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Rohini Nilekani’s Keynote at DH Changemakers

Civil Society | Feb 1, 2021


0:00:01.7 Rohini: Thank you so much. First of all…

0:00:06.4 Rohini: At least virtually.

0:00:15.0 Rohini: I cannot see any of the participants and I’m feeling terrible about it. So my apologies, I’m very sorry that I cannot be there in person. I hope I can meet you all some other time. But what is change? Well, everybody knows that change is the only constant in all our lives. Change keeps happening, but I guess as you get older, and I’m getting quite older, Vivek is very young, but [chuckle] I have learnt that, and I read this somewhere that, of course, change is the rule, but change need not be your ruler. So therefore, you can embrace change, but you need not get swept under by it. So last year is a perfect example, right, when humanity had to cope with so much change. And I think we did reasonably well.

0:01:08.8 Rohini: Anthropologists, scientists, evolutionary biologists, they all tell us that human beings can’t change easily, right? But look at this, in one year, nearly two billion people, if not more, learnt how to cover their faces with a mask to prevent one small virus from injuring them, and we learnt that change so rapidly. So, I think that learning to deal with change as a species, and I think personally also, each one of us has had a marvellous year of expect… Of learning how to deal with change. Of course, a lot of people went under. A lot of people suffered tremendously, so we mustn’t forget them. But to me, yes, change represents an opportunity and you call your people changemakers. And I think, the reason you say that is because when something is not right, that’s when we use the opportunity to create change. And all your 21 changemakers said, “Something is wrong and I must step in to change it.” And all my philanthropy is based on the optimism that there are many, many, many people in the world like your changemakers, and we can support them to create positive change. Thank you.

0:02:26.2 Ramakrishna: Thank you. Thank you. Vivek, my question to you is, how do you look at change? Because, in your fiction at least, you look… You’re not a very great admirer of the kind of change that has swept India since the ’90s. You’ve being critical of many things, including the economy, the way the economy has changed up. What does change mean to you personally, and again, how do you cope with change that is beyond your control?

[foreign language]

0:03:26.7 Vivek: Now Ram, coming back to your question. Let me just look at it as a writer. And I’ll only touch up on one aspect of it, which is language. So, for me it is always a struggle, and that’s I think is my job to deal with this change and how a language can capture it. Because any… We need language, it is very basic to say this, but let me in any case say it. We experience every change, or anything for that matter, through language. And any change in the society is reflected in it’s language. And as a writer, where, for me language is my lifeline, that I’m very conscious of this change, all the time. And it is… For example, if you just take a book that was published 50 years ago, and you look at it, you will see that there are certain words which have disappeared today. Yeah. And then the new words have come in.

0:04:31.6 Vivek: It’s not just about words, it’s about everything. Word is an experience. It evokes certain memories. It evokes certain aspects of its own history. So a writer is always… As a writer, I’m always sensitive to these changes. And you asked about, how do I cope with this, how do I… For example, there is a… One of my stories, which is called Huli Savaari, which you translated into English, which I wrote about 30 years ago, was about a corporate experience, and at that time India was just opening up to globalisation. And the story was set in a corporate training center, and at the center of it was a game. But when I wrote that story, it was… I felt, it is like some bad translation of something, because the language was not really ready to capture that experience. When I write in Kannada… I’m not talking about eloquent words. There were eloquent words, but they were not enough to capture that experience, because it’s not just about having eloquent words. The words have to be used, they have to resonate something. There has to… Yeah, they have to… Otherwise, they look very harsh. So, I really struggled and struggled and struggled to make that story somewhat readable.

0:05:51.9 Vivek: But if I write that story today, I don’t think I will struggle that much, because so much has happened in 30 years, and that tells you how that language has… Kannada as a language has absorbed these experiences because if you see from ’92 to till now, in almost 29, 30 years, there’s so much has happened to Bangalore, there is so many things and so… Language has been able to absorb it. So I would say that that is something that I always struggle with and it’s a joy of writing, as well.

0:06:25.8 Ramakrishna: Yeah. Rohini, Vivek is talking about the challenges that a language faces as the things change and how a language adapts, copes with change. And you are a writer yourself and you were a journalist, and you wrote for several publications in Mumbai, and then you wrote a novel, medical thriller called Stillborn. My question to you is, do perspectives change? Do you look at the world differently as a journalist, as an author, as a writer of books, as a writer of medical fiction and as a philanthropist? How do things change? How do perspectives change? Because what you think as a journalist might not be the same thing that you would think as a philanthropist?

0:07:13.4 Rohini: Yeah, yeah, of course, all of us wear many hats, and sometimes we think we can have different perspectives when we wear different hats. But actually I don’t believe that. I think there needs to be a single, a sort of unifying principle through all your identities. So some core things don’t change, but I’ll tell you, if we don’t learn how to change our minds, okay, I don’t think we can make progress in this world, either personally or as societies. So I have learnt very well how to change my mind because when we are younger we are full of hubris. I thought I knew everything. Turns out I don’t know anything at all. So I had to keep on changing my mind about how I saw the world, and as I changed my mind about how I saw the world, the world seemed to change. And I think it’s very important to keep your mind open enough that you can change it in response to change, and really keep it open. So I’ve tried my best to do that. Of course, sometimes one is highly stubborn and refuses to change one’s mind about some things, a few such luxuries are allowed to all.

0:08:26.3 Ramakrishna: [laughter] Yeah. But did you have any challenges like say, when you had to switch from one role to the other?

0:08:32.6 Rohini: Yes, I did. I mean a very simple thing. We were brought up in a middle-class family, and all the stories in my life were about selfless service. My grandparents… And all the examples put to us were of selfless service, of simple living and high thinking. In my childhood that was something everyone said to children, “You must have simple living and high thinking.” Okay. And I was a bit of a leftist, a little bit activist, and when we suddenly came into a lot of wealth, Mr. Ramakrishna, as a shareholder of Infosys and because Infosys did well, we became wealthy which we had never in our lives expected to become so wealthy. And to deal with that change took me literally years, because first I was on the other side thinking that all wealthy people… There’s some issue there. And then I find myself becoming wealthy and say, “Oh my God, now what shall I do?” And then I had to change and learn that wealth can be an opportunity for me to help people change the world as they see fit, and I had to change very rapidly for that but it took me a long time because change can be very hard, right?

0:09:45.8 Ramakrishna: Yeah, yeah. Yeah, I think, I mean, you are one of those entrepreneurs, so people who see wealth as a means to an end rather than an end in itself, and you’ve supported so many worthy causes. My next question is about the changemakers, this year’s changemakers, 21 in 2021. So what are your thoughts when you look at the changes brought about by the 21 changemakers in our midst. I mean, there are artists, there are scientists, there are social workers, political activists. And to us they represent the power of good. Deccan Herald believes that they represent the power of good and they have gone beyond the call of duty and they’ve worked against impossible odds. What are your thoughts? What are your impressions when you look at the wonderful work done by all these people in our midst?

0:10:42.7 Rohini: Yeah, no. I was very impressed. I read all their profiles and all 21 of them, all 21 of you, because I assume you’re in the audience though I am not, congratulations to you, and thank you for all that you do. Because this is how… See, my whole belief is that, all of us together have to work to create a good Samaj, a good society, and through that other things can happen. And all of them are perfect examples of that, that they’ve themselves… They’re not waiting for somebody else to come and do the change for them, right. They don’t want to remain part of a problem, they want to be part of the solution. And they’ve all stepped up, whether it is, of all the things to find space garbage or to find the right DNA which is non-toxic, to… Non-toxic dye for DNA or whether it is people working against discrimination of all kinds or many of the other examples that you have today among your changemakers, all of them have said…

[foreign language]

0:11:48.7 Ramakrishna: I can’t wait for somebody else. And to that I salute them, because that’s how… That’s exactly how you create a good society. A good society is the foundation in my mind for all human progress. And a good society is made of whom? It’s made of you and me and all the people in the room today. So I salute them for being changemakers and for taking this on. And now what they now do next will depend upon their ambition, their persistence, their commitment and of course, all the circumstances and opportunities that come their way. But I do hope that each one of them will continue to draw in other people to expand their work, so that even if they and their organisations don’t scale, their ideas and their mission for society keeps on scaling.

0:12:46.6 Ramakrishna: Sure. Yeah, yeah. We will come to that in a bit. Vivek…

[foreign language]

0:13:06.2 Ramakrishna: Because reporters go out and then we try and get opinions from across the state, from across districts.

[foreign language]

0:13:18.5 Ramakrishna: What were you thoughts? What were your impressions?

[foreign language]

0:13:26.5 Vivek: It was very humbling.

[foreign language]

0:13:32.1 Vivek: Meaningful…

[foreign language]

0:13:40.2 Vivek: In her opening remarks, Rohini made a comment about that these people know that there is something wrong, but they also know what makes a difference. I think it is very important, it is, all of us see things and we know that there’s something wrong, but it is also important to see what makes a difference and go after it.

[foreign language]

0:14:30.2 Vivek: See, you are interested in something else.

[foreign language]

0:14:36.5 Vivek: You get support from everyone and from the world around you. And I can see that these people are supported by people around them.

[foreign language]

0:14:47.7 Vivek: It is only…

[foreign language]

0:14:53.9 Vivek: It’s only tip of the iceberg.

[foreign language]

0:14:58.7 Vivek: None of these people have achieved this overnight. It is consistent. They have gone after it consistently for years, so I think it is…

[foreign language]

0:15:26.5 Ramakrishna: So that brings us to the next question. When you look at our changemakers, Rohini, would you advise them to scale up or expand to use term from pre-management era? Would you like our changemakers to scale up or do you believe small is beautiful and it’s good to be doing good work within a small community, within a small group?

0:15:55.4 Rohini: Well, it really depends on the people, right. If they have the ambition and the desire to create very large impact, and if they are able to collect the resources for it certainly they should scale. Because inaction is not good. You have to keep acting and trying. And why do we need scale? We don’t need scale for scale’s sake. I would very strongly say, scale not just mindlessly for scale’s sake. But if you have a passion in your heart, if you have a fire burning in you, that’s something that is wrong that you have managed little bit to fix in your communities, then there may be many other people everywhere who need that same change to happen. Then how will you connect with other people? How will you connect with other changemakers so that that change can widen its impact, right? So, I wouldn’t chase scale for its own sake. I would urge all of you to say, “Even if my organisation doesn’t scale, even if my effort alone doesn’t scale by myself, how can I keep connecting more and more dots so that my ambition will scale, my mission for society will change, scale?”

0:17:10.4 Rohini: And that’s how we look at scale. And we have something called Societal Platform Thinking, that our teams have come up with a process for. You can all look it up on, and there we say one of the big ways to get impact at scale is to distribute the ability to solve. So just like you took one problem, all of you, and tried to make a difference, if we can tell others, if you carry your story also, maybe somebody else can do what you are doing, and that’s how scale can happen. So there are many pathways to scale. It should not stress us out that our organizations alone need to scale, but we must aim for more impact through more action. That’s what I believe.

0:17:57.8 Ramakrishna: Yeah. So, you’re saying, there is no problem in ideas, spreading ideas, whereas having… Do you see any problem when something grows very big? I mean your initiatives have impacted the lives of millions of people, in rural sanitation, water and education, you have an initiative called EkStep, then Arghyam and Pratham Books which takes literature to little children. Now, these… Have you seen in projects that you’ve taken up and maybe in projects that your friends have taken up, that scale actually dilutes the cause? Does it ever happen that scale may actually make it difficult for you to go where you were planning to go?

0:18:46.0 Rohini: No, it’s an important question to answer, because if, as I said, if you do mindless scale, it can become very brittle, okay. But if you think, “Why are you trying to scale and with whom are you trying to scale and are you keeping your core values when you’re trying to scale”, then it becomes a very different ball game. Of course, you’ll have problems. Even when a small child becomes big, how many problems parents have, so anything that becomes big suddenly you will have to face problem, but you have to face them, you’ll fail sometimes, sometimes you will succeed, but you’ll just have to face them as you… But what should… You should know with scale what should change and what should not change, what should not change are your core values by which you drive that scale that should not change. So even the next member and the next member and the next member who comes into your team when you want to scale should share those very clearly articulated values and shared goals that reduces the risk of sudden scale, I think. And of course there are many other ways but I don’t think we have time for that.

0:20:00.8 Rohini: So yes, throughout my working life of 30 years in this philanthropy space, I’ve had to deal with scale and I’ve tried to abstract the lessons by which you can do scale in the proper way. Happy to have another opportunity to talk about that, but don’t be afraid of scale, but don’t do scale mindlessly, that’s all I would say.

0:20:22.7 Ramakrishna: Yeah, no scaling for scaling’s sake. Yeah, yeah. [laughter] Okay, Vivek, a quick response from you, before we go on to the question and answer session. I know that you’re a believer in… Small is beautiful. And you were inspired by the thoughts of, K. V. Subbanna of NINASAM, who, has this… Who founded this theater institute. And then, you also believe in, Dr. U. R. Ananthamurthy’s idea of the critical insider, where you have to be, within that a culture and then you still… You have to be critical of it. How do you look at this idea of, scale? I mean, does Big look attractive at all?

0:21:03.9 Vivek: Now, I must, say that, what Rohini has said, largely, I agree with. Because I think, she has captured it very well. But there are two aspects, one is the scaling, when you purely look at numbers. And if you look at some of the initiatives that these changemakers have taken up, for example, you know, non-toxic dye, it works only when you scale it up. You know, the impact is seen, when you scale it up.

0:21:27.1 Ramakrishna: Right.

0:21:27.3 Vivek: For example, the Udupi sarees. The impact comes in, when you scale it up, because then it’s available to so many… Etcetera, etcetera.

0:21:34.0 Ramakrishna: More people will benefit from it.

0:21:34.8 Vivek: Yeah, yeah. But other stories, whether, you know, you’re helping nomads or you’re helping… You’re cleaning up a city or, you know, transgender work and many of these things.

0:21:48.0 Ramakrishna: Right.

0:21:48.5 Vivek: They… The impact… What really needs to be scaled up is, as Rohini said, you know, you spread that value, you communicate and most importantly, you share that experience, because that… It’s important to share that experience with the larger…

0:22:03.8 Ramakrishna: Yeah. True.

0:22:06.3 Vivek: You know, number of people and then, it’s more effective. I think let me stop there.

0:22:10.4 Ramakrishna: Yeah, yeah. Thank you. So, we’ll now, throw the house open for questions. We’ll have the first question. If you have a question, please raise your hands and our team will collect the question from you. And then you can come over to the laptop here and ask your question. Are we ready with the questions?

0:22:38.2 Rohini: In the meantime, Ramakrishna, you should ask Vivek, how he changed?

0:22:43.5 Ramakrishna: Ah, yes.

0:22:43.9 Rohini: Please ask him, how he changed from being in the corporate world to becoming such a successful writer and what he went through while making that change? While we get our first question. I’m a journalist at heart…

0:22:51.9 Ramakrishna: Yes, yes, yes. I think, you should share this story with us, because… [chuckle] Yeah, yeah.

0:22:57.0 Rohini: I’m a journalist at heart, trying to usurp, Mr. Ramakrishna’s position…

0:23:00.0 Ramakrishna: Please, please. Yes, yes, yes. You know, that was a question that we had lined up for him. [laughter] Thank you for asking. Yeah, Vivek, has lived a double life, you know. [laughter] As a writer and then as a corporate honcho. So, he, says he, did it by getting up at 4 o’clock in the morning… 4:00 or 4:30, you know? That’s more or less the time we go to bed, as journalists. So… [laughter] How did you pull this off, Vivek?

0:23:26.4 Vivek: You see, I was, always interested in literature, and that is… You know, I started… My first story was published when I was 16… And all that… But when I took up work, it was very difficult for me to find time, because the corporate life was very hectic. But one thing which I learned from, another senior writer, Yashwant Chittal, who also worked in corporate life, is that, “The more busy you are, more time, you find”. [laughter] Yeah. That’s what he used to say. And I got up, when I was working, every day at 4:30 in the morning and worked till 7:30, on literature. When I say, worked… Whether it was reading, whether it was writing, whether… Something to do with literature. And if you work for three hours every day, it’s a lot of time and plus your weekends and you know… So, I think it is… It depends on what is, you know… What takes the first place in your heart…

[foreign language]

0:24:18.6 Vivek: I know, this is very important.

0:24:20.9 Ramakrishna: Yeah and that is literature, we…

0:24:22.1 Vivek: Of course, of course, of course.

0:24:22.4 Ramakrishna: We know the answer to that one. [laughter] Yeah. Yeah. So… Yeah, we have the first question ready. Please go ahead, sir. Please tell us your name and then go ahead, sir. Yeah.

[background conversation]

0:26:48.6 Ramakrishna: Yeah, yeah. Thank you sir, again. Yeah… Thank you for your very kind words about Deccan Herald sir and perhaps our editor or our associate editor Arun will answer this question. One is, of course Deccan Herald, when we went out and asked people what they associate Deccan Herald with? The answer we got was the power of good. Deccan Herald is a good newspaper, it doesn’t really go after the darker aspects and generally the feeling… The most readers saw us as a force for good, and that is when our editor Shankar and the editorial team sat down and then came up with this idea of recognizing people doing good work across the state. There’s so much good work being done, and then optimism is something that’s very precious today, politicians make it very difficult for us to be optimistic, but [laughter] we… There are so many people out here who are doing wonderful work, and we thought it was our duty to recognize and honor them, sir.

[background conversation]

0:28:02.1 Ramakrishna: Thank you sir, thank you.

0:28:12.1 Dr. Suresh Hanganvadi: Good evening. First let me thank Rohini for organising all this. My question is… Let me introduce that I am Dr. Suresh Hanganvadi, I am born with hemophilia, and that made me to look around and see… There was pathetic situation of hemophilia in this state and country, that’s why I determined to become a doctor. And, I am working now as a Professor of Pathology in JJM Medical College, Davangere. At the same time, my inherent commitment was to bring change in the lives of my blood brothers that’s why Karnataka Hemophilia Society, since 30 years we have been struggling. My question is, over the last three decades of approaching various resources… Maybe donors, philanthropists and even corporates. But I found, especially the NGO’s who are in the North Karnataka, they get lost in the world of corporate because we are not much recognized.

0:29:32.4 Ramakrishna: Okay.

0:29:33.6 DH: And our services are not recognized. And we are not getting real support, so that time we feel that it is not just the hemophilia, the volume because hemophilia is rare that’s why I understand, we have… That’s why we are creating awareness about hemophilia and trying to bring change over the government and society. And here I would like to remember a great legend Dr. SP Balasubrahmanyam, he stood with us for 21 years till his last breath. He helped us by giving free concerts to raise funds that’s how we have established a care center for all blood disorders under one roof in Davangere. I think Madam and ever Sir also should see, is there any… We need change in the lookout.

0:30:32.7 Ramakrishna: Thank you sir. I mean… A wonderful work, we have read about your work. And…

0:30:37.4 DH: Thank you… Thank you Madam.

0:30:38.9 Ramakrishna: And thank you for coming here. I think the question is… Asking is, how do you find support for a cause like this, how do you go about it, what is it that organisations like doctors, the one that’s working for hemophilia patients, how can they find support. What do they do? Do you have a word of advice?

0:30:57.9 Rohini: Yeah, I have just two things to say. I am so sorry if funding has not been available. I think from that… One answer to that is because in India, so many basic health problems themselves are not covered that very specific diseases like hemophilia and so many others that we come across, unfortunately don’t get enough funding because the base itself is so weak of healthcare in this country, unfortunately. However, I think there are many retail fundraising platforms that are coming up and I would encourage people with these sort of causes that are not mainstream to go and create good stories of your work and post them on these retail fundraising websites that at least five or six such organisations such as Ketto and they are not immediately coming to mind but there is something called Danamojo and a few others.

0:31:55.3 Ramakrishna: Right.

0:31:55.7 Rohini: And they will help you to raise funds, small small funds from lots of people. I believe that instead of a few rich philanthropists like myself, real change will come when lots of people are able to give a little as much as they can and that actually is much much bigger than anything that philanthropists like myself can do. So please find this platform but before that, please find a way to tell your story better, you’ve already found a pathway through Deccan Herald, find other spaces to tell your story and this is true for all of you 21 changemakers… Find ways to tell your story very well and find all the new streams like the retail fundraising sites, like YouTube etc. And hopefully, people will come and support you. I wish you a lot of luck.

0:32:47.7 Ramakrishna: Thank you, I hope that answers doctor’s question.

0:32:52.1 DH: Yeah.

0:32:52.9 Ramakrishna: We have the next question.

[foreign language]

0:37:48.0 Speaker 5: Thank you sir. Thank you sir.

0:37:52.1 Ramakrishna: Thank you we have time for one more question.

[foreign language]

0:38:58.6 Speaker 6: Thank you sir.

[foreign language]

0:42:46.0 Rohini: Changemakers…

[foreign language]

0:42:51.0 Ramakrishna: Thank you. Thank you, sir.

[foreign language]

0:42:58.0 Ramakrishna: So that brings us to the end of this panel discussion. So thank you, Rohini, for your wonderful insights, rich experiences that you shared with us.

0:43:10.2 Rohini: Ramakrishna, can I say one sentence?

0:43:12.3 Ramakrishna: Please, please, please.

0:43:14.0 Rohini: I just want to tell our changemakers, one is, of course, we are very proud of them, but I want to remind them to also look after themselves and their own emotional well-being…

0:43:25.9 Ramakrishna: Yeah, that’s very important. Yes.

0:43:27.4 Rohini: Sometimes we forget, just like they say, “Put on your own seatbelt before putting one or put on your own oxygen mask before putting on others,” sometimes people like these people who are so committed and so passionate, they forget to look after themselves. So…

0:43:41.7 Ramakrishna: Correct, correct.

0:43:41.8 Rohini: So today, in the beginning of this New Year, I would request all of you to make time for yourselves and your own well-being also so that you can continue to do the great work that you do. Namaskara, dhanyavaad.

0:43:52.8 Ramakrishna: Right, right.

[foreign language]

0:43:57.5 Ramakrishna: Thank you. Thank you, Rohini, for your very rich… Sharing your experiences and your generosity. And thank you for being a part of this panel. It’s been an absolute pleasure. Thank you. We have a small memento that we will ship to you, a caricature that our cartoonist Sajith Kumar has made of you. Thank you so much.

0:44:21.8 Rohini: Thank you. Bye, Vivek.

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