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INKtalks: Rohini Nilekani: From Starting Infosys to Saving Water

Water | Strategic Philanthropy | Jan 4, 2017

Philanthropist Rohini Nilekani talks to Lakshmi Pratury about setting up Infosys in the early 90’s, her attempt to encourage children to read more books and about her Foundation Arghyam, which works with water and sanitation issues.



00:06 Lakshmi: So I wanted to start, everybody reads about you, everyone knows what you do. We’ll come to that a little later. I thought we should go back in time to when you were a journalist, young journalist, you got married to Nandan and his co-founder started Infosys, which was a lot of pressure in terms of him not being around and you, anybody who knows Rohini knows that she’s not quite the shy type that sits quietly in the back seat, but you had to decide to put a little bit of brakes on journalism and stay at home. So tell me a little bit about what was that like? And also, that was at the beginning stages of Infosys. I mean what was it like, on one hand things were taking off like crazy. On the other hand, you had to deal with this personal thing of, “Okay, now a change in my status” kind of a thing. Tell us a little bit about it.

00:52 Rohini: Yeah, no, I feel we were very fortunate. Infosys and my marriage happened almost at the same time and we were so young that we could afford to take any kinds of risks. So Nandan just sort of, I remember just said, “Rohini, what do you think? Should I join this company? We are thinking of starting something.” And we said, “Of course, that was the right time.” So it was great, but for seven years, literally in those days, people had to create software by actually going into the basement of those companies that they were going to write the software for, and never come out to see the sun for days on end. And really, they were used to work on-site all the time, so I was very lucky that we often had to go to the US for seven years and we had no possessions, no money, it was wonderful at the time. We were young, we could do that. And I really enjoyed being in the US with just four bags, and we used to make our house wherever, whichever city we were in, and it was the public libraries that saved my life and I wish we could have that here in India for people, but we had a great time, so no regrets. But yes, I didn’t say much of Nandan, yes, that’s true.


02:00 Lakshmi: Secret to a happy marriage, seeing each other occasionally.

02:00 Rohini: Maybe.


02:03 Lakshmi: So the next thing is, when you decided to come back to activism, so to speak, I wanna talk a little bit about, and obviously Infosys did very well, and we talked a little bit about wealth and the relationship to wealth, because when you grow up in a middle-class family, you kind of almost think bad people make money and good people study, kinds of things. So when you came into wealth, what was it like for you initially?

02:29 Rohini: Yeah, no, I’ve said this before, surprisingly, it was very difficult for me to deal with the extreme kind of wealth that we came into, Lakshmi, and it took me years to settle down to the idea because we were brought up to think… And let me remind you in those days, in the early ’90s, it was a hang over of the license jar and all those kind of things where you suspected that wealth was never made ethically in India, and that’s not very fair to all the earlier industrialists, it was just sort of a middle class attitude, that if you’re wealthy, there must be something clearly wrong with you. And even though I knew how Infosys and how the fortune came about and how dedicated and ethical the team was, it was really very hard to deal with the wealth. I didn’t know what to do with it. What do you do with that kind of wealth? It sounds odd. When you don’t have money, it seems like something very desirable, but when you have too much of it, it can create quite a lot of problems.

03:19 Lakshmi: Yeah.

03:20 Rohini: It took me a while to realize that instead of looking at it as a problem I had to look at it as an opportunity, and then I realized that you could use that wealth to do many of the things that I always wanted to do even as a journalist, just help others to make this world a better place.

03:33 Lakshmi: Yeah.

03:34 Rohini: Sounds like those Miss India kind of replies, Miss World or something. I want to make the world a better place.

03:39 Lakshmi: Yeah, I want to solve world hunger, yes. [chuckle] I think it’s that obviously, money buys you freedom to do whatever you want to do and you reinvented yourself as an activist. You really wanted to be out there, so you went into Akshara Foundation and then you did Pratham Books, which I think is one of the largest publisher of children’s books in India today.

03:57 Rohini: Yes, it is, yeah.

03:58 Lakshmi: So tell us…

03:58 Rohini: We reach millions of children with good Indian low-cost books, many of which are absolutely free in the Creative Commons, one of the greatest joys of my life is to see children reading our books.

04:11 Lakshmi: So one of the things we talked about within Pratham books, Indian children had children’s books, but they were all American or German, or whatever, there were no Indian children’s books.

04:20 Rohini: Yeah, most Indian children, the only book they ever saw was a textbook and you can’t curl up with that at night, so we wanted to democratize the joy of reading. So from 2004 onwards, we published a lot of books, created a whole eco-system of children’s publishing that I think benefited the entire industry, I hope.

04:36 Lakshmi: Yeah, and the other thing, when we first met many years ago, we talked about, you started Arghyam and we talked about water, and we said that this is going to be a reason for conflict someday in a big way. And actually, what’s happening in Bangalore right now is an example about that. So tell me a little bit about Arghyam and what were some of the things you did?

05:00 Rohini: Yeah, you know when I came into a bit of money from the sale of Infosys shares, I wanted to put it all into my…

05:03 Lakshmi: Yeah, actually, I wanted to say your first personal huge chunk of money that you…

05:06 Rohini: Yeah, the first time I got a 100 crores, at that time it seemed like a lot of money and I wanted to put it all, every last penny, every last paisa into the foundation, and we said, “What is it that we can do that is somewhat strategic, that’s going to help and fill some gaps?” And by God’s grace we were able to start work in water, we’ve been doing that for 12 years, we’ve supported fantastic NGOs in this country across 23 states, we’ve worked very closely with several state governments. The goal is really to get communities to accept that there’s a problem, but then help them become part of the solution, by understanding the resource of water, how critical it is, how we must try our best to use it sustainably, not contaminate it, and we’ve had tremendous amount of success. One of the things that we’re doing right now is working on conserving ground water all over the country, and also working to revive springs. There are millions of springs in India, undocumented. We don’t have enough data, but they provide good, clean, zero energy. Perennial sources of drinking water to people in many, many communities and they also, they feed all our rivers.

06:12 Rohini: Many of our rivers are not even reaching the sea. We don’t think of these problems because all of us open a tap and get water, but far too many people don’t and even we can’t take that tap for granted. So all of us have to get water-wise, water conscious, and through Arghyam we try to do a bit of that. I believe that India needs to… India has had some traditions of being a low water society, coming from a very strong environmental justice ethic. But I think we also need to become a low water economy, because there’s no way you can achieve your economic growth goals if you don’t look at the very key resource of water. I believe clearly that the economy also rests on the ecological base and you have to conserve and enhance it. That’s the responsibility of our generations.

06:58 Lakshmi: Now I wanted to say, after doing all this work all these years, you guys came to one area of focus which is the ground water…

07:08 Rohini: And sanitation, yes.

07:08 Lakshmi: Why did you say that’s what you wanna do and what are you doing there specifically?

07:12 Rohini: You know, India has spent hundreds of thousands of crores on surface water. Creating command areas and dams, etcetera. But that money has under-performed so badly, because actually India is a ground water civilization. We actually have been an open well civilisation, and after the bore wells came, we started digging deep into the earth for water, and 70% of our drinking water needs, 80% of our agriculture needs, are actually met through ground water. It’s connected to surface water of course, but still, to be able to make that invisible water visible so that we can manage it much better, is what we have been trying to do. And working with government also, to improve our ground water management policies which are woefully missing right now. Currently, you can dig a hole in the ground and you have a right to pull out the entire aquifer. We need to change some of those laws and make laws more compatible with this century’s needs.

08:08 Lakshmi: Yeah. So the last question is about before we came in here, I was telling Rohini that “Hey, you know, we are doing Facebook live of this session, are you okay with it?” She said, “You know, after we started, after Nandan went into politics, all my public stuff, I used to say, ‘Don’t do this, don’t do that. But after that I’m like, ah, anything goes.'”

08:25 Rohini: Yeah, like people say, “Privacy is dead. Get over it.” Or something like that, with Facebook and WhatsApp and cameras everywhere.

08:33 Lakshmi: So tell me about, what was it like when you took six months to decide and he said, “It’s all up to you.” So if you did, it was you. If you didn’t, it was you.

08:42 Rohini: Yeah. That’s right.

08:42 Lakshmi: So how did it effect you in… Effect is not the right word, but how did it change the way you lived, and you had to go give public speeches, suddenly become this other person. So what was it like for you?

08:55 Rohini: Yeah, no, for those who don’t know, my husband suddenly decided to get into politics and stood for the MP elections in the last Lok Sabha by-elections from Bangalore South, and really turned our lives topsy-turvy for quite a long time. It was one of the most tough decisions I’ve ever taken in my life, to support that. And I’ll tell you today that I’m really very, very glad that he went ahead and did this because it was big risk to take, and I’m very glad because we always say, “Let good people come into politics but let it not be me”. But this time we said, “Yes, it will be me.” And I had to say, “Yes I’ll support that as well.” Well, we lost. He lost the election, but it taught me a lot, and I think those lessons will stay with me for the rest of my life. And I hope at least five or ten people in this room want to try to stand for elections because…

09:41 Lakshmi: How about you. Would you like to stand for elections?

09:43 Rohini: No, I don’t think so, because I don’t think I am quite cut out for it. And also, I think, I hope my time is better used in other ways. Though it’s very important that some people do take that lead. How many of you are going to stand for elections? You have to try, it can be a local…

09:56 Lakshmi: Here, one of our rink fellows says he is gonna stand for elections.

09:58 Rohini: Yeah, it can be the local or third tier of government. You don’t have to stand for Lok Sabha.

10:04 Lakshmi: Great.

10:04 Rohini: But it’s very important that we do something like that.

10:06 Lakshmi: Thanks Rohini.

10:07 Rohini: Thank you, Lakshmi.

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