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Rohini Nilekani | Casual Conversations with Citizens

Strategic Philanthropy | Access to Justice | May 31, 2020

This is an edited version of Rohini Nilekani’s conversation with Gopal Sankaranarayanan, as part of the Casual Conversations with Citizens series. Rohini shares her experiences of life and encounters with the law, rights, and most importantly, her ideas of justice.

Both my grandparents have inspired me a lot. My grandfather, Babasaheb Soman, was from the Belgaum Khanapur area. Despite being in the legal profession, he spent most of his time trying to convince his clients not to go to court, which in turn meant that he didn’t earn much money. My grandmother on the other hand, came to him from Gwalior as a young second bride. Her father was an ambassador to the court, so she came from palatial surroundings to my grandfather’s relatively humble home.

Stories of my other grandfather are alive in our family. Through them, I know that he worked with Gandhi during Champaran and that he died just before independence. My grandmother, who I did meet, was feisty and showed me how to really live, because she went from having wealth to this humble life. In fact later on, even though her children did so well, she decided to go into severe austerity for the last 20 years of her life by living in one single room.

My sister and I grew up in Mumbai in a fairly middle class house with parents who wanted the best for us. Despite coming from a land-owning feudal setup, my mother wanted us to have a liberal, English convent education, and she wanted us to be independent. Through all the stories we were told, the values we were taught said that wealth doesn’t come from possessions or money, it comes from good education and then applying that education in your life. When I met Nandan in December 1977, he was at IIT and I was at Elphinstone College in Mumbai. At the time we were young and free and trying to be radical, at no point were we thinking about wealth at all. In fact, even 10 years into Infosys, nobody thought we would come into this kind of unprecedented wealth.

Law and the Power of Knowledge

As a journalist you get to see people encountering the law, because you write their stories. I remember as a cub reporter, I had to report on a murder, for which I had to think about issues of justice, policing, and crime. I think as a reporter you are constantly doing stories that involve jurisprudence in some form, but otherwise journalists don’t really encounter the law. In fact, we’re quite privileged in that regard. A good example of this is when I was covering a protest against a dowry-related act of violence that had taken place. Some people had killed a woman, so we were outside that house, and I had my camera and my notebook with me. When the police came, all those people got arrested, but I didn’t because I was also reporting. Which is to say, when you’re reporting, it’s a very different privilege.

Later, I went to see how a high court functions and I was quite appalled because nobody could hear the judge. The audio system was poor and the crowd was too big, there was so much confusion. I saw a lot of people outside, some of whom I tried to speak with. I came across one man who said, “This is the 30th time I’ve come and my case has been adjourned. My life is falling apart.” It really bothered me that something as simple as decent and competent access to a court is not a reality for most people.

In addition to these experiences, as a journalist and a writer, and as someone who had a grandfather in the legal profession, I’ve always been interested in understanding how the law interfaces with society. Who learns from whom? While it is a two-way conversation, it’s one that is not often had in the public domain, and it should be. I wanted information about the law to be available to everyone, I wanted it to be a part of casual conversations in the streets and in our homes, and that’s what made me suggest the idea of a portal that makes the law easy to understand for ordinary people.

Today, I think we still need to find ways to make lawmaking more transparent. Here, civil society plays a big role. As voters, we do have to take some of the blame because we don’t often realise that lawmaking is a very critical function of the legislators we elect. If we took the time to understand that making good laws is a significant part of the work that legislators must do, then they can have a conversation with us to tell us about the laws they have in mind, ask for our opinions on them, and make sure that those opinions are represented when said laws are being framed. Here, we can have civil-society organisations step in, so there is a much broader democratic consultation, before laws are made.

There is also an issue with the regulation of laws. There is no law that says, for example, that people can go and dump effluents in Vrishabhavathi river in Bangalore. But people wait for everybody else to be asleep and go and do it. How many bodies do we need to ensure that other people’s bad intent is not being practiced? In this regard, it is imperative that our governance institutions step up. Currently, we have deficits of governance and regulation. We have deficits in terms of how laws are framed. And this makes it a wonderful time for more people to get involved with these issues and do all they can to improve the discourse.

We need to also give first-time legislators a primer on how to go ahead with lawmaking. The work that PRS and Vidhi is doing are good examples. Vidhi is trying to help legislators and parliamentary committees make laws that are more clear, contemporary, and within the frame of the constitution. PRS on the other hand is helping legislators and parliamentarians understand what laws are on the table, how to make better votes happen around them, and how to have better debates.

Lastly, when it comes to the judicial academy, I think it should be just like in medical education where you have to do continuing education to retain your license to practice. Given that change is happening at a dizzying speed, especially because of technology, this is the right time for it, because otherwise how are judges supposed to keep up?

Gender is A Cross-Cutting Theme

I’m not a career woman in the conventional sense of the term. As a journalist I only worked for a few years, after which I did a lot of freelancing. I gave up my job when my daughter was born because I found it hard to juggle both. But I was in a privileged position to be able to be able to do so, and to take six years off work to dedicate to my children because Nandan was very busy at the time. Additionally, my profession allowed me to write articles and do simple things on the side, so I was able to take advantage of that.

In that way, I didn’t have the struggles that other working women have. All that women have to otherwise balance can be very tough. The demands keep changing and you have to make many sacrifices, because it’s impossible to do it all, no matter what people say. Something has to give. If you’re lucky, you have a support system around you. Which is why it is so necessary that we work with men and boys, so that we can enable them to become the support system that women need.

In my three decades of work so far, what I’ve seen is that no matter which area you work in, gender is a cross-cutting theme. Take water, which is an area I’ve worked on for 15 years now – the burden of water is on women at a household level, and in that way gender is an important part of our work in water, though we didn’t necessarily call it out.

At a more macro level, as a writer and a reader, when you’re looking at what’s happening around us and you’re trying to unpack things, you begin to think about the other side of it. In this case, that is thinking about who a woman is dealing with – she is dealing with a man on the street, or her husband, or her father, or her son, or somebody who has a different way of looking at women’s empowerment perhaps than she does. That makes her choices very complicated. Having thought of this I then began to look at young men, and asked myself where do all these things spring from? What is the root of patriarchal thinking? What do young males think, when they are 13 and their hormones are raging?

It was this line of questioning that made me look at what work was being done in this area, try to support more of it, and create a whole portfolio across India where young men can safely examine their masculinity and come to terms with who they are. This is very necessary if we want women’s empowerment.

The Need for Collaboration

In terms of collaboration, there are two kinds of models that we can look at. The first is between philanthropists, and the time has come when philanthropists globally are recognising the need to work together. This is an important point in the journey of The Giving Pledge for example, where if we look at the difference between how much has been promised versus how much has been given, there’s a huge gap. This is because people don’t necessarily know how to give money.

In this context, there is a need for all of us to learn from those who have given better and given more. Thankfully today, there are many intermediary organisations that are helping the bigger philanthropists and foundations connect with smaller first time donors. Additionally, there are many open spaces for that sharing and discovery. So it is a great time for cross-learning in the space of philanthropy.

The second kind of collaboration is between philanthropists and the government. Here, it is especially important to note that the money that even a philanthropist like Bill Gates has, is nothing compared to what the government has. However what philanthropists or people who want to invest in social change do possess is the ability to take some risks with their capital. They can say, “Let’s just try something. And if it fails then we’ll try something else.” This is not a luxury the government has.

Also, Indian governments be it at the centre, state, Panchayat, or even the municipality level – are usually open to suggestions. From there, it is a journey of co-creation between the government body and the philanthropist.. Of course, the government body will have ideas, because they have budgets, schemes, or programmes, and as a philanthropist you have to fit into all of that. But you also get the space to innovate and that’s the important thing.

Take Arghyam for example. Approximately 10-15 years ago there were marvelous institutions doing work on groundwater, at a time when there weren’t laws on groundwater. Arghyam, in collaboration with these civil society organisations, came up with something called Participatory Groundwater Management which is now a cornerstone of all government policy on water. Which is to say that it is possible to find space and opportunity to work very well with the government.

On Successes and Learnings

When thinking about my successes, the first that comes to mind is Pratham books, which I co-founded in 2004. When we set it up in Bangalore our goal was to get a book in every child’s hand. I stayed there for 10 years, and then the next team came in and took it on. Over the years, millions of children have been able to get books in their own language, get them free or at very affordable prices, access them across the country, and soon all across the globe, thanks to the Creative Commons platform we created. For that reason I consider it a genuine success.

If we are considering the future of citizens as lawmakers and law abiders, it’s especially important to ensure that children learn better. To this end, I have worked with two kinds of organisations. With EkStep, our mission is to increase access to learning opportunities for 200 million children by next year. I think we’re on track to do that because we’re working very closely with all the governments – approximately 28 or 30 states now want to develop a platform for getting teachers to teach better and access resources. To understand how this is done it’s important to understand that EkStep doesn’t create content. Instead, it supports the whole content creation ecosystem. In that sense, we don’t decide what needs to be taught, we focus on ensuring that whatever is being taught is being taught better, be it in terms of access, ability to discover, or ability to share. In essence, it’s a technology enabled platform.

On the other hand, organisations like Pratham or Akshara Foundation, which I have also been involved with deeply, looked at the importance of teaching values, what the atmosphere in a classroom should be like, and what the relationship between children and teachers should be. Together I think we are able to engage with different parts of the system. And now is a great time for us to really engage with the whole school system so that children are more curious and connected to issues of future citizenship.

The other success that comes to mind is Arghyam, which has made some serious inroads in water policy. We have been able to support dozens of organisations that have been working on the ground for decades. The government has already come out with two massive schemes in water, the thinking behind which came from some of Arghyam’s partners. These policies in turn impact millions of people across the country.

A learning experience that stands out for me is something called Nagrik, which we set up in 1992 for road safety. We were spectacularly unsuccessful. This is despite the fact that there were amazing people like Sivakumar and Kiran Mazumdar and Jagdish Raja involved. Looking back I can see that we did not know what to do, we were under-investing too, so it didn’t work. However what it did do is teach me that just passion and unstructured use of time is not going to make any change possible. Knowing what I do today, I would do Nagrik very differently. But that’s how we learn – by failing.

The Need for a Strong Samaaj

When it comes to finite public resources, be it land or water, there are many issues that remain unresolved. Different countries have resolved this in different ways, but personally I worry about the rigidity of it. To say that the community owns the commons, or the private sector can lease it, or the state is a trustee – it’s all problematic. What we need is a stepped up governance architecture on the public commons. We have to use the principle of subsidiarity where possible. So for example, even if we say the state is a trustee of the commons, we have to leave some of it to be solved at the most local possible level, which in essence is letting community resources be managed by that community.

Of course, once in a while a heavy handed law will come down which will decide for example, where a road needs to be built, and there will be conflict at those times, but that can’t be resolved once and for all. We have to keep learning from the best examples available to us and then framing and sharpening our laws accordingly.

Importantly, we have to beware of saying that the state will be the final authority on these finite resources. The common thread that runs through all my work is the dynamic continuum between Samaaj, Bazaar, and Sarkaar. Today, we need to strengthen the Samaaj because right now it is very divisive and polarised. First, we need to have a conversation about what we think a good society is. Based on that, we need to redefine the role of the state and the market so that they remain accountable to the larger public interest. Without this we fall into the trap of becoming consumers of the market or subjects of the state and forgetting that the real work for all of us, as citizens, is to contribute to the good society. We have to co-create good governance, because the state alone won’t do it. We have to co-create good markets that work for us, because the markets alone will never do it.

With this in mind, we need to be thinking about how we re-invest the commons with regenerative property so that more people can use them equitably and in a just manner. This is something the Samaaj sector needs to collectively think through. Here the law needs to get engaged to enable implementation in a way that is equitable and just, and looks at intergenerational justice.

The Future of Indian Philanthropy

Going forward, India’s super wealthy needs to be more generous and more transparent about how generous they are. There are some people who are very generous and don’t like to talk about it. But, for more people to increase their generosity, we need to build bridges of trust amongst the wealthy. People often get insecure and feel the need to protect their wealth. When economies are doing well or when people see a trajectory for their children, they are reassured and become more generous.

I do hope though, that even as people become more generous, they don’t view philanthropy as charity. I also hope that philanthropy and justice don’t remain octagonal, that there is more convergence between the two. Because true philanthropy can only happen when you have understood structural issues of inequity, and are working to address them.

That being said, no philanthropist can do this alone. Nobody has figured out how to have a perfectly equitable society, but we can move towards an ideal where this kind of runaway wealth becomes structurally impossible to garner, because nobody needs this kind of wealth. Given this, we need to think about what we can do through our philanthropy, to look at issues of justice. We need to find organisations we trust who will work on these issues, who will reduce inequity, and by doing so, will lessen the burden of philanthropy itself. To this end, we need many more institutions working on justice to better communicate what they do and the importance of their work, so that they are able to attract investments.

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