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Rohini Nilekani | Casual Conversations with Citizens

Strategic Philanthropy | Access to Justice | May 31, 2020

Rohini Nilekani in conversation with Gopal Sankaranarayanan. “Casual Conversations with Citizens”, aims to bring out how the Constitution interacts with each of us. Rohini shares her experiences of life and encounters with law, rights and most important, her ideas of justice.



0:01:43 Gopal: Good morning, India. And I do hope all of you have been safe and healthy over the last week. This is the fourth segment of Casual Conversations with Citizens, brought to you by myLaw, where the legal profession and the citizenry attempt to learn a little bit about the world around us from the experiences of some extraordinary citizens. Usually, our interactions have been with individuals who had a clear line of sight to their goal from an early age and then gone about achieving it with skill and fortitude. Their stories have involved discoveries along their journeys in their disciplines and how they’ve grappled with obstacles to make the roads smoother for those who came after. Today, we are fortunate to have with us someone who has done things a little differently. She started her career as a writer and a journalist, but destiny had other plans. The last three decades have seen philanthropy redefined in her hands. A veritable polymath in the social space, she has taken on children’s learning, public health and sanitation, gender equity, water preservation, transparency in governance, and promotion of the arts. Virtually, all aspects of the redefined Article 21 of the Constitution have been a part of her cogitations. Remember, all of this has been while holding down two other challenging portfolios, that of wife and mother. Rohini Nilekani, thank you so much for joining us this morning. I think you’re on mute.

0:03:12 Rohini Nilekani: Right. Live and learn. Thank you so much for having me on this.

0:03:16 Gopal: Yeah. So I must tell you you’re the first guest which really intimidates me somewhat because of the number of areas you have covered, the kind of experiences you’ve had. It’s something that an advocate like me and the conversations that we have, which deal with society and law and regulation, we always look forward to interacting with someone who’s obviously done so much in so many spaces like you have. So it’s a curious expression that I come with because there’s, I think, so much that we can learn from you. But first up, let me just ask you this. It’s been a tough few months for all of us here. And like everybody else, you’re obviously under lockdown. What have you been up to? Any household chores and stuff?

0:04:07 RN: Oh, yeah. This lockdown is certainly been good for the health of the privileged people because they had a chance to rediscover the dignity of labor, which is not a bad thing for the elite to have to do. So, yes. All those things, sweeping and swabbing and gardening and everything else. Yeah. But also experiencing just how privileged some of us in India are. And the contrast, just understanding that contrast even more viscerally. Here we are all so comfortable, nothing… I mean, some people in dense areas do have things to complain about because money can’t buy them space. But even then, when you think of our lives, the elite, and that of what we’re seeing on the roads and train stations today, no comparison at all.

0:04:58 Gopal: That’s true. That’s true. It’s a matter of great privilege. And it brings me straight to this one question that… In the days when you were growing up, and, first in Bombay and then you came to Bangalore and stuff like that, one of the things that we try to examine in this series is the background of the individual themselves, what kind of milieu did they grow up in, who inspired them. You’ve often spoken about your grandmother, who had quite an influence on your life, and I think she was from Belgaum, initially, and she came from some level of privilege and all that.

0:05:37 RN: So, actually, I’ve talked a lot about my grandfather, Babasaheb Soman, who is from the Belgaum Khanapur area, and who was like you in the legal profession.

0:05:48 Gopal: Okay.

0:05:49 RN: But he spent most of his time trying to convince his clients not to go to court, which meant that he didn’t earn much money because you get fees from actually going to court. But my grandmother actually came as a young second bride to Babasaheb Soman, from Gwalior.

0:06:09 Gopal: From Gwalior.

0:06:09 RN: Where her father was ambassador to the court. And she lived in these really palatial surroundings and then came to Belgaum to my grandfather’s relatively humble home. Both of them inspired me a lot. Their stories were told a lot. I didn’t meet my grandfather, though he worked for freedom and worked with Gandhi during Champaran. He died just before independence. But his stories are alive in our family. And I met my feisty grandmother, who showed me how to live really because she went from wealth to this humble thing. And then even though her children did so well, her son became chief of naval staff with all those luxuries, she decided to go into severe austerity for the last 20 years of her life by living in one single room. So it was quite a journey.

0:06:54 Gopal: Well, that’s amazing. That’s amazing. But… So that brings me squarely to this question that when… You had people like that in your family, right? I mean, both those grandparents seem to have given away or sacrificed what could otherwise have been a life of privilege and wealth. And you’re one of the very few Indians, a handful, possibly only five of you, who have signed up for the Buffett Gates Pledge, where you pledged to give away half your wealth to better causes. Now, I’m just curious. I mean, do you think all those values that you inculcated and those inspirations that you had from within the family played a large role in that?

0:07:37 RN: Yeah, I definitely think so because we were taught to think of money as just a means for something else. We never focussed too much on money. But that is also a kind of privilege. But we were not rich at all. I mean, we grew up in Mumbai in a fairly middle class family, my sisters and I. My parents wanted so much the best for us. My mother came from a land owning feudal kind of setup. But she wanted us to have a liberal education, English convent education. And she wanted us to be independent. So but the stories that were told, the values that were talked about, were these: That wealth doesn’t come from possessions or money, wealth comes really from good education and then applying that education for good things in your life.

0:08:29 Gopal: Okay. So it’s curious you should mention that because I’ve read in a couple of places I don’t know how far this is true that you met Nandan at a quiz at your college is it? Because myLaw and I, we conduct a quiz for the general populists dealing with law and regulation. It’s been 10 years now that we do it, so I found it quite cute that actually you met at a quiz and at that point, did you have any idea at all that the future held something like this, wealth and philanthropy and stuff like that?

0:09:01 RN: No, no, not, certainly not when I met Nandan in 1977 December, and when he was at IT and I was at Elphinstone College in Mumbai. We were young and free and trying to be radical and no question of thinking about wealth at that point at all. I mean even later, even when Infosys was formed and even 10 years into Infosys, nobody thought we would come into this kind of unprecedented wealth, never.

0:09:28 Gopal: Right. That’s fantastic. So you had a very different career trajectory prior to the wealth coming in and then realigning your priorities. What was that like? Did you encounter the law quite a bit as a journalist and did those power equations change substantially once the wealth came in and you were sitting on boards of philanthropic groups and organizations?

0:09:57 RN: Well as a journalist, you get to see people encountering the law. You [0:10:02] ____ because you write their stories. [0:10:04] ____ I remember as a cub reporter, I had to report on some murder at the band box dry cleaners. So you had to think about issues of justice, about policing, about crime as a reporter for sure because you are constantly doing stories that involve jurisprudence in some manner or form, but journalists don’t really encounter the law. In fact, we’re quite privileged there too. Because once I was in some… Covering some, almost a part of it but covering this protest against some dowry act that had happened. [0:10:39] ____. Some people had killed a poor woman and we were all there outside that house and I had my camera and my notebook and all those people got arrested, but I didn’t because I was actually also reporting, but I was feeling like shouting and protesting too, but so in fact, the journalist profession has some protection, right? There’s media.

0:11:01 Gopal: Yeah.

0:11:01 RN: When you’re reporting, it’s a very different privilege.

0:11:05 Gopal: Right. But you…

0:11:10 RN: Later, I’ve not had any particular encounters with the courts etcetera and I went there to see how a high court functions. And I was quite appalled because nobody could hear the judge. The audio system was so poor. There was so much crowd. There was so much confusion. I saw people outside. One fellow was actually crying when I was just talking to people saying, “This is the 30th time I’ve come and my case has been adjourned, how can I… My life is falling apart.” And just it really bothered me that such a simple thing as decent, competent access to a court is also not a reality for most people.

0:11:50 Gopal: That must have been one of the driving factors towards setting up Nyaaya, which is one of the projects at…

0:12:00 RN: Yeah, so I’ve always been interested both as a journalist and a writer and because my grandfather was also in the profession about issues of law in society. How does law interface with society? Who learns from whom?

0:12:13 Gopal: Yes.

0:12:13 RN: It’s a two-way conversation. But often not had enough in the public domain. It seems to be hiding behind black robes sometimes, but it should be out in the public domain because law is about society. And so those issues are really I feel important to put out into many languages, into casual conversations on the streets and in our homes and that’s what made me suggest to Vidhi that we should create some kind of portal where people can have those discussions and make law simple to ordinary people.

0:12:49 Gopal: Absolutely. Absolutely. In fact, that’s how these conversations were also born out of that. The fact that there is a huge gap between lawyers and judges and society at large. We tend to actually not demystify the law. I think that is to the advantage of many of us in the profession because that gives us something to do. Because if it was simple enough for them to understand, then they could possibly handle it directly. So, I wanted to ask you something about that. That in your experience in Nyaaya and elsewhere when it comes to dealing with the courts, with laws, etcetera, as a citizen and as a citizen who has dealt with many spaces in which we have law and regulation and some spaces in which we are under-regulated like the environmental space despite whatever legislations we have, there are a lot of gaps there which people exploit. So you’ve done a lot of work in all these spaces. Do you feel that there is some kind of better way in which lawmaking could be approached because right now what we do is, there is some issue that a minister or some segment feels it’s necessary and then there’s a standing committee, there’s a bill and it gets passed usually with very little debate. The role of the public coming into it and that’s something you’ve talked about before, that just having some notice in a newspaper saying come for this hearing may not really be enough.

0:14:14 RN: Yeah.

0:14:15 Gopal: Do you think that there are any ways of making it more practical and more?

0:14:19 RN: Yeah, I think we do need to find ways and here civil society plays a big role, I think in allowing lawmaking to be more transparent. I think we also are to blame as voters. I’ve said this before that we don’t realize that lawmaking is a very critical function of our legislators whom we elect and then whom we expect to solve our personal problems individually.

0:14:44 Gopal: Yeah. Individually.

0:14:44 RN: Literally to solve our personal problems, but if we also took some time to understand that to make good laws is a significant part of the work that legislators must do, that they can have a conversation with us, “Okay, we are thinking of such a law, do you even have an opinion on it, then we can represent you when those laws are being framed.” I think that needs to start happening because just like the dowry act, okay. Now, of course, we want dowry to go away. So we have a great law I think and okay, you can debate on the nature of that law, but everybody says social evil, those words are always said social evil, but it’s extremely prevalent in society, so sometimes the law is so far ahead of society. But it can also be the opposite. So for when it comes to sexuality, I think society had accepted different forms of sexuality, before finally the Supreme Court had to step in. So I think it is a two-way conversation and our legislators; we must use legislators. Civil-society organizations must step in, so there is much more broader democratic consultation, before laws are made. I think it’s doable.

0:16:01 Gopal: Yeah. One of the things you might have hinted at, was the fact that when legislators come in, they probably are not really attuned or trained towards the art of lawmaking, right? They are based on a popular vote, they come in. Now, they don’t really know what lawmaking is probably about. I’m talking about first-time legislators, those who have been in the house many times, it’s different. So there seems to be a gap, because the legislators are not trained.

0:16:30 RN: Sure.

0:16:31 Gopal: And when the voters are doing the voting, they’re not thinking about the fact how good is this person at making a law?

0:16:37 RN: Yeah.

0:16:37 Gopal: Or voting on one.

0:16:38 RN: Yeah.

0:16:39 Gopal: Their thoughts are more limited, more personal to the fact that there’s a broken water supply pipe and this guy might help out with it or something like that. It’s not about this larger issue. And this is something we’ve faced, I think, with large parts of the judiciary, as well. We have The National Judicial Academy in Bhopal and we have many state judicial academies. One of the things that many of the directors of the judicial academies keep sharing, is that judges, once people become judges, they’re so unwilling to believe that there is something for them to learn still; that they can actually be taught in a classroom, or they can be told there are different ways of going about it and there seems to be a little bit of resistance there.

0:17:21 RN: Yes.

0:17:21 Gopal: It’s perhaps something that I think legislators may also face, right? If you want to try and attune them and give them a primer on how to go ahead with law-making etcetera. How do you think we could overcome some things like that?

0:17:36 RN: I think it’s quite doable. One thing is when you see the work of PRS [0:17:44] ____… And you see the work of Vidhi. So Vidhi is trying to help legislators and parliamentary committees, just to make better laws that are clearer, more contemporary, that are very, very much within the frame of the constitution and things like that and I think there has been a tremendous response to that sort of work. PRS is just getting legislators and parliamentarians to understand what are the laws on the table, just helping them little by little, to get more familiar and offer to make better votes happen around laws, and frame better laws and have better debates. I think that is happening, so that’s a huge role and I’ve supported some of these organizations that are doing such stellar work. And I think as far as the judicial academy is concerned, I think just like in medical education where you have to do continuing medical education to retain your license to practice. I think the time is right now, because I can’t blame the judges. Change is happening at a dizzying speed, especially because of technology… How on earth, are they supposed to keep abreast…

0:18:49 Gopal: Keep abreast, yeah.

0:18:51 RN: So just to be able to come to some consensus on a continuing educational opportunity… I think the time is very right, and it’s so doable right now thanks to so many digital technologies.

0:19:05 Gopal: It is, it is.

0:19:06 RN: But they are so overwhelmed by so many other things, we’ve got how many crores, about three crore or something pending cases in our courts, totally, something ridiculous like that. So we have to think about pendency also which again I feel the time is right to resolve that issue once and for all.

0:19:24 Gopal: Yeah. So many people talk about technology actually being the way out for that, with video conferencing and courts doing video conferencing.

0:19:34 RN: Technology is never a way out. Technology is one tool to find the ways out.

0:19:39 Gopal: Yeah, yeah, perhaps. I should have phrased it better, yes. Now, one of the areas, and this is something that I’ve been most curious about of all the various areas you work in, is dealing with gender equity. You curiously actually support a lot of work with reference to young men and boys, right? And in the material that I’ve looked at and in the literature, you talk about how there are lots of measures in place, lots of organizations, lots of legislative protections for women who are battered, and women who are harassed etcetera, etcetera, who are victims of this, but we don’t actually spend enough time and attention on the young men and boys, who grow up to be the very people who are sometimes the perpetrators of this. And that’s actually I think a nice holistic way of looking at stuff.

0:20:26 Gopal: Now I wanted to ask you two questions, one, how did that come about about, about looking at that aspect of it? Because it’s a large part of our populous, and the second, could this kind of an approach, be extrapolated to other areas, where you have discrimination and victimization? Under our constitution, for example, we have provisions which say that “Look, the states can make laws for the protection of women, for the protection of children, they say that there are certain protections that linguistic and religious minorities will get. There are protections that the SCSTs and the backward classes would get. But all of those measures have been in place for a while, but taking a page out of your book, it would be necessary also to look at the contrast in all of them, right? Looking at religious majorities, looking at castes which are not the backward castes etcetera, etcetera, educating them, sensitizing them, the sexual majorities, talking about them, talking to them and telling them to be more sensitive. Now, do you think it’s something that can be extrapolated? So therefore two questions, the first part being what brought that on, and second can be it extrapolated?

0:21:37 RN: Yeah, so in all my work, of now about three decades. No matter which area you work in, gender is a cross-cutting theme, right?

0:21:45 Gopal: Yeah.

0:21:45 RN: Every… What dependent whether… Especially water which I’ve worked on for 15 years now, and quite a, in quite a deep way, gender was an important part of it though we didn’t necessarily call it out all the time. Because the… This burden on water was on women at least at the household level. So gender issues are everywhere. And then as a writer and a reader when you’re looking at what’s happening around us, the events that are happening around the world, whether it’s terrorism or whether it is a move to the hard right.

0:22:13 Gopal: Yeah.

0:22:14 RN: When you try to unpack things there’s a kind… When you look at the backlash to so many so-called progressive things that have happened in, since the Second World War, as you start to analyze and go to the deep root causes of things, thinking about women and how they were becoming perhaps even more fragile in one way, while they were becoming much more equal in other ways. Then you start to think about the other side of it, and so who’s… Who is a woman dealing with? She’s dealing with a person or a man on the street or her husband or her father or her son or some… Somebody who has a different way of looking at women’s empowerment perhaps than she does. And that makes her choices very complicated. Then I began to look at young men, and say, “Where do all these things spring from? And what is the root of patriarchal thinking, and what are the people trapped in the patriarchy thinking themselves? What do young males think, when they are 13 and their hormones are raging?” And that made me look at what work is going on and try to support more of it and try to create a whole portfolio across India where we are trying to create safe shared spaces for young males to examine their masculinity.

0:23:27 Gopal: Yeah.

0:23:27 RN: And come to terms with who they are, which I think is very necessary if you want women’s empowerment too. So I’m focusing on those issues, it’s very tough, it’s a fledgling sort of low portfolio, but we hope to be able to build on it in the years to come, because I think that’s the heart of many things.

0:23:45 Gopal: Yeah. So as a philanthropist and working in these areas and supporting so many different projects, in the world of philanthropy, I don’t know what the collective noun is for philanthropists, but among all of them, is there any measure by which philanthropists learn from each other? Feed off each other? Because there are obviously small fledgling philanthropists also. People at a very small level trying to do something locally but they don’t know the experiences that Rohini Nilekani has had when she’s tried to do something in a big way, right? It’s important, I think from a sense of, certainty which underpins our constitution that if men help, we at least make use of the lessons that other people have had. So how do philanthropists, mentor each other, or put their lessons out of the mistakes they’ve made, of the obstacles they’ve faced?

0:24:41 RN: Yeah, it’s good you asked this because finally I think the time has come when philanthropists globally are recognizing the need to collaborate. Just yesterday we had a very important call, a global call where many of us decided to pool money with some collaborative giving platforms.

0:25:02 Gopal: Yes.

0:25:03 RN: And that’s a very important point in this journey of, say, The Giving Pledge where if you look at how much has been promised, it’s something like half a trillion dollars. And how much is given, there’s a huge gap because people don’t necessarily know how to give money, it’s not so easy. When you’re trying to learn from those who have given better and given more and we now… There are many intermediary organizations that are also are helping, bigger philanthropists, bigger foundations to connect with smaller first time donors. And there are many, many more open spaces for that sharing and discovery. So this is actually a very great time for that.

0:25:42 Gopal: That’s excellent. Now, when you’re working in the area of philanthropy, I would imagine I’m looking at what you mentioned earlier about when you were a journalist and how, you know sometimes you would have to, and I think you all started fairly idealistically, you possibly started with some ideas of you know “How government can be reformed” and things like that. You’ve reached a stage where you’re dealing with large sectors like education and water, and livelihoods, and these are areas where it seems, at least from our point of view, seems very difficult to work completely independent of government. You need to work with the governments in many of these sectors, right? Now, does it… Is there… Is there a major obstacle that you face that you want to take it in this particular direction, but governments have different ideas? How does it work to try and convince them to come on board? Because you’re the one with the bucks, you can actually make the change happen, but they have different ideas of how could it should be spent, right?

0:26:42 RN: Yeah, but first of all, lets be very clear, the bucks that even Bill Gates has, is nothing compared to the bucks that the Government has. So, in that sense, there is no comparison, whatsoever. However what philanthropists or people who want to invest in social change do have is the ability to take some risks and put their capital at risk and say, “Look, lets just try something”. And if it fails then we’ll try something else which the Government doesn’t have the luxury to do. And you know, in fact, Government is quite open. Indian governments, at the center, the state and even at the Panchayat level or the municipality level, they’re usually open to, you know they can see intent reasonably quickly, and if people are coming in without saying…

[foreign language]

0:27:32 Gopal: Yeah. Yeah.

0:27:32 RN: First you do something for me, [0:27:33] ____ Then I think, they’re very open to suggestions. And then it’s a co-creation journey. Of course, they will have ideas, because they have budgets, they have schemes, they have programs, you have to fit into that. But you get that space to innovate, and that’s the important thing. I can tell you a hundred things where civil society has innovated and Government has scaled. So another… Say in water, for example, at Arghyam about 15, 10, 12 years ago, we started working with different hydrologies and typologies in India, there were marvelous institutions doing work on ground water. And our laws on ground water are not there yet. Many times we have decided exactly who owns the ground water. Is it the community? Is it the state? Is it everybody? Is it nobody? Is it the private sector? Because in some countries they give the private sector a huge hold over ground water. Here it’s very unclear, even today in India because there’s an easement act of 1882, which says, “Technically, if I drill a hole under my house, I can suck out the whole aquifer”.

0:28:36 Gopal: [0:28:37] ____.

0:28:38 RN: Lots of spinning laws around that, but so working with these civil society organizations, we were able to come up with something called Participatory Groundwater Management which is now a cornerstone of all government policy on water. So it is possible to find those spaces and opportunity windows where you can work very well with government. So, that’s been my experience.

0:29:02 Gopal: Right. So, since you’ve mentioned water and the excellent work that you’ve done with Arghyam, I’m just curious about a couple of things. One, because I have done a bit of work in the water space in court, we’ve done with… There’s a wetlands case, protection of wetlands over many years. And one of the things that we realized was that there were many orders that the court was passing, which were actually to protect wetlands and large patches of water which includes…

0:29:30 RN: Like sponges, wet sponges.

0:29:31 Gopal: Yeah, sponges which includes in the larger definition that they’ve given apart from the Ramsar convention, etcetera. It includes lakes and ponds and lagoons and stuff like that. So, in all of that, the court kept passing orders which were protecting those wetlands. In fact, there was in 2006, the Ministry of Environment and Forest had mapped out, geospatially, the entire country and all the wetlands. And the court passed an order saying that any wetland which is above 2.25 hectares in size would remain untouched.

0:30:06 Gopal: Now, you and I are both from Bangalore, in a way. You come there and I’ve been born and brought up there. But we have seen how that beautiful city of lakes, now we have been depleted down to a few. The funny part is, despite the protections that the court passed in its orders, virtually nobody knew about it, right? That judgement continues to hold today. But in city after city, we find lakes being the first to go. We find a lot of sludge and slurry being sent into the lakes. We find infrastructure projects coming up, road widening, bridges, all sorts of stuff. And lakes becoming the dumping ground. This is an integral source of ground water as well. But this is a real-life example, where I’m telling you about this huge gap between actually a kind of law coming in because the Supreme Court’s verdict is there. But people on the ground who need to use and utilize this to achieve their rights, they don’t even know about it. Now, is there someway of bridging that gap?

0:31:10 RN: Yeah. Well, of course, we have to put laws into the public domain. How will people know that they exist if they… First of all, they have to be simple. It goes back to all that we said earlier and we need intermediary organizations that help or you need tools. You need technology tools in the hands of people to say, “These are the laws.” We’re trying to do that. 100 laws that affect you everyday, or 200 or 20 laws that you should know by heart or whatever it is or you should talk to your representative about. So that’s all possible and happening in bits and pieces. But honestly, even laws, I feel if, that’s the point where I’ve been thinking a lot. Our laws are so un-implementable. Every water body and every tree can’t be protected. It’s not feasible. And first of all, if some trees can be downright dangerous, and they have to be cut, and they have to be replanted or whatever it is. So a fundamentalist attitude in environmentalism is actually harmful to the environment. So but if our laws are going to be so rigid… People will not follow them. Every 2.2 acre body, I’d love to save all of them, but sometimes you can’t. And unless you do land reform. Unless you open up land for everything and people who need it, how are you going to protect the water, right? So, I think these conversations need to continue.

0:32:26 Gopal: Yeah.

0:32:27 RN: As far… So making laws known, obviously, we must work harder at it but even making laws comprehensible and making laws implementable and practical is something we really need to move towards.

0:32:41 Gopal: Yeah, yeah. In fact, just to share with you about the implementable and practical bit. Two different examples. One is about water itself. They have a bunch of wetlands rules to protect these wetlands. The rules say that the states have the onus on them to first carry out an exercise to identify the wetland. And then, notify it after which the protection will kick in. Now the states sit back. They do nothing. They don’t examine, they don’t notify. So, nothing is protected. Now…

0:33:14 RN: There’s going to be loopholes.

0:33:16 Gopal: Yeah, yeah. But I’m saying…

[overlapping conversation]

0:33:20 Gopal: It wouldn’t be fundamentalist of me, to use your phraseology, to say that, “Why don’t you flip it around?” Have the law that the water body is protected. If you want to remove that protection, then you carry out the examination and do it. Because I think the approach itself is flawed. If you put…

0:33:38 RN: But, even then, Gopal. Okay, fine. Fine. Let’s think of that way. The Western Ghats are there. Let’s protect them because honestly, they are the [0:33:48] ____ of our future. They are the laboratories of our future. They are the legacy we give to our grandchildren. So, suppose we say just keep them, even if you say that and then you say a conversation must happen if you want to pull down something or if you want to remain in there. That’s essentially, what happens, but how, just, unless the incentives are aligned. If nobody… How will you even implement that? Nobody’s… There is no law saying that you can go and dump effluents in Vrishabhavathi river in Bangalore. Nothing allows you to do that.

0:34:26 Gopal: Yeah.

0:34:26 RN: People wait for everybody else to be asleep and go and do it. So, again, how many policeman, how many people do you need to watch other people’s bad intent from being practiced, right? So our governance institutions also have to step up to say, “Look, this pollution is going to affect all of us together.” So we have definitely deficits of governance. We have deficits of regulation. We have deficits in terms of how laws are framed. And this is a wonderful time for more and more people to get involved with these issues of law and society and do all they can to improve the discourse, at least. Everyone can be part of that, at least. And reduce some of the polarization in thinking, you know. I started something called Uncommon Ground, which I’m hoping to expand soon where just people, even in our courts as you know, so many of the cases are because… Stuck between governments who could easily have conversations outside the court. How can we do much more preventive work like mediation outside the courts? How can we think of ways where people can do much more peacemaking and prevention before things even reach the courts. So I think there’s a role for a lot of people to get engaged with these questions.

0:35:44 Gopal: Yeah. Now, that segues into something else I wanted to ask you about, your other initiative EkStep, which is the words bringing out, I think a lot of assistance for children as far as education is concerned etcetera. And I’ve been on the website as well, and I’ve seen the number of modules across languages that you have for kids to pick up small little aspects of different, different things. Sorry. Were you saying something?

0:36:14 RN: Oh no, EkStep is, our mission is to increase access to learning opportunities for 200 million children by next year.

0:36:21 Gopal: Nice start.

0:36:23 RN: I think we’re on track to do that because we’re working very closely with all the governments. So 28, 30 states now want to develop a platform for getting teachers to teach better and things like that.

0:36:39 Gopal: That’s an amazing tool. So I’m just curious because last week we had Somdev Devvarman and he was talking about how one of the loopholes he felt in our education system is that as kids grow up, we don’t teach them enough about law, we don’t teach them enough about basics of finance and we don’t teach them about appreciation of arts, sports, things like that. Not actual participation but appreciation right? Now, I was wondering does EkStep attempt when it’s helping with learning modules, etcetera. Is this something that you look at? Because the citizens of tomorrow are the school children of today and the children of today, not school children alone who have to learn about these things about love for the environment, about regulations, how to assist others in different areas, etcetera. Does EkStep look at things like that?

0:37:35 RN: EkStep doesn’t create content, EkStep supports the whole content creation ecosystem. So we won’t say this is what should be taught, we say whatever needs to be taught, let us make sure it is possible to teach it better in terms of access, in terms of ability to discover, to share. So it’s a technology enabled platform really. We don’t decide any of those things, but across time whether it was in Pratham or in Akshara Foundation, we did look at the values and what should be taught and how it should be taught, what should be the atmosphere in a classroom, what should be the relationship between children and children to teacher and vice versa. So some of the other organizations I have been involved in are deeply engaged in this question, but EkStep is doing something different. But you’re right. Of course, you’re right. And what a better time than now for us to engage with the whole school system so that children are more curious and connected to issues of future citizenship.

0:38:41 Gopal: Okay. Now, in your experience of over almost three decades of doing this kind of work, there must have been things that you look at and say those were great successes. We managed to pull that off really, really well. And maybe there are others which didn’t go so well, right? But what are those great successes? Just give us an idea of why those worked and what those were?

0:39:07 RN: So I would definitely say Pratham Books, which I co-founded in 2004. It came out, work of Pratham, but I said, “I’ll take on this responsibility,” and we set it up in Bangalore and we said, “We’ll enable a book in every child’s hand.” And today, 15 years later, it has become the next team after, that took over after me, I stayed there for 10 years. And even while I was there, millions of children were able to get books in their own language, were able to get them free or very affordable all over the country and then all over the world increasingly, because we created a Creative Commons platform where people could access things free. I think that I consider a genuine success for a constituency very close to my heart, little, little people. That’s one. And I would say Arghyam too, where we’ve made some serious inroads in policy when it comes to water. We’ve been able to support dozens of organizations that have done decades of work on the ground. And we’ve shifted today. The government has already come out with two massive schemes in water.

0:40:16 RN: And a lot of the thinking of Arghyam’s partners has gone to shape those policies. So I think I would say that serious impact affecting millions and millions of people. And what went wrong… Well, how much time do you have? So I just tell you one thing, the one thing that I learned from pretty quickly. In 1992, when the children were very small, together some of us in Bangalore set up something called Nagrik for safer roads because I just lost a very dear friend in a very ghastly accident. And we were spectacularly unsuccessful. And though there were such amazing people involved in it like Sivakumar and Kiran Mazumdar and Jagdish Raja. We just didn’t know what to do. We were perhaps a little ahead of our time. We were doing the wrong things. We were under investing, so it just didn’t work but it taught me a lot about how just passion and just unstructured use of your time is not going to make any change possible at all. Today, I would do Nagrik very, very, very differently. But that’s how you learn by failing.

0:41:24 Gopal: Yeah, yeah, yeah, absolutely. And it’s important for us to know about those lessons as well, right? That’s the only way we can possibly take different steps. Now, I wanna go back to one issue that you’ve touched upon, which is about the Commons. It seems to be an underlying theme of a lot of your work, with Pratham Books the fact that without copyright, you just put those things out there. You are an author yourself of kids books under a pen name…

0:41:52 RN: No, I called it Rohini, I’ve switched back to Rohini Nilekani.

0:41:55 Gopal: But are you still doing those kids books?

0:41:58 RN: There are two coming out this year.

0:42:01 Gopal: Oh wow, fantastic. Okay, so one of the things that…

0:42:05 RN: One is on Sringeri Srinivas my character and in the pandemic, situated in the pandemic. It should be out soon.

0:42:11 Gopal: Oh wow, fantastic, fantastic. We’ll look forward to that. Now, therefore one of the underlying aspects of that is that look, make it available to everybody, right?

0:42:21 RN: Yes.

0:42:21 Gopal: That’s obviously something that’s underlying the water issue as well… And I wanted to discuss that with you because it’s something that we have faced in the courts very often. When we’re dealing with issues of land, for example, the position seems to be, and this is a position that has taken root though there doesn’t seem to be any philosophical basis for it… That if land does not belong to any private individual, company etcetera, it belongs to the government.

0:42:49 RN: Yeah.

0:42:49 Gopal: That’s too much of a leap. It’s always been traditionally understood that you will have government land, you will have private personal land and you will have land of the commons.

0:43:00 RN: Yes.

0:43:00 Gopal: Now, it’s not only land, it’s everything else around land that has that understanding. Our constitution, understands that with reference to minerals for example, which rests with the state, but it’s for the benefit of the public. The same thing with water, the Easements Act is obviously a fly in the ointment as far as that kind of approach is concerned but it’s… The problem appears to be that we as citizens have allowed this view to take root that there are these two strict divisions without understanding and taking the community aspect, as our own. In Goa, for example, even now, you have what are known as Comunidade lands, which belongs to the community, right? Like even in our villages you have Panchayats saying that, “Look you can use this land for this or that.” So they are trustees much like the government is the trustee of much of our public land. Bangalore has seen many issues in the recent past of steel flyover coming up, or metros coming through, [0:44:04] ____ of parkland and trees having to be cut for it, etcetera and the citizenry have actually stood up and tried to resist, and pointed that out. But that’s because I think very often, governments take the position that “The land is ours, we will do what we want with it.” Forgetting the fact that they’re only trustees and they have to take the community into consideration.

0:44:22 Gopal: Now, have you faced while you’ve been dealing with this as far as groundwater is concerned, the sense that many people push back and say, “Look, this is not community water. It’s my water.” Because we have water tankers in all our private cities, just taking groundwater out, litres and litres of it, and going and giving it for construction purposes so that a 50-storey tower can come up on the outskirts. So, have you faced those kind of issues?

0:44:49 RN: No, these are issues that remain unresolved as I said in India on groundwater and that’s just an example of the commons. So who owns the commons? Whose land is it? Whose water is it? We haven’t really resolved that. And different countries have resolved it in different ways but for me, I worry about the hard edge of that. To say that either the community owns it or the private sector can be given a lease on it or the state holds it in trust and decides whether the private sector gets it or you get it or I get it. They are all problematic constructs so we need sort of a… What is the word for it? A stepped up governance architecture on the public commons right? We have to use the principle of subsidiarity where possible. If we say, even if you say the state is a trustee, you have to leave some of it to be solved at the most local possible level. So Panchayats under the 73rd amendment or 74th amendment needs to be rejuvenated now but many local water bodies, can be managed through dialog and within those small areas or even across within district boundaries.

0:46:00 RN: So in practice, community resources are being managed by communities. Once in a while, a heavy-handed law will come down and eminent domain will be called in and say, “We are putting a fine here, we are putting a road here,” and there’s always conflict at those points. But I don’t even know if this can be resolved once and for all. We have to keep learning from the best examples and then framing, sharpening our laws accordingly. But you see, it’s when it comes to finite public resources that all these conversations arise. Not in education. If you have five extra books I don’t get one less book, I can get five books too. If you get an education, I don’t get less of an education, but when it comes to these public finite goods, that’s when these contestations arise and I think those discussions are still wide open in India. And we have to beware of saying that the state will become the final authority, because in all my work there is that one thread that runs through it. One philosophy that is at its core, that in the dynamic continuum between samaj, bazaar and sarkar…

0:47:15 Gopal: Yeah.

0:47:16 RN: We have to strengthen samaj a lot, it has weakened a lot and internally it has also got very divisive and polarised. We have to start a deep conversation as to what is a good society. And then, therefore, redefine the role of the state and the market as remaining accountable to the larger public interest. Otherwise we fall into the trap of becoming consumers of the market or subjects of the state and forgetting that the real work of all of us, as citizens of something or the other, some country or the other, some space or the other, even refugees of which there are millions, we all have to contribute to the good society. And we have to co-create good governance, because the state alone won’t do it. And we have to co-create good markets that work for us, because the markets alone will never do it, as you can see now with all the power of the Tech companies. So that is the thread in my work and so these issues are who owns the commons?

0:48:14 Gopal: Yeah.

0:48:15 RN: How do you deal? How do you re-invest the commons with regenerative property so that more people can use them equitably and in a just manner? These are very important issues for samaj collectively to think through now and the law to also get engaged to enable those things to be actually implemented for equity, for justice, intergenerational justice as well. So these are the questions that keep me interested and by God’s grace I get to support so many good organizations that are deeply thinking through these issues.

0:48:53 Gopal: Yeah, so that possibly adds the fourth word there which is seva, which is I think what you’re hinting at that within the society, within the samaj, we must consider about seva to each other and to bring everybody up together. So I wanted to ask you a question on that, which is that, again, one, something that I mentioned that the outset that we have about five of you who have made this kind of pledge and you said, yes, so there’s a bit of a gap to actually finally translate that to the actual funding. But there are so many who have not made that pledge, within this country. There are so many others who are veritable examples of the kind of inequities that we have in society. We have a society, a samaj as you were saying which is cleaved, not only because of traditional compulsions or political motives which are creating those cleavages, but they are systemic cleavages which are creating problems. The rule of law, which we have always talked about should apply equally.

0:49:55 Gopal: Many times the institutions that govern the rule of law are imbalanced. Courts are very often imbalanced, police are imbalanced, the media is imbalanced. So in that kind of a scenario within samaj there is this feeling that, look only they are able to get the rule of law and order applied properly while we are left completely at sea, and that’s something that we have to move towards trying to bridge the gap. Which is what brings me back to this point of why is it… If I’m right about this, why is it that we don’t see more of the wealthy indulging in the kind of philanthropy that… It’s too much to expect at your level making a pledge of how… Sorry?

0:50:42 RN: I’m glad you said indulging.


0:50:47 Gopal: No, no. Because I think the pledge of half your wealth maybe a tough ask for many people, okay. But even otherwise just making those small little cultural changes that you need to make to take care of others, you know, in the pandemic situation, we have seen many common citizens do that, right? But in a non-pandemic situation, we don’t find that, that often.

0:51:10 RN: No, no, I think people try to be the best they can be. But you are talking about the wealthy, okay. I think Indians super wealthy could be much more generous than they are and much more transparent about how generous they are. Actually some people are very generous and they don’t like to tell you also. So there is one section that does that, because there is a deep cultural thing. Right hand ko left hand ne kya kiya maloom nahin.

0:51:36 Gopal: Yeah, correct, correct. Yeah.

0:51:37 RN: So they don’t know. So there are people who are very generous, but there is a bulk of… There is a lot of people who need to be much more generous. For them to be much more generous we need to built bridges of trust with the wealthy also. So it’s a ek haath se taali nahi bajati.

0:51:49 Gopal: Yeah.

0:51:51 RN: So lots needs to be done and I think wealthy people also get very nervous and they want to protect their wealth, they feel insecure. When economies are doing well, when you can see trajectory for your children to do well, you are more generous, as the Americans have shown how generous they can be.

0:52:07 Gopal: Yeah.

0:52:07 RN: One point is I hope, even if people are more generous that philanthropy doesn’t remain charity. And philanthropy and justice issues don’t remain octagonal, that I hope they begin more to converge. Because when it is true philanthropy when you have understood there are structural issues of inequity that you have to address through your philanthropy.

0:52:31 Gopal: Yeah.

0:52:32 RN: Even though you can’t do it alone. Nobody has figured out how to have a perfectly equitable society yet throughout history. But at least to move towards some ideal where this kind of runaway wealth becomes structurally impossible to garner. Because nobody needs this kind of wealth. So how do you then in your philanthropy, at least, keep some portion of your portfolio to look issues of justice, of distributive justice, to find organisations you can trust who will work on these issues so that in fact the burden of philanthropy itself is reduced on people because first of all there won’t be so many structural inequities. That’s a long, hard journey for many people.

0:53:14 Gopal: Yeah.

0:53:15 RN: And we also need many more institutions working on justice to communicate better what they are doing to attract those kind of investments. So there’s lots of work ahead. But it’s a very exciting time because people have recognised exactly how interconnected our destinies are. So if [0:53:32] ____ does something, it has opened up a rise to more karuna I hope. But we’ve also learnt what we should not be doing…

[foreign language]

0:53:45 RN: And improve the karuna. Sorry for being so gimmicky, but the interconnectedness, that became so visible, karuna will spur more work in these areas that how do you… With what conscience do you leave millions of migrants in that situation? What can we do? Everybody is not going to go on the streets to distribute food. But everybody can do something, everybody can do… Even if you’re sitting in your house like me, comfortably. You can at least give some money to those who are out on the street. You can at least treat your own labor, the person who comes to clean your windows or whatever it is much more more fairly. Make a new contract, a personal new contract and understand because the value and price of labor have both been discovered in two months.

0:54:35 Gopal: Yeah, yeah.

0:54:36 RN: Because you, yourself finally picked up a broom and you finally understood everything that other people do. So I see this is a huge opportunity for social change. Maybe it’s too late for pessimism as they say…

0:54:49 Gopal: No, no absolutely. I think we have to be optimistic, coming out of this that like you said, that in the days to come after COVID, we’ll see possibly people being a little more generous with their time and their money and everything else. Fingers crossed. And just one aspect of this, which is that CSR funding is something that has been imposed on very big corporates, etcetera, etcetera. Now, do you think that imposition of this sort, does it really impel us as citizens to part with the revenues that we are making, the profits that we’re making towards this? Do you think it’s okay to impose it by law? Do you think it’s okay that, in case, people do not comply with the CSR requirements, that you have penalties for it? Or do you think we should always choose softer options?

0:55:49 RN: No, first of all I was opposed to the CSR law. You know, it’s a tax by other means, it’s asking business people to do what they’re not supposed to do. They can do it as private citizens, to make them do it as businesses… No other country has something like this, but some good things have come out of it, so one has to admit, some good things have come out of it. Corporations have learned about their relationship with their communities, and they have actually hired people to learn from that, and so some good things have come out of it, but to put harsh penalties on it, that’s just going too far, because where will you place the burden of guilt? On whom? On the program manager? On the CEO? On the shareholders? On the chairman? On whom will you place that guilt? And it’s just wrong to punish for that. What has happened now is, it’s become just a tax, which is okay, you tax people, you tax profits. Don’t delegate governance to businesses. Take the tax and create much better public schemes for the redistribution. This is at least how I think, having said that, some good has come out of it. Right now, it’s just a tax because many people have taken the easy way out and put it into PM CARES or PM relief fund, or whatever.

0:57:13 Gopal: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

0:57:15 RN: Now they are all finished, the rest and other corporations are trying to do innovative things within the restrictive rules of the CSR act. It’s also distorted the sector a lot, but that’s for another conversation.

0:57:28 Gopal: Yeah, yeah, yeah, fair enough. So, one last question because we’re coming to the end of the 60 minutes that we usually apportioned for this, which is something on a slightly personal note. Now, you brought up two kids and you were holding down a career as a journalist first, and then the philanthropy line. How tough is it for career woman to balance all of this?

0:57:54 RN: So I’m not a career woman in the conventional sense of the term, because as a journalist I worked only for a few years, after that I did a lot of freelancing. I gave up my job when my daughter was born, I found it very hard to struggle looking after her and the demands of journalism, but I was in a privileged position to say, “You know what, I’m going to do what I really want to do is give the first six years of my children’s lives totally to them because Nandan was very, very busy,” and so I did that, but I was lucky to do that, I was able to continue. My profession allows you to write articles or do some simple stuff on the side. So that’s what I did, so I didn’t have the struggles that other working women have, who have to really be super women from inside and do everything well. So, I got lucky that way, but I know the struggles that other women have to do to balance. It’s a very precarious and tough balance, and the demands on it keep changing all the time, and you have to make many sacrifices, either here or there. Because you can’t do it all, no matter what people say. Something gives, and if you’re lucky you have a support system around you. And that’s why you need to work on the men and the boys, so that they become support systems.

0:59:10 Gopal: No, no, absolutely, and I think many people are fortunate to have supportive spouses and supportive family structures and stuff like that. So thank you so much, Rohini Nilekani, for joining us. The kind of support you have given to so many people inside the community, and support to the many, many different organizations which are doing a lot of good work in all the spaces that are so integral to the Indian citizenry, is actually an example for everybody else. We hope, coming out of COVID, that many more will emulate your example as well. You are a fine, fine example of what an Indian citizen should be. So thank you very, very much for joining us.

0:59:51 RN: That’s too much praise, that’s too much praise. I’m just doing what I have been given the opportunity to try, so thank you.

1:00:00 Gopal: Thank you, thank you so much for using that opportunity. Thank you very much, Rohini.

1:00:07 RN: Thank you.

1:00:07 Gopal: Thank you. Bye-bye.

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