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

Strategic Philanthropy | Civil Society | COVID-19 | Jun 22, 2020

This is an edited version of Rohini Nilekani’s conversation with ET Now, about the Coronavirus pandemic and the changes it has brought in her work and in society at large.

The pandemic has brought many changes in our lives, some for better and others for worse. The negative repercussions are being felt by people of certain economic classes more than others, which will leave a big impact. This new reality is a sea change for many people and we have to do a lot to set things right now. In December last year, I don’t think any of us could have predicted what our world would be like in June, so uncertainty has become the new certainty. On the other hand many people, myself included, have learnt more about what we should prioritise in life and the dignity of labour. We’ve really have a chance to introspect now, instead of rushing about doing things.

Creating a More Resilient Society

It’s time to think about the big questions now. Over the last three decades, my work has been centred around the continuum of Samaaj, Bazaar, Sarkaar. My contention is that we really need to work on the Samaaj side of things because the Samaaj is the foundation. It forms the basis of everything else, and the markets and the state are created to serve the Samaaj. Sometimes that gets confused and we behave like consumers or subjects of the state first. We need to reassert our citizenship now, and what better time than this? The pandemic has taught us about the importance of society, community, and our neighbours. This is 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. As we have seen during this time, it’s the civil society sector that has been the first responders, while the markets – through no fault of their own – have been frozen and the state has been overwhelmed.

This is a good time for us to really position ourselves as citizens and consider what belongs to the citizen sector, what should belong to the state, and what belongs to markets. With regards to areas such as education, health, telecommunications, and natural resources, we now have the opportunity to reimagine the balance between Samaaj, Bazaar, Sarkaar. This is especially true in health and education, which as we can see are topics of intense debate right now.
We need to value the principle of subsidiarity, which is that things should be solved at the first, lowest, nearest possible level to the problem. In terms of the COVID-19 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 that it’s the closest community, the closest health center, the closest administrative unit that has the flexibility and the resilience to respond in context. So there is definitely the argument for a balance between centralisation and decentralisation. We’ll decentralise as much as possible but we also need to keep some larger power and authority to be able to set frameworks and do good regulation so that people can respond in context.
We’re also seeing different ways to unleash the power of philanthropy. For example, CSR is a sort of blunt instrument because by law, companies must follow all the draft rules and do exactly what the government has specified. In a way that puts a kind of boundary or cage around philanthropy, which is why I always think of CSR as a tax by other means. Some good has come out of it, but CSR is not going to change the world. If we move to private philanthropy, there is a huge opportunity that some of us have tried to harness, by doubling down on working in an area that interests us. That is in addition to doing immediate COVID-19 relief and supporting civil society organisations on the frontline, getting basic essentials like rations and healthcare to people. As reports are coming in from the ground we know that there is still a lot of desperation out there, so this work will be necessary for a while.

However, alongside this crucial work, we also have a chance to think about the mid and the long term consequences. How should personal philanthropy invest in creating a more flexible and resilient society? This is not going to be the last pandemic, nor has it been the first. We have already been seeing the effects of climate change across the globe, and we know the future holds more changes. So how do we allow society to take the agency to see what’s coming and prepare, adjust, and create new kinds of structures that will be needed. We need a different kind of leadership, and a different kind of followership too. We need to help civil society organisations to build those things – it doesn’t just happen overnight. But sometimes, a trigger like this can help us start that process, and that’s where I’m doing some of my investing as well.

Encouraging Innovation

I have been working in the early childhood and childhood learning sector for 21 years now. I co-founded Pratham books, where we have reached millions of children with indigenous simple content. Over the last four and a half years at EkStep, our focus has been on how we can enable India’s young children to have better opportunities to learn. After 20 years, this is the first time I feel genuinely hopeful. This is because of many things the government and civil society has done over the decades, as well as the technologies that have converged to enable us to reimagine learning for every single child.

In order to reach the goal of no child being left behind, digital, and online tools are a critical component. Of course, we need children to be surrounded by caring adults, and not simply a screen. But we must learn to accept the digital classroom or the digital idea of learning as well. There is no perfect solution and mistakes will be made, but if we don’t experiment with this, I think the future will be very unfair for some children. Of course schools, classrooms, and personal interaction is important, but we’re also living through a time when children being physically together in a classroom is dangerous for them.

We have to face our reality now and reimagine solutions, because this is not the last health situation that’s coming our way in this century. We may see floods, earthquakes, droughts, tornadoes – many events could disrupt the school system. So we have to have a Plan B which may become Plan A in the future. We need to be able to quickly switch 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 for children, parents, and teachers.

We have accepted that children need a social 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 we do need the school setting for the most part. What we’re seeing now is that there’s so much uncertainty, and when children have large amounts of unstructured time we know that parents get very anxious. But we’ve also seen how little children watching an interesting and interactive thing happening on the screen can actually result in joyful learning. I don’t think we should stop that from happening. We need to allow for experimenting and encourage the private and government school systems to innovate and learn.

Building Bridges Between the Physical and Virtual

Nobody can speak accurately about the future, but I do think that we’re going to see a lot of change. We’ve truly seen some of our worst fears come to life as this virus has taken over the world. In some ways, we have developed a new societal muscle to deal with something this unprecedented. And I think that people will keep exercising this muscle so that next time something like this happens, we’re better prepared for it. I think there’s going to be a fundamental shift in how we think about eating, travel, learning, and working.

With EkStep foundation, I’ve been delightfully surprised to see how proactive the union government has been and how many states have come onboard, understanding that the future must be a blend of the physical and virtual. Our QR coded textbooks are all over the country, which builds a bridge between the physical and digital world. The textbook is something that you can find in every Indian household. So we have taken this static thing and embedded a QR code, which can be updated any time. Both the state and union governments have adopted it very proactively and they are learning from each other’s best practices. Since there’s no physical infrastructure involved, they can do this quickly and efficiently because they get data in real time. They know when it’s working or not working, and can course-correct easily. Of course progress has risks and we have to watch out for those, but I’m very happy with how things are going so far, and the government’s openness to digital learning.

In terms of what’s happening on the ground now with this pandemic, we have done 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 completely supported and allowed them to change budgets around and do what needed to be done. But we also know that this is not going to be enough. Only the government has the capacity and ability for the kind of effort needed to restore agency to people, so that they can go back to their lives and livelihood. Philanthropy can only be a band aid solution right now. My goal for this year is to now focus and double down on the sectors that I’m interested in. I’m increasing our budgets in areas like environment, justice, education, and independent media. We will help those organisations to think about what resilience looks like and what communities should be prepared for.

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