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Rohini’s Comments at The Annual Desh Apnayen Awards Ceremony

Active Citizenship | Apr 6, 2021

This is an edited version of Rohini Nilekani’s address at the ACTIZENS awards ceremony hosted by the Desh Apnayen Sahayog Foundation. In her speech as Chief Guest, Rohini Nilekani discusses how we can harness India’s latent potential to shape extraordinary citizens who will make India the world’s greatest democracy.

I want to begin by addressing our nation’s youth because they have a really joyful responsibility to ensure a brighter future, they are the trustees of India’s future. I truly believe that if we can get our country on the right track, in terms of equity and justice, environmental sustainability, and opportunities for all, the entire world will benefit. We are soon going to represent a fifth of all humanity. We can think of the future as a road on which we all walk together, carrying a light and joyful responsibility on our shoulders, because we are poised for so many good things. However, a demographic dividend may become a demographic disaster if we are not careful.

I also want to apologise for my generation because we seem to have left young people with a host of problems. But what the crisis of the pandemic has shown us is how many marvellous humanitarian energies can be put forward into the world. So if we decide to look at the potential of abundance everywhere, I think we can genuinely collaborate to make a better future. And democracy is a very important part of this. What kind of society do we want to belong to? We all want our freedoms – the right to act, to speak, to wear what we like, to work, to improve our opportunities, and to improve the opportunities of the people around us. The minute we step out of ourselves and into our communities, we realise that everyone wants the same thing. The next step is asking yourself, what can I do to make sure everyone has the same opportunities as I do? As very privileged people in this country, myself included, we need to recognise that others who are not as privileged have the same dreams, aspirations, and hopes that we have. One of the most crucial things I believe we need in this century is empathy.

The advice I have for the younger generation is to stay curious because there’s so much that we don’t know and life is full of possibilities. Secondly, they must stay connected. We are all interconnected and everyone is dependent on everybody else, but sometimes we forget that we are part of this big web. This virus has reminded us of that. Thirdly, stay committed because all of us, especially when we are young, are trying to find our place in the world – who we want to be and what our ambitions and goals are. But we need to be thinking further than our own personal desires, which I think this generation is already doing. I have met many young people in this country who have shown me the limitless possibilities of India’s future.

When I was younger, I was an activist who wanted to change the world for the better. I grew up in Bombay in the 70s and 80s, and back then we actually had very good public services. We had a good bus service, good electricity, good water, public safety, and women could go safely out at night. It was a different time and a different city. But sometimes people used to throw garbage and litter, and I would get very upset about this issue. I would pick up the garbage in front of everyone and glare at the person who had thrown it. While that seems like the right thing to do, I soon realised that it didn’t make me any friends because even though I was doing the correct thing, my attitude was not right. I was doing it in a superior way, not accepting that I also have many faults and that we are all on individual learning journeys. I learnt that how you do something is more important than what you are doing. So I grew up and became more mature over the years. When I was living in Delhi with my husband, there was a tea stall near our house and people would drink tea and throw the paper cups right there. Now I thought instead of making a fuss, I calmly picked up those cups, threw them into a bag, and disposed of them correctly. I learned that we cannot sit in judgment of other people. To my great surprise, within two days the throwing of those paper cups stopped and there was no more garbage around the area. I have learned and evolved through my journey and this is one of the lessons that I have learned – the ‘how’ is more important than the ‘what’, and sometimes when we do the right thing in the wrong manner, it really doesn’t help anybody.

Having said that, always participate. All of us see and know things around us that may not be right. One child may think, “Oh, why are we wasting water?”, another may say, “Oh, what about our rights of expression?”, and another young person may be interested in other environmental issues. We should all learn more about the issues that we care about and are passionate about, and then communicate with elders, friends, families, communities, to consider how to make real change happen. Participate with humility and self-reflection, and without judgement, and you will see the difference between doing it one way and doing it another.

I was very lucky because Infosys, the company my husband set up with Narayana Murthy and others, became very successful. But the success was not immediate, it was only after 15 years that Infosys succeeded wildly and beyond anybody’s expectations. And I had made a very early investment. From my small amount of money which I had in Infosys, I turned into a wealthy woman. But in my family, wealth was not considered something to be very proud of when I was growing up. My maternal grandfather was very wealthy and did a lot of philanthropy, and my paternal grandfather, Babasaheb Soman, was a lawyer who helped his clients settle issues out of court and so he got no fees. He joined Gandhiji when Gandhiji made his first clarion call for volunteers to come to Champaran in 1917. My grandfather was among the first people to go and was there with Kasturba and Gandhiji for several months. They built schools and toilets and did a lot of work there, after which my grandfather joined the freedom movement. So we were always told that wealth is not what you aspire to, you aspire to high thinking. When I came into so much wealth, I was very confused about what to do because I was on the other side before, and now I was on this side. Now I was the wealthy one. It took me a long time to accept that wealth because it was ethical wealth. It came about the right way. And what was the responsibility of that wealth in society? I slowly learned that I was only a trustee of that wealth, and that it must be used for society.

The responsibility of wealth in a democracy is to be useful to society. This is when I started my more serious philanthropic journey and over the years I’ve worked with several organisations. My husband Nandan and I have also signed the Giving Pledge, a global pledge where we have committed publicly to give half our wealth away to good causes in our own lifetime. It’s not an easy thing to do, it’s a huge responsibility that we take very seriously. In my philanthropy, my strong belief is that society, people, must come first. No matter whether you’re a student, teacher, investor, soldier, politician – whatever you are, you are a human being first. And after that, you are a citizen, of your society, of your nation, and of this world. You are a citizen before being an employee or a consumer. Good citizens together make a good society, and a good society can make sure that governments are accountable for the larger public good. They can also make sure that markets don’t become runaway powers and are accountable. By being the first building block of a good society, as citizens and actizens, together we can build a democratic society, where every child has the opportunity for a brighter future. So stay curious, stay connected, stay committed and magic will happen.

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