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.”


Microfinance, Macro Trends

The macro crisis in the microfinance sector may not get resolved anytime soon. But it is a symptom of a much larger trend moving through the country.

The Indian microfinance model developed differently from that in its original home in Bangladesh. It took root with self-help groups (SHGs) set up in Karnataka by Myrada, with NABARD’s support, back in the early 1980s. These affinity groups created a social glue among poor women which allowed them not only to offer their mutual guarantee as collateral against their borrowings, but enabled them to work collectively for other causes in their communities. There are hundreds of documented stories of how the SHG movement has generated social change and political empowerment, in addition to accessing more finance for the poor than ever before in independent India.

As the fledgling sector began to attract notice from banks and markets for its excellent repayment rates, well into the high 1990s, a lot of things began to change. From a vision of creating slow and steady small fortunes ‘for’ the bottom of the pyramid, some microfinance players moved to selling a glittering story of quick and large fortunes ‘from’ the bottom of the pyramid.

Within a short span of five years, the microfinance sector in India, built around carefully nurtured affinities and an appropriate pace of scaling up based on capacities, has turned into a chaotic marketplace with little regulation. It now has diverse offerings from multiple players and scant regard for proper group formation. An estimated Rs 30,000 crore is chasing the poor and being collected from them, whether they are ready for it or not.

A movement that was based on the hope that women working closely together could create for all of them some economic and social value has been overrun by the idea that loose coalitions of joint liability groups can enable individuals to escape poverty. This subtle shift rides on high theory. When we the elite do not need to form groups and prove our book- keeping skills to access bank services, how long should we expect that of the poor? Hence the sector has moved to many financial products designed for individuals. Fair enough, so long as there is informed consent of the risks of indebtedness.

But the strategy shift also surfs a wave in the current polity. We are witnessing the march of socio-economic rights in India. We have had the right to information, to education and to work. We will soon have the right to food and maybe to water. Each day, someone thinks of a new entitlement to frame as law. This rush to secure individual rights seems to suit everyone.

For rights-based activists, every success brings a heady sense of power and progress. Compared to the hard and long struggles undertaken by NGOs for sustained collective action to preserve the commons, for example, the rights movement has seen relatively quicker policy wins. And it seems they plan to continue on that path.

For market players, who deal with citizens mainly as consumers, the emerging sense of entitlement is useful to consolidate messaging around high individual aspirations. As India becomes the newest focal point for all the world’s leading brands, Indian consumers will be able to satisfy any whim, if they can afford it, or can access ‘buy now, pay later’ services.

And for a government committed to a market economy and struggling hard to deliver to a growing population all the public infrastructure that the urban elite takes so much for granted, the individualisation of demand creates an easy way to channel resources into individual citizen pipelines. Clearly, this is simpler than creating the public school education, health care services, roads and energy and communication services that the urban middle class has enjoyed and built its future on. All those services were created by the state in its more socialist avatar. Today, many governments across the country talk of public-private partnerships as the only viable model for infrastructure development. These are powerful though subtle shifts in the economy that arguably could put India on a path to more human dignity and prosperity.

But is there something we are missing, something we are losing out on, in this splitting up of the collective for the benefit of the individual? To those organisations struggling to pull people together beyond their individual or caste and creed based identities, the answer is obvious. The focus on the individual takes away the focus from work that requires collective action. Individuals cannot preserve water bodies. Individuals cannot protect forests. Individuals cannot prevent coercive states or uncaring corporations from taking away lands and livelihoods. All of these require continued and creative united efforts.

Perhaps the old institutional forms may never return; they have lost their moral power. Some cooperatives that collapsed on greed, some Gandhian groups that compromised on truth, some communists who took to extreme violence, all have made 21st century Indians wary of old paradigms and formations. And there is no denying the arrival of legitimate individual ambition in a young and economically stronger India.

Yet, if we want to belong to a nation where poverty is history and nature’s power to nurture and sustain is restored, we have to find viable new models of cooperation. Otherwise, the securing of individual ambition may remain a mirage.

Some homegrown ideas and forums are emerging. There is also hope in the innovative way in which technology commons are being used to build virtual bridges across physical divides. But, as the serious distress in the microfinance sector warns us, we must not undermine the models we already have.

Times of India


Foreward: The Blue Sweater

India is experiencing a massive transformation. Economically, socially and politically, it is a time of rapid change. The second decade of this new century is critical. It gives us a window of opportunity to complete the unfinished agenda of inclusive growth; of universalizing access to opportunities. Old debates about the role of the state and the role of the markets towards this end are being sharpened anew. It is a time of experimentation and renewal. Citizens are challenging and nudging the state to deliver better public services and improved governance. Consumers are driving markets to more innovation in products and services at lower prices across a broader geography. No doubt the lines are not drawn evenly and power is not distributed equally. Yet it is impossible to ignore the roar of a billion hopes and fears blowing in the winds of our democracy. Two decades of market reforms have created quick and unprecedented wealth for those who were poised to take advantage of the open economy. Now the rich have to show why this wealth creation is good not just for a few but for the whole country. Recently, philanthropy has come under the glare of the media. As more Indians learn to give away more of their wealth, there will hopefully be a diversity of models for giving. Indians will tailor their philanthropy to local conditions and may not follow existing models. That is the rich promise ahead. Some of this philanthropy will go towards building institutions- for education and health, for arts and culture, for the protection of the environment. Some philanthropy will support movements for socio-political change. Increasingly however, it looks as though some of this philanthropy will underwrite social entrepreneurs and a market-based approach to problems of poverty.

Making markets work better for society is absolutely critical if economic freedom is to thrive. Post the economic crisis, there has been a strong backlash against the role of global financiers and the opaque financial markets they straddle. But unless there is a counter movement to demonstrate how capital can work differently, nothing much will change on Wall Street. Philanthropy has a small but important role to play in this direction. Patient capital is needed for businesses that serve the poor and the underserved. Nothing can or should replace the role of the state in ensuring basic goods and services to all, right up to the last citizen. But markets (bazaar) have always been an important third leg after society (samaj) and the state (sarkar). Without adequate public infrastructure, and without access to formal credit it is a gargantuan task for entrepreneurs serving the poor to succeed. Often, their models are built by carefully listening to what their potential clients actually want, whether it is in low-cost energy devices, housing, education supplements or livelihood- enhancing services. They do have the potential to create successful double bottom-line enterprises. What they lack is financial support that will not hold them to a model of maximum profit extraction at any cost. They need money and mentoring that allows them to experiment and to sometimes fail. These entrepreneurs need financial banking that allows them, when they do succeed, not to destroy the very foundation on which they built their dream; not to trample over the poor as they themselves rise. For now, only philanthropic capital might be available for this purpose. But within that, perhaps, lies the seed to reclaim the role of the bazaar as an enabler and not a master of the samaj.

Acumen Fund, perhaps more than any other such entity in the world, has succeeded in drawing such philanthropic capital and other resources from an ever widening base. In a short period of time, it has established a strong though small presence in three continents. Its vision to combine business and philanthropy to break the cycle of poverty, its focus on dignity not dependence have attracted many talented people to its fold. My husband Nandan and I made a small commitment to Acumen Fund when it started operation in India and have admired how its efforts have spread from safe water to alternative energy and sustainable agriculture. The powerhouse behind Acumen Fund is Jacqueline Novagratz, a woman I greatly admire for her courage and humour, her open mind and her universalist humanism. Jacqueline’s highly infectious enthusiasm for life and her conviction that people can make anything of their own lives with the right help make her one of the most extraordinary people I know.

The Blue Sweater is a remarkable story of her journey across continents and across a political canvas of despair, hope and sheer grit. Written from Rwanda and Kenya, India and Pakistan Jacqueline’s book reminds us of how shared our destiny really is in interconnected world. She sought out men and women of extraordinary courage in her desire to ‘change the way the world tackles poverty’. She has had the courage herself to learn from them and evolve her own ideas and reverse her assumptions about the role of pure charity or even that of markets. “I’ve learned that generosity is far easier than justice,” she writes, and her work towards a more just world then yields to her, as in Tennyson’s Ulysses, that “ I am part of all that I have met”. She then adds “And they- every one of them, good and bad – are part of me.”

This understanding, embodied in a phrase familiar to Indians – vasudhaiva kutumbam- really defines Jacqueline’s quest. I hope many, especially young people in India, will read and be inspired by The Blue Seater. There is so much work ahead to ensure that all our people can live in dignity and prosperity. This book offers many insights and raises the possibility that patient capital can take on a part of that task. India’s new wealth combined with its growing band of social entrepreneurs can surely move us closer to make the bazaar more accountable to the needs of the samaj.

Looking Back | Chairperson’s Letter at Pratham Books

This letter was written for Pratham Books Annual Report 2013-2014.

We had more passion than experience. We had more commitment than competence. Like most start-ups, Pratham Books began with little more than a dream.

Sure, it was a grand vision. We wanted to enable ‘A Book in Every Child’s Hand’. Born out of the Pratham network, we set ourselves up as an independent, non­ profit publisher of children’s books on January 1, 2004. We would enable appropriate, indigenous content of high quality and an attractive price, and in multiple languages, to democratize the joy of reading for India’s children.

As Founder-Chairperson and chief funder for exactly ten years from that date, I can truly share that we have moved closer to that vision than co­- founders Ashok Karnath, Rekha Menon and I thought possible on that cold January morning. Ten years later, we have nearly two thousand books, millions of readers, and a truly inspired volunteer community apart from a dedicated in-house team. And we have tried disruptive innovations every step of the way.

It has not been easy. We had to convert our lack of baggage into an advantage. While Ashok, our Managing Trustee had to quickly learn the difference between offset and digital printing, he also had to retain his fresh eyes. While some of us, including, myself, had to become children’s authors overnight, we also had to build out a plan to draw in real professionals.

We learnt rapidly along the way. We wanted to scale access, and we had to think differently. We chose to build a hybrid organization- with significant philanthropic capital, with a market-ready approach and with strategic alliances across the big players – the government, other publishers and non-profits. We had to innovate across the distribution cycle, and go where no publisher could go before. We tried everything we could. Our books went along with the door-to-door sales, women of Unilever, they went with the Indian Railways; they landed up in kirana stores and rode in the backpacks of solar energy salesmen.

Not everything worked. But we learnt from our failures and continued to innovate. We successfully drew in an ever enlarging circle of writers, illustrators and even co-publishers. We leveraged both technology and common sense to keep our costs low and our productivity high. We enabled more simultaneous translations per title than most other publishers. We did not get paralyzed by the desire for perfection; we knew our books and our outreach could be better and we focused on doing the absolute best we could do, with the resources that we had.

It helped that ours was a societal mission. This was not about us. Pratham Books clearly wanted to be a catalyst, a platform, and a bold innovator. There was just one real goal – to democratize the joy of reading. Many people naturally veered towards this mission. Not just writers and illustrators but many others who gave generously of their time and talent. Volunteers came forward by the dozens to help more children access more books.

I believe the real transformation came when we realized that the only way to truly break out of a low equilibrium was to leverage new technologies and new ideas. We decided to put up a lot of our content on the Creative Commons, allowing people to use our content freely, making stories available to children everywhere in a digital format, and on multiple devices so as to increase access. If we could not do it alone, we would enable others to do it with us.

They did it and how. Today, Pratham Books has one of the largest repositories of free children’s content. Enthusiasts across multiple countries have downloaded our books, rewritten them, translated them into many languages, printed them, distributed them, and even sold them. That’s been fine with us; we are happy with a small attribution about the source.

With that big idea, we have broken free of many constraints. Potential new distribution channels have opened up. A printer in, say Guwahati can now simply print and sell our Assamese books, if she wishes to.

Many more contributors have understood that this platform may not give them much money but will give them unprecedented reach, with all its implications. Non-profits have been happy to have good content, free, to give to the children they work with. I believe this has been a game changer for us.

I cannot resist a personal testimony. The Annual Haircut Day, which I myself penned under the pseudonym Noni, about a character called Sringeri Srinivas, has become astonishingly popular. Sringeri’s stories have been read not just in many Indian languages but also in languages around the world. Such as French, Chinese and Lojban, which is an Internet language! This could never have been possible if we had not freed up our content for others to use. I may never know exactly how much ‘print revenue’ we might have given up on Sringeri Srinivas, but I do know that our policy has made it possible for millions more children to have the same access to stories that I had, albeit in a more modern form.

This is why I can say with conviction that Pratham Books, in a short span of ten years, has moved energetically closer to its vision. Best of all, under Suzanne Singh’s leadership as the new Chairperson, with her vast experience as the earlier Managing Trustee, Pratham Books is set to take things to an entirely new level, as you shall soon see. I wish Pratham Books all the best for its second decade.

Everyone can help. I hope you will join Pratham Books in its mission. “A book in every child’s hand- or on her mobile phone!”

Pratham Books Annual Report 2013-14


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.

Daan Utsav: Investing For A Better ‘Samaaj’

From the beginning of October and through the end of December, our minds are more attuned to giving and sharing. The giving season starts with Gandhi’s birthday and goes on well past Christmas. In between, there are many festivals of sharing, and gratitude, including Dassera and Diwali.India’s Daan Utsav is well-timed to enhance the feeling of fellowship and to encourage people to open up their hearts, minds, and pockets.

This year, the pandemic gives us even more reason to share the burdens of others, and to practice kindness to strangers. We have learned in these past few months what the state and the markets can and cannot do for us. We have also learned what the samaaj or society can do. We have seen generosity pouring out across the country; we have seen a rise in the philanthropy of ordinary citizens, both in terms of their time and money. We have seen the civil society sector, and the voluntary sector, rise up to stem the worst of the suffering.

This is a beacon of hope in these bleak times. It is the signal in the midst of all the noise. It tells us that when people engage in concerted action to help others, then we are on a strong foundation to nurture a society that all of us, not just some of us, would like to live in and belong to. I have personally always structured my philanthropy around this simple idea. If we can continue to build a good, resilient samaaj, which derives its energy from a moral leadership; which is inspired by the interconnectedness of our fates; and which is driven to co-create positive change, then we can face any future with the optimism that is unique to our human species.

So how do I help this idea along? Luckily, there are hundreds of organisations in India that are trying to do something similar: they want to help people become part of the solution rather than remain part of the problem. They want to unleash innovation, find change-makers, and support them to become leaders and institution builders. They want people to engage as citizens, especially at their local level and figure out how to come together to resolve societal issues. These cover a wide spectrum from water, health, education, livelihoods, public infrastructure, environment, and also issues of access and voice.

With my amazing team’s help, I try to find and support ideas, individuals, and institutions that resonate with the vision of building a strong samaaj, a good samaaj, through personal action. We call this portfolio – Active Citizenship. Citizenship is typically seen through the lens of voting during elections, making claims of the state, and sometimes of active resistance.

But there is ample space for deepening this idea of citizenship. Here’s just one example. We are a young nation coming of age in a digital era. This can upend the traditional imagination of citizenship and citizens’ engagement. Emerging digital technologies, now widely adopted around the world, increase the possibility and space for participation. They can allow you to better understand your community’s issues but also your own rights and duties. They can help find allies outside one’s narrow circles. They can increase the discovery of other people’s solutions.

Luckily, India’s voluntary sector is just beginning to tap into this potential. There are many initiatives, both urban and rural, rising up from the samaaj, to expand citizen participation. There are instances of new, diverse institutions of the people – from neighbourhood societies to digital, issue-based affinity groups.

I have been able to support about a dozen wonderful organisations, most led by young, dynamic leaders. Organisations like India Rising Trust and Reap Benefit work to build more opportunities for civic engagement at scale, to solve hyper-local problems. Jhatkaa works to mobilise citizens around issues and help them take action. Other grantees work to reduce the friction between the citizen and the state. Civis is a platform that helps citizens understand and give feedback on drafts of legislation and government policies. Nyaaya works on the other side, helping citizens understand laws and regulations. Socratus Foundation for Collective Wisdom looks to understand wicked problems and bring all stakeholders together through a deliberative, outcome-oriented process.

I find great inspiration from the work of these leaders and institutions, no matter their size. I do believe that this space needs to be better seeded with magnanimous philanthropic capital. I hope much of it will come from small givers giving big. I hope some of it will come from big givers giving big. During and beyond Daan Utsav, we must support organisations that activate people to become better citizens – first for themselves, and then for society. So that we can all thrive in a better samaaj.

Bloomberg Quint




Covid-19: Securing the Present and the Future

This is the most serious crisis since World War II. Politicians must step up; voters must allow them to.

Politicians are elected because they campaign in poetry, but voters don’t always account for the fact that elected representatives must govern in prose. That chasm between the promise and the delivery becomes more dangerous at times like these. Just like wartime generals have to be different from peacetime generals, crisis-time politicians have to step up from being normal-time politicians.

In times of the coronavirus pandemic (Covid-19), we need our leaders to assume new responsibilities. They must first educate themselves about the crisis by listening to, and learning from, experts. Then, they must communicate what they know to us, without creating undue alarm. They must be honest enough to admit their fallibility. They need to be inspirational enough to command our cooperation. They need to lobby for their own constituencies to get a share of central and shared resources. They need to transparently prioritise these resources for those who may need them most. They have to be frontline responders.

Simultaneously, they also have to safeguard the future. History has shown us that in crises, a centralised, and unaccountable leadership can emerge. Unless carefully managed, this can lead to a breakdown of trust between the government and the public. Other politicians must then evolve into system leaders. They must safeguard democracy itself; to protect against a creeping authoritarianism that is hard to push back when normalcy returns. To do so, they must demonstrate the relevance of empowered local government.

Is it even possible for our politicians to step up to the plate? Will we allow them to, even if they wanted to try? Can voters respect the difficult situation their representatives find themselves in? Can we give them space to think ahead, even as they try to contain the immediate calamity?

Benjamin Disraeli once said, “The world is weary of statesmen whom democracy has degraded into politicians”.

One reason for such a deterioration is that voters expect too much from representatives. Strangely, we barely hold them accountable for their primary duty as lawmakers. We don’t always appreciate that good laws make for good societies, and that our representatives have the constitutional duty to help craft those good laws. Instead, most people expect their elected representatives to be at their beck and call, to provide patronage and brokerage, to help their communities through small but urgent hardships. It is a 24/7, largely thankless job for most politicians.

I saw this personally in my husband, Nandan Nilekani’s, unsuccessful Lok Sabha campaign. He would imagine big possibilities for the country, which would also make people’s lives much better. Most voters, though, asked about things that affected them in the here and now — whether a community hall could be built, or the speed bumps could be removed outside their gates or if the stray dogs would be taken care of.

Inevitably, voters feel frustrated when all these requests cannot be met. Sometimes, politicians give up on this impossible quest and ride roughshod over their constituencies. It is not too surprising that we have politicians across all parties with criminal records, who keep getting re-elected, even from prison. Many have their troops of men to fulfil some of the basic wishes of the voters, keep things in check, and appear to be locally effective.

Of course, we still have several wonderful politicians. They work as hard as they possibly can to serve their people, help pass good laws, represent the interests of their constituents at every opportunity and also reach out and communicate with their voters.

We must help their tribe increase, especially now. American theologian and author James Freeman Clarke observed: “The difference between a politician and a statesman is that a politician thinks about the next election while the statesman thinks about the next generation.”

There are wonderful instances from India’s democratic history where India’s statesmen have done just that. Former Prime Minister (PM) Jawaharlal Nehru’s government built the nation’s core infrastructure. PV Narasimha Rao’s government opened up the economy for next-generation entrepreneurs. Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s government filled critical gaps in the education system, and developed the nation’s roads and telecommunication networks for today’s digital or migrant citizen. Their eyes were pinned to the horizon.

The pandemic and the economic downturn that accompanies it offer a creative opportunity for politicians to become statesmen. As poet Muhammad Iqbal wrote, “Nations are born in the hearts of poets – they prosper and die in the hands of politicians.” If our politicians focus on the word “prosper”, and if voters allow politicians to do what statesmen must, perhaps this unprecedented crisis would serve to strengthen our democracy for future generations, and not to undermine it.

All over the world, people are looking to their leaders to guide them through the double whammy they are facing: The Covid-19 pandemic and the unfolding economic crisis. This has been probably the most challenging time for politicians since the World War II. They need our empathy and our forbearance.

Hindustan Times


Reimagining Abundance in Post COVID-19 India

As people return to life and work post the lockdown, some predictions point to a mad rush to do even more than before. Travel more, buy more, meet more people, eat out more — do more of more. The government too is expected to do more to restore economic growth and livelihoods. Much more is anticipated from the State. Some see it as an opportunity to overtake China.

To achieve this, many states might roll back labour laws that took decades of human rights movements to build, and push aside hard-won environmental protection.

If we succumb, will we return to the old normal, or an even older 19th century normal? Will the “more” being planned heal the economy or plunge us faster into the next disaster? Is there another imagination to achieve the common goals of opportunity and prosperity for all?

This crisis has demonstrated that prosperous, healthy and well-governed communities can tackle public health emergencies well. But how do we define prosperity and move towards such a society?

For centuries, prosperity has been easy to define in material terms. At a personal level, by how much one earns; how much one has. At a societal level, through Gross Domestic Product (GDP), a computation of all assets and interactions within an economy. GDP cannot discount products and services that are bad for society, such as the output of polluting industries, or of sweatshops. Several attempts to retool GDP have made little headway.

However, during the pandemic, most people, including the elite, experienced different forms of frugality, simplicity, and dignity associated with personal labour. After decades, urbanites also encountered purity — of air and water, and diversity — of flora and fauna. Simple things acquired fresh value for many. The time may be ripe to retool GDP. We now hold a brighter vision of how things can be, and can converse creatively with our future from an altered present.

One pathway is to shift from a mindset of scarcity to a mindset of abundance. For there is abundance everywhere, if only we look for it. If this profusion of resources goes from being just abundant to being effective, perhaps we could lean away from economic choices that appear inevitable, but that destroy natural capital and human well-being.

Let’s list some things that are abundant in India.

At a societal level, India has the world’s largest working population. At 13 million, it also has the most number of teachers. It has health care professionals, from super-speciality doctors to accredited social health activists (Asha).

At a physical level, India is blessed with a rich biodiversity of flora and fauna. We have a predictable monsoon, and a vast network of rivers and water bodies. We have one of the longest coastlines. We have enormous access to solar energy.

We also have among the world’s most sophisticated digital infrastructure, and an increasing penetration of Internet services and smartphones.

At a spiritual level, we have a plethora of practices and leadership across religions. And we enjoy the affluence of volunteer energy, as evidenced recently. This is not just an inventory of our assets, but the robust foundation for what we want to achieve.

During the pandemic, food bloggers came up with a simple and potent idea. They asked what was left in people’s refrigerators, and helped them cook up wonderful new recipes with existing ingredients. They re-purposed what existed, and allowed people to experience plenty from paucity.

This is a perfect analogy for what the nation could put into practice, and, is already experimenting with.

Using digital infrastructure, like Diksha, millions of teachers are creating and sharing better content and classroom practices, both physical and virtual. Parental creativity and peer groups, both plentiful resources, are also being engaged to help children learn better.

Using the Extension of Community Healthcare Outcomes (ECHO) model, health care workers are receiving virtual, guided mentoring. This moves knowledge instead of people, to build faster, more sustainable capacity across the chain.

Overnight, you can overturn an apparent scarcity — the lack of good teachers or skilled health workers — into an abundance of distributed, empowered talent.

Opportunities are everywhere — in energy, in mobility, in agriculture, and in livelihood generation. If we can use this flipped thinking, it can create more headroom for those who genuinely need resources — more carbon for the energy-deficient; more land for the landless; more mobility for transport deficit areas, and more potential for sustainable and meaningful livelihoods everywhere.

For example, India’s ubiquitous building infrastructure can be re-purposed to harness solar energy, or for vertical and terrace farming. Work from home will relieve the pressure on urban infrastructure and land, which can be released for mass housing or public transport, and critical lung space.

Last but not least, let’s unlock our spiritual treasure trove. Most disciplines invite us to more mindfulness, and more contentment. Not by consuming more externally, but by harvesting more from within, and by sharing more without. Neurosciences and behavioural sciences increasingly corroborate this ancient wisdom — joy can come from giving, and unlimited happiness from bonhomie.

Flipping to an abundance mindset is a creative-yet-practical task for samaaj (society) first, but also for the bazaar (market) and sarkaar (State). We know now that we need to emerge from this crisis together. Let’s boldly use the stimulus to redefine prosperity and redirect resources to make abundance effective.

Hindustan Times


Rohini Nilekani | Casual Conversations with Citizens

This is an edited version of Rohini Nilekani’s conversation with Gopal Sankaranarayanan, as part of the Casual Conversations with Citizens series. Rohini shares her experiences of life and encounters with the law, rights, and most importantly, her ideas of justice.

I grew up in a fairly middle class household in Mumbai, and my parents wanted the best for my sisters and I. My mother was from a land-owning feudal setup but wanted us to have a liberal, convent education and be independent. The stories we were told, and the values we were taught said that wealth does not come from possessions or money, but a good education and how it is applied.

My grandparents inspired me a lot as well. My grandfather, Babasaheb Soman, was from the Belgaum-Khanapur area. Despite being in the legal profession, he spent most of his time trying to convince his clients not to go to court, which in turn meant that he did not earn much money. My grandmother, on the other hand, came from Gwalior as a young second bride to Babasahed Soman. Her father was an ambassador to the court, so she came from palatial surroundings to my grandfather’s relatively humble home.  

Their stories were told a lot. I didn’t meet my grandfather –  he worked with Gandhi during Champaran, and died just before Independence. But his stories are alive in our family. My grandmother, who I did meet, showed me how to really live. Having gone from wealth to humble living, she decided to go into severe austerity for the last 20 years of her life by living in one single room. So it was quite a journey.

I met Nandan in December 1977, when he was at IIT and I was at Elphinstone College in Mumbai. At the time we were young and free and trying to be radical, and not thinking about wealth. Even 10 years into Infosys, nobody thought we would come into this kind of unprecedented wealth.

Law and the Power of Knowledge 

​​As a journalist you get to see people encountering the law, because you write their stories. I remember as a cub reporter, I had to report on a murder, for which I had to think about issues of justice, policing, and crime. I think as a reporter you are constantly doing stories that involve jurisprudence in some form, but otherwise journalists don’t really encounter the law. In fact, we’re quite privileged in that regard. A good example of this is when I was covering a protest against a dowry-related act of violence that had taken place. Some people had killed a woman, so we were outside that house, and I had my camera and my notebook with me. When the police came, all those people got arrested, but I didn’t because I was also reporting. Which is to say, when you’re reporting, it’s a very different privilege.

Later, when I went to see how a high court functions, I was quite appalled because nobody could hear the judge. The audio system was poor and the crowd was too big, there was so much confusion. I saw a lot of people outside. One fellow was actually crying when I was talking to him, saying, “This is the 30th time I’ve come, and my case has been adjourned. My life is falling apart”. It really bothered me that something as simple as decent and competent access to a court is not a reality for most people. 

So I’ve always been interested, both as a journalist and writer and because my grandfather was also in the legal profession, about the issues of law in society. How does the law interface with society? Who learns from whom? It’s a two-way conversation, but often not discussed enough in the public domain. It seems to be hiding behind black robes sometimes, but it should be out in the public domain because law is about society. And so those issues are really important to put out into many languages, into casual conversations on the streets and in our homes, and that’s what made me suggest the idea of a portal that makes the law easy to understand for ordinary people. 

We still need to find ways to make lawmaking more transparent. In this, civil society plays a big role. I think we are also to blame as voters. I’ve said this before – we don’t realize that lawmaking is a very critical function of the legislators we elect and then expect to solve our personal problems individually. If we also took the time to understand that making good laws is a significant part of the work that legislators must do, then they can have a conversation with us to say, “Okay we are thinking of such a law, do you even have an opinion on it, then we can represent you when those laws are being framed.” I think that needs to start happening and it’s a two-way conversation, we must use our legislators. We can have civil-society organizations step in, so there is a much broader democratic consultation before laws are made.  

There is also an issue with the regulation of laws. There is no law that says, for example, that people can go and dump effluents in Vrishabhavathi river in Bangalore. Nothing allows you to do that. But people wait for everybody else to be asleep and go and do it. So, how many policemen, how many people do we need to watch over other people’s bad intent from being practiced? We need our governance institutions to step up and say, “Look, this pollution is going to affect all of us together.” So, we definitely have deficits of governance and regulation. We have deficits in terms of how laws are framed. And this is a wonderful time for more people to get involved with these issues of law and society and do all they can to improve the discourse, at least. Everyone can be a part of that and reduce some of the polarization in thinking. How can we do much more preventive work like mediation outside the courts? How can we think of ways where people can do much more peacemaking and prevention before things even reach the courts? So, I think there’s a role for a lot of people to get engaged with these questions.

We need to give first-time legislators a primer on how to go ahead with lawmaking. The work that PRS Legislative Research and Vidhi Center for Legal Policy are doing are good examples. Vidhi is trying to help legislators and parliamentary committees make laws that are more clear, contemporary, and within the frame of the constitution. PRS Legislative Research, on the other hand, is helping legislators and parliamentarians understand what laws are on the table, how to make better votes happen around them, and how to have better debates. 

Finally, when it comes to the judicial academy, it should be similar to medical education where you have continuing education to retain your license to practice. Given that change is happening at a dizzying speed, especially because of technology, this is the right time for it, because otherwise how are judges supposed to keep up? 

Gender is a Cross-Cutting Theme 

I’m not a career woman in the conventional sense of the term. As a journalist I only worked for a few years, after which I did a lot of freelancing. I gave up my job when my daughter was born because I found it hard to juggle both. But I was in a privileged position to be able to do so, and to take six years off from work to dedicate to my children because Nandan was very busy at the time. Additionally, my profession allowed me to write articles and do simple things on the side, so I was able to take advantage of that.

In that way, I did have the struggles that other working women have. All the things that women have to balance can be very tough. The demands keep changing and you have to make many sacrifices, because it is impossible to do it all, no matter what people say. Something has to give. If you’re lucky, you have a support system around you. Which is why it is so necessary that we work with men and boys, so that we can enable them to become the support system that women need. 

In my three decades of work so far, what I’ve seen is that no matter which area you work in, gender is a cross-cutting theme. Take water, which is an area I have worked on for 15 years now – the burden of water is on women at a household level, and in that way gender is an important part of our work in water, though we do not necessarily call it out. 

At a macro level, as a writer and a reader, when you are looking at what’s happening around us and trying to unpack things, you begin to think about the other side. In this case, that is thinking about who a woman is dealing with – she is dealing with a man on the street, or her husband, or her father, or her son, or somebody who has a different way of looking at women’s empowerment perhaps than she does. That makes her choices very complicated.  

Having thought of this I then began to look at young men, and asked myself where do all these things spring from? What is the root of patriarchal thinking? What do young males think when they are 13 and their hormones are raging? 

It was this line of questioning that made me look at what work was being done in this area, to try to support more of it, and create a whole portfolio across India where young men can safely examine their masculinity and come to terms with who they are. This is very necessary if we want women’s empowerment.

The Need for Collaboration 

In terms of collaboration, there are two kinds of models that we can look at. The first is between philanthropists, and the time has come when philanthropists globally are recognising the need to work together. This is an important point in the journey of The Giving Pledge where if we look at the difference between how much has been promised versus how much has been given, there is a huge gap. People don’t necessarily know how to give money, it’s not so easy. There are many intermediary organizations that are also helping bigger philanthropists, bigger foundations to connect with smaller first time donors. And there are many, many more open spaces for that sharing and discovery. So this is actually a very great time for that. 

In this context, there is a need for all of us to learn from those who have given better and given more. Thankfully, there are many intermediary organizations that are helping the bigger philanthropists and foundations connect with smaller first-time donors. Additionally, there are many open spaces for that sharing and discovery. It’s a great time for cross-learning in the space of philanthropy. 

The second kind of collaboration is between philanthropists and the government. Here, it is especially important to note that the money that even a philanthropist like Bill Gates has is nothing compared to what the government has. However, what philanthropists or people who want to invest in social change do possess is the ability to take some risks with their capital. They can say, “Let’s just try something. And if it fails then we’ll try something else.” This is not a luxury the government has. 

Indian governments, whether at the center, state, Panchayat, or even the municipality level – are usually open to suggestions. From there, it is a journey of co-creation between the government body and the philanthropist. The government body will have ideas, because they have budgets, schemes, or programmes, and as a philanthropist you have to fit into all of that. But you do get the space to innovate and that’s the important thing. 

Take Arghyam as an example. Approximately 10-15 years ago, there were marvelous institutions doing work on groundwater, at a time when there were no groundwater laws. Arghyam, in collaboration with these civil society organizations, came up with something called Participatory Groundwater Management which is now a cornerstone of all government policy on water. Which is to say that it is possible to find space and opportunity to work very well with the government. 

On Successes and Learnings 

When I think about my success, the first success that comes to mind is Pratham books which I co-founded in 2004. When we set it up in Bangalore, our goal was to get a book in every child’s hand. I stayed there for 10 years, and the next team came in and took it on. Over the years, millions of children have been able to get books in their own language, get them free or at very affordable prices, access them across the country, and soon all across the globe, thanks to the Creative Commons platform we created. I think that I consider it a genuine success. 

If we are considering the future of citizens as lawmakers and law abiders, it is especially important to ensure that children learn better. To this end, I have worked with two kinds of organizations. With EkStep, our mission is to increase access to learning opportunities for 200 million children by next year. I think we are on track to do that because we are working very closely with all the governments – approximately 28 or 30 states now want to develop a platform for getting teachers to teach better and access resources. EkStep does not create content. Instead, it supports the whole content creation ecosystem. In that sense, we do not decide what needs to be taught, but we focus on ensuring that whatever is being taught is being taught better, be it in terms of access, ability to discover, or ability to share. In essence, it is a technology enabled platform. 

On the other hand, organizations like Akshara Foundation, which I have been involved with deeply, looked at the importance of teaching values, what the atmosphere in a classroom should be like, and what the relationship between children and teachers should be. Together, I think we are able to engage with different parts of the system. The present is a great time for us to really engage with the whole school system so that children are more curious and connected to issues of future citizenship. 

The other success that comes to mind is Arghyam, where we’ve made some serious inroads in policy when it comes to water. We’ve been able to support dozens of organizations that have been working on the ground for decades. The government has already come out with two massive schemes in water, the thinking for which came from some of Arghyam’s partners. These policies in turn impact millions of people across the country. 

A learning experience that stands out for me was with an organization called Nagarik. I had just lost a very dear friend in a ghastly accident and so we set up this organization for road safety in 1992. We were spectacularly unsuccessful. Though there were amazing people like Sivakumar and Kiran Mazumdar and Jagdish Raja involved, we just didn’t know what to do. We were perhaps a little ahead of our time and we were doing the wrong things and under-investing, and so it did not work. But it taught me that just passion and unstructured use of your time is not going to make any change possible. Knowing what I do today, I would do Nagarik very differently. But that is how we learn – by failing. 

The Need for a Strong Samaaj

There are issues that remain unresolved in India on ground water, and that’s just one example of the commons. So, who owns the commons? Whose land is it? Whose water is it? We haven’t really resolved that. Different countries have resolved this in different ways, but personally I worry about the hard edge of that. To say that either the community owns it, or the private sector can be given a lease on it, or the state holds it in trust and decides whether the private sector gets it or you and I get it – they are all problematic constructs. So, we need a stepped-up governance architecture on the public commons. We have to use the principle of ‘subsidiarity’ where possible. For example, even if we say the state is a trustee of the commons, we have to leave some of it to be solved at the most local possible level. So, panchayats under the 73rd amendment need to be rejuvenated now but many local water bodies can be managed through dialogue and within those small areas or even across, within district boundaries. So, in practice, community resources are being managed by communities.

Once in a while a heavy-handed law will come down and an eminent domain will be called in and will say, “We are putting a fine here, we are putting a road here,” and there’s always conflict at those points. But I don’t even know if this can be resolved once and for all. We have to keep learning from the best examples available to us and then framing and sharpening our laws accordingly.

But you see, it’s when it comes to finite public resources that all these conversations arise. In education, if you have five extra books, I don’t get one less book. I can get five books too. If you get an education, I don’t get less of an education. But when it comes to these finite public goods, that’s when these contestations arise, and I think those discussions are still wide open in India. And we have to be wary of saying that the state will be the final authority. The common thread that runs through all my work is the dynamic continuum between Samaaj, Bazaar, and Sarkaar. Today, we need to strengthen Samaaj because right now it is very divisive and polarized. We have to start a deep conversation as to what is a good society. And then, therefore, redefine the role of the state and the market so that they remain accountable to the larger public interest. Otherwise, we fall into the trap of becoming consumers of the market or subjects of the state and forgetting that the real work for all of us, as citizens, is to contribute to a good society. We have to co-create good governance because the state alone will not do it. We have to co-create good markets that work for us, because the markets alone will never do it.

With this in mind, we need to be thinking about how we re-invest the commons with regenerative property so that more people can use them equitably and in a just manner. This is something the Samaaj sector needs to collectively think through. Here, the law needs to be engaged to enable implementation in a way that is equitable and just, and looks at intergenerational justice. These are the issues that keep me interested and I get to support so many good organizations that are deeply thinking through these issues.

The Future of Indian Philanthropy

Going forward, India’s super wealthy need to be more generous and more transparent about how generous they are. There are some people who are very generous and don’t like to talk about it. But for more people to increase their generosity, we need to build bridges of trust amongst the wealthy. People often get insecure and feel the need to protect their wealth. When economies are doing well or when people see a trajectory for their children, they are reassured and become more generous.

Even if people are more generous, I hope that philanthropy doesn’t remain charity. I also hope that philanthropy and justice do not remain octagonal, and that there is more convergence between the two. Because it is true philanthropy when you have understood there are structural issues of inequity that you have to address through your philanthropy.

That being said, you can’t do it alone. Nobody has figured out how to have a perfectly equitable society, but we can move towards an ideal where this kind of runaway wealth becomes structurally impossible to garner, because nobody needs this kind of wealth. So, how do you then, in your philanthropy at least, keep some portion of your portfolio to look at issues of justice, to find organizations you can trust who will work on these issues, so that the burden of philanthropy itself is reduced on people. That’s a long, hard journey for many people. And we also need many more institutions working on justice to better communicate what they do and the importance of their work, so that they are able to attract investments. So, there’s lots of work ahead but it’s a very exciting time because people have recognised how interconnected our destinies are.

Democracy’s Handmaiden: Humour. In today’s India, we need more of a funny bone in our public life

In these dark times, there is no harm in easing up with some sharp humour. Like the coronavirus, humour is infectious, but can spread much needed joy. The world over, social media is lighting up with witty memes around the pandemic. Bumbling politicians have been prime targets, and especially President Donald Trump. “Calm down, everyone,” reads one meme, “A six-time bankrupted reality TV star is handling the situation.”

But that is the US, where comics can get away with a lot, without political backlash. Where in fact, politicians themselves can create the humour.

In 1985, I was lucky to be a reporter in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where former President Gerald Ford hosted a three-day conference on ‘Humour in the Presidency’. Ironically, Ford was hardly known for his sense of humour. When asked why he had hosted a conference where he himself might be the butt of many jokes, he disarmingly said, “I thought a look at the lighter side of politics may help us to realise that perhaps sometimes we take ourselves too seriously.”

This is the crux of the issue, then and now. When politicians take themselves too seriously, and when the public takes its politicians too seriously, unintended yet harmful consequences can emerge. Imagine if more people had laughed outright at the self-important demagogues of the past century. Could that have prevented some from taking their own absurd and dangerous ideas to fruition? We don’t know; but it is worth thinking about.

The Ford conference was a refreshing change after the humourless years of the Nixon presidency, where America had perforce to look into the dark soul of its politics and its president. There was a steady stream of jokes about US presidents, with Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, and John F Kennedy as the favourites. Conference speakers remarked on how the smarter politicians would make self-deprecating jokes before others could mock them.

President Kennedy had the best flair for it. Criticised for bankrolling his campaign with his father’s money – he retorted, “I just had a telegram from my famous Daddy: Dear Jack. Don’t buy a single vote more than is necessary. I’ll be damned if I am going to pay for a landslide.” Similarly, Reagan was very skilled at winning over crowds and critics with his jocular manner. “I’m not worried about the deficit,” he famously said. “It’s big enough to take care of itself.”

In today’s India, perhaps we need more humour in our public life. Are our politicians able to joke about themselves? Or do they mainly use ridicule? And what about us? Do we lack a political funny bone?

India has had a long, strong history of political satire. The kingdoms of India appointed court jesters or vidushaks to lighten the atmosphere. They would take pot shots at the public, at visitors and sometimes at the king himself. Remember the stories of Tenali Ramkrishna, Birbal, Gopal Bhar and Gonu Jha? Their job was to bring wit and humour to expose oppression and injustice.

Through India’s freedom struggle too, there were many lighter moments. Sarojini Naidu’s descriptions of the Mahatma as Mickey Mouse and Little Man did not anger him. Instead, he signed off as Little Man in his letters to her.

Today, too, we have a burgeoning number of stand-up comics, especially in Hindi. At increasing personal risk, they take sure-fire aim at our politicians, who manage routinely to generate great material for satire. But in India, this is still a cottage enterprise compared to the full-fledged industry in the US, now in full spate through Trump’s term.

Arguably, today, there has been a chilling effect on our humorists. Cases of sedition have been initiated on cartoonists and others, for criticising the government or the ruling party. Intensive trolling and threats have inundated those who raise important issues in jest. Certainly, today’s humorists have to be braver than their profession should require them to be.

As citizens, we should renew our understanding of why political humour is critical to society. Historically, too much power and secrecy has often coincided with a lack of tolerance for satire, leading to a breakdown of trust between the public and the government. Humour can provide a safety valve when social pressures are building. It can inform us about social relations.

Concentrated power without feedback loops is dangerous. We all know the story of the emperor’s new clothes. When they mock elites, humorists can hold leaders accountable. They create safe space for us to think through things, to question our beliefs and to change our minds.

That’s precisely why governments and politicians don’t like humorists. They hate to be challenged. But it is also why the samaj must support humorists. We need mirrors held up to us; we need new ways to refract reality.

Of course, there is a Laxman Rekha that is crossed at great peril to both humorists and society. Comics need to practice both restraint and sophistication. They need sensitivity to local histories and culture. But offence is taken, not given. Even if some humour makes people in power uncomfortable, it may simply be because the truth sometimes hurts.

The best example often comes from the top. At the White House, when Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of President Franklin Roosevelt was asked where the President was, she said, “Where the laughter is.”

Would that we could say the same, here, and soon.

Times of India