Answer is blowin’ in the wind – Today, the situation is such that even the mighty Cauvery is not enough to slake the thirst of this city.

In all the crises that have overtaken the city, one that looms grey and large is the effect of excess ram. Overflowing lakes, tanks and drains have almost made us forget that other and worse crisis that often affects the city – water scarcity.
When rainfall is inadequate, the water supply dries up alarmingly. And then begins a whole parade of woes.
Apparently, the city can manage neither plenty nor scarcity.

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Many questions for the dinner table

Some key issues and dilemmas about food that the developed countries are beginning to ponder, and which the argumentative Indian can take to heart.
How do we produce food? How do we distribute it? And how do we consume it? These are questions that are increasingly understood to be at the core of sustainable economies. And how we regard food, think about it and treat it, is clearly at the heart of sustainable well-being.

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Emerging Challenges for Civil Society in India

A keynote speech delivered at the 25th Anniversary of Rotary club in 2008

The Indian third sector – as the non-profit sector is sometimes called, is one of the largest and certainly the most diverse in the world. There are civil society organizations in virtually every area of human endeavour, including community bee-keeping!

As for size, a sample survey of the sector showed that there are about 1.2 million organizations in India, which engage more than 6 million people. And this number is growing steadily as new non-profits get registered every other day.

Civil society remains the vehicle of choice for social change. And in fact, we can safely say that civil society organizations have been very effective on many fronts in India. Not only have they filled social services delivery gaps left by the government, they have succeeded in generating awareness, driving new legislation, uncovering scams and malafide intentions and in fact, done everything that the civil sector –as the conscience and the ombudsman of the nation’s agenda is supposed to do.

In the seventies, there was a sudden upsurge in the setting up of NGOs, perhaps echoing the greater community activism that emerged in the West as part of the green movement and the peace movement. Today, many of those organizations, just like your Rotary, are close to their 25th anniversaries. To name a few, Myrada, Development Alternatives, CSE and TERI and the Narmada Bachao Andolan. 

They all emerged out of a sense of dissatisfaction at the way things were going in a state-controlled economy, and which was not catering to our democratic vision of equal opportunity and a decent quality of life for all.

 Each organization founds its own model of resistance to or partnership with the state in order to meet societal objectives. And each has evolved tremendously over the past two decades, though they began with the traditional idea of working in the community and for the community.

 Arguably, the 90’s saw another great push in the number of civil society organizations. This was a new breed of NPO – and they were in a sense reacting to the increasing presence of the private sector in India post economic liberalization.

 The beginning of this century has seen the emergence of yet another kind of non-profit organization – one that is taking advantage of the new media, the new economy and new technology. Akshara Foundation could be an example of this time of organization as could Janaagraha and e-Governments Foundation all home grown right here in Bangalore.

 The hallmark of these kinds of organizations is that they prefer to work with the government where ever possible, prefer to push the ideals of a modern democratic state, see the market as a possible ally and not necessarily an enemy, and are driven by specific goals and desired outcomes. They use modern management techniques, attract professional talent, and pursue scale through the use of modern technology. These organizations are often funded by the new wealth that has been created by the post liberalization economic boom.

 While it may be a little early to judge their overall effectiveness, they have brought about a whiff of fresh air into the third sector and are being watched with great curiousity by observers around the world.

 And yet, with all these thousands of organizations of all shapes and sizes and beliefs and objectives – all working by and large for the goal of an equitable, effective, sustainable society – we have not yet seen that goal actually being realized. If anything, social commentators are lamenting the increase in inequity in India despite good growth and despite an abundance of material wealth creation.

 So what can civil society DO to increase its effectiveness? What are the major challenges before us?

 I think the first challenge is that of enabling good governance. Most problems in this country come out of a lackadaisical attitude towards governance practices. In whatever field the CSO is engaged in, its work will have a multiplier effect if it can understand and rectify governance issues. For example, in education, taking a look at the BMP primary schools, we were able to show, that in spite of a generous per-student budget, municipal schools were completely insufficient even in the provision of simple infrastructure. How then was the money being used? Who was looking at inputs vs outcomes? Who was responsible if the money was not used properly? How were schools involved in a feedback loop to government and decision-makers? By focusing our attention on these issues we were able to achieve a small degree of success. But that experience emboldened us to take issues of input and outcomes to a larger canvas. This past year, in close partnership with the GOK , we launched the KLP to enable learning outcomes in schools. Using technology, such as GIS, using good tools to collect data at the level of every child and every school, we were able to help the government identify exactly which children in the 1400 schools of Bangalore Urban District needed help with their reading skills. And we were able to help school teachers roll out a time-bound goal-oriented reading programme to get those children – about 75,000 of them to become readers.

We think the success of this programme was in no small part because we created the framework of good governance – such as identifying the problem, the actors, the approach and the finances, and finally mapping the outcomes and rewarding good effort.

 If more CSOs could focus on better governance, I think we could all become more effective more quickly.

 Secondly, the challenge of scaling up. In India, we have a million great examples of pilots and models that have succeeded brilliantly as islands of excellent work. But we have before us in India, in the world’s most populous nation bar none, the very real issue that we need to go beyond pilots and good examples to reach the staggering number of 400-500 million people who still do not have a satisfactory quality of life. How do we reach every last citizen in this country? We need to find ways and means to effectively scale up the delivery of social services in all sectors. Civil society can take up these challenges by focusing on what parts of their work are ripe for scaling up and on the partnerships that would be required to bring that scale. At Akshara, we have tried to use good governance practices coupled with technology to enable much-needed scale. If all goes well, we hope in this academic year to take the KLP programme from 1500 to 15000 schools and then eventually to every single school in the state – 50,000 of them, and make sure every primary school child in the state is competent in the basic skills of reading, writing and math. For this, we are working with many partners and would be very happy if Rotary clubs across Karnataka could play a meaningful role as well.

 The third challenge, I think, is creating effective partnerships. Today the civil society sector operates very often in silos or in isolation from others. There is tremendous polarization in the ideologies of organizations working towards a common goal. One very good example is in the water sector – where anti-privatization groups clash routinely with those that are either pro-privatisation or simply interested in getting things done rather than in who is doing them. This leads to tremendous acrimony and a waste of time which in fact allows business as usual to have a longer run than it deserves.

 Now that the whole planet’s sustainability is at stake, we will have to find common platforms where, agreeing to disagree in some areas, we nevertheless can take the agenda forward. And learning to work with the government, which remains the single largest player in the social sector, is one of our best opportunities to create lasting change.

 The fourth challenge, perhaps, is that of the capacity building of the third sector. How can we train ourselves more, equip ourselves with better skills in finance, HR, admin, communications etc that could help us multiply our effectiveness? Today, many CSOs are trying to tackle 21st century problems with 19th century tools. Ramping up our tools, investing in better training, will go a long way to improve our effectiveness.

 The fifth challenge perhaps, is how to unleash the creativity of the civil sector. We are the the very brink of chaos, at the collapse of the natural resources base. We can no longer afford to think in the old ways. Nor can we wait for the state or the market to come up with ideas. We need to harness the passion for change that is the main driver for all civil society organizations and come up with new ideas to solve old problems.

 And last but not least, civil society needs to turn the torchlight inwards, upon itself. That is also a very big challenge. We preach but do we practice? We want the government to be transparent and accountable and give us information on demand. We want business to be accountable to all stakeholders. We want notions of equity to be the base of all decision making everywhere. How could our own mechanisms in our own organizations? Do we have fiscal transparency and accountability? Are we internally democratic? Are we measuring the outcomes of our own work? I think, if we can get our own houses in order, we may better be able to make the difference out there. Be the change you want to see, as Gandhi said.

 I think civil society organizations in India have been the backbone of this country’s democracy. And I think they are very much our hope for the future. As Marianne Williamson said, “In every community there is work to be done. In every nation, there are wounds to heal. In every heart there is the power to do it.”


The jewelled Aghanashini: It’s the last major free flowing river of peninsular India, don’t put the squeeze on it

For its entire 124 kilometres, this jewel of a river flows free. It is probably as old as the Western Ghats, older than the Himalayan range. Though not especially long, this west flowing river has a volume of water equal to the bigger Kali or Sharavathi rivers nearby. It originates in Shankara Honda in the town of Sirsi and meanders clean and clear through gorges, unique swamps, ancient forests and agricultural fields, till it flows to the Arabian Sea at Kumta, in Uttara Kannada district, Karnataka. Its forest floors are carpeted by bioluminescence, its estuary is rich with bivalves, crabs and mangroves harbouring dozens of varieties of fish.

Because of its gradient, it is the site of many spectacular waterfalls, like the Unchalli Falls, near which, on a full moon night in winter, you might even glimpse a moonbow – a rainbow generated from the moonlight. This is the river Aghanashini – ‘the cleanser of sins’.

This peninsular river is unique, because it is free flowing, unpolluted and retains its millennia old natural course. Most rivers in India are not free; they are dammed, or forced into channels. Others have just given up because their catchments have been destroyed; their drainage paths encroached upon. Most of our rivers do not even reach the sea anymore. Yet the hydrological cycle and the monsoon depends on rivers flowing to the ocean. A prevalent hydro schizophrenia refuses to acknowledge this reality, and we continue to build infrastructure along our rivers.

For the lakhs living along its banks, the Aghanashini has given people life and livelihoods. Even today, around 2 lakh households are directly dependent on the estuary, famed for its protein rich bivalve, crab and shrimp harvest. For the thousands of pilgrims that come to its many sacred spots, the river offers spiritual solace. For the growing number of tourists and researchers, the Aghanashini tract offers unique sights. Its sacred groves where trees have never been felled, its dense mangroves, its endangered lion-tailed macaque that came 5 million years ago, its tribal populations like the Halakkis that keep the Yakshagana art form alive; its appemidi wild mangoes that make the best pickles; its salt and pest resistant kagga rice – the list is endless.

Periodically, infrastructure is planned along this free flowing river of peninsular India. Once, industrial salt production was tried and abandoned. Then came a hydroelectric project, a thermal power plant, a port and a scheme to divert the river water for faraway towns.

People poured out in strong and sustained protests; people from every walk of life – ecologists, spiritual leaders, and fisher folk. The plans were shelved. The river ran free.
Now, a mega all weather port is once again imagined at its estuary, as part of Sagarmala. This port, which will expand the existing small Tadri port, will be built at an expense of about Rs 40,000 crore.

Karnataka already has 13 ports along its 300 km coastline, out of which one, Mangaluru, is a major port handling the bulk of shipments to and from the state. It is not clear on what basis the state expects Tadri port to be viable when nearby ports remain underutilised.

Just 25 km north is the Belekeri port, which was used to export iron ore and import coal before the industry collapsed. Just 25 km south is the Honnavar port, with a recorded maritime history going back centuries. Both these are well connected through the Konkan railway line and NH-17.

While it is unclear whether this port will ever be economically viable, environmental clearances have speeded up, with the usual contestations over what the reports left out in terms of the natural wealth of the region, and what would be lost through the creation of this port.

Meanwhile, the economic and future proofing opportunities created by the river and its catchments have not been properly documented. With its extreme natural beauty, just the potential of eco-tourism, if properly handled, could yield substantial revenue. The Western Ghats together with the sand and mangroves at the estuary are also effective carbon sinks. They provide untold ecosystem services in the region, including flood and erosion prevention.

If the port is built, it will require extensive dredging, as the current water depth is hardly two metres at the estuary. For ships to dock, it will have to be dredged up to almost 20 metres, releasing a vast amount of carbon rich soil and sand. Who will benefit? We often destroy ecology-based livelihoods in the name of employment creation. Who will be accountable when the marine production drops, as has been the experience at ports close by?

Economic discipline requires an ecological discipline as well. If we go ahead with each and every port designed for the Sagarmala project, we may create stranded assets and waste billions of dollars in underutilised infrastructure. Exactly the same result is visible in the Himalayas where dam after dam was built without making a holistic, scientific assessment of the total impact on the land and the economy.

In this great nation of saints and poets, public administrators and ingenious architects, has our national and local imagination shrunk so much that we cannot leave the last major free flowing river of peninsular India alone, for future generations to explore, enjoy and benefit from? Let the Aghanashini flow with Aviral, Nirmal Dhara.

Times of India



How Samaaj Impacts the way in Which Sarkaar and Bazaar Work

This is an edited version of a talk Rohini Nilekani gave at the offices of the eGovernments Foundation on how samaaj impacts the way in which sarkaar and bazaar work, and the role of samaaj in eGov’s mission.

The Continuum of Samaaj, Sarkaar, and Bazaar

Since the past 25 years, I’ve been deeply involved in the civil society sector of India, which is very thriving and diverse. From listening to people, especially at the grassroots level, reading a lot, talking to people, and observing what’s happening around us from the lens of Indian society, I have tried to create a certain philosophy for myself through which I can do my work and see the world. 

So, the theory is fairly simple – that there is a continuum of Samaaj, Bazaar, and Sarkaar. But we must understand that Samaaj is the foundation, Samaaj is the pillar, Samaaj is the first sector, not the third sector, as people sometimes call it. And over centuries, Sarkaar and Bazaar developed in the service of the Samaaj. The Bazaar and Sarkaar evolved as responses to the needs of diverse societies.

We are citizens first, not consumers or subjects of states and kingdoms. The Bazaar and the Sarkaar are set up and are expected to be accountable to the larger needs of Samaaj. So this is the starting point of all my philanthropic work which embeds itself in Samaaj and actors of Samaaj. eGovernments Foundation (eGov) is a Samaaj actor that is working with the Sarkaar and the Bazaar. 

Over time, this dynamic between Samaaj, Bazaar, and Sarkaar obviously keeps evolving and shifting, and there have been many tugs. At the heart of everything is always power and power structures. So depending on how power structures are playing out, the fluidity, roles, responsibilities, and strength of these three sectors can keep changing. For example, my lessons from the last century is that both Bazaar and Sarkaar became very powerful and extremely oppressive in many parts of the world. With examples like Mao and Stalin, we have seen how the state began to get very powerful and took over people’s lives, oppressing the Samaaj they should be serving. Post-World War II, as reconstruction was taking place all over the world, capitalism began to advance and make substantial inroads, to the point of even dismantling the Soviet Empire. The markets began to gain an increasing amount of power, which we can see even today. Back then, they called it the military-industrial complex, but the fact is that the market had acquired a lot of power even on the consumer side, affecting the Samaaj. Today we know what is being discussed –  how a clutch of transnational corporations, tech companies who represent the market, have pretty much decided how we should think.

An Age of Extremes

The pendulum has swung too far that in many cases during the last century, we have observed the market and the state colluding. When that happens, Samaaj must remain happy with crumbs. So this is really dangerous for Samaaj. And remember, Samaaj is not one homogenous unit. By Samaaj, I mean all the identities. Social identities that we hold, the human identities that we hold, the groupings that we hold, the institutions of society that exist – that’s what I mean by Samaaj.

But today, we are finding that individuals in the Samaaj sector are really subject to enormous forces of the state and the Bazaar. In 25 years, with the Internet and the mobile phone revolution, we saw individual liberties being stretched so far as well. Anybody can do anything they want from anywhere, at any time, and that includes the ability to spew hate and encourage violence, without any accountability. So from Samaaj side there are issues as well.

On the Samaaj side, we have begun to see a response to this kind of accumulation of power, which strangely enough gave individual liberty one last run in these last 25 years. I feel that we are in the middle of a huge societal correction, where we will see some new societal norms being formed around this notion of individual liberty, market power, and state authoritarianism in a digital age. I don’t know where this will lead, but I can see the corrections happening, they look like upheavals right now. Recent advances in technology have led to the fear of the capture of our days, and our hearts, and our minds by the power of the Bazaar through technology and the surveillance state.

Now, while all of this is going on, a lot of other things are happening that are very positive as well. I really don’t believe in black and whites unless I’m fighting with my husband, in which case I always do. But otherwise, a lot of very interesting things are happening in the Samaaj sector in response to this accumulation of power. Because when power accumulates, there’s always a responsive force that tries to pull it back and maintain a dynamic balance. And so you’re seeing the emergence of many civil society actors around the globe who are responding to this accumulation of power by the state and the market. And that is the interesting space in which I work.

Seeing Like a State

This brings me to the reason why this understanding is so crucial when thinking about organizations like eGovernments. I think eGov has done a fantastic job of working on the supply side for urban areas, which was so broken and almost non-existent before. The pioneering teams here did a successful job of coming from good intentions, and were able to gain the trust of the state at all its levels.

eGov was able to understand the political economy and work with the state’s institutions, bureaucrats, administrators, and officials to ensure more transparency, efficiency and accountability. But this was done from inside, behind the walls of the state. In James Scott’s book, Seeing Like a State, he talks about how the state needs to look after equity, since the market is naturally interested in profit. The main responsibility for maintaining equity on behalf of the Samaaj, falls to the state. However, while the state is mandated with the idea of equity, it often is more comfortable with efficiency. This is because efficiency is easy to measure, it is easy to design for, and it is a placeholder for equity. You feel like you’re moving somewhere good when you try to put efficient systems in place. So that’s what James Scott calls “seeing like a state.”

Here, the state looks to organize citizens and issues in a way that is efficient and convenient to deal with. So, you try to create visibility for the state, and not so much for the people. Scott describes many experiments, including Le Corbusier’s work, the collectivization of the farms in China, and similar land experiments in the Soviet Union. He talks about the redesign of agricultural places like Tanzania and scientific forestry in Germany as examples of actions that were designed to create efficiency for the state, but did not always translate into public benefit. Even with the best of intentions, the way the state sees us is very different from how we would like the state to see us. So when eGov is sitting on this side, we have to always keep in mind the original intention of eGov is to genuinely make the state more accountable to the public good in the best way it can. So no matter what all we do from the supply side, if we don’t hold this as a principal value of the design of whatever supply-side work we do, you may end up with unintended consequences.

For example, the Grievance Redressal mechanism, even if it’s designed efficiently, unless it actually works on the ground for citizens, it cannot be called a success. It may function beautifully from the state’s point of view, and it makes bureaucrats work more efficiently, since they can process 1,000 complaints at a time instead of just one. So while it brings efficiency, it may not bring equity, it may not bring well-being on the other side. This is why the lens of the Samaaj is crucial for eGov because you have come very far with bringing supply-side to some point where it understands its accountability, it understands the need for transparency, it understands how technology can transform the needs of the citizen.

So, now we need to identify the actors within Samaaj who can work with eGov to make sure that all the amazing groundwork they’ve been doing for 16 years gets translated into real public good. This might mean going back to the drawing board, to rethink the designs of some systems that are already in place. From the citizen’s side, what are the challenges for them and how can we redesign to their benefit. When we want efficiency, standardizing systems is the most convenient thing to do, but in reality these need to serve a diverse group of people. And if we’re trying to look at Societal Platform Thinking, where the goal is to address complex societal problems, one of the principles of this is to hold on to and cater to that diversity. This applies to the context of eGov as well. Diversity is at the heart of resilience, so if we want to respect and understand the importance of diversity, especially in a place like India, then we have to be willing to design for that diversity at scale.

Diversity At Scale

When we think of designing for diversity at scale, the challenge is figuring out how to standardize change. Cookie cutter standard mechanisms will kill diversity, but if you believe in diversity as a fundamental principle of good design, then you have to design for diversity at scale. Within the Grievance Redressal mechanism, for instance, the diversity of language has been taken care of, but there may be other contextual, cultural things which we might need to redesign for, to make it effective for both state and citizen.

This is what we’ve tried to do at Pratham Books, where we decided it was time an Indian publisher was able to distribute and democratize the joy of reading. We kept this principle of diversity at scale, to unlock the potential of ordinary people who created a whole reading movement for the children of this country. There are 250 million children in India, the total population of many other countries. So how do we unlock the potential of parents, teachers, writers, illustrators, translators, editors, and storytellers, in order to make a movement of people? We did this by creating an open platform, a Creative Commons platform, which allowed everybody to participate, putting a book or a story in every child’s hand.

Since I have left, the next team has done even better. Sometimes you have to leave so that the next creativity can come into an institution. And the next platform, called StoryWeaver, allows anybody, anywhere in the world to write and publish a story, to translate somebody else’s story, and to illustrate somebody else’s story. Of course, the original has to be acknowledged. You can print other people’s stories, you can sell other people’s stories, because once you take greed off the table, once you take certain power ideas off the table, you can unleash public good and creativity. So, tens of millions of children around the world have benefited by unleashing the imaginations of writers, artists, mothers, fathers, and teachers. But all of this comes from the philosophy that the Samaaj must form the base, and the Sarkaar and Bazaar should not oppress them. Instead, they should unleash the potential of Samaaj.

When we think about organizations like eGov, the time has come to shift to the Samaaj side and look at eGov’s work from that lens. We need to strive to not see like a state, but see like a citizen.

Samaaj and Bazaar: Congruence over Divergence

This is an edited version of Rohini Nilekani’s keynote talk on Samaaj and Bazaar: Congruence over Divergence at Dasra Philanthropy Week 2019 in Mumbai. We often set up Civil Society (Samaaj) and Markets (Bazaar) as opposing binaries. In this talk, Rohini proposes that they have more in common and more to gain, collectively, in collaborating to uphold the Rule of Law.

We’ve all come a long way in the philanthropy sector in India. Apart from the older, very well-known philanthropists, we are seeing the arrival of so many new and committed philanthropists to the sector getting engaged. And yet as we look around, we see that no matter which sector we are engaged in – as civil society institutions, corporate CSR agencies, or as philanthropists – the problem seems to rush ahead faster than our approach, our solution, and we don’t seem to quite get there. 

Even today, after so many people and civil society organizations working in the area of education and most of the philanthropic capital having gone to the education sector, if you look at this year’s ASER report, it feels like we might have failed our children. Even now, so many of them cannot do division and multiplication in class five. Where are they going to land later, we know that.

So it’s very important for us to understand why we have not achieved as much as we would like to, though we have done so much. And I really believe in the power of intent. So I do think that we are going to do better, but societal problems are very complex and none of us individually or even as sectors (like philanthropists, civil society, markets, or the state) can achieve those things on our own. 

It really requires the whole continuum of Samaaj, Bazaar, and Sarkaar – civil society, markets, and the state – to work together with reduced friction to actually solve complex societal issues. Which is why we come to collaboration, which is absolutely essential as we need to account for the role of different actors in these sectors, the varied skill sets, and the different context from which to come at a problem from multiple angles. 

Luckily, there is a lot more opportunity today to be on collaborative platforms such as Dasra, Co-Impact, the India Philanthropy Initiative, and others. Some of us also got together to look at an area like independent media, and have set up a collaborative giving platform called IPSFM [the Independent and Public-Spirited Media Foundation]. A very new and exciting area that we’re looking at in collaboration is climate change. Led by the Tata Trust, some of us have founded The India Climate Collaborative. It has fairly ambitious goals to spur the ecosystem around working on climate change. So there’s a tremendous opportunity right now to think of collaboration.

In our work over the last four years, my husband Nandan and I have begun to see how we can create a framework around collaboration. We are calling it Societal Platform Thinking. But I acknowledge that collaboration is easier to talk about than to actually do. There’s a lot of friction to collaborate, and maybe two reasons that we cannot achieve the outcomes that would come only through collaboration is that we are not able to really embrace risk and that we don’t know perhaps how to trust, how to let go, how to get out of our comfort zones and do things that we know might fail. So, embracing risk is a lot about failure and the ability to trust. When I say trust, it means that if you are a philanthropist, you have to be able to trust your grantee partners. That means you give them enough flexibility to change what they’re doing based on context and not asking them to give ridiculous amounts of reporting, just so that you feel you are doing all right as a philanthropist.

You have to be able to lead with trust. Through my 30 year journey in this space, I’ve found that once you start off with a relationship of trust, magic happens. Of course, there are some caveats to whom you work with. You should be able to work with trustworthy partners. But I just wanted to highlight that trust is key if you want to achieve social outcomes. By embracing risk and allowing ourselves to trust, we open up our minds and spaces for us to act in. We have to be prepared when we embrace risk, of course, to embrace failure. And once you say, “I’m willing to fail”, it allows you to go where you have not gone before with much more confidence.

So today, for example, as our economy is growing and as our government is able to do much more social spending, there’s a lot of attention being paid to how we can implement government programs better. Certainly CSR has become better at doing that over the last few years. There are many civil society organizations that have helped the government achieve its own mandate at the implementation level. But there are so many areas of society that don’t get looked at enough, where the government is not necessarily doing enough, and where we as philanthropists and civil society organizations need to do much more. Look at issues like mental health, disability, access to justice, environment, and livelihoods. If we were to embrace the risk and not fear failure, we would go into those areas as philanthropists and as new CSO organizations and innovate solutions that could get us out of the usual rot of our societal problems.

Sometimes, I wonder if we are suffering from a lack of imagination. When Vinoba Bhave started ‘Bhoodan’ and Mahatma Gandhi started the ‘Salt Satyagraha’, they were thinking at a universal human level of change. Now when we talk about one district or even 10 districts at a time, that is not enough. At least some of us should be able to say that we will go beyond just doing incremental things and look at achieving a population scale. There is a method to achieving that, and here, intent is not enough. We will need collaborative frameworks that are designed for scale.  

I want to talk a bit more about failure. Failure can lead to a lot of very interesting stuff. Certainly in 30 years, we have failed repeatedly in the work that I do. And in an article I recently wrote, I was thinking of how Gandhi actually failed as a lawyer. He just couldn’t get his practice together, and then he embraced risk and set off in a boat to South Africa. And look what that one failure led to – the transformation of humanity. So we should not be afraid to fail, but then immediately thereafter, to embrace risk and set out to sail to shores yet unseen.

I feel there are three lessons from all the failures that I was able to embrace in 30 years of working in the social sector. The first lesson is from when we started Nagarik for safer roads in 1992. We didn’t understand the root cause of why our roads are not safer. And when you don’t go deep enough to analyze an abstract problem you’re working on, you tend to just work on bandaged solutions. Due to this, the whole thing collapsed under its own weight. The second lesson I understood when I worked at Akshara Foundation, Pratham Books, Arghyam and now EkStep. It’s that you need to clearly demarcate the role of Samaaj, Bazaar, and Sarkaar and not confuse it. Allow Samaaj to do what it does best, allow Sarkaar to do what it does best, and encourage Bazaar to do what it knows how to do best. But if you force Bazaar to go below the line of profitability, if you expect Sarkaar to do what citizens should be doing, if you expect citizens to take on the ownership of what Sarkaar should be doing, it tends to create confusion and not achieve the societal outcome you need.

And the last thing I learned was – and this is very important for philanthropists to really understand – if you want societal level transformation, none of us have the answers. But there are people who have answers in their own context. 

So, how do we distribute the ability to solve? A very key way to distribute the ability to solve, instead of pushing one solution down the pipe, is to open up, to create platforms and to allow public goods to be created from the work that we do. So for example, in Pratham Books, once we created a Creative Commons platform where everybody could do what they do best, we were able to open up the creation, the distribution, the translation, and the sale of books. We were able to scale to tens of millions of children. So this is a very important lesson. 

When philanthropic capital is being used, we owe it to the work that we do and to the ambitions that we have, especially now in the digital age, to create open digital public goods. So that other people can build and innovate on a platform that we support as philanthropists, in areas that perhaps people have not been bold enough to go before.

Dasra’s journey is synonymous with the new age of Indian philanthropy. As we begin this third decade and re-dedicate ourselves, let us all say today, no matter who we are, no matter what work we are doing, that we commit to at least in one area, we will not just do incremental but transformational. And we will do that through collaboration, by embracing risk, and we will do that without fear of failure.

Our Cities, Our Rivers: Re-imagining the Relationship

As 1.3 billion people seek better lives in a monsoon-dependent economy, the white and green revolutions may have produced grains and milk, but water is in some parts of India today more expensive and less accessible than milk. Ground water resources are depleting. NIITI Ayog sees a crisis by 2020. Where do we stand? How can water sharing disputes like the Cauvery problem be really overcome? Where can we go from here? How can communities, technologies or business models solve the problem or not? How can corporate, policymakers, NGOs and individuals contribute constructively.

This is an edited version of Rohini Nilekani’s conversation with Dr. Mihir Shah at Knowledge Factory, 2019 held in Bangalore.

As 1.3 billion people seek better lives in a monsoon-dependent economy, the white and green revolutions may have produced grains and milk. But in some parts of India today, water is more expensive and less accessible than milk. Ground water resources are depleting, and NITI Ayog sees a crisis by 2020. So how do communities, policymakers, and corporates create constructive solutions to this problem?

The Relationship Between Rivers and Cities

When we talk about reforming policy or making a change which would actually impact people positively on the ground, there are a couple of things to keep in mind, which Dr. Shah, with his experience on the planning commission and his work in Samaj Pragati Sahayog, puts it succinctly. The first is to be in a position to reform government systems and processes, because we cannot solve problems like water without involving the government.

​​While drafting the Twelfth Five Year Plan for India’s water policy, Dr. Shah created a working group of experts from outside the government, despite resistance from the Prime Minister’s Office. He brought in experts like Tushar Shah and Sunita Narayan to influence policy which was focused on arriving at a common ground on water. Everyone was forced to put their fundamentalisms outside to arrive at this common ground and make compromises. However, they were able to sign off on a document that represented a paradigm shift in how water will be managed in this country.

This is one sort of model if we are to re-imagine the relationship of rivers and our urban settlements, where we create working groups, bringing together elements of the continuum of Samaaj, Bazaar, and Sarkaar. You cannot solve complex societal issues without reducing the friction to collaborate between Samaaj, Bazaar, and Sarkaar, and this example shows us the way forward. We know that the Bazaar has a lot of innovation, including technological innovations to offer the water sector and I think we’ve not deployed enough of those. From Samaaj side, sometimes there has been a resistance to using technologies but I think the time has come when we seriously need to look at many new technologies which need the Bazaar’s active involvement to put them out into the world, with policy support from the state.

With these working groups that were set up under the Planning Commission, there was a paradigm shift in water management governance as well. As Dr. Shah points out, we applaud higher rates of growth, but do not realize that these cannot be sustained unless we also take care of the larger ecosystem, the ecology that is sustaining this process of economic growth.

For example, if we look at the relationship between cities and rivers, there is an engineering cliché, that rivers which flow into the sea are a waste and they should be dammed to bring water to the cities around it. But if we remember the lessons on the hydrological cycle that we learnt at school, we would know that it doesn’t make any sense not to allow rivers to flow into the sea. Many of our rivers today are not reaching the sea and that’s going to have serious consequences on the hydrological cycle and the monsoon patterns over time. To say that we are wasting water when we let it go into the ocean is ignoring very basic science that we learnt in third grade.

Instead we are redirecting rivers to our cities, encroaching on the drainage lines which means encroaching on the channels through which these rivers are flowing themselves. If the water is not allowed to flow through its natural course, when heavy rainfall or climate change events arise, we then face problems of urban flooding. Life and livelihood on the subcontinent could be deeply threatened. So if we don’t understand ecology and how to sustain our rivers, then we are already dooming ourselves, and our cities.

A Problem of Imagination

The situation in Bangalore is particularly interesting because we bring water from the Kaveri at great expense and at a great energy cost. We actually pump up the water from a great distance, but so many of us in the city take the Kaveri for granted. We don’t think about who is being deprived of that water by this relocation, and instead we use it, pollute it, fail to treat it, and then we send it off, creating a lot of negative downstream impact because of that.

ATREE, an organization that I support, has been doing a lot of work on the Vrishabhavathi and the Arkavati – two rivers that were tributaries of Kaveri, that were flowing through our city. Vrishabhavathi originates from the bull-temple itself, and the Dakshina Pinakini is not far from the city, originating in the Nandi Hills. There are a lot of people trying to understand how we can revive these rivers and drive back the Kaveri because Bangalore does have enough rain and lakes, and we would also have rivers if we are able to rejuvenate them. We really don’t need to bring Kaveri water to feed this thirsty city. But as of now, the Vrishabhavathi is nothing but a drain. The imagination of citizens with their rivers is destroyed, so we have no relationship with the idea of a river anymore. Nobody remembers a healthy flowing river in this city anymore, which is a real pity. But imagine if we could bring back these three rivers, the Dakshina Pinakini, the Vrishabhavathi and the Arkavati – that would mean so much.

Some of the research that was conducted at ATREE showed that one of the reasons why the Arkavati is not flowing anymore is because there has been so much groundwater pumping in an unrestricted fashion, which is affecting the base flow of rivers. In India, we have an un-channelled groundwater regime, and so our river flows are getting seriously affected because people are sucking groundwater from anywhere, without any regulation. Usually, after the monsoon, these rivers gain water from the groundwater basin. However, since groundwater has been extracted, deeper and deeper, the water now flows from the river into the ground, which results in them losing water and eventually drying up.

As Dr. Shah notes, we need policy changes as well as a people’s movement to protect our water. This work cannot be achieved by the government alone, citizens also need to understand the management of groundwater. As of now, the government has initiated the Atal Bhujal Yojana as part of the Twelfth Five Year Plan, with six thousand crores (three given by the World Bank and three coming from India). However, along with cooperation from bureaucrats and hydrogeologists, we need the citizens, who are the primary stakeholders, to come together. The dissemination of this information to people who are actually using this groundwater will ensure that they use it sustainably. So it’s a complete relationship of interdependence between different forms of water and between nation and society. That interdependence has to be embodied in powerful partnerships for change. Without that, we will continue to make mistakes and the paradigm shift will not come.

So we need to focus on local solutions which are reviving lakes, roof-water harvesting, managing the groundwater more sustainably, and using waste water more creatively. Wastewater is another problem, as Dr. Shah mentions, because water quality is becoming a very serious issue in India. Unless we are able to recycle water and make it of the requisite quality, we are causing a great deal of ecological damage. Our cities only imagine treatment plants at the ends of its bounds, but actually they need to be throughout the city so that clean water is being returned to the storm water drains. We can see successful examples of this in Jakkur and small towns where, instead of making the same outmoded mistakes, we are able to bring in 21st century technologies to treat wastewater. So it’s a question of breaking down the pure engineering paradigm, understanding the power of decentralization, and keeping an interdisciplinary, ecology-based, landscape-oriented design.

We Need to Work Together

If we look at urban governance in India, we can see clearly that our current model of both our cities and rivers has not yet emerged . Even in a powerful place like Delhi, the Yamuna is nothing but a drain. It’s the most polluted stretch of river imaginable, which is surprising when you consider that there is no lack of money, and that our nation’s capital should be setting an example of how to look after our rivers. But unfortunately, we have not empowered our cities at all, in terms of how they are run, who elects the mayors, how long the mayors are empowered to do their job, or how they can raise financing to do intra-city projects. It’s these things that also allow citizens to be directly in contact with a responsive and accountable administration. I think Bangalore is also suffering for the same reasons, because we do not have the right governance institution for urban management.

Many countries in Europe show how a decentralized, accountable governance model actually has the capacity to raise capital for things like this. A lot of us take hope from the situation of the River Thames. In the ‘60s, it was a biologically dead river, but the city got its act together and today the River Thames in London is the cleanest river in Europe. There are 125 species of fish in it now, and we can see how rivers and biodiversity ecosystems are so inextricably linked. It’s a question of imagination as well. Can we imagine Bangalore with two rivers flowing, with clean, treated water feeding those rivers? I want to imagine our lakes being revived because we collectively did the work of reviving them. I think we should strive for that imagination.


When I went to Uttarakhand with Ravi Chopra of People Science Institute, we visited 16 river valleys, and it was heart-breaking to see how the dams were built back-to-back and to serve far away cities. Rivers that were so full of life became slowly choked as they reached Delhi. We need to realize that we cannot afford this. As Dr. Shah said, the economy rests on the base of the ecology and if we forget that connection, we’re not going to be able to have the sustainable growth that is necessary to lift the remaining 300 million people out of poverty in this country. We need to view water in a multi-disciplinary manner, in a cross-disciplinary manner and with multiple stakeholders all coming together, sitting across the table with mutual respect for each other.

So we need to create a citizen movement, to put pressure on our politicians. Without water, there is no life. Our urban economy suffers and we can already see that in parts of Bangalore where there is water scarcity. Some people think that the city will see mass relocation, if we are not able to manage our water properly, and we cannot afford to let that happen. We need to start thinking about re-engaging with our city’s water future, because that can make the difference between whether our cities are going to thrive or have to face a serious crisis.

Are we suffering from a lack of imagination?

The pace at which social problems are outpacing our solutions underscores the need for bold philanthropy, audacious goals and capable, committed leadership in social sector organisations, says Rohini Nilekani, founder-chairperson of Arghyam and co-founder of EkStep.


How do you think Indian philanthropy has evolved over the years?  How have the approaches and discussions around giving developed?

I think Indian philanthropy is at an exciting stage; it is continually evolving. One of the most interesting things is that the ecosystem of philanthropy is evolving too, along with philanthropy itself and the idea of giving. Like yourself [India Leaders for Social Sector], there are many ecosystem players that are coming up, looking at leadership in the sector, matchmaking between donors and recipients, building the capacities of the sector, looking at bringing new issues to the  fore,  and so many other things [such as] auditing the sector. And, of course, with so much more wealth creation happening in the country, the spotlight is on what that wealth is doing for the country – I think we are seeing many interesting developments in Indian philanthropy

Is that increased philanthropic wealth doing enough?

No, I think we need the philanthropic muscle in India to be exercised much more. There are some constraints, though, as to why that’s not happening as much as we would like to see.

One factor is the trust deficit. Although the wealthy want to give, there is a lot of philanthropic capital all dressed up and with nowhere to go, largely because of this trust deficit.  How do you give, who do you give to, how do you get impact? You still don’t feel very sure, because of which many of us just land up creating our own organisations, trying to create the change ourselves.

I believe that a healthier thing is when the donors – I am speaking about the super wealthy—find enough channels to give through so that there is no burden of doing things themselves: because we do need a thriving civil society in a democracy. Civil society actors come from passion, from vision, from innovation, from being tied to their communities and from having deep and great context. Having a thriving civil society in a trustworthy, trusting relationship, with donors is something I consider ideal in a democracy. I think we are a little far away from that.

What opportunities must Indian philanthropy invest in to make a larger, lasting impact?

Building the capacities of the system is important. Unless the pipeline opens up to receive funds, you will not see philanthropy grow.  I talked about trust before – that’s important too. But also models of how things are really working in, say, education, health, environment, climate change, livelihoods… there are a hundred things where philanthropy should invest in, including the arts and culture. We need museums, we need performance-based culture to be supported, we need new institutions that allow people to understand the world around them. Different people are working in these areas based on their passion.

But I also think that when we talk of the disparities in India and how far behind some people are left, we have no choice but to go back to talking about the human rights framework. Some donors feel uncomfortable about this because of various things they don’t quite understand: does that mean hyper activism, does that mean getting into trouble with the state?

No matter what you call it, it is about caring about the 300 million people in this country who are our fellow citizens, who need to be supported, who need help across the board. How can Indian philanthropists, those who want to change the world for the better, start thinking a little innovatively to work with this segment?

We need to look into the future, for what’s coming at us, whether it is livelihoods, the future of work  or climate change—that’s where philanthropic capital should want to step in because they can afford to take risks, they can afford to do the things that the government cannot afford to do, things that civil society doesn’t yet have the support to imagine doing. This is the kind of challenge and opportunity for the Indian philanthropic sector.

Do you believe talent can be a limiting factor as organisations in the social sector aim for scale and sustainability?

With 1.3 billion people, we shouldn’t have to talk about the lack of talent. I think the talent is there, the grooming of the talent needs to be taken very seriously. In this sector, we must not forget to ask if there is enough commitment: if we can draw people’s commitment, people’s passion, people’s real need for their lives to have meaning, then I don’t think talent or human resources is a problem.

Having said that, because of the way the sector is growing, we really need different kinds of skills for the specific things that we need to do. I think people are recognising it. People like ILSSare coming into the sector to create the necessary talent, but we have some years to go, no doubt about it.

What can civil society organisations do to develop their leadership pipeline? How can funders help this effort?

I think we have a succession crisis in the sector right now. Many of the organisations came out of some cataclysmic events in the sixties and the seventies that brought out this amazing moral leadership in this country, which has for the last 30-40 years built a very solid civil society foundation. We are seeing succession issues in many of these organisations: after that one dynamic founder is gone, then what? We do have a leadership crisis in the sector. What ILSS and some others are doing to create the next generation of leaders is very important.

Inside organisations people really grapple with creating leadership. So, if CSR could support short courses for organisations to build their leadership, it could be very useful. Funders need to support much more institutional capacity and much more sector capacity. Leadership doesn’t come out of a vacuum and if funders could begin to think like this, it would really help.

Given the current context, what skill sets would you like to see in the social sector?

Of late I’ve been thinking, is there a lack of imagination, are we suffering from a lack of imagination? I mean, look at how the problems are outpacing the solutions. I’m not criticising; I see myself as a part of the sector so, if anything, this is a reflection rather than a criticism.

When Gandhiji just picked up a fistful of salt, what was he launching? When Vinobaji was talking about bhoodan, what was hisimagination? It was not for one district, it was not even for one nation, it was for all of humanity. When Jayaparakashji started the Sampoorna Krantiand Sarvodaya, they were talking about transforming humanity itself. Have we lost some of this spirit? How do we spark our imagination to think much bigger?

The second thing is that, while we unleash our imagination, we should also be putting our noses to the grindstone to be much more rigorous in finding out what really works and how to build systematic structures around it. That is another skill we need to build.  One more thing I would like to add is about sharing and collaboration: so, for example, if you are working in education, being curious to know what someone is working on somewhere else and being able to reach out for that.

How can the talent in corporate India engage more deeply with the social sector?

It would be great if corporate professionals, who’ve made a success of their lives, could see the kind of problems that are emerging and how they can apply their skills to solve some of those. It would be great if they start to reflect on how they would like to see the world become better and then agree to spend some of their personal time understanding that issue — because they are not just professionals, consumers, or subjects of the state; they are citizens first.

And to be a citizen means to engage with other people and to take responsibility for creating a better society because today we are more interconnected than ever. So, when we get out of our offices and cabins, how can we reconnect with all the other things that really make our lives meaningful beyond our jobs? There are so many opportunities now; there are so many young people with amazing ideas, who want to engage corporate professionals. Go and find out who’s nearest to you and I promise it will make your life richer.

What is the one cause that is closest to your heart?

The common thread in all my work is around giving people a sense of their own involvement in resolving whatever the situation may be. Whether I work in water or environment or in issues of young males in this county or the climate collaborative, that’s at the core: how do we distribute the ability to solve, how do we help people collaborate with each other? No amount of pushing solutions down the pipeline can create anything sustainable. So how do we build the strength of the samajsector? That’s the underlying issue that I care about.

A new area I am working on are the 250 million young males in this country – from puberty to the age at which they are supposed to be settled with jobs and families, but are not–and the frustration, the restlessness, the helplessness, the fear, the insecurity associated with being forced into patriarchal identities without even having thought much about it, without having role models or family connections sometimes.

How little we have done for that cohort in this country! Can we devise programmes that allow for more positive modelling for these young men so that they can be the best they want to be? This is something I have been engaged with, primarily to empower the young males themselves, but also because if we don’t focus more on them, we are never going to achieve our women’s empowerment goal. Empowering women is absolutely necessary, but to send an empowered woman into a disempowered situation gives her very bad choices.

The most ambitious thing I’ve done so far is in the context of societal platforms thinking. Societal problems are so complex that they require samaj, sarkaarand bazaarto work together; but it’s very difficult for them to work together in a really effective way. So, what can we do to reduce the friction and enable these sectors to collaborate? Can we create a technology backbone? How can we keep unpacking the commonalities across these sectors so that contextual solutions can be built on top of them? How can we build something that is unifiedbut not uniform, so that we can allow diversity to scale? How can we allow real collaboration and co-creation, and at the same time create an engine that will offer all the data when it is needed and also allow people to learn? It’s a big play; it may work, or it may not work, but we’re very excited and enthused about it.

What role do you see for technology in the civil society space?

I’ve begun to realise that if you want to respond to problems at the scale and the urgency at which they are spreading, civil society really needs to rethink its relationship with technology. I risk saying that when we see emergent backlash against technology for various good reasons. When you’re going to be technology-led you’re going to have problems, if you’re technology-enabled, you’re going to have different opportunities.

A very crucial thing I’ve learned is that when the young people of this country are going to be digital citizens, civil society has no choice but to be digital. Even to be able to respond to the abuse of technology, it has to learn to act in technology domains. At Arghyam we are trying to see how we can be an infrastructure provider instead of just a donor.

A digital civil society, where you offer checks and balances on a digital age, is something we need to strengthen in India.