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Closing Address | Beyond #Charcha2020: India’s Priorities

Civil Society | Societal Platforms | May 16, 2020

#Charcha2020 brought together 100+ hours of insights and knowledge shared across events by leading businessmen, policymakers, academicians, philanthropists, community leaders, and changemakers. In this closing session, Rohini Nilekani and Ashish Dhawan are in conversation with Sanjay Pugalia. The session summarises the event for the audience and seek further build on the takeaways and on the next steps for India’s resurgence from the current crisis. [A summary can be read at The Quint.]



0:05:03 Lakshmi: We will not go back to normal. Normal never was. Our pre-corona existence was not normal, other than the normalized greed, inequity, exhaustion, depletion, extraction, disconnection, confusion, rage, hoarding, hate and lack. We should not long to return life, my friend. We are being given the opportunity to stitch a new garment; one that fits all of humanity and nature. That, everyone, was American poet and activist, Sonya Renee Taylor. I couldn’t find better words to open the last session of this conference, Beyond Charcha 2020, India’s priorities. We have with us, Rohini Nilekani, Ashish Dhawan, and in conversation with them, Sanjay Pugalia.

0:05:54 Lakshmi: Rohini is the Founder Chairperson, Arghyam, a foundation that she endowed to fund initiatives for sustainable water and sanitation across India. From 2004 to 2014, she was the Founder Chairperson of Pratham Books. She’s also co-founder of EkStep, a nonprofit education platform. Rohini believes that in the continuum of samaj, sarkar and bazaar, only a strong society can keep markets and state accountable to the public good. As signatories of the Giving Pledge, Rohini and Nandan Nilekani have committed half of their wealth to philanthropy.

0:06:30 Lakshmi: Ashish Dhawan is one of India’s leading philanthropists and a key voice for system reform in the country. Ashish founded Central Square Foundation with a mission to improve the quality of school education for children, especially from low-income communities. He co-founded one of India’s most ambitious projects in higher education, Ashoka University, to promote the idea of a broad liberal arts and sciences undergraduate curriculum. Ashish has also seeded a set of new philanthropic initiatives, including the Indian leaders for social sector, The Indian School of Development Management, Air Pollution Action Group.

0:07:07 Lakshmi: Anchoring conversations with Rohini and Ashish is Sanjay Pugalia. Sanjay is the President and Editorial Director at the Quintillion Media Network, which comprises BloombergQuint, The Quint, Hindi Quint and FIT. He’s a senior journalist with over 37 years of experience in print, television, radio and digital journalism, and he extensively covers the political economy. Previously, he’s launched and headed CNBC AWAAZ, Star News, and Aaj Tak. Before moving to broadcast and digital news, Sanjay spent 11 years in print journalism with Business Standard and Navbharat Times. Welcome everybody, we’re very pleased to have you here. Sanjay, over to you.

0:07:49 Sanjay Pugalia: Thank you Lakshmi, it’s a great delight to be here. I have watched the old sessions last three days, and I must give a snapshot of the total volume that The/Nudge Foundation has produced. Three days, 16 events, 18 event host organisations, 150 hours of programming.

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0:08:16 SP: Sorry?

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0:08:21 SP: Hello?

0:08:24 Lakshmi: Really sorry Sanjay, please continue.

0:08:27 SP: Oh, sorry. Is something wrong with my side?

0:08:34 Lakshmi: No, Mr. Sanjay, there was a technical glitch at our end. I’m really sorry.

0:08:37 SP: I’m sorry. I’m sorry about it. Yeah, so I was trying to give a glimpse of what The/Nudge Foundation has done in last three days. 50,000 people have viewed all these videos, webinars so far, and 500 speakers have attended it, 180 sessions. And they have been so enriching. Just to give you a sense, they discussed law and justice, they discussed education, the digital divide, the new normal, the invisible suffering, why are migrant labourers, the labourers’ exodus that we saw in last few days. So it is mind-numbing what the Indian society or everyone in the world is going through. And all these speakers, they are eminent speakers, eminent people, they have given such wonderful ideas. I can, with some degree of understanding say that what The/Nudge Foundation has done in development sector and the conversation on social sector currently going on, is a huge treasure trove for everyone to listen to and come up with actionable ideas after listening to these great sessions. We have two eminent speakers, I should not take much of the time in kind of giving you the detailed summary of what they have discussed, but for example, one fascinating idea was, how we treat law and justice, that court is a intimidating big courtroom.

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0:09:56 SP: Where justice has to be dispensed at the mercy of a judge. Now, how can we look at this as a legal service, and can digital technology provide legal service justice system as a service for the common good, for the larger good, rather than having the pending cases of three crore? Like Devi Shetty spoke about how private sector needs to play a bigger role, or NITI Aayog Chairman, Rajiv Kumar spoke about the entire policy-making has to be not between us and them, but it has to be about how together we are going to play with the new rule book. So, there is nothing normal, there is nothing that can work out of the old rule books that we were applying so far, what we have seen as a society, is a humongous new challenge that has been thrown to us. And all these thinkers and doers in their different spaces have come up with ideas so quickly that it is unbelievable. And I really want every policy-maker to look at what they are saying, be it Rohini, be it Ashish, be it Dr. Devi Shetty, be it Justice Chauhan, be it young advocate like Mr. Poovayya, they have given us a remarkable ideas around which now we can come up with actionable plan. So after this three-day session, the idea was that we get Rohini and Ashish to, in a way, summarise the big picture, because it is still incomprehensible, and talk about the new deal, how social sector, the civil sector can revitalise itself, can go for bigger and effective, proactive role. I will start with Rohini.

0:11:36 Rohini Nilekani: Namaste everyone, thank you to Nudge, thank you Sanjay. It’s great to be here with Ashish, and thank you, all of you viewers who are… Have come here at lunch time. I hope we can at least give you some food for thought. Let me start right away by saying that, first of all, this pandemic has taught all of us so much, and we realize that we’re all in this together and can only get out of this together. So the Samaj Bazaar Sarkar continuum and the balance active dynamic and just balance that must retain itself between these sectors becomes more important than ever, but it’s going to be seriously challenged, which I will mention a little later. Let me first just say that it is in some sense a real morale booster for our social sector, that from the get-go, when this crisis emerged, it was civil society organisations and their representatives that were right out there first responding on the ground. They are always closest to the citizens, so they were there, and it was very clear that they had the trust of the community.

0:12:48 RN: So in some sense, for a sector that has been under so much stress over the last few years, both because of unnecessary government action in many ways, and also because of the withdrawal of certain kinds of philanthropic flexible capital over the years, for that sector now to be clearly winning back the trust of both society and the state is something to cheer on. I also want to pause to note that we have also seen a lot more new voluntary energy coming into the sector. And that was much needed. And I remember some of my mentors and some of the most inspiring leaders in the social sector, also came into the sector during the 1967 famine when they went out as volunteers, but then stayed on in the sector giving up other lucrative careers because they saw the need. Whether it was Vijay Mahajan, Deep Joshi, Al Fernandes, I can name many others. So I see this as an opportunity for many, especially young people to come in with the kind of volunteer energy that Gandhiji inspired, because it would be a much needed boost for this sector.

0:14:04 RN: Let me now say that we have learnt a lot of lessons in the last few days and all of us keep using the word resilience. So I’ll focus just a little bit on how do we move towards resilience, because if change is going to be the only constant, then clearly we have to figure out how to adapt and create a much more resilient social sector, and indeed a resilient society. But how do we do that? I will come to that in a bit. But I also want to start by saying that this is the correct time for us to think of something as a sector that we don’t often focus on. And that is the emotional and mental well-being of the people in the sector itself. Today, many of you in the field, your people in the field, have been exposed to things they may not have been exposed to in a long time, just like it happened post Tsunami etcetera. And we often forget that those stressors on the people in the sector can lead to, I would say, not to the best response than they could give. So right now, if your organisations, our organisations could pause and look at the kind of resources available, and we’ll be happy to share that, that will enable all of us to also take care of ourselves like they say on the aeroplanes, put on our own oxygen masks first. I think this is a critical thing to think about.

0:15:27 RN: I won’t dwell on the how. We will tell you if there are resources available, but all organisations need to start that dialogue now. That’s something I did want to say upfront. And before I go into the mid and long-term responses that we should as a sector be thinking about, Sanjay has given me 10 minutes to speak, so I will use those ten minutes. But before that I would like to dwell on something that perhaps we should also spend a few minutes on right now before we think of mid-term and long-term, that our sector does have some structural issues which perhaps prevent us from being the best that we could be, and I’m going to dwell on three that I think we need to think of now. Because change has come, the future just ain’t what it used to be, as they say, and we therefore need to think very differently about how we are.

0:16:19 RN: I think the sector has issues of competitiveness that we need to address. And we all know that, I won’t go into details, but moving from the mindset of ‘or’ to the mindset of ‘and’, how can we do that now, because we need to collaborate as never before and pool resources as never before. That’s number one. I would say number two is, it’s alright to have our own ideologies, but when they become blinkers, and when we sometimes assume that we are adequately representing the people we are working on behalf of, I think it leads us to problems because there’s so much diversity on the ground. So moving into an open and listening mode, even more acutely than before, is something I need to think about, we need to think about now, including me. And the third thing is, yes, we all have ambition, but sometimes our ambition can be unhealthy, and we fall into the trap of wanting to scale our organisations instead of scaling the mission. So these three things, I suggest, we have internal dialogue on now, even though there is an emergency outside. So now, let me move to the change that is coming our way, where all of you are seeing even more sharply than we, the philanthropist sector can, the philanthropic institutions can, because many of you work directly on the ground with the people, the change is coming in Samaj Bazaar and Sarkar.

0:17:48 RN: Sarkar the world over is expanding its authority to respond to this pandemic, and therefore we have to think about how are we going to work with Sarkar. In some sense, we are going to have to find the common within the uncommon ground with Sarkar, even as it plans to roll back some labour laws, plans to roll back some environmental regulation. How are we going to respond effectively without being blown off the stage? So as Sarkar expands its role as it is doing all over the world, how will society re-gear itself to retain the human rights dimensions of our work and to work with the state so that we don’t really land up in the next mess faster than we need to. There is also going to be less philanthropic capital coming to the sector. I hope not, but we have to face that reality, because the economy is shrinking and organisations and individual people might feel less generous when they have a mindset of scarcity. So how are we going to use the resources we have much, much better. And later, we’ll come to talking about using digital infra for that. I have two and a half minutes left. So how are we going to…

0:19:16 SP: Rohini, sorry. Sorry. Don’t worry about your time limit. You can go on.

0:19:21 RN: No, but I don’t want to bore people. We’ll have a conversation later. So that brings me to a framework I’ve been talking about, which is responsibility, responsiveness and resilience. The social sector has understood its responsibility of the last few decades as to help create a regime of rights, policies and laws together with the state that has enabled amazing things to happen over decades in this country, to lead us towards a more prosperous future. But now is the time to rethink what that responsibility is. I’ll give one example. NREGA which enabled so many people to survive in times of distress in rural India is now being refashioned for so many more things. Now, is that the right framework, or do we need something else? Rethinking the responsibility role in this regime of rights and policies. Responsiveness. Many new institutions were set up in India in the last two, three decades that were looking at the effectiveness of the state in responding to the regime of rights and laws. To uphold the rule of laws, think tanks and other institutions came in to look at how can we help the state to be more effective, that kind of work is going to have to expand. And also work with the bazaar, because as the state expands its authority, the samaj and bazaar need to realign themselves to work together.

0:20:54 RN: Because both have, as I’ve said before, a very common interest in upholding the rule of law. So finding new pathways to enable system responsiveness. And then lastly, accountable resilience. What is resilience? As I said, if change is going to be so constant, we need to be able to adapt, we can use… Civil society is very close to the founds of traditional wisdom. So we need to keep traditional wisdom in mind, we need… But we also need to bring science, data and analytics. So we need to bring in technology frameworks, we need to do systems thinking, and we need to really think of how are we going to engage in creating a digital civil society, as post-COVID we are going to go into a much more digital world. Here I really request all our friends in the civil sector to be vigilant, but not to be technophobic about what’s coming in the digital world. Because we do need your digital presence to be enabled to do your own, to achieve your own mission and vision, but at the kind of scale, and with the kind of new social restraints that are going to be forced upon us. So re-imagining what our team calls societal platform thinking, which is, how do we use digital public goods to distribute the ability to solve, to reduce the friction to collaborate, and to distribute agency. So I think that is the kind of thing that will build resilience.

0:22:42 RN: One example is the Diksha platform that government has set up which is enabling teachers to reach to keep learning and reach more and more students and parents when schools are closed. Another example is the ECHO platform, which is doing guided mentoring to lakhs of healthcare professionals at this time when they desperately need help. I can give you 100 more examples like that. So thinking digital, thinking systems, thinking collaboration, that’s what’s going to get us to the resilience that we need so much. And I’ll close this by saying that, again, we have, we always start from the heart, but we have to combine the head and heart. But I try to cuss a little bit to the head. Before I close, I want to bring us back to the heart. We have seen terrible things happening to our fellow citizens. And I urge us all to remember why we are in this sector in the first place, in order to create that good society that we all crave and deserve. And so keeping that empathetic energy right out in front is something we must do at this time. We’ll talk much more later. Thank you so much.

0:24:04 SP: Thank you, Rohini. A lot to think about, the points you have mentioned here. Ashish, before you speak and give your opening remark, I just want to take two phrases from Rohini’s conversation. One is about social sector; how to find that influence and voice in the current context, because governments across the globe, they will want to regain more and more power in their hands. The statist tendencies could be much stronger going forward. So it is corporate sector, government and social sector. Social sector has to be equally influenced. So how do you re-imagine this sector?

0:24:46 Ashish Dhawan: Yeah, so thank you Sanjay, and I’ll pick up from where Rohini started. First, obviously, as all of us know, we are faced with a never before have we seen such a large humanitarian, health and economic crisis all at once. And there is clearly a new normal and we have to deal with it here and now, which is very, very difficult period for the next year or two, particularly for the social sector. But also start to think about what that new normal is. How things could be different. So, I would like to start by looking at the response of government to the current crisis. We know the government took a while to announce a big package and they are looking out for the interest of, obviously, the poor, the bottom half of the socio-economic pyramid. They are thinking about small businesses, and that’s reflected in the package, but nowhere is there any mention of the civil society sector, the role it plays, the fact that the workers in the NGO sector, actually our frontline workers, much like health workers.

0:26:00 AD: And so, if we are going to bang our pots and pans for health workers, which we should, we should get out and clap and celebrate the civil society workers who are working on the front lines, addressing this humanitarian crisis that we’re faced with. Because we know there’s an issue with food, shelter, migration, and if it were not for our civil society sector, we would be faced with an even larger crisis right now. I think also as we look at, the government has big programs, and many of them work, but many of them also get exposed in times like these. So Jan-Dhan is a wonderful thing, but we know… There was recently a survey by the Azim Premji University that showed that despite all the efforts that we have made, the last mile is still broken. And that people aren’t getting money, people aren’t getting access to food from government, and civil society is stepping in to fill that void. This is despite all the progress we’ve made in the last eight to 10 years, in terms of various programs that have been ruled out. So, I think that the government really needs to think about what it’s going to do coming out of this. And one big new normal that I see is massive programs around education and health. We need a foundational literacy mission coming out of this crisis.

0:27:27 AD: We need a national health mission, a much bigger one than what we have, coming out of this crisis. Really where we say there’s no reason we should have 55% learning poverty in India, whereas in Sri Lanka it’s at 15%. The same way that we’re saying that we need to fix the economy and we need to fix certain sectors and this is an opportunity to fundamentally change land laws and labor laws, and we may be going a little bit over the top on some of those, but similarly, we should be asking the question around how we can really address these massive challenges that we’ve been faced with, and really accelerate our progress on many of these social indicators. I think there, the government really has to change its mindset, because it’ll be strapped for cash, and really needs to look at civil society as a partner. I would say thus far, historically, government has been either antagonistic, if you look at the License Raj that operates with regards to the social society sector, the reporting, the uncertainty around approvals, things like that, the tracking, etcetera. And sometimes, the relationship can be transactional. Yes, we need you, come and help us, but it’s one off. I think we really need to move to more of a partnership model with the sector.

0:28:53 AD: Government hasn’t really embraced the sector whole heartedly, and I think there’s a golden opportunity. The sector is deep, it has proven, there is proven evidence in the sector that things work. We know how to get children to learn, early reading or early numeracy. The sector has shown it state after state, district after district. Why can’t we now imbibe this into our system? And I think that collaboration will allow that to happen, ’cause it’s not just the technocrats and government people who can make it happen, it’s the collaboration that will really drive this. And the idea is coming, but also the field force of the social sector. So I think that never before… We need coming out of this to reset the relationship between government and civil society, the respect the government has towards civil society, the removal of some of the Licence Raj and really view this as more of a partnership, understand that there will be resource constraints, and bring civil society to the table to say, “We’re going to launch these missions. How can we do this together and work on this together?” So that’s part one.

0:29:58 AD: Part two is, there is a real challenge faced by this sector. I know it because I’m involved and I’ve been part of these discussions. Very, very difficult discussions, because budgets are being cut, it’s almost Armageddon for the sector right now, and understandably so, because COVID needs the resources at this point in time. But what does it mean for sustainability of this sector? How will these NGOs survive? And I think obviously there’s a liquidity crisis, there is a need to hunker down. In many cases, I’ve seen founders have taken salary cuts, it’s all very quiet in this sector. You read about the announcements of the Reliance industries, but you don’t read about, or you never hear about the hardship or the sacrifices that people who anyway don’t get paid a fancy salary are actually taking in these time, because they care about their organization, they care about their mission, and they really want to see their organization survive through very hard times.

0:31:03 AD: So there’s the crisis part of it where it amazes me that for a sector that does such hard work and with such little money, that we should be leaving them with three to four months of cash balance to survive. I think, one, coming out of this, amongst the funders and amongst the eco-system, we need to have a conversation that for many of the NGOs, shouldn’t there be more of a sort of protection on the balance sheet, that if you’re faced with a hardship, you really may need to close down because you’re in such a vulnerable position. You often have three months of cash. You often are covered for another three, four or five months with donor commitments, which can evaporate in times like this. So it’s an extremely vulnerable position for the sector, and there’s really not well-positioned to actually survive a crisis like this. And frankly, when they are needed is when they’re pulling back. So we need to find ways to think about how this sector is not as close cyclical and you can insulate, how you can build some buffers in and structurally really set the norms. And we need to think through this coming out.

0:32:10 AD: I think we also need to think through, “Can the sector be doing things differently?” And I think a little bit of this will happen willy-nilly as organizations start to shrivel their programs, they shrink their programs. I think the sector has wonderful IP, wonderful evidence. Maybe they can play more of a role as technical partner to working with the State government as opposed to running their programs in parallel to the government. And the budgets required are smaller, and it’s a different model in which you operate, requires slightly different skill sets.

0:32:43 AD: Rohini alluded earlier to the fact that we may want to look at leveraging technology in multiple ways, not just fancy tech, but also low-tech as well. I mean, there is some text messaging features to stay in touch with parents during the crisis, to involve the community. I mean, I work in education. There are several low-tech ways as well to do things right now, to respond to the crisis, but out of that will emerge new lessons learned. And I think we’re building some interesting infrastructure. I mentioned this in my conversation yesterday. Now, teachers are forming more WhatsApp groups. This year, we’ll have to do the teacher training online. So we’ll come up with new models and new infrastructure because these teacher groups will be formed. There are groups being formed between teachers and schools and parents, which never existed before. So you’ll have that infrastructure. Now, how do you leverage that in the next three to five years? Because parents historically and community historically has not been connected to the school.

0:33:48 AD: So I think through this crisis some of this infrastructure is also being built, and how we smartly think about leveraging this and look at new models. We earlier never thought about the home as an environment that we could impact. Now, we think about it much more as people are at home and we’re forced to reach them at home. We always think of impacting them at either in a health center or at school as opposed to going to their home, right? Whether through tele-medicine, or some form of interactive radio or an app on the phone or text messaging or other ways, maybe even IVRS, etcetera. So I think there’ll be very innovative ways of thinking about things coming out of this as well. So I think the social sector, on the one hand, a very, very hard time to survive. And I think you almost need one team just working on that and then almost a small team, the orgs that can afford to do this, really thinking about this new normal, because there is an opportunity, I think, to do things differently going forward.

0:34:50 AD: But I’ll just come back. I mean, I think through this crisis, through this hardship, I just hope, my biggest hope is that we can reset the relationship between government and the NGO sector, really look at a more trusting relationship. I know this sector is under a lot of scrutiny. People feel extremely vulnerable. And to be honest, I can understand the reason for scrutiny in some very sensitive areas. But in areas like health, where we know we are faced with a crisis, or education, I mean, we should just be much more open and much more relaxed with whether it’s FCRA approvals or just re-looking at the books of these NGOs and things like that coming out. So these are my two big observations is, how do we reset this relationship? How can government look at taking away the Licence Raj, looking at more of a partnership more with the NGO sector? And how can the sector, one is, go through this really hard time, survive, come out stronger in a sense, be more innovative? And how do we think of ways for them to have stronger buffers going forward?

0:35:56 AD: I mean, it’s interesting in some countries… I was looking in the US, the small business loan actually and the payment, the payment for employees that they have, the PP scheme or whatever they call it… PPP, sorry, actually covers the NGO sector. So they’re paying for the employees of the NGO sector through this crisis. They’re actually extending loans to the NGO sector. I don’t see any relief package. In the UK, people are disappointed with a multi-billion dollar relief package for the NGO sector because they feel it isn’t enough. I mean, there’s no mention even of the NGO sector and the fact that it’s faced with real hardship, and that these are front-line workers doing immense work during this crisis. So one is the here and now. I think we need to realize the here and now and maybe government needs to act now recognizing the role of the sector. And then there’s the medium term in terms of resetting the relationship.

0:36:55 SP: Right. Rohini, I’m sure you would like to pick up on some points that Ashish made. But I have one question for you, which is, because the plenary session and the big responsibility is on two of you, Rohini and Ashish, you have to draw a action point, “These are the priorities for the India and these should be actionable points.” So if you have an unwilling government to engage with social sector in a realistic and meaningful way, the challenge is, how do you partner with governments across the country, and how do you make it happen? So what is the step one if we talk about here and now approach?

0:37:35 RN: Yeah, thank you. I’m gonna be as honest as I can. I think in the here and now, in terms of service delivery, like at that first mile, I don’t like the term “last mile”, I use the term first mile, because that’s where things originate and where the problems reside. If we think of it as last mile, we have a very different mental model. At the first mile, the government is quite willing for the civil society sector to participate because they know that last few steps, the social sector’s best at bridging. So I don’t think we’ll see too many problems there. It is when many people start challenging certain ways of the state expanding and retracting through environmental or labor legislations, that’s when I think the tussles will begin. And I would say to all my friends in the social sector, there is a great role for agitation, to stand outside the gates and really bring peoples’ conscience out, that’s fine. But there’s a huge role in between to work with government at various levels because government is not a monolith, there are always going to be bureaucrats who are sympathetic.

0:38:58 RN: There’s always going to be some department of government that is very willing to listen, some politicians who understand; find those champions and work with them. Because we have to assume that many things are done with good intentions. We also know the road to hell can be paved with those same good intentions, but it is for us now to learn new forms of collaboration. I don’t see a way out. As I said, we don’t want to be blown off the negotiating table, right? We have to be able to sit across, and at least in our experience, in my experience of 30 years in the sector, I think when you come in with good intent, and you come in with a desire to work in a non… What is the word? Hostile way, governments need the social sector, they need the social sectors innovation, ideas, demonstration on the ground. So I think there is [0:39:56] ____.

0:40:00 SP: Ashish, what would be your action point to engage with the government meaningfully? And I know you all do mainstream work, but the mass-communication, the public perception is such that we don’t really see the mainstream coverage and narrative and the conversation around the activities that these frontline workers called social sector do. How do we mainstreamise this effort?

0:40:29 AD: Yeah, so just coming back, Sanjay, I don’t mean to be too negative on government. Actually, government has run some fantastic programs in the last few years, both the prior government, this government. So India has made progress, there’s no doubt. Also as far as the NGO sector is concerned, there has been greater involvement, I must say, in the last two, three years. Government does reach out both at the policy level to solicit inputs and even in terms of implementation. There are many foundations, NGOs. I know TATA Trust, for instance, Piramal Foundation, Nandan and Rohini’s foundation, many have worked very closely with government on many initiatives. So it’s not like there is no partnership today. There is a partnership for sure. All I mean is, never waste a crisis. There’s an opportunity for us to think more boldly, to think about these large-scale missions in education and health. We will have a fiscal envelope. We will not get a 2.5% of GDP on health and 6% of GDP on education.

0:41:29 AD: We’ll have to work within the fiscal envelope, we’ll have to be innovative, but I think we can still be bold in terms of the goals we set over the next five years, and we really come together to work on this. The center, the states, the civil society. So right now, that partnership is happening, but it’s happening in one state they’ll open up and in another one they will. I just mean we can do it in terms of much bigger, bolder reforms. And that’s what I would look at right now. Missions in these two areas with the whole civil society sector putting it’s weight behind it, and government, both state on center also. So I think if the Prime Minister were to announce for instance, a mission that by 2025, we need to achieve certain goals, we’ll all get behind it.

0:42:23 SP: Yeah, so Rohini ke liye ek savaal hai. Sangeeta, sorry one sec I’ll just go back to that question. Shalini is asking, “How do you think the future of migrant workers is going to be post-lockdown and the impact of reverse migration on cities will be? And how can NGOs can actually help the process of getting them back at their feet at the soonest? Because now we believe that workers are very disheartened. “Mujhe ghar jana,” is the catch phrase. We have not treated them well. We never realized that they are part of our lives and suddenly they are going thousands and thousands of kilometers back home, and I don’t expect them to return before Diwali. I’m not bothered about how business has suffered, but see the humanitarian crisis we have at our hands, and how do we fix that? How do we realize that it is a top policy agenda?”

0:43:20 RN: I’m not an expert but I’ll tell you what little I know. One is, civil society must help government at… Government has put a lot of budgets for this, they are not able to do it as effectively as it should be done. Help government in this case to reach the help to the migrant workers that has been designed and envisaged by state, local, and center. Do that, one. Second, again that empathetic energy, don’t underestimate the value of just reaching out in empathy, gather more volunteers to do that. Just knowing that there is somebody interested in our fate, their fate, might help those migrant workers. Thirdly, I think I just recently anchored a panel, moderated a panel on this subject, “Will migrants return?” While migrants very much want to go home, they may not have that much choice and maybe pushed back to the cities where they used to work. So, let’s not assume that they’re not going to come back, but this is a really fantastic time, as Ashish has been saying, to think very radically about what they will come back to.

0:44:26 RN: Use the current shock that people have got, “Bhai, kaise? How will we manage in our cities without the plumbers, the electricians, the masons, the sanitary workers and everybody else?” And say, “Why have we been so unwelcoming to them?” And how can we rethink this? This is a real chance for civil society, research institutions, academic institutions to come and suggest a rapid reform of the urban sector to be more welcoming to migrants. These are the three things I can think of. And of course, there’s a whole different thing about how do you make rural economies more resilient, which is not my expertise, but I wish there was a magic wand, which there isn’t.

0:45:10 SP: Right, let’s talk bit more about technology both of you mentioned. And I think the kind of participants we have today, they are going to really implement all of these things. So Kashmira Gangji is asking, “How do you think entrepreneurship in collaboration with technology will be implemented in a full fledged way in developing countries like India, and to what extent will the COVID-19 impact will have on future entrepreneurship, and what are the challenges?” You spoke about it, the rural sector, the rural economic sector will face post the COVID. So should I start with Ashish, first, how do you make these technology relatable rather than talking in high jargon? What can be done? The problem is digital divide. In middle class India, we are talking about work from home and online education karlo. But what happens to the vast swathes of country where there is no connectivity?

0:46:11 AD: Yeah, I think it’s a very valid point. I think it’s very clear I work in education. This crisis has brought out the… One is, we can see the inequality, it’s glaring in front of us. But also it has in a way accentuated the inequality. If you look at in education, the children in high income households, they are doing zoom classes. Their parents who are educated are spending more time with them, not just on schoolwork, but generally having conversations with them. They’re learning more. In a low income household, they have no access to technology, they’re dealing with daily hardship, and they’re slipping behind even from a learning standpoint, and of course, there’s a lot of socio… Emotional struggle, as well. So technology, frankly, in the near term has led to a greater divide as opposed to bridging the inequity, I would argue. This technology in education is not solving for it in the near term. So we have to think hard about, in the next three to five years, how do we get there. Firstly, I think to bridge it, we do need low tech. Yes, we do have smartphones. The penetration is about a third at an individual level. I think when you start to look at it at a household level, it’s about 70% of households have a smartphone, right? Because there’ll be one person.

0:47:33 AD: So we do have penetration of smartphones. And but then when you look at data, bandwidth, all of that, there are constraints. So if you want to be inclusive, we do need to look at low tech as well. So I know in terms of reaching parents, for instance, Pratham, we’ve been working with some states on COVID response and education, and many NGOs have very interesting text messaging based, low tech based, we work with Doordarshan in several states on television. So I think we have to look at other media beyond just fancy tech in the near term. In the next three to five years, I think the smartphone penetration will increase to a rate where… So there is a little bit of bridging. But I think the other thing to look at is how do you really get tech to be effective? How will people engage with it and actually use it for learning? If I look at education, in particular. And we will be really able to bridge inequity. It is a real challenge, Sanjay, I must tell you. It’s not a given that because you have technology, you will have better access to resources, and therefore you will bridge the divide. I think that’s a very simplistic way of looking at it. I’m an optimist. I think we’ll get there, but we’re not quite there at the moment. We are faced… But I think we will innovate in the next three to five years and partly because of this crisis. And hopefully, we’ll get there.

0:48:52 SP: Okay, you are talking about three to five years. Let’s take Rohini’s perspective on this. Rohini, it could be a bit tricky for you, but I should still be allowed to ask this. Aadhaar, now we are doing EkStep. And then they have seen the use of open source API technologies where things are in the people’s hands and no one business entity can control that and profit out of it. So all of these solutions are available. What market intel you are getting at home that the next big intervention, the next big problem solving can come out after this crisis?

0:49:34 RN: Oh, my goodness, that’s a very, very difficult question for me to answer because, see, my entire thinking is mostly around the social sector and the Samaj sector. But so one thing I will tell you for sure is that our interest in all our work is to make sure that we have to remain technology enabled but not technology led, because technology is just a tool, it’s not the end goal. But we must really exploit all the potential of that technology to achieve our goals. And you do that by holding certain philosophies and values which you make public, and then design the technology for that. There will always be some unintended consequences. But if you put the philosophy out front and you design based on that philosophy, what you can do is instead of creating monopolies and gated walls, you can create open systems which allow data to flow in multiple directions. You allow see-ability and observability from different directions, and you allow participation and co-creation. That’s what my understanding of the benefits of open digital public goods is. And I would say that… Pehle hum kehte hai bijli sadak paani shiksha aur swasthya. Abhi sabko maalum hai ki uske saath tele-communications bhi jhodnayi padeka.

0:51:04 RN: First, we must not increase the digital divide. Everybody deserves access to digital, to the internet. Everybody deserves access to smartphone technologies, and even if it means that we give it to people for now, figure out a way to make it so cheap that you don’t have to give it, we have to do that. And then, you can do all kinds of things that even right now bridge the digital and physical world. In EkStep, working with government, we are able to use digital to allow people to do more physical. But at the scale at which you need to work, even if it means you need to tell parents how to work with glasses and pencils in their home to help children, you need to reach them digitally so they can do things physically. Sab kuch digital tho hona nahi chahiye. Physical tho chahiye hi. But to reach that scale, we need the combination. And so I think this has become an extremely important thing for the social sector to engage with.

0:52:04 SP: Absolutely. This question, I should go to Ashish for this. Ram Ramlingam, he’s asking, “Everyone says use latest tech in development sector, but how? When even the government or even the biggest Indian IT organizations are barely digitally on the cutting edge? The greatest research in AI, robotics, etcetera, are happening in Silicon Valley. Ironically, these companies are run by Indians. And one of the top 10 companies in the global big list, the 10th number, somewhere, one Indian company would come. So this IT versus digital, there is a literacy and understanding problem also. Since you are closer to the policy makers, tell us how will it fit into the thinking of the mindset of the decision makers?”

0:52:58 AD: Yeah. So look, I don’t think you have to be at the cutting edge in order to use technology for impact. I think what’s more important is to contextualize it and make it relevant for the situation and the problem at hand. So we don’t need… We may be far behind on quantum computing in India, but that almost doesn’t matter right now. What’s more important is, how do I develop a solution? If I want a child to learn, say, how to read or how to speak using a smartphone, how do I develop a… It’s a recently… Using existing speech recognition software and using other already existing tools that anybody can pick off the shelf, how can I design something that will be effective? So we have, for instance, worked to develop a new app called Top Parent. Again, it’s a very simple app. It’s a way to engage low income parents to get them involved. Vo swasthe ke barom mai koi information milta hai, about social-emotional learning.

0:54:04 AD: But underlying it there are apps for children in the age three to eight. And these are evidence-driven apps to do literacy and numeracy. Fairly simple stuff. So you don’t have to be at the cutting edge. They are gamified, they are fun for the children, they are set in our context. Bacha unke saath engage karta hai. That is more relevant versus being one of the top 10 in Silicon Valley at this point in time. And being able to marry that with some low tech. Ki vo parent ko IVRS ki through remind karo, test message ki through remind karo, community worked ko thoda engagement ho saktha hai. I think those things are more relevant than the very, very high tech, if you ask me.

0:54:48 SP: One question is from Jonali for Rohini, “How do we support the grass root level women, micro entrepreneurs, who were already struggling in a pre-COVID world, and now with the rising domestic violence in a post-COVID world?”

0:55:03 RN: Yeah, it’s a very good question. Thank you. I think we are going to have to create new forms of support, like India pretty much innovated the self-help group, which gave women in isolated settings so much support. What can we now co-create that will support women in this new crisis? Whom should they call? Whom should they reach out to? I don’t have all the answers, but I think it’s a very important question. In terms of the micro entrepreneurship for women, there’s been such a concern about the reducing labor participation of women. And I think the social issues behind that have not yet been fully understood. So I think there is a scope for the social sector to go into that and enable the re-gigging of women’s participation in the labor force in a safe way and with dignity. I don’t have the answers.

0:56:07 SP: Right. Another question, I think, Rohini, you would like to take is from Gaurav Gupta from Mumbai. He’s asking about, “Can we create a sort of outcome funds by the government so that there are clear, measurable targets and governments are also more open to these ideas? How do we bring about the changes around funding?” Because you just mentioned, I’m adding my bit to it, that the philanthropic funding could face some limitations now in post-COVID world, even though social sector, whatever it has done so fa, r is largely driven by the private sector funding by the philanthropists like you. So how do we manage that situation in post-COVID world, the resource crunch and the more leeway to NGOs to work freely?

0:57:02 RN: I think Ashish would like to pick up on this. So I’m gonna hand over to him after making one point. There have been many such experiments around the world of impact, bonds, etcetera. I am not against them, but I want to quickly say, this is the time for philanthropists to… And we… Some of us have signed a pledge to do that, that in fact, we will be more flexible in our funding, more generous in our funding, roll back some of the rather insane reporting requirements, outcome based reporting that was mandated on which many social sector organizations could spend up to one third of their time. So while I’m very open to the idea of impact bonds, I’d like Ashish to take that. I would just say, remember that impact is not always measurable. And these kind of bonds are always about things that can be measured. So we need to be a little nuanced about that. But Ashish, I’m sure you have some experience with this.

0:57:56 SP: Yeah. So Ashish before you speak, I will add one more question that has come from Sayanthan Chaudhary, and yesterday you touched upon this point in one of your sessions. This whole debate of profit and non-profit, so can we bring about the changes which are kind of for a more business and revenue model follow some corporate principles so that donor and the governments are also kind of more confident about the working of NGOs, how to go about it?

0:58:30 AD: Yeah, so I firstly I agree with what Rohini is saying is that, it shouldn’t be that outcome funding is crowding out the current needs of the NGO sector, which we mentioned is going through a very, very difficult period right now. I think the outcome funding, and I’m the chair of an organization called Social Finance India, Social Finance is a global org. And our CEO, Shantanu, has been working on specifically looking at outcome funding with regards to getting people back into the workforce and skilling, which I think will be very relevant now. It is very measurable, because you know whether people are getting a job or not, you can track it. So that’s one area in particular where we feel particularly coming out with the economic hardship in this crisis. It may make sense to look at talking to government and working with other funding partners. Because we do have underlying service providers and certain overlay on government funding, there is some government funding available, but with some overlay on it, one can actually improve the efficiency quite a bit.

0:59:36 AD: So there’s those kinds of opportunities. Is there other for-profit ways to solve some of these problems? I’m not sure. I know in education, for instance, it’s very difficult, because the for-profit models tend to cater to India one, maybe India two, but India three, which is the bottom three quartiles, it is very hard to make the economics work. Beyond selling a textbook or a workbook to the home or pencil and stationery, it’s very hard to make the other learning driven models work. And I think the same is true in many aspects of health as well. So yes, I think I’m a big believer in the private sector, but part of the reason the civil society sector exists is because we know markets don’t work, and because there are big gaps, because if markets already did work, we wouldn’t need the civil society to come in and solve some of these public goods failures.

1:00:34 SP: Right. Ashish, one more theme if you want to touch upon is about jobs and poverty. Now, you mentioned about health and education being the top most priority agenda for our kind of country. I would call it, actually if you are talking about national security, health is the first followed by education because that creates jobs and that alleviates poverty. Do you think the entire program and the design around poverty alleviation now needs to be relooked at, and this is also one of the top two or three priorities in the country today?

1:01:15 AD: I think it absolutely is, Sanjay. I know economic growth is critical and we have to work on the here and now in terms of economic stimulus in our financial system, all of these are need of the hour. Obviously health is super critical in dealing with the COVID crisis. But I do believe that looking at education and health, we have solved some basic problems in the last few years. Bijli has gotten better, sadak penetration into rural India has improved, sanitation has improved. To ye cheez hao jo hai they have improved. I know there’s a big scheme around water now. But I think education and health typically have not been as politically attractive because they are not as tangible as building a road or providing electricity. I think we need to convince our politicians that, look, actually it is very visible, and frankly, it will win more votes than even building a road. Because fundamentally if a child can learn to read or to speak well, the parent sees it immediately.

1:02:21 AD: Or health, it’s extremely visible also. If you’re not suffering from the same diseases, you’re getting rid of infant mortality, some of the hardships etcetera. So my own sense is we need to make these more politically feasible. We need to convince ourselves that near term economic fix, I agree there are certain things we need to do, but fundamentally East Asia, which is the one set of emerging countries that have really grown in the last few decades, the reason they have is because of the investment in human capital. And there, Amartya Sen was absolutely right. So we cannot ignore that, that human capital is the key. Look at East Asia, all the successful countries; Korea, Taiwan, China, Vietnam now, which is emerging faster than us, exporting much more than us. It’s really human capital that’s made the difference, and that is the investment that we need to make now.

1:03:16 SP: Rohini, there are many questions about funding, future of funding, although you have spoken about it, but there are many participants, they are kind of joining in, getting out. So there are many new audiences I can see. Would you like to, again, recap and reflect some more on how to make a plan for sustainable funding for NGOs?

1:03:39 RN: Yeah, honestly we have to face the fact that there will be a financial crunch that many NGOs will face. Even if some people step up through generosity, even if retail funding grows, and many Indians are being very generous, and we know the size of the retail philanthropy market is really growing in India, and may even grow now because people are feeling, really their hearts are stirred. But even then, it won’t be enough for NGOs to do business as usual. We are going to have to figure out how organizations can stretch the rupee and re-think priorities. And while there are no quick answers, this is where I think quickly focusing on sharing competencies and assets across NGOs, like don’t repeat and replicate; create groups of NGOs and share resources across them. Some of us are working on some processes as to how to do that. List your assets, publish them, let everybody list, what do we have? I am good at ABC, I have this, I have extra capacity in this, this is how we’re going to have to do it. Think, move from a scarcity mindset to an abundance mindset. What do we have that we can share and build on and re-purpose?

1:05:03 SP: This is very very…

1:05:04 AD: Sanjay, can I just add one thing?

1:05:06 SP: Yeah. Ashish. Go ahead.

1:05:07 AD: I mean, the NGO funding or philanthropic funding is anyway a drop in the bucket compared to what government spends. Right? So we’ll go from what was already quite small to something that’s smaller. Obviously, it means tremendous hardships for NGOs, but if you step back and look at what gets spent, it’s going to be very, very small anyway. So I think the real question through this crisis we should be asking is, “What is the way you can get much bigger impact?” Because I think Rohini is right. Yes, we need to explore new funding models, but it’s not like even with retail funding, this is going to grow exponentially in the next five years. Right? So I think the question is, how can you get a 5X in terms of scale through a different model? If I look at a very successful NGO that has completed 25 years like Pratham, what are some of the things which were really high leverage? One is ASER, didn’t cost a lot of money, but really holds a mirror to education in the country. All of us look at the data, all of us know there’s a learning crisis. It’s such an important public good with small amount of money.

1:06:19 AD: Second, even though programs scaled and then shrunk and they went to different states, did different things, I think it was really the evidence, the proof, that they could get children to learn quickly, some of the methodologies, the [1:06:31] ____ method implementing it, and which was then picked up by other NGOs, by other players. So almost the spreading of that public good. The way ABL was set up in activity-based learning was set up in Tamil Nadu and then spread. So I think looking at these different approaches, public goods, how do you spread as opposed to scale? I think that… How do you work with government as a technical partner? Maybe this is a way to get higher bang for the buck.

1:07:00 RN: And since we are about to close, I just want to say all, we almost as a social sector now needs to learn the art of acupressure. Where are those points at which you press where you will get the whole system leverage? I think we have to deep dive down and sit down and hunker down and learn that, so that we get more, as the corporate sector says, bang for the buck.

1:07:24 SP: Right. So…

1:07:24 RN: Now that the buck is going to reduce.

1:07:27 SP: Yeah, so Ashish, I want you to come here. Rohini actually just made a very big suggestion, it is a profound suggestion, that despite having ideological issues, as you also spoke about don’t have blinkers, can there be an ideologically agnostic platform, an uberisation of social sector? That you know where are the skills, expertise, the human network available, what resource can be leveraged where, can we have a national dashboard of sorts using technology? This sounds like a feasible idea.

1:08:04 AD: Yes, in some ways people have tried some elements of this, where I know when we had a former, Mr Anil Swarup was former education secretary, he pulled a lot of NGOs together and found different people’s strengths, built a platform to match them with different state governments. So people have tried that and it has worked, but I think what you’re suggesting doing it at larger scale, I think mapping out the sector to see if we had a mission in these two areas, say education and health, a large scale where government is serious about getting something done in the next five years, how can we connect the dots so that we can have much higher impact and work together? I think is a very good suggestion.

1:08:48 SP: Rohini, you want to add something to that, uberisation of NGOs?

1:08:53 RN: No, I think we are, that’s what we’re calling societal platforms where… And that’s not the only way and that’s not the only name, because many people globally are trying things like this, but discoverability, shareability of assets and a continuous learning journey, making the most out of what you have. But I wouldn’t like to close without mentioning this sector comes a lot from the heart, comes from a lot of empathy, not to forget that some of the best things in life and empathy and volunteer energy are free. And so even if other resources are coming down, expanding on that will prepare us for resilience for the long term.

1:09:39 SP: Right. Rohini, one question for you. I don’t know whether this is part of our agenda or not in this three days Charcha 2020, but the urban governance, the way we have to re-imagine the cities, why I am asking is, in our governance structure, what we saw, there is a center, there is a state, but when it comes to the grassroot local governance, municipalities, panchayats and the big municipal corporations, we are still in a kind of very ancient era, and we have not designed a fair and just structures around it. What do you think needs to be done on the local level governments or especially urban governments?

1:10:25 RN: I think this pandemic has clearly taught us about the importance of decentralization. While I agree some things need to come from a center, we know very well that the best response is a response in context. And for you to do effective response in context at the local level, you need decentralization of power, you need flexibility. And I would say that the promise of the 74th Amendment has not been met. Now is the time… We know the politics about why states don’t like cities to have power, like my own Bangalore city, for which we have been fighting for decades now. We know why that happens. But if even the state governments could understand that powerful, locally empowered cities could be even good for the state, it’s trying to give the 74th Amendment a proper [1:11:14] ____ and deployment.

1:11:18 SP: Right.

1:11:19 AD: Sanjay, if I can add one thing, I know China is much vilified these days, but let’s not forget that it also developed very rapidly for the last three decades, and there’s something to learn from there. And frankly, I think one of the big learnings, we often attribute it to the party, state, etcetera, I think the big learning actually in China is devolution of power down to the county level. There are 3,000 counties in China, about a quarter of the size of an Indian district in terms of population. The county, the party chief who runs the county actually is on metrics and has a lot of authority and actually funding available at their discretion, and that’s what makes China successful. It’s not just the devolution, but the accountability, the metrics, the outcomes orientation. And I’ve been working with a professor, Professor Karthik Muralidharan, and we’re working with the state of Telangana. So I think we can try this at the state level but also down at the district level, where there’s greater devolution but also a greater focus on outcomes and more strategic budgeting to send money in that direction, eventually money to be earned at those levels as well.

1:12:32 SP: Right. So I think now we are about to close our session, but before we go, final word from Rohini, the subject of the plenary session is India’s priorities, and you all have listed, both of you have listed very clear bullet points that what needs to be done. If you have to summarize at the end of this session, what would you say to this, Rohini?

1:12:57 RN: I would just say that since I’m talking to my social sector friends, that this is the time for us to step up to ensure that the balance between Samaj, Bazaar and Sarkar is retained. We have to be vigilant, but we have to be ready to collaborate, we have to be creative and innovative. And never before has the importance of the social sector been so visible. Let us use that opportunity to help forge the good society. This is the time, this is the opportunity, and I hope we can work together to do that.

1:13:34 SP: Wonderful, very stimulating and very enriching session, but before I let you all go with my due apologies to the participants, I want to say one thing.

1:13:58 SP: Being their media partner.

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