money for social good. But there’s also a lot of wealth in India that is inherited, and passed down from generation to generation within families. So those individuals may feel a responsibility to leave a legacy and wealth for future generations as they are not necessarily the sole owners of that wealth. This kind of thinking could explain why the US gives almost 2% of their net worth while India is only at 0.2%.
However, I think we’ve reached a point where we have to challenge all the ultra-wealthy, even those who have inherited wealth, to give more. Today many families who come from old money have also realised that protectionism doesn’t serve them, and have opened up to global competition. There are a lot of people now who have not just come into their families’ wealth, but have actively added large amounts to it. So I think they can afford to be bold and publicly commit to giving some of it away. It’s time for Indian philanthropists to strike out and carve their own space within the sector.
As for the question of where and whom to give, and how to effectively impact society, who better to answer that than successful business entrepreneurs? If they can build huge, successful corporate empires, they can also build successful, scalable societal missions. Some of us are already engaged in this work, through what we call societal platform thinking, and we have developed a framework for scale. So at this point, the wealthy need to step up to this challenge and be creative about generating scale themselves, rather than waiting for NGOs to do the work. As philanthropists we can pool our skills together and work with other sectors to help organisations adapt and streamline. In the current economy, with the rich simply getting richer, the existence of inherited wealth should no longer be an excuse for people to not give.
Creating a Culture of Giving
It’s critical to impart the duty of giving, across economic classes in India, but especially among the wealthy. Between 2018 and 2022, India is estimated to produce 70 new dollar millionaires every day, i.e. people with a net worth of seven crore. So we need to think about how we can inculcate a sense of civic duty and philanthropy in our citizens. As Kiran points out, our country has philanthropy in its DNA. A lot of modern India was very impactfully built through the philanthropy of people like the Tatas or the Birlas, who invested in creating the educational ecosystem, and the healthcare ecosystem, among others. The current and future generations should be able to take this work forward. I agree with Kiran that people must be inspired to do philanthropy, they should believe in this culture of giving, in order to really make an impact.
Our media should keep the spotlight on the wealthy, and enable the public to ask what good the super-rich are doing for the rest of society. I actually think Indian society in general is a lot more giving than we imagine. While the Gates Foundation is coming out with specific data on everyday giving, we do know now that even middle income individuals are willing to step forward publicly and commit to giving their money steadily and visibly. With the convergence of public pressure and media attention on the super-rich to give a portion of their wealth, and the emergence of transparent data around who gives, and how much, I think the giving culture in this country is only set to grow. I’m hopeful about the potential of public participation in creating public goods as well – so that even if we ignore the ultra-high net worth individuals, those who are less wealthy but ready to give can have a serious impact on the ground.
We’re seeing a change with companies as well, where corporate social responsibility is playing a role in creating value for organisations. As Kiran mentions, the culture of corporates investing in solving issues and impacting society is almost becoming a part of good governance, and a way to evaluate their worth. Hopefully this will have a cascading effect, where we hold all companies to higher standards.
Moving the Needle
In a country like India, the size of the issues at hand makes combating them extremely tricky. Whether it’s education or healthcare, if the eventual aim is to reach 200 million people, it becomes clear that you have to work alongside the government, and philanthropic capital is catalytic capital. Anant correctly points out that, purely from a numbers perspective, if this capital works in unison with the government to tackle certain issues or to ensure the state’s scheme is more effective, that is when philanthropy actually starts to move the needle. When we talk about things like societal platform thinking and building out the philanthropic ecosystem, these projects need risk capital and they need duration. The giving must be strategic, for long durations, and focused on addressing a specific problem. Scalability is a key factor here, and as Anant also states, unless we tackling issues at a district level, if not state level, we’re not going to be able to create lasting change.
Philanthropic capital is risk capital, it’s innovation capital, and India’s wealthy needs to up their game and give generously and to new and difficult areas. We need to invest that capital into areas that ensure human rights for all our citizens. We need to expand our idea of philanthropy and address issues such as gender inequality, mental health, and other social justice areas. So in addition to working alongside the government in order to scale, we also need to open up new areas that may be slightly riskier, and put in that innovative capital where it is needed. The future of philanthropy needs individuals who are willing to offer up the risk capital, who accept the possibility of failure, and who build relationships based on trust – with more people like this, we will definitely see large-scale impact in India. I’m hopeful that this process is already taking place, and we’re all going to up our game.