Rohini’s Comments at The Annual Desh Apnayen Awards Ceremony
India is the youngest country in the world and also the world’s largest democracy. How can we harness this latent potential to shape extraordinary citizens who will make her the world’s greatest democracy?
With this dream in mind, Mr. Vallabh Bhanshali and his associates started Desh Apnayen Sahayog Foundation in 2015 and partnered with them over the years. This Awards Ceremony was to celebrate the efforts of the ACTIZENS – alert, informed and active citizens – around us.
Rohini Nilekani was the Chief Guest.
0:00:00.5 Speaker 1: You and your friends, and all the young people like you in our country, have a really joyful responsibility to hold a brighter future, right? And not to get weighed down by it. But see yourselves as trustees of a bright shining future for our country. And I believe truly that if we can get our country right, if we can get India right in so many ways, including on the front of equity and justice and environmental sustainability, and opportunities for all, if India is on the right path, it is much easier for the whole world to be in the right path, because we are soon going to represent 1/5 of all humanity, right? So think of the future as a road on which we will all walk together, carrying a light, joyful responsibility on our shoulders, because we are poised for so many good things. But as Vallabhbhai said, “Each one of us if we’re not active, this potential can fall apart.” As they say… They keep saying that what we call a demographic dividend can become a demographic disaster. And I must apologise for my generation, we seem to have left you, young people, with a host of problems. But in some sense, I think sometimes crisis as we saw last year, the crisis of the pandemic, how many marvellous humanitarian energies it put forward into the world.
0:01:42.3 S1: So, if we decide to look at the potential of abundance everywhere, I think we can genuinely collaborate to make the future better than sometimes some people claim that it might become. And democracy is a very important part of this, I believe. Because what do we want when we all sit and quietly think, what kind of society do we want to belong to, right? Just like you and I all want our freedoms, right to act, to speak, to wear what we like, to work, to improve our opportunities, to improve the opportunities of the people around us. Everyone wants the same thing. So, the minute we step out of ourselves into our communities, we realise that pretty much everyone wants the same thing. And therefore, what can I do? What can you do to make the opportunity for everyone as much at least as it has been for us? Because all of us here, some of us are more privileged and I accept that. Definitely, I belong to the very lucky privileged class. But all of us here, who are gathered here today, are very, very privileged people in this country. And we know there are so many people out there who are not as privileged as we are. And yet they have the same dreams, the same aspirations, the same hopes that all of us have.
0:03:15.4 S1: So one of the first things I believe we need in this century, which is already somehow 20 years old, is empathy. I keep telling young people that stay curious, because there’s so much that we don’t know. And life is full of so many possibilities. So, one: Stay curious. Two: Stay connected, because, again, our mutual interdependencies, everyone is dependent on everybody else. And sometimes we forget that we are part of this big web. So, stay connected. Understand all the connections.
0:04:00.7 S1: See how connected we are. This small little virus has taught us that. So stay curious, stay connected. And third, stay committed. Because all of us, especially when we are young, we are trying to find our little space in the world, right? Who am I? What do I want to be? What about my personal ambition? But what about everything else? And from what I’ve seen and heard of all of you, you’re already much more mature than I was at your age, you young people. You are very clear about what you want to do. And I salute you. Really I meet many young people of this country except in the last year, which I feel so sad about. But who show me the limitless possibilities of India’s future. So again, I thank you for being accrescent for taking on this project, which Vallabhbhai started a few years ago. And I briefly come to my journey and then I’m so happy to take your questions. So, when I was like you I must say that I was an activist. Okay, I was a bit aggressive, which I don’t recommend. But I was like that. And I used to say, oh, everything must be right. So for example, I grew up in Bombay where… Actually, I was very lucky because we had very good public services.
0:05:15.5 S1: Okay. Some of you who are in Bombay may not have even experienced what I had in the 70s and 80s, mostly the 70s. We had good bus service, we had good electricity, we had good water, public safety, women could go safely out at night. It was a different time and a different city. But sometimes people used to throw garbage. Okay? So, I used to get very upset and I used to go and pick up the garbage in front of everyone and glare at the person who had thrown it. Now, while that seems like the right thing to do, I soon realised that it didn’t make me any friends. Why? Because even though I was doing the correct thing, which is picking up trash from the public, I think my attitude was not right, right? I was doing it in a superior way. Not accepting that I also have so many faults, other people have faults, we are all on our learning journeys. So even as you pick up that trash and put it in the dustbin. We had proper dustbins in those days. Something was not right, okay? And my friend used to laugh at me and say… ”
0:06:23.4 S1: And something was not right. And I had to learn, my young friends, over the years that the what is less important than the how. So, much later when I grew up and became a little more mature, I realised what like you, you people have been talking about Gandhiji, right? So what would Gandhiji do? So, later in Delhi…
0:06:45.5 S1: When… Outside our house, there was a tea stall, when my husband was working for the government and all the people used to drink tea and throw the paper cups right there. Now I said, “Should I go and make a big fuss?” Or, “What should I do?” Then I said, “Be calm.” And then I used to go every day and very quietly, without making a fuss go and pick up those cups and take them into a bag and dispose off them correctly and smiling and doing namaste to those people, okay, because really I’d learned that we cannot sit so much in judgment on other people. And when I did that, young friends, to my great surprise, within two days, the throwing of those paper cups stopped, and after that, till I left that house, not one single piece of garbage, I could see anywhere around me. Why am I telling you this simple story? It’s because we all evolve, yes, but I would like you to learn from my journey that 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.
0:07:53.5 S1: So that’s something I’ve certainly this morning felt like sharing with you. So having said that, always participate. Don’t hesitate from participating, right? All of us know things around us are not right. Some child may think, “Oh, why are we wasting water?” Some other young person may say, “Oh, what about our rights of expression?” Some other person may be interested in other environmental issues or anything at all. Please learn more about that thing which you care about, are passionate about and you want to change, and then think, talk to your elders, talk to your friend, “How can I participate in making real change and not make the mistake which Rohini did?” Participate with humility, participate without judgement, participate with self-reflection, and you will see the difference between doing it one way and doing it another way. So that’s something I’ve felt like sharing with you. When I woke up this morning, I said…
0:08:58.2 S1: But I said, “Then I have to use my own life to share something with you.” Young friends, I was very lucky because of Infosys, the company, my husband, Narayana Murthy, and others set up that we became very wealthy, not immediately. Infosys had to work for a very long time, very hard, Vallabhbhai knows that story very well. And it was after 15 years or so that Infosys succeeded wildly and beyond anybody’s expectations. And I had made a very early investment. From my small money which I had in Infosys, and I turned into a wealthy woman. Now, why do I tell you that? Is because in my family, when I grew up, wealth was not considered something great to be proud of or anything. One of my grandfathers was very wealthy and did a lot of philanthropy. The other grandfather, my father’s father, Babasaheb Soman, was a lawyer who half the time he didn’t want to take his case to the court and he will ask his clients to settle it out of court, and so he got no fees.
0:09:58.4 S1: So he was certainly not wealthy, but both of them had wealth of mind. My father’s father joined Gandhiji when Gandhiji made his first clarion call for volunteers to come to Champaran in 1917, he was among the first people to go there and was there with Kasturba and Gandhiji for several months. They built schools, they built toilets, they did a lot of work and then my grandfather joined the freedom movement. But always we were told that wealth is not what you aspire to, you aspire to high thinking. So when I came into so much wealth, I was very confused, “What should I do?” Because I was on the other side before, and then I was on this side now. Now I was the wealthy one. And it took me a long time, my young friends, 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, not quickly, slowly learned that, that wealth, I was only a trustee of that wealth, and that, that wealth has to be used for society.
0:11:00.9 S1: The responsibility of wealth in a democracy is to be useful to society. And then I started my more serious philanthropic journey over the years working with several organizations. Today, my husband Nandan and I have signed the Giving Pledge, which is a global pledge, where we have committed publicly to give half our wealth away to good causes in our own lifetime. And I tell you, it’s not easy at all to do that well, okay? It’s a huge responsibility, but we take it very, very seriously and if God forbid anything happens to us, our children have promised to fulfil that pledge. I’m happy to take questions on that, I’m happy… So a last point I will say and I think you all are mature enough for me to be able to share this with you, that in this philanthropic journey, I learned one thing and is connected to what Vallabhbhai said that…
0:11:56.2 S1: Right? State, society, markets, in that, my strong belief is that society must come first because at the end of it, no matter who you are, you may be a student, you may be a teacher, like Vallabhbhai, you may be a very successful investor, you may be doing very well in the Army or in politics, or anything, but who are you first? Of course, you’re a human being first, but after that you’re a citizen, you are a citizen of your society, you’re a citizen of your nation and you’re a citizen of this world. So you’re a citizen before you are an employee, you’re a citizen before you are a consumer of market goods, even if you can click Fatafat on Amazon and Flipkart. You are a citizen before you are the subject of the state and good citizens together make a good society, and a good society can make sure that governments are accountable for the larger public good. It can make sure that markets also don’t become runaway powers and are accountable for a good society. So by being the first building block of that good society as citizens and actizens, together we can build a society, a democratic society, where we can hope that, that child whose face you sometimes see when you’re coming to school, or when you go for a vacation somewhere, who doesn’t have the benefits that you do, even that child can be included in a brighter future. So again, I say, stay curious, stay connected, stay committed and magic will happen. Thank you, and I’m open to questions. Thank you all.
0:13:36.0 Speaker 2: Thank you so much, ma’am. We are getting lot of messages for sharing your story. Those words are really inspiring for all of us. There is a lot to learn from your journey for all of us. We will like now a student from PSBB Millennium School, Amrutha Valli, please turn on your camera and ask your question to ma’am.
0:13:58.2 Amrutha Valli: Ma’am, who is your inspiration at the beginning of your journey and did this motivate you and help build who you are? Thank you.
0:14:07.8 S1: Thank you, Amrutha Valli. Yes, as I told you, I think I must begin with my family inspiring me, especially my paternal grandfather, whom I described, Babasaheb Soman, and my grandmother, Atyabai, whom we used to call Atya, whom I have written about, who was just amazing, who was able to run her whole household. She came from a rich family, from the Gwalior Maharaja’s house where her father was an ambassador, so she was used to a lot of riches. When she came into my grandfather’s house, without any complaint, she used to give up her jewellery. Those were the days of the freedom movement. And, you know, for the Indian National Congress, my family worked very hard because they wanted to create a free, independent Bharat. Swarajya was their dream, and each one participated. So for me, especially my two grandparents, but genuinely inspiration, the love, I didn’t meet my grandfather, but the love my grandmother gave us, the way she would be a fantastic storyteller, telling us all about the bhakti saints of Maharashtra. These two people are my inspiration. And then, of course, we got inspiration from so many people in the world, because my husband, Nandan and I got to travel all over the world. We’ve read so many books. So there are many other inspiration. But my personal inspiration is my grandparents.
0:15:29.9 S2: Okay…