Water Philanthropy in India: A Conversation with Rohini Nilekani

February 9, 2018 | Water

Rohini Nilekani in conversation with Dr. Ravina Aggarwal, Director, Columbia Global Centers | Mumbai

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00:00 Speaker 1: Welcome everybody. It’s a great occasion for us, we’ve been waiting for a while to have you here, Rohini. I know your schedule has been crazy. But you are one of the pioneers in this area and we think it’s just apt that you’re here. It’s perfect. So thank you for being here and welcome. So, just starting on the issue of water, Rohini, and your interventions in this field, I wanted to go back to the beginning. To the story at the beginning of all this. Of course we live with water and we know water. But at what point did you decide that water is the passion that you want to pursue? Water is the area you want to work in? What drove you to water?

00:47 Rohini: Thanks, and if anyone has heard the story before, I’m really sorry because I’m repeating this often, but it’s the only truth I have, so I have to repeat it when I’m asked that question. Actually, I started Arghyam, the foundation to learn the ropes of philanthropy back in 2001. But then in 2003, ’04, I came into my first real batch of money by the sale of our Infosys shares. I thought I must put… I didn’t need more money in my personal life, so I wanted to put it all into the foundation but at that time, now 100 crores doesn’t sound like much when you think of philanthropy, but at that time it was a sizeable amount, and I had to figure out how to use it strategically, because believe me, it’s not easy to give money away well. And so we started researching… I hired a CEO, the great Sunita Nadhamuni and we said, what shall we work on that would make a difference to the people of this country in a small way? Because we knew we were going to be small. And actually we were looking at health issues and several things and I must say even it sounds cheesy, I was literally in the shower holding water in my hands and I felt like somebody’s knocking me on the head and saying, “Stupid, it’s water that you are going to work on.” And so I said, “Oh really, that makes sense.”

01:55 Rohini: And then immediately, we started researching what’s happening in the water sector, is philanthropic money coming into the sector? Is it having impact? And wow, it was so interesting to find out there wasn’t a single Indian philanthropic foundation devoted to water that the water crisis was beginning to unfold in a magnitude that was truly shocking as I went into learning more about it, and that really clinched it. That whatever we can do in our little way to improve the situation or to spread knowledge, we should and we fully committed to it, it’s 12 years now, and I can tell you a few things if you like, off the top of… Let me use the correct data, my cheat sheet is here but you know me, it was a very sharp learning curve, because we didn’t know very much about the water sector and we had to learn very rapidly. First, we just started experimenting in this… We were making small plans here and there. But at end of it, like every foundation does, we moved from projects, to programmes, to partnerships, and now excitingly, we are on our fourth journey which we can talk about a little later.

03:04 Rohini: But just to give you a map of what Arghyam has been able to do. When I say Arghyam has been able to do, I’m very conscious of the fact that we cannot do anything without our partners and I really mean that. We are a funding organisation but we also come with passion and commitment, and we certainly try to help our partners when they ask for that help, to strategize and be more effective. So I put up 150 crores of my personal wealth into Arghyam and over 12 years we have been able to disperse 145 crores into about 145 projects and we also fit in about 22 states, and I hope that will grow. And we think we directly affected 50 lakh people but indirectly it’s hard to tell. As we discuss the work, you’ll see why. And over the last few years, we have started focusing much more on groundwater.

03:58 S1: So here you are with this visible issue, how did you decide to go invisible? What is it that brought you to groundwater?

04:06 Rohini: So, as we started knowing our partner’s work that was spread across many of the drier regions of this country, we realised that while the government has spent, and this is one estimate I read, 400,000 crores over the last several decades on surface water, the fact is that India is actually losing groundwater. Thirty-five million bore wells spread around the country and while they are building the irrigation infrastructure with surface water, and talking about rivers, people are drawing up water from the ground. So unless we are able to make that invisible water, visible, there’s no way it can be used sustainably or equitably, and that’s what’s happening. India is drawing more groundwater than America and China and you can see if you look at the satellite maps of… It’s truly shocking what’s happening to the groundwater levels, especially in some parts of the country. So we have to make that invisible water visible and Arghyam used good science, used good data and used society’s own ability to innovate to help us all manage our groundwater better. Otherwise we are already in crisis. But Cape Town, which is going to declare itself as a Day Zero in April, will look like a picnic compared to what will happen to India, just look at the numbers of people that were affected.

05:22 S1: Yeah, we have… It’s water… It is estimated that 80% of our water that we get is contaminated due to untreated sewage. We have half our wells decreasing, the water table in half our wells is decreasing, and we have almost 300… I think the estimate in 2016 was that almost 300 million people living in kind of conditions that are drought affected in various ways and to various conditions. So these are very palpable effects of not thinking in that integrated way.

06:00 Rohini: Yes. That’s right.

06:00 S1: Also, in a city like ours, in Mumbai, where we don’t… In our daily basis especially if you are from South Bombay or you’re from now the growing, more prosperous areas, have a daily crisis or a battle with water.

06:10 Rohini: Yeah maybe all of you here in this room, if you are living in Bombay and I grew up in Mumbai, and we never really had a water problem. There was not so much water, but there was water flowing out of taps. It seems like a miracle still to millions and millions of people in this country in 2018. So, while I’ve got the slums of Bombay who are not represented here, who will not have the same thing to say, but even if you move from Mumbai to Bangalore, the situation changes. I remember when we went to Bangalore first, we had to fight literally like the movies, they show. The tanker would come and all of us in India’s favourite national dress which is the nightie, the women will come rushing out with their buckets, their kids, and it would be a mela. Today the situation is not that different in many parts.

07:02 S1: Yeah, absolutely. There are two interesting new studies come out, Pipe Politics and Hydraulic City, two books that I was asked us to review the ethnographies of Mumbai with this kind of, with a system that is very different in the areas compared to the ones that we live in. Nonetheless, one of the things is not only the link on segregation within the city and access to water, but the fact that those of us who have water and enjoy it are also part of the depletion of the groundwater cycle and the circle, and that is something where we are not thinking about so seriously because it’s out there, right? So the relationships to the urban and the rural, I think, is very, very important to make groundwater visible. As consumers of water, we are inevitably drawing on groundwater, right?

07:52 Rohini: And contaminating… Every use we do of water contaminates it and we just don’t look at the waste streams. You can research about it and build as many toilets as you want, but if you don’t look at the waste streams, actually you’re going to make people’s public health issues worse than if you didn’t have toilets. Now that’s a really serious thing to say, but in areas where so-called sustainable open defecation used to happen in the sense that, and I’m not promoting open defecation, so don’t get me wrong, but if you don’t watch out for what you’re doing, then your groundwater tables and your toilet stream, waste streams are meeting. We have done some research, we have commissioned a lot of research on the groundwater sanitation nexus in India, we are finding that the contamination is going straight into the groundwater, which then you’re pulling up to drink. So earlier when people… The communities were doing open defecation because they didn’t have toilets in every home, there were some social protocols followed as to where to go. I can show you hundreds of pictures of toilets next to the well, and nitrate contamination, which I’m just reading more about, is going to be one of the emerging… As big a problem as global warming; I didn’t even know that, and that’s got a lot to do with how we use groundwater.

09:19 S1: Yeah, so in this… I wanna come back to Arghyam and the interventions that you were trying to make with Arghyam in this very, very tandem problem, even bringing it to the fore, bringing to the surface. You started off with two flagship programs and one of them is India Water Portal. So can you tell us a little bit about it?

09:28 Rohini: Sure. The National Knowledge Commission at the time that was instituted wanted to create a portals for the whole country to serve as knowledge resources in different sectors, and Arghyam offered to start with the India Water Portal and fund it. It’s now 10 years and it’s been… The thing about the India Water Portal, it’s used a lot by researchers. It’s not really designed for citizens to just go there and learn how to manage water. It’s more for the research community, but of course, many others use it, too. And the India Water Portal has reached out massively to citizens and it takes up many ideological battles around water, but we thought we certainly needed a sort of one-stop shop where data and stories came together and that’s what we have been doing.

10:20 Rohini: It was born in an era when all today’s fancy digital technologies have not yet converged. If India Water Portal was born today, it would have a very different sort of imagination. And we are trying to see in Arghyam a version for how we can make that a little more exciting. It serves an ideal purpose I think to the… Many researchers have come and told us that, “Thank you for still running that,” and there have been some nice stories where people who have read something and gone and approached the government, and got a local problem solved. So any such knowledge platform which is fairly open, I think is an important resource of the community.

10:58 S1: Yeah. You’ve been a journalist and looking at the media and media coverage of water, there is very little space for developmental issues as we know. So, the challenge then is to have the alternative media as India Water Portal is one form of that, and make it out there.

11:21 Rohini: Yeah, and in fact, a lot of material from the India Water Portal does land up in mainstream media because we are giving it free, it’s open, and we encourage it. We’ve built a lot of relationships with media houses to do that. But they are not investing the money in photo reporters to go and collect the stories.

11:40 S1: Absolutely.

11:40 Rohini: It’s easier to dip to the portal. But that’s fine, so long as people are able to read it.

11:45 S1: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. So yeah, as… I mean for us also, when we are working on water, no matter what academic knowledge that exists, but when we look at India Water Portal, it does multiple things: It does the academic part, it has other studies, and I think that’s very challenging. And again it’s presenting it in a very translatable manner and it’s been just… I remember when it came out, it was such a buzz because it was a very interesting imagination, putting data out there and making it accessible. So I think that continues to be a very, very valuable resource. And then the second flagship program, which is participatory water governance. Yeah. So why participatory and why the focus on governance?

12:31 Rohini: Right. So we have what… Through our partners, we have developed a sort of a platform called the Participatory Groundwater Management Program and I think participatory matters a lot because water is local, local, local as a political issue and if you don’t have the participation, you’re immediately going to get into issues of water not being distributed equally, and people see in India, we have no regulation. I’m sure many of you know this probably, if you’re already experts in groundwater because you have been attending this series and I know Nelani, Marju and others have talked here before me, but we are one of the most poorly regulated groundwater regimes in the world. And because of an old act from 1882 called the Easement Act which basically the British created to say that the water beneath your feet is yours. So technically, I can dig a hole and suck up a whole aquifer and sell it, and of course, somebody might catch me.

13:31 Rohini: But legally, there is still no framework to stop me. So that means when groundwater is a common pool resource, you have to create participatory mechanisms to manage it sustainably. Otherwise, partly because we don’t have regulation, partly because we have no proper institutional structures to manage groundwater, there is no alternative. So in that absence of good policy and regulation, we have to push through the community and make a sort of a de facto, if not de jour model way of managing groundwater. For us participation was very key philosophical form and so it is called the Participatory Groundwater Management Programme which is now… We have directly funded over 500 installations in the sense that our hydrogeological experts and others going to these communities where there is a problem. They help those communities to make that invisible water beneath their feet visible by using data practices and good science, and trained people then to understand and budget for the water. And there are many mechanisms that people use, they segregate some bore wells for lifeline water so that at least that is taken care of, they do crop rotation or better crop management, and they find it takes time because there are no short cuts in this, it takes time.

14:53 Rohini: After two years the community realises that by sharing that finite resource under their feet, actually they’ve shown their incomes going up because they are rationalising what they are putting, what crops they are putting into the ground. So we are really encouraged with this and we have done a lot of input into policy and there is a lot of talk, but I’m sorry it’s not yet come to ground, but I hope a new program called the Atal Bhujal Yojana which has been struggling for a couple of years, but was mentioned in the budget, where millions of dollars will be going into groundwater management, I hope some of these principles that our partners have been working on for eight years will get embedded and scaled.

15:37 S1: When you say participatory and community governance and management, how do you make sure that it’s truly participatory going in? How does gender, for example, get included?

15:49 Rohini: Yeah, I must say that… I mean I’ve not visited every site obviously, but we have done a deep dive now into all the locations to say what’s emerging. And I can say it’s not a perfect process, as it is, you know, we are a deeply structure hierarchical society. So it’s very hard to create real participatory processes, okay? To call out women’s voices takes very special effort; to call out Dalit voices, to call out other voices in water, it’s still strangely, we are still strangely stuck in some 300-year-old kind of ideas of society. So it has to be done very actively. And I must say it succeeds sometimes and IT doesn’t sometimes, because when the NGO leaves, sometimes there’s a slip back. Those power structures are so deeply rigged it’s very hard to battle them, but you know once your mind is opened up to an idea, it’s very hard to shut it. So as people have seen the participatory processes, we have seen that they do try to keep them going, because they’ve seen, and then they get access to water, those who were left out. So I think participation is such a powerful idea that’s hard to roll back once the toothpaste has come out of the tube.


17:04 S1: Yeah. I think you know when we are looking at participation and we are looking at very grounded community level I assume, right? So even in the interventions that you’ve made and I know one of the areas is spring water.

17:17 Rohini: Yes.

17:17 S1: So in those interventions, how has that been, to the participatory action of the community in reviving spring water or springs or in maximising their output, or how has that worked?

17:32 Rohini: So actually the springs is really easier, if you ask me because springs in India, nobody knows how many springs there are in India, and springs are so important because they feed livelihoods. You know they have gotten neglected because of land use change, because of pipe water supply, because of so many things. But our mountainous areas depend on spring water. Many, many communities still depend on spring water for their lifeline water, and it’s also groundwater which by the way the government had not acknowledged ’til fairly recently. [chuckle] It was not considered groundwater. And it took all our partners’ work and effort to say that no, actually it’s groundwater, it’s just coming out because it’s in the discharge zones. And now it’s being called groundwater, which was quite stunning to know.

18:23 Rohini: And so we have taken up this work in about 12 states with our partners and so far we’ve been able to rejuvenate 7,000 springs. Springs is easy because those people really, there is so no other water. You really depend on that source and if you don’t look after it, you don’t get water. It’s as simple as that. It has been easier to put in the social protocol to say, “Don’t spoil, don’t dirty the area around that water, manage the catchment a little better.” There are upstream, downstream issues there and some protocols have been set up for that as well. In fact that has been successful. Six states now are going to work with us to map all their streams and revive all of them, and keep them going in the northeast and in the western parts as well. So hopefully, this program will scale and I will talk to you a little more about how that might happen.

19:15 S1: Okay, just on springs, too, I mean, what about local knowledge and indigenous systems of monitoring that were different? I mean, I am not saying that they should persist in the same way in the 21st century but nonetheless, there was a local… A lot of local wisdom and very jealously guarded rules and taboos around springs. I certainly experienced that in my work in Ladakh, which is a very dryland area and agriculture really depends on water. The area around the springs was considered sacred. So if you violated that, you’re tabooing that ground so the spring itself and the area around it could not be contaminated.

20:04 S1: And this was guided through a system of governance by these people who were called chiefs of the water that were elected. They not only guarded the springs but they also looked at the channels that were built for irrigation and they ensured that water was distributed fairly and equitably, otherwise they have mediated the fights. So I am just wondering, are you, in the work that you are doing is there an indigenous wisdom that is also something that is…

20:34 Rohini: Yeah, I think that such practices have made water places sacred. They have remained non-contaminated… But I’m not saying whatever little… A recent program I haven’t been able to, for various personal reasons travel so much to see our springs work in the northeast. But what we’re learning is those practices are getting a little disrupted. There is not enough continuity of model leadership. And so, we have to re-imagine them and that’s the new challenge we are facing. How do you re-imagine sacredness? How do you value water in 2018? How do you create a new grammar of sacredness for water? And I think some of our partners do struggle with that.

21:21 S1: Yeah, the sacred is also the exclusive, as you pointed out earlier, who has the taboos associated with it for women, for the dalits. Again, so sacred can go into either domain. And so how do you create an inclusive sacredness? I think that’s a huge challenge for our democracy…


21:44 S1: One of the interesting roles that our Arghyam has played is also been a space where research is nurture and research is supported. Why research brings so many philanthropists 20 years ago when you started were not looking… Were looking resources not actually as important researches and even happening somewhere. So will you tell me how you support research and why has that been an important part of your practice?

22:18 Rohini: Yeah, I think we see ourselves as long-term players, we are not going away. And the more you do physical projects, the more you know… Again, if you’re not able to connect the dots, your physical projects aren’t gonna be successful. To do that in a long term study, you need good data, you need academicians to come in and stay the course to build real usable knowledge. And so we have been supporting research in various ways. We tend to have bias towards action research, so a lot of our work is collect the knowledge and try out many things. So, do think through and produce data. So, that’s how we work and we will continue to do that and…

23:02 Rohini: Maybe it’s a good time to talk now about water. Again, we have done this for 12 years and we think if we continue this, we will do incremental things and be successful. And impact real people’s lives in a positive way. But when you look at the problem of India and the sheer scale in which the solutioning needs to happen, we just get drop in the ocean. And I think it’s not even about money. Today there is so much philanthropy capital out there all dressed up and nowhere to go, that you actually need to create the pipelines for which this philanthropy capital can come into the water sector in a smart and sufficient way.

23:37 Rohini: So, we’re hoping and this is not only for my publishing but just to share with you that in our next version, we hope to move from partnerships to platforms. And we hope to be able to design a digital platform shareable infrastructure for lots of actors to be able to work on top of that. And we hope that scale will come to that rather than Arghyam trying to go to new locations all the time. So that’s under design it’s come out of the work that Nandan and I have been doing over the last several couple of decades at least.

24:11 Rohini: My work in Pratham Books where we created a free platform for people to write, read, publish, print, share, etcetera, illustrate, etcetera, and we’ve been able to reach tens of millions of kids through that digital, open platform. And so, we knew that we have to create something that is designed for scale, that is open, shareable and that allows for creation on top of it and collaboration. Similarly, of course, Nandan’s work on Aadhaar a population scale. And so designing platforms at that level we brought both those ideas into something called EkStep, which Nandan and I started two and a half years ago, which is a digital learning platform for young children. We hope to reach 200 million children in the next five years. We want access to learning opportunities, so we took that same framework and we are calling it societal platforms, and in Arghyam we are hoping to build that out in the next two years.

25:09 S1: So, what would something on that platform…

25:13 Rohini: So if we asked our partners how can we help you? We don’t wanna be stuck in the same thing ’cause we know just would… The constant need that we heard was we need to have better data and research. We need to be able to train a lot of people rapidly and we need to make scarce training resources unscarce. Because for example, my friend Himanshu Kulkarni training desperately needs to be cloned, because there’s just this one Himansu trying to solve the ground water problem of this country. So how do you look… Say this scarce resource, how do you design it to become unscarce? What do you need to do? And of course, they wanted a feedback system monitoring and evaluation which is… Data for that almost comes up as an exhaust, not necessarily as an intensive activity done repeatedly. So, how do you design for something like that?

26:09 Rohini: And that’s where Arghyam is going to go into very… A zone we’re completely out of our comfort zone, where we are going to take more responsibility internally rather than saying we are a funder. So, now we are going to have to say we are doing… We have to take more responsibility and going to technology, which is unfortunately not my forte, so we’re gonna have a huge culture shift. But I do hope that we can build something that’s useful for all that we are called for data and research, for capacity building and training, for deployment tools for better deployment, and then of course to refining by getting back later on how it works.

26:48 S1: Yeah, that’s wonderful to hear because this is sympatico to what we’re into as well. And I feel in this framework it would be great because you have great partners with think tanks, you have partners with community-based action groups, and you have… But I feel like the academic community, the network of universities and the young people they train, the investments that they are now willing to make in research and bringing research into a way that matters both in terms of long term which is important, but also action result. I feel like there’s a good opportunity perhaps to partner with institutions that have been age-old, but also can’t just be the same shells, but also need to transform. So perhaps some of the challenges that you spoke of with partners, or even with someone like Himanshuu really who’s just incredible, he spoke here, some of you who heard him, and I wonder really if that would be something that you would wanna actively engage with with universities.

27:56 Rohini: So on the platform, there will have to be some way for the knowledge that universities are producing to be pooled for discoverability. Otherwise many times universities act in silos, I’m sorry to say…

28:03 S1: No it’s true.

[overlapping conversation]

28:11 S?: Absolutely.

28:12 Rohini: Even if you go to one IIT and say, “Have you seen all this another IIT has done?” They’ll say, “Have you seen what we have done?”


28:23 Rohini: So, how do you breakdown this, “We are best in the world,” and how do we create… So I think that has to be again done by designing something on a platform where… When you put something out there, it aggregates knowledge publicly.

28:35 S1: Yeah.

28:35 Rohini: And so I hope that will be one of the focus areas but you have to give them some time.

28:39 S1: Yeah, I think that a lot of… It’s not only an entire university regulatory itself, it’s departments within that that assign, you know what I’m saying, ecologists on one end but the social scientists and nobody is talking to each other necessarily. So I think when the university exceeds its own boundedness, it offers a very good space. Because it is… It does have institutional longevity. It does have next generation people clamoring for training and clamoring, hungry to do something that makes a difference. And we were able to see that, observe that firsthand when we had the Ganges Exhibition. Where just from school children to people from architecture, engineering, they were interested… They were doing those schools but they were interested in talking about it as an issue. I mean all… And I think…

29:27 Rohini: But it’s very much of that, you’re going to be a resource centre for students and citizens of some of these areas. I applaud you for that. And you’re coming to Bangalore you said?

29:36 S1: Yes, absolutely, absolutely. Just going back to the research zone, I know… Can you just give us an example, because not everyone is from academia of one like large scale research study you did and how it translated to anything on the ground that either informed work on the ground?

30:00 Rohini: So this was not really an academic study, but I’m taking you back to a very large survey we did, household survey of water and sanitation. I know it was so far back, it was called Ashwas and it was one of the largest sets of 18,000 households where they mapped… They had a research team go out there and… Survey team go out there and map what’s happening to water and sanitation, and of course the results were shocking about access, about pollution, about lack of social sustainability, and the whole thing as you can imagine.

30:41 Rohini: But from that what we did was we compiled the research and shared it widely of course. After that we were able to go back to 126 gram panchayats and say, “Look here is your report card mapped to you. Now do you want help to make a five-year action plan and set your own goal to say ‘We are here now, we want to be here in five years?'” And that process went through for about a couple of years. I think it’s time to go back and find out what happened. But that’s one example. The other thing is we are working with six universities in India on the ground water, sanitation nexus. And some of them have come back with early results, but we will be publishing all of those together very shortly. So that’s the other thing. And then of course, all the hydro-geological research done by our partners is being put out in journals.

31:31 S1: Alright, thank you. When we say you’ve got a lot of passion and you’ve got a lot of… You’ve charted what is effective, what is not effective for yourself, and then it seems like you’re constantly evaluating yourself, is that a very important part of being a philanthropic organization? Being able to admit it’s a risk. And when I was at the Ford Foundation people have always said… Often when I would talk to people outside the developmental sector, many of you have also said that “They’re not effective, why do they waste all that money? It could have gone to anything. It’s a scam.” And we know that that’s not… You need to trust in a sector, for all it’s difficulties, you’ve trusted the sector. So, it’s about trusting and taking risks and also evaluating yourselves. Is that how you measure your own effectiveness? How do you measure that when you look at the mammoth problem out there? As you said, the drop in the ocean you’re trying to make, what keeps you going and how do you measure that you’re on this path and that’s your next step and you need to keep going there?

32:35 Rohini: Right. So I think the question of trust is very important. See, I find… A lot of business people who are now being forced to do CSR because of the new law, and become more philanthropic because rich people are being forced to be much more philanthropic because nowadays you can’t have a Ferrari without owning a foundation.


33:00 Rohini: “What are you going to do with all your wealth?” So they’re learning fast. I don’t wanna be mean, but they’re getting excited too because they find it’s probably easier to run a company than it is to run a foundation. And it’s very hard to make social change. So when they put their own feet in the water, as I did too, we learn very fast, but the first thing you have to have is trust. So the markets operate in a very different way from the samaaj sector, right? And so trust is a very important thing. And I think when you start with trust, saying “You know what? We have a common goal. I trust you to do your work.” And without that, you will not succeed. So for us that’s a very important part of how we deal with those to whom we give money and other stuff to. That’s the currency really in the social sector. You cannot do good work without that.

33:49 Rohini: The second thing is what keeps us going. Of course we do some measurements, we are not crazy about measuring everything, because we believe that some of the most important work that we have actually done is not measurable. Because it has our… The work our partners have done is to enable communities to say, “We are part of the solution, not part of the problem alone.” And how do you measure that? How do you measure that self-esteem that people get from examining a problem deeply and trying to find solutions and handing in the… I don’t know how to measure that. I can measure wells, I can measure how much water people got, and that we do, but it is that feedback which comes that when we’re not succeeding in, say, reaching the last hamlet in a particular panchayat, that kind of feedback which comes, allows us to say “Well what are we doing here? What should we be doing more?”

34:47 Rohini: And that’s how we move from this project to programs, and then more structured partnerships and hopefully platform, which will allow more scale and more data in effectiveness to come back. And what keeps us going? I mean in India, if you wake up in the morning, there’s totally wonderful million challenges to solve, and be part of solving that… Really exciting. Any area you take, any area whatsoever that you are interested in, whether it’s street dogs or water, or nutrition, well, there’s never a dull moment because there’s so much to do.

35:16 S1: Yeah, I think that’s really… And the ability to… And the challenge of scale even if… For something that is for us a very small area is almost… Or our city, this entire country. So I think it’s both a challenge as well a dedication to knowing how to solve that. And I think it’s a very important role India can play as it raises global… As it’s part of the global context. We can learn certainly from other small countries, and a lot of small interventions…

[overlapping conversation]

35:48 Rohini: In Southeast Asia, so much experimentation can happen in countries like Vietnam, and so many other places, Cambodia. But, to your point, I think while there’s a lot to learn from other countries that have obviously managed their water better, I think it is true that no country’s faced the kind of challenges that India has at a cusp when we can no longer dump our waste somewhere else, and when climate change is already upon us. How do we re-think water management in that context? Because long-term matters, but we have to become an innovation lab ourselves, and we have to be able to experiment, we have to be able to create, I think, decentralized, flexible, resilient structures for water management, and no country has had to do that in such a hurry as we have to.

36:36 Rohini: So, in that sense, I think, while we can learn a lot, I think we have to start experimenting and innovating here locally also. I mean it’s already upon us, 500 million people in this country, that’s a lot of people. And there’s risk of some water contamination every day as we speak. And we run two water quality networks, one for arsenic and we run the second, we fund the second area for fluoride and arsenic and it’s an action research network. And many partners, many states involved, but we have to go… We started three years ago. We’ve reached a few million people, but the size of the problem is 500. How do you move the needle on that? People are dying of arsenic poisoning. People are getting new contaminants in their water which they never heard of before. And how do you rapidly scale up for the discovery of the problem, and then a palette of solutions?

37:30 S1: Rohini, being who you are, being passionate, and then you have a slew of partners who are working with you, how do you make room for debate and dissent?

37:46 Rohini: It’s a very good question. I think you should ask our partners. [laughter] But we really try to listen. And I don’t know about dissent, because everything we do is co-created. It’s not like Argyham is sitting there and saying “We have the solutions for all the world’s water problems. You better listen to us. Here’s the money go and do A, B, C.” We never do that. We never do that. Somebody comes to us and says, “Look, I know what my community’s problems are, or the state’s level issues are, or our policy and policy needs to be done. Can you help us?” And all the time, in any of the design, it is cooperation. There is nothing we are imposing. So, therefore, dissent becomes a little more difficult to do. And… But feedback… They’re quite honest with their feedback, and we’re quite honest in listening.

38:36 S1: Okay. But that’s within. What if… I guess how do you solve something? How do you come to a solution? Because it’s also social, as much as it’s economic, or governance-oriented… You could do the same thing in different ways and you choose a vantage point. So how do you create a healthy community with other philanthropists, or other actors?

39:03 Rohini: So in order to answer your question, there are people who used to be opposed to some stuff that Arghyam was doing because they thought… There were some misconceptions. They would come to our office and we would show we are trying to do. If you have any new ideas, we are happy to look at them. They thought, for some reason, that we were influencing money from the bank, or World Bank, or something, which we were not trying to do, and we were able to sit across the table and say “That’s not what we’re trying to do. We are trying to decentralise options.” And in the recent past, I have not seen any recount. But talking about other philanthropists, I think there’s a lot of interest in funding water stuff now and…

39:48 Rohini: You’ll research to find out how much is getting invested, but so many corporations now have water because it is such an obvious crisis. And we have something called the India Philanthropy Initiative where a lot of the wealthy who want to engage in discussions on philanthropy come together, and they do a lot of thematics every year to help people understand the sector deeply and see opportunities for investing philanthropy within that sector. So water one is planned, the sanitation one is done. And so we are talking to each other now, the CSR people are talking separately also to each other and also to each other and also to learn from each other. And when one philanthropist goes in there and achieves some success and builds some trust, a lot of people will follow because then they don’t have to invest that upfront money to discover and trust.

40:41 Rohini: So we’ve been able to pull in a lot of CSR and other philanthropy funding in our projects by taking initial risks and being the first who was in that space and then other people have followed.

40:53 S1: So if you had to give, from your learning and from your experience now being a philanthropist, heading a foundation, if you had to look at CSR, the CSR framework, what would be two or three key learnings you could share with the new CSRs? Because a lot of people would come to us when I was at Ford and say “How did you do it?” And sometimes, all they needed to do was systems of accounting, organization, HR, and sometimes it was the ideating. So it was ideating systems. So where do you feel Argyham can play that role as a leader?

41:34 Rohini: So people do come to us a lot to say where should we work in water, the CSR law is bad one, sorry to say, because… I mean they are trying to make the best of a bad joke. I think it’s outsourcing governance and businesses are not wanting to do the work that foundations and civil society actors can do. Plus the law is very concerning it says you can do this, you can do this, and things that they used to do before also we are not doing. And if you were to say “I don’t know and that’s not really the core competence of our foundations. So then they’ll end up doing things that are visible that seem to have quick impact that are not necessarily strategic, not all of them, some people who have… Some companies in this country have been deeply philanthropic for a very long time, but I’m talking about those that have recently entered. So now there’s a cultural shift that has to be made in the public sector that you have to take this work seriously too, which means they have to build the talent inside, and the ability to take longer, the ability to take longer. And again, we are trying to say, look at ground water, don’t just look at just surface water and toilets, look at ground water and see if we can do some bold stuff together, but it will take some time.

42:58 S1: Something I read in an interview that you did with Forbes where you talked about wealth generation and compared it to river that flows rather than something that’s dammed. And I thought that was very thoughtful, and telling of your own philosophy. Thank you so much Rohini.

43:18 Rohini: Thank you.

43:18 S1: That was like a marathon session. I believe that you brought out so much. I mean you gave us so many ideas and so much to think about and covered with such depth, the issues that we put forward to you. So thank you for coming and and I know that there’s a lot of anxiousness, and there’s a to know and to learn, to share and to do. So thank you very much.

43:41 Rohini: You’re such a great audience and water affects every single one of us. So keeping on that learning journey is so important. You have been fabulous audience, so thank you so much and thank you.


Water Philanthropy in India: A Conversation with Rohini Nilekani

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