Back to resources

Samaaj, Sarkaar and Bazaar: The New Normal in Times of COVID-19 Pandemic

Strategic Philanthropy | Civil Society | Jun 22, 2020

Rohini Nilekani talks to ET Now about the Coronavirus pandemic has brought changes in her life, in both good and bad ways. She says how uncertainty has become certainty and that is the new normal now. People have learned new things in life, both in personal matters and the dignity of life. She talks about her work which is influenced by the COVID-19 pandemic itself and has been a result of how the society has been acting out in terms of the business market and politics. She then explains how ‘samaaj’ which means society needs more thinking upon. Watch the video to know more!


00:04 Chandra: Hello and welcome to this special interview on ET Now. We are in conversation with Rohini Nilekani, one of India’s leading philanthropists, she’s a prolific author, she’s worked very closely in the areas of education, sanitation, water, books, literacy for the last couple of decades, and Rohini thank you very much for joining us on ET Now. Thank you.

00:28 Rohini Nilekani: Thank you so much Chandra.

00:30 Chandra: It’s been a while since we’ve spoken and I think the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic broke out, so tell me how life has changed for you at a personal, professional level? What has fundamentally changed in your life after the pandemic and the subsequent lock-downs?

00:48 RN: So, well like for everybody life has changed a lot, both in good and bad ways. I think in terms of bad you know it’s really not so much what’s happening to us the privileged, but what’s happening to the rest of the people, and that leaves a big impact. Personally of course we are very well placed, we shouldn’t complain, and we’re not complaining, but obviously it is a sea change for many people and we have to do a lot to set things right now. Who would have thought right in December that we would be in this situation in June, so uncertainty has become the new certainty, so that’s the bad side. On the good side I think there’s a lot people and including me, have learnt through this pandemic about what is important in life, about the dignity of labour, about the whole process of society, economy, so that’s what one has had a chance to introspect on instead of rushing about doing things.

02:00 Chandra: Right. In fact, the way society, markets, the state interact has changed so much, lines are blurring all the time. What did you make of it, how can we leverage this opportunity at the intersection of state, society and market?

02:17 RN: Yeah, that’s a big and deep question, and this whole continuum of Samaj, Bazaar, Sarkar is what my work have been all about over the last three decades, and my contention is that we really need to work on the Samaj side because Samaj is the foundation, the basis of everything else that markets and the state are created to serve the Samaj. And sometimes that has got confused, sometimes we behave like consumers first, sometimes we behave like subjects of the state first. We need to reassert our citizenship now, and what better time than this, which has really taught us about the importance of society, about the importance of community, about the importance of our neighbours. So that’s where my work has been placed and this has been an opportunity for me to strengthen that work by supporting civil society more and doubling down on my philanthropy because it is the civil society sector as you have seen that have been the first responders, while markets have been, not through no fault of theirs, they have been frozen right? In the last few months, except for a few sectors, and state has been overwhelmed. Right?

03:25 RN: So, this is a good time for us to really think as citizens what belongs to the citizen sector, what should belong to the state, and what belongs to markets and education, health, telecommunications, the natural resources, some of these things take a time to re-imagine the balance between Samaj, Bazaar, Sarkar, especially in health and education which as you know are really topics of intense debate right now everywhere.

03:54 Chandra: Right. I was just coming to that Rohini, if you look at the policy response, has this again reinforced that a centralized top-down approach will not work, it has to be community based, it has to be local governments that are empowered because as you said they are the first respondents and that’s where India’s strength lies, we may not have ICUs and hospitals, but we do have primary healthcare centers and communities in villages, that’s something that we have to leverage.

04:25 RN: Yeah. No I couldn’t agree more. I think the principle of subsidiarity, which is that things should be solved at the first level, at the lowest, nearest possible level to the problem, right? That principle has become more important than ever. So how do we look at the scene of COVID response. While we do need the state to be very strong and create the frameworks for all of us to act, I think it’s become increasingly clear, it’s the closest community, the closest health center, the closest administrative unit that has the flexibility and the resilience to respond in context. Right? So definitely the argument for a balance between centralization and decentralization. We’ll decentralize as much as possible but keep some… Obviously keep some larger power and authority to be able to set frameworks and do good regulation to precisely to allow people to respond in context, so I think that has become more clear than before.

05:36 Chandra: Right. I just want to touch upon one aspect that you said that it’s reinforced the need to double down on philanthropy, to double down on these efforts, you’re someone who’s signed the given pay cheque. In the last few months, we have seen how Bill and Melinda Gates have been investing in various vaccine products across the world, how their investments have become crucial, what do you think Indian philanthropist, business leaders can do? We of course have seen the likes of the Infosys startup, Wipro leading from the front in terms of investment, in terms of channelling the CSR activities that they already do, but is there a more cohesive way of doing this for a country like India.

06:19 RN: So yeah, there are many ways to unleash the power of philanthropy. Now CSR is a sort of, a blunt instrument right? Because by law, they have to follow all those draft rules, they have to do exactly what government has written down. So that kind of puts a, cage around philanthropy, which is why I always thought of it as a tax by other means. Some good has come out of it, but from CSR, you can’t expect the world to change. Actually… So if we move to private philanthropy, then there is a huge opportunity that some of us have tried to harness, we’ve sort of doubled down on the work that, an interest that we already have. In addition to doing immediate COVID relief, which many of us have been doing right?

07:08 RN: Supporting civil society on the front line, to give basic things like food, rations, basic preventive health things. So that’s been going on, and that’s going to be required for some more time unfortunately, but truly. As the reports are coming in from the ground there is still a lot of desperation out there. So to meet those immediate needs of course, private philanthropy has been doing stuff along with civil society. But this is also a chance to think about the midterm and the long term. How should personal philanthropy invest for creating a more flexible and resilient society? And those are not just words. Because this is not the last pandemic, nor has it been the first. We had the effects of climate changes already everywhere, we have not found all the pieces together yet. But we know things are coming. So, we, how do we allow society to take the agency to be able to see what’s coming and prepare, adjust, create the new kind of structures that are going to be needed? The new kind of structures for cooperation, for managing trade-offs? So you need a different kind of leadership. You’ll even need a different kind of followership. So how do you help civil society organisations to build those things? It doesn’t happen overnight. But sometimes, a trigger like this can help to start that process, and that’s where I’m doing some of my investing as well.

08:35 Chandra: Right. So it’s changed the way you are looking, you looked at philanthropy in the past, vis a vis how you’re looking now.

08:40 RN: Yeah, much more immediate relief than I used to do, because the crisis is so huge. So I’ve doubled my budgets this year.

08:49 Chandra: Right. And, one area that I want to focus on, is something that you are very passionate about, as well which is education, learning. You have been working on this through Akshara foundation, you’ve also published books with Pratham. Is this an opportunity to re-imagine learning as we know it? Because, this has lead to an accelerated shift to online classes, recorded sessions, but are those more short term things? Should we really re-imagine the way learning happens? And over the long term, will this help, improve the quality of learning compared to what we have so far?

09:26 RN: Chandra I genuinely believe this. I have been working in the early childhood and childhood learning sector for 21 years now through Pratham, through Akshara foundation, I co-founded Pratham books, where we have reached millions of children with indigenous simple content, very diverse content, and then with EkStep for the last four and a half years, right? So, the focus has been very much on, how do we enable India’s young children who have better opportunities to learn, and, how can we finally give them the system that they deserve? And, after 20 years, this is the first time I feel genuinely hopeful. That because of many things the government has done, civil society has done over the decades, but also because of the technologies that have converged now that enable us to re-imagine learning, for every single child.

10:18 RN: So that no child is left behind for any reason whatsoever. And I think digital, and online is a very critical component, but not the whole component obviously. You need children to be surrounded by caring adults physically, not on a screen. Nothing should take away from that, and I’m not at all arguing for that. What I’m saying and I’ve been writing about this, that we must learn to accept the digital classroom or the digital idea of learning. Embrace it a little more. There is no perfection, so we’ll make many mistakes. But if we don’t experiment, I think we will be being very, very, very unfair to the children whose future is digital. We have to equip them to become digital citizens. Nobody is going back on digital, right? So of course they need good old fashioned schools, classrooms, personal interaction, physical interaction. But tell me Chandra, when has it ever happened, that you can remember in history, where just children being together physically, was dangerous for them.

11:24 Chandra: Exactly.

11:24 RN: We have to face such a situation. So now, we have to re-imagine, because, as I said before, this is not the last health situation that’s coming our way in this century, okay? And there can be floods, there can be earthquakes, there can be droughts, there can be tornadoes, there can be so many things that will keep disrupting the school system. So we have to have Plan B which will become Plan A in the future. Which is, that we are quickly able to switch when required to something that is a blend of physical and virtual. For that, we have to keep the virtual going, and we have to keep learning what works well, first for children, second for parents, and third for teachers and the education system. So that…

12:09 Chandra: Right.

12:09 RN: So, just think Chandra couple of centuries ago, right? Imagine the elite had to give up their private governess kind of education, and enroll in a public school system in so many countries. Imagine the farming community, the artisan community, which used to teach their children their own skills. The parents had to completely shift the mindset to send children to public schools. So those kind of huge shifts have happened, in the education sector before. Now, it’s one more. It’s never easy, change is scary and it’s never easy. But this is that kind of shift again, that harassed parents have to make.

12:50 RN: I know parents are really harassed. It’s not at all easy, I’m sure you’re a harassed parent yourself. I think some of you have been tweeting about that, but we all have to try and make it for whose sake? For whose sake? For the sake of our children, the children of this country and their future. So that’s why we believe very strongly in this.

13:10 Chandra: Yeah. In fact, I just have a follow up to that. I can tell you a lot of parents and teachers of English and of-course children heave a huge sigh of relief when the Karnataka government came up and said that, you know what “We’re not going to have online classes”. We have sessions to support the standard and we did this on grounds of equity of lowly backgrounds also health reasons. So why do you think this spins a wheel? Children learn everyday in various space, why do they need an online session? Why do you think this needs a…

13:35 RN: See, the minute we believe in a structure, socialised structure of a school, a physical school, we’re accepting the idea that apart from individual tuition, some individual personalised learning like leaving a little child with a screen on her own, beyond what a caring parent can do or caring grandmother can do. Beyond that, we have accepted that children need a socialised setting in which to learn from peers and to have a common knowledge curriculum, so that everybody has at least a common core from which they’re learning. So that we’ve accepted that it needs to be a school setting for the most part. Now, when schools are not there and we don’t know when they will open, Chandra.

14:33 RN: And Bangalore now the cases are going up, God forbid that it gets any worst, but the state does whatever it can, but when there’s so much uncertainty and when we know that children can easily slip back, however the parent do with a child at home without a structured, even if it is for half an hour, even if you don’t make it compulsory, even if you keep thinking how a curriculum can be more engaging so that it is not so stressful, even perhaps you have smaller groups, even if you shift the timings, there are so many ways to experiment so that the parent’s tension comes down so that children don’t find it so stressful. But tell me you’ve seen your own children, we’ve all seen little children in front of a screen, if they have a interesting interactive thing happening, the joyful learning that we’ve seen possible, you know? I don’t think we should prevent that. I’m not saying let them sit in front of a screen for hours on end, but bans…

15:39 RN: My government has banned online classes, okay? And I think bans are very easy to do for states. No, they have a monopoly on bans, they can ban things. So bans are easy, but thinking through and evolving something that works is harder but much more necessary for the interest of the children. And I really worry about the digital divide, Chandra. We should not increase it. See, every children will 100% go to the best online classes in the world, okay?

16:11 Chandra: Correct.

16:12 RN: Who will be left behind? So I feel that don’t ban, okay? That is not a perfect answer to have online classes. I want schools to open, I want children to be healthy, but we don’t know when that will happen. So at least allow experimentation, keep an eye, okay? And encourage the private school system, government school system, experiment, learn, drop one doesn’t work, but don’t ban. It goes back to the basic distrust we have of the private sector when it comes to education and health. I think we… There’s a genuine deep-seated suspicion of the private sector. And actually if you ask me I would happily turn back the clock and say, “Let’s socialise both. Let’s have only the public sector deliver this.” But it’s too late for that now. In many countries they did that, we didn’t do that and now it’s very hard to start that now when don’t exactly have the most competent states in the world, so let’s work with the private sector because the law allows for those schools to function, right? Then give them space, give them space to experiment, that’s where I’m coming from.

17:27 Chandra: Right. But do you fundamentally believe that this is going to be one of those transformative changes that just were bound to happen because ultimately we are creature of habits, we’ve seen revenge shopping happening where people are thronging malls. We’re seeing people go back to restaurants then just as lockdown fatigue and people want to go back to business as usual, people wanna… There are children who want to go back to schools, so are these going to be lockdown changes? Do you think people fundamentally alter or is this going to be a three-month or six-month experiment and then we have to go back to business as usual?

18:04 RN: Well nobody can speak accurately about the future or at least anybody can say anything about the future because it isn’t here yet. But I would think that, yes, some things are going to change because we’ve truly seen some of our worst fears come to life that a tiny little virus that has taken over the whole world and we have understood that in some sense we have developed a new muscle, a new societal muscle to deal with something like this unprecedented. And I think that people retain, they’re going to keep exercising that muscle a little bit so that next time when something like this happens we’re better prepared. So I do think there’s going to be a fundamental shift in how we think of eating, how we think of travel, how we think of learning, and how we think of working.

18:55 Chandra: Right, and the… Sorry, yeah, Rohini, the government is also pushing digital platforms in a big way, if you look at, the DIKSHA program. You have been involved with EkStep Foundation, which is a collaborative platform, for teachers… Schools, across the country to play content. So, like Digital India, like how this, UPI, took off. Are we going to see, the government also play a crucial role, in the way education and learning outcomes happen across the country? Because we have state governments now, who are printing QR codes on textbooks. So, is the push going to come from the state?

19:35 RN: I think so, I’m very delightfully surprised to see how proactive the union government has been and how many states have come onboard, who understand that the future has to be a blend of physical and virtual, okay? The QR coded textbooks are all over the country, and what it does is, builds a very nice bridge between the physical and digital world, so that a textbook is frozen and static and very, very, very useful. Okay? The textbook is a one book that you can find in every household of India. So, it is like a portal, it is like a gateway to so many things for the children that use it, so if you have, if you can, embed just a QR code in it and that QR code is not static, the things that link to the QR code, can be updated any time, right? So a child, can get a very, updated idea, say… Suppose, he is learning about Mars and with the QR code at the back of that lesson on Mars, now he knows, all about the India’s space program! That happened yesterday, right? So, I like that idea and, state and union governments have adopted it, very proactively and they are learning from each other. I mean, the states are learning from each other, very quickly and adopting each other’s best practices because they can do this very quickly. There’s no physical infrastructure involved. So they can very quickly do this and they are monitoring. Because they get real time data.

21:07 RN: So they know when it’s working and they also know when it’s not working, so they can do course correction also quickly. So yeah, I’m very happy with what’s happening and all of us have to get… All of us have to keep an eye, so that no harm should be done, right? But progress has risks, so we have to obviously watch out, but at least I’m happy with the direction that the governments are taking on digital learning. And they are being very creative. I’m telling you, the teachers on the ground… We have stories of how, say one teacher will… She knows her class, right? The teacher knows her children, and she knows that this child needs a little extra help on this, but I don’t have time in the class to focus on her, but I know she needs help in this particular subject. So what she’s been doing is, copying the QR code of that particular thing, which she thinks the child needs help on and she pastes it on the child’s school bag and tells her that, “Go home, and use this QR code, on your parent’s phone, with them and see if you can equip yourself better for the lesson tomorrow.” So, we have been experimenting… We are getting feedback like this, which is very heartening indeed.

22:18 Chandra: Right, coming to the final part of the interview, Rohini, you know, early on in the interview, you spoke about, how you’ve doubled your philanthropy budget for this year and you are focusing on initiatives that will give immediate relief. Can you tell us a little, about that? In terms of, your own work for the last few months… When did you really feel that, you know what, this is the biggest crisis, we are facing and that we need to do double down?

22:45 RN: Yeah. So, certainly, we did, quick relief with all the organisations that we are already working with, because there is a lot of trust there. So, anybody who came to us saying, “We’re going to give basic relief”, we said, “Please go ahead”, and we said, “Change your budgets, do whatever you have to.” But that, everybody did, and whatever, we do, is not going to be enough. It’s the government, that finally is going to have to place the kind of effort needed to restore agency to people, so that they can go back to their lives and livelihood. So, philanthropy is just like a band-aid there, but we did it. And we did some amount, not as much as some of the others did, but we did some. But my focus now, I’m doubling down, for this year, is to say, in the sectors, that I’m interested in. We will help those organisations, to think more about, what resilience looks like, what should the communities be prepared for. And so those budgets, I’m increasing, in the areas that I’m concerned with, environment, justice, education, a little bit media… But a few others as well.

23:55 Chandra: That’s music to my ears. Right. Final couple of questions, are you working on your next book, what is it going to be on?

24:03 RN: Oh dear! I prefer to talk about my stuff after I’ve written it, so I can happily tell you about the children’s… Two new children’s books that are coming out this year. One, just next week or so and that’s online because physical books are just not getting printed. And it’s about Sringeri Srinivas and the Coronavirus, which I hope, tons of children will be able to read. And another book, I’m doing with Juggernaut, for children, but of course, one… Authors always want to write their next work. But it’s best to talk about it, when it’s written.

24:37 Chandra: Right. Finally Rohini, a lot of people have been sharing accounts on social media, of how they have acquired new skills, be it hobby, be it cooking, be it something else”… Are there any new hobbies and interests, that you acquired during the lockdown, that perhaps you’re going be building on?

24:55 RN: Oh yes. I have discovered that my phone has a camera that is out of this world. And my garden has taken on a life of its own, every insect, every bud, every leaf, has been so much brighter, in these last three months and I have been photographing it till all my family is absolutely fed up of me, I’m constantly taking pictures, of every leaf, every spider, every bird, everything I can find. Last night, the Brahma-Kamal, opened up on my terrace, it blooms only at… From 10:00 PM to 3:00 AM and it’s just divine, so it was the crowning glory of this year’s photography lessons in my own backyard.

25:38 Chandra: Hopefully, we will see you on Instagram soon, with all these… Photos.

25:41 RN: Oh dear! No, I’m not on social media.

25:45 Chandra: On that note, thank you very much, Rohini, for sharing your thoughts, as always, on very crucial areas, education, philanthropy, how we can really work together to rebuild society with others. Thank you very much for talking to us.

25:58 RN: Thank you, Chandra. Thank you so much.

More like this

Civil Society  |  Climate & Biodiversity  |  Strategic Philanthropy  |  Water

Resilience, Hope: India in the Time of COVID-19 & Climate Change

This is an edited version of Rohini Nilekani in conversation with Jairam Ramesh (former Minister for Environment and Forests) and Navroz Dubash (Professor at the Centre for Policy Research). Moderated by Barkha Dutt, New Worlds is a three-part digital series by the India Climate Collaborative to discuss resilience and recovery in the face of our […]
May 9, 2020 |

Strategic Philanthropy

It's time to offer up our shoulders - wealth is a resource that could be used to bridge gaps and create a world of equals.

As an erstwhile leftist, Rohini Nilekam admits to a few years of disquiet when her family started reaping the generous rewards of Infosys. Soon she realised that wealth is a resource that could be used to bridge gaps and create a world of equals. View PDF
Dec 1, 2004 | Personality

Strategic Philanthropy  |  Civil Society

Giving Matters | Dasra Philanthropy Forum

This is an edited version of Rohini Nilekani‚Äôs conversation with Neera Nundy during the Dasra Philanthropy Forum, held at the Ford Foundation in New York. 15 years ago, when we came into some wealth, I was lucky enough to have invested in a small company which my husband had started. Over the years, it made […]
Nov 10, 2014 | Panel Discussions

Strategic Philanthropy

Why millionaires are giving away their wealth

This story was selected by TOI Guest Editor Bill Gates. BENGALURU: “I didn’t know I was going to become this rich,” says philanthropist Rohini Nilekani, when asked what moves her to give, “but when it became clear that I would come into money, I wanted to do good.” The first chunk of Rs 100 crore […]
Nov 17, 2017 | Article