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Mojo Story | India@75 I Samaaj, Sarkar, Bazaar I Rohini Nilekani on the Citizen, State& Markets I Barkha Dutt

Aug 12, 2022

In her new book author and philanthropist Rohini Nilekani talks about the intersection of the market, society, and state. Watch the full interview with Barkha Dutt.


0:00:00.0 Rohini Nilekani: We are capable. We have evolved to be social creatures who are willing to reach up. Kindness to strangers is something our species can actually do. And it’s not a romance, it’s a reality. And that’s the power of Samaaj to me at least. I just wanted to put it out because this phrase has caught on Samaaj, Sarkar, Bazaar. And I thought I should explain a little more what I mean by that. And that the conversation needs to deepen, in your homes, in your offices and with your political representatives. Samaaj comes first. What can we, in the Samaaj do, to make sure the Bazaar and Sarkar are accountable to this larger Samaaj interest? Has the balance moved too much? Do we need to reset it? Those are the questions that I’m asking.


0:00:55.1 Barkha Dutt: Our guest today is a woman of many paths. She’s been a journalist, she’s now one of the world’s best known philanthropists and above all, she is known for her work, engaging with the series of civic and public policy issues. Everything from the issues of water and sanitation to why the feminist conversation must include how boys and men are molded. I’m talking of course, about Rohini Nilekani who’s recently published book fascinatingly looks at the intersection of what she calls Samaaj, Sarkar and Bazaar. In other words, role of the citizen and the role of the state and the markets. It is my pleasure to introduce Ms. Nilekani on our broadcast of this evening. Rohini it’s always great to see you and thank you for talking to us. I have to start by asking you to tell us a little bit more about a very moving sort of anecdote that you allude to in this book but you don’t actually say too much about. You say that your engagement with civic issues actually started with the car accident, a terrible accident that took place with very, very close friends of yours. And that got you involved with issues of road safety and the rest as they say is history.

0:02:07.2 BD: Can you talk a little bit about how this tragedy actually engaged you when for most people it would’ve completely broken them? You were also a pregnant mother then, you were expecting at the time. And this was a tragedy that actually took away a friend who… And her unborn child, if I’m not wrong. So talk a little bit about that incident and how it shaped you and molded you.

0:02:31.5 RN: Thank you, Barkha, I haven’t spoken too much about it because you know tragedies happen in so many lives and in India as you know, honestly, personal strategies happen all the time. In 1987, actually my very close friend Chaitan and Rekha were coming, travelling at night, which is not a great idea, but a tractor came actually on the wrong side of the road and smashed them to death, okay? With their unborn child and only their little child, son, survived because no seatbelt, he fell to the floor. Somehow it was very traumatic, at the time, it seemed so unnecessary. We’ve all had people die in road accidents in our extended families. It bothered me maybe because my hormones are also jumping fast since I was pregnant. But it stayed with me after the babies were born also, I said, “No, no, this has… Somebody has to do something about this.” And so, talking to a lot of other people in the city, Kiran Mazumdar, Jagdish Raja, so many people came together, Muralidhar Rao.

0:03:30.3 RN: We all came together to set up, Nagrik for safer roads. So, I had to do some… I couldn’t let it go. I had to feel that if something is wrong, I have to participate in changing it. I think in that sense as a journalist we always have to report on things, we try to report on things that are wrong so that people get engaged in the conversations to set them right. And I felt, I had to start a civil society organisation to see what like-minded people could do. And then, from 1992 to 2022, I have tried to learn and do better since then.

0:04:06.7 BD: It’s such a moving story and I have to ask you what happened to the young boy who survived that accident?

0:04:14.2 RN: So he had the most beloved of families to look after him. The father’s sister has been looking after him. Sharan is doing very well by God’s grace. And you realise the power of the family. Everybody rallied around and… Touch wood. He is a beloved sibling of the children, of his father’s sister.

0:04:38.5 BD: Very very moving. And yet I must ask you, you’re right in that, as journalists, and I don’t know how many people know that actually most of your life has been spent being a journalist before you became what you call a social entrepreneur. And you write about how that’s a phrase that irritated you till you learned to accept it. But, look at the data on how many people have given up Indian citizenship in the last three years. I was looking at it and I think it’s about 3.9 lakh people. That’s what the government informed parliament. And when I was juxtaposing that with your book and your optimism about the engaged citizen, I was wondering where you get that optimism from. Because if you look at our times, it seems as if more and more people, especially those with privilege, are seceding, as it were, from their civic engagement.

0:05:27.3 RN: No, I mean the way we grew up, Barkha, in our family, there’s no question that we very much are rooted in this soil, we are very much rooted in the values of this country and there’s no question of abdicating responsibility. In my house, we were taught about simple living and high thinking. I’m not sure… Not so sure, if we’ve kept the simple living part [laughter] but we do try to keep the high thinking. And I really feel in my family always the stories were about sacrifice and service before self. And those were the ideas held up to us. So, even when we came into wealth, I think we tried to see it as a… As something that you give forward. And that you know, creates a lot of meaning in one’s life. It enriches your life when you participate in trying to help build the better society that you only want live in. So, I think it’s added a lot of meaning to our lives and made it much richer and I don’t mean materially of course. So there’s no question of seceding and abdicating.

0:06:39.1 BD: Yeah. Not you, not you, but so many people… Yeah. But so many people are doing it, not you, but so many people are doing it.

0:06:46.1 RN: Yeah but I think people are beginning to realise. See the younger wealthy, you know, they’re quite engaged. They realise that you cannot separate yourself and your wealth. I have written about how the elite have seceded and there are points when you can’t secede anymore. How will you secede from climate change? How will you secede from pandemics? You can’t. And when the realisation comes, I think the re-engagement comes as well. And we have to put public pressure on this as well. I mean, it’s not gonna happen in isolation, which is why the Samaaj and what’s happening in the Samaaj is so important to me.

0:07:20.9 BD: And that’s a great point. How do you secede from climate change when you’ve got floods in South Korea and New York City and 40 degrees temperature in London? As they say, you can run but you can’t hide. There is a kind of globalising, sort of, call to action, as it were. But let me ask you about the very title of your book, there’s a great story with it that I think our audience should hear about. About a trip that you make to Bihar and how somebody’s luggage gets lost. You go to a little shopping strip, you’re driving through all sort of Naxal hit areas. And one of your colleagues, Premji, talks about how in the good old days, Samaaj was the priority and Sarkar and Bazaar came later. Now there is this romance about the good old days, but today honestly, do you think Samaaj actually comes first? Do you think we’re a citizen led model of governance or is that just a utopian dream that you have?

0:08:15.4 RN: No, I think what Prem Kumar Verma said to me, and then you know I read lots and lots of books that are about the whole same theme. Because obviously the question on the role of society, state and markets has occupied people forever. What he said really made me think, because he said, “Pehle Samaaj was the strongest base, the foundation for which Sarkar and Bazaar had to work.” Because obviously Samaaj came first and Sarkar came to serve the Samaaj, whether it was the monarchs of old or the feudal lords and now hopefully in republics and in democracies, it is elected representatives. And similarly, the Bazaar had to come in to set value, to regulate exchange. Right? And to build goods and services so all of us could experience more abundance. So, but Samaaj was first. Sometimes we forget that, Barkha, I feel. Because in the last century or so, and maybe there have been episodes of that before too, the story of the Bazaar and the story of the Sarkar has overtaken the narrative.

0:09:20.9 RN: Tons and tons has been written about it, and then the Samaaj sort of recedes into the background where I think it needs to be in the foreground. And we… If we flip the switch and understand this, anybody who’s in the Sarkar and the Bazaar, whether you’re a senior or a minister, when you go home, you’re a citizen and a human being, right? So just flipping that switch and a mental model sort of correction to say, “Samaaj comes first, what can we in the Samaaj do to make sure the Bazaar and Sarkar are accountable to this larger Samaaj interest? Has the balance moved too much? Do we need to reset it?” Those are the questions that I’m asking.

0:10:03.8 BD: And you know, one of the things that you remind us, and I saw this first hand when I travelled across the country during the pandemic, is the power of the citizen during a crisis like this when actually it was community that came to the fore, whether in terms of feeding migrant workers or in just helping people using social media. And I was intrigued by this idea that you have of the digital citizen. You talk a lot about how this is going to be the future and how old world NGOs need to embrace this in a way that some of them are still too slow to do so. And you have a very interesting example, I think you talk about how the Loha that was given to build the Statue of Unity, Sardar Patel statue was also an example of a mass movement that in the old days would’ve taken weeks, if not months. And now social media can be used as sort of weapon of mass mobilisation. So speak about what is this digital citizen. And a lot of people would be cynical and tell you, “Rohini, but there’s so much toxicity on social media. There are the trolls, there’s also the mob.” You know? So, where’s that line that separates mobs and mob-ocracies from the power of the citizen, online?

0:11:17.0 RN: Yeah. See, it’s all happened so fast. The technology of the last few years. So, we are still figuring out the public course, the new norms to set, so that it’s not just the negative side coming out, but the positive also. It will take time but it has to happen. People cannot live at the edge of things all the time. Right? It will swing to some normal new codes of media just like we did when the phone came and the printing press came and the television came and everything came. Right? So it will happen with digital media too. But the reason I say it is because the digital age, at least as far as I know now, seems to be here to stay. I can’t see us going back into the only physical world. Then what does that mean? This is the questions that we all have, right? Where it’s become so polarising, how can we make it instead spaces for public reasoning and how will a digital civil society emerge, that in the digital age, the Sarkar and the Bazaar have acquired even more power?

0:12:21.9 RN: Right? Power of through algorithms, the market seems to know what we should think, through various surveillance tools, the Sarkar wants to know what we are doing and has more data on us than we have on ourselves. So, in those circumstances, what should we as Samaaj do to clawback space? How can we do it with a positive sense of association, create new tools and processes to do so? And to do so, you have to do it digitally. You can’t be on the digital age and do things only offline. So my concern is what new digital civil society needs to emerge, to play the same roles to hold Sarkar, Bazaar and other elements of Samaaj accountable to peace, prosperity, harmony, etcetera? So, we have to do it digitally. And civil society needs to get very quickly savvy to build out those new forms roles and responsibilities digitally. So that, in fact, the new better conventions of people’s behaviour will begin to emerge. People can get together digitally to do positive things. You know the pandemic is not the last emergency.

0:13:30.8 RN: Imagine, I mean, climate change and other things start to happen and create human distress. Digitally, if civil society is ready. Today, if we build trust digitally, between groups, between Sarkar, between Bazaar and civil society, and the Samaaj, how much more rapidly, we will be able to response? You definitely saw that quite a bit in your travels during the pandemic, right? So much online organisation has happened. People’s hearts and minds were so quickly engaged.

0:14:00.2 BD: And I mean, to…

0:14:00.2 RN: And in fact, 43%…

0:14:01.8 BD: Yeah.

0:14:02.3 RN: Individual giving went up 43% in those three months, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg, because that’s all the data we have, there must be so much more.

0:14:11.3 BD: Individual giving went up 43%? That’s fascinating. I was just gonna tell you that it was through, let’s say social media, that I found places to stay during the lockdown. I would be like, “I’m in so and so state, I need a place to stay.” And a complete stranger would say.

[foreign language]

0:14:27.1 BD: Or here’s where we can get food. And it was actually a great sense of community, and therefore, I’ve seen the possibilities of this. But talk also about what you…

0:14:37.7 RN: I presume, you’re not very cynical. Barkha, you have seen it too many times, we can’t be cynical about the human species, this is only what it is, we are capable. We have evolved to be social creatures who are willing to reach out, kindness to strangers is something our species can actually do. And it’s not a romance, it’s a reality. And that’s the power of Samaaj to me, at least.

0:15:03.5 BD: And maybe, the more people like you, and I’ll come a little later to whether there are enough, of us who are giving. But I want you to talk a little bit about the paradox of the Indian citizen that you capture in your book when you talk about what you learned when your husband, Nandan Nilekani, ran for office. And you said that you discovered that the Indian citizen simultaneously expects too much and too little from lawmakers. And this is kind of expectation of very hyper local issues that a member of parliament may not be empowered to actually fix. Nandan loses the election, but you learn a lot while campaigning with him about how the citizen responds to their lawmakers. Talk about that.

0:15:48.5 RN: Yeah. It was really a fascinating experience, Barkha. And I did learn a lot and I was really and truly humbled. And just the participation of the people. Okay, the elite were a bit aloof. But everywhere we went, people had questions. They’re so happy, they found, Nandan, the real candidate, yes. But even they were happy to have me because they’ve so much to say. About once a year, once in five years, they get somebody to really listen to them and they just had a lot to say about the difficulties they experience every day. But it is true that therefore, they expected the team of the candidate to immediately solve all their local problems. And I used to ask, “But how will this person do it? That’s not… ” He doesn’t have the power by the Constitutional framework to actually come and fix your pipeline or your road, right? That has to be done differently with your panchayat and a civic body. But that didn’t cut water at all. They were telling me all that and, “You’ve come for my vote and this is what we want and you need to listen.” So, that was fine.

0:16:50.3 RN: But nowhere did I find any of them being concerned. And this is because the politicians don’t talk about it, maybe the media also can talk more about it. And certainly civil society needs to get engaged, that if our lawmakers made much better laws, because in my book I do write about we do have issues with the kind of laws that are being framed, that sometimes unnecessarily criminalise, that sometimes are not very clear and concise. If we had better laws that then would be held for all, we had equality before the law and the Constitution, and then you could hold everybody to account through good policy and law, that might help those women and men that I met in the campaign more than if Nandan or whoever won the election managed to fix the pipe for now. So if we thought long term and we deepened those conversation about the role of politicians, it would be certainly better for the public and probably better for the politicians as well, who I discovered have a really difficult life.

0:17:50.4 BD: My discoveries during the pandemic was that there’s simultaneously both too much Sarkar and too little Sarkar. So sometimes, you really want more of Sarkar and it isn’t there. And sometimes you really want the Sarkar to not be in your space and it’s there. There’s a very funny story…

0:18:04.6 RN: And those are the questions for us. Those are the questions what we deepen, no? Where should Sarkar be? And where should Sarkar not have to be? Where is it really the role of Samaaj to take back some of these things and work it out within the Samaaj, right? So that’s the conversation, the book is an invitation to deepen because I don’t have all the answers. Nobody does.

0:18:28.5 BD: Yeah. Yeah. But there’s a funny story in the book about somebody who tells Nandan not to give a rash driver his Aadhaar card. So tell us that story.

0:18:37.4 RN: I mean, I was quite taken aback because the Aadhaar project was quite new. And there was a lot of debate and discussion, with people who were for it, people who were against it, people didn’t understand it, because it was early days. And were at the Bangalore airport and we were just crossing and a car suddenly rushed at us and we literally had to jump back to avoid the car and we were like in shock for those few seconds when something like that happened. And we heard a voice or one of those airport taxi drivers because I looked at him and he said, “Sir… ” He said it actually… Yeah, he said, “Sir… ”

[foreign language]

0:19:10.9 RN: And then I realised that it has caught some public imagination and then later, when I went around Delhi and other places in Nandan’s term in Delhi, a lot of people I found for them, it was a very, very important thing. Intellectually, I was saying, “What does it all mean?” But when I met the people, for them it was something really important to them. And that incident helped me to see how it has caught the public imagination. It was quite funny and moving also in some way.

0:19:39.6 BD: Yeah, it’s a great leveller. I mean for all the debates around the Aadhaar card and privacy and so on, it is the great leveller and to that extent, it’s an equal identity in the republic.

0:19:47.2 RN: I agree. Yeah, I have got to understand over the years how India’s amazing public digital infrastructure, which is one of the most sophisticated in the world. Barkha, I’m beginning to think it can really lay the foundations for economic democracy. I refer to it, but very little in the book.

0:20:07.0 BD: Yeah. Finally, I have to ask you, you’ve shared this figure about 43% individual giving went up in the pandemic. You and Nandan gave up… Or took a pledge to give half of your wealth to these causes that make you feel passionately. Do you think there is enough of this happening? What is your relationship with wealth over the years? Where does wealth figure in this intersection of markets, Sarkar and Samaaj? And I ask this because we are in… Our inequity in this country is rising and the rich actually got richer during the pandemic, all the Oxfam reports tell you that. So, I’m curious to know whether your relationship with wealth has changed over the years.

0:20:52.0 RN: You know, when I came into wealth, I was very uncomfortable because I was a bit of a mental sort of activist and I told you simple living, high thinking, all those kind of messages were drummed in to us as children. And when we ourselves became wealthy, I said, “Oops! I’m on the other side now.” So what does that mean, right? It took me years to settle down, till I realised that this is an opportunity to be grateful for and how I knew the wealth is going to be very important. And so, of course, we’ve committed to giveaway a minimum of 50%, I hope we can do more. But, I think wealth is distorting. It is distorting. Let’s be very clear about that. So, when I come back to my book idea, I think a Samaaj will only allow wealth creation and the Bazaar has a great, wonderful role in wealth creation. But a Samaaj can only allow wealth creation and a such concentrated wealth creation for only so long.

0:22:00.5 RN: And it depends how that wealth is used by the wealthy. And the Sarkar’s role is also to balance how much that wealth creation and how it is used. Taxation is a very powerful tool that the Sarkar has. Samaaj has a very powerful way of expressing itself, right? Today in India there are many polls which say Indians are optimistic. They are looking forward. Right now, they still feel very upwardly mobile. We know from around the world, that when countries feel like that, citizens feel like that, they don’t begrudge the wealthy from doing well because they feel, “Maybe I can also become Dhirubhai Ambani, right?” But when they stop to feel like that, that’s when really it matters what is the Bazaar doing, what is the Sarkar doing and how the wealthy are using their wealth? Because in the end of it, the wealth of the few has to be used for the prosperity of the many. You can’t get away from that. You don’t have to sack your financials. You can enjoy your wealth, but that wealth has a responsibility which simply can not be avoided. So I think Samaaj, Sarkar and Bazaar have a role to regulate the operation of wealth in society. The Sarkar…

0:23:14.9 BD: But do you recognise that you, Nandan, maybe, and… Some of few, others, who I know personally as well, and maybe people like Kiran, Premji, you are still a rarity in this country, both in terms of pledging your wealth for causes larger than yourselves, but even more rare, because you’re engaging with civic issues. A number of our billionaires just keep quiet. They just zip up. Does that frustrate you?

0:23:40.6 RN: Well, I’ve been involved for a long time now in encouraging Indian philanthropy and at least, I have had extraordinarily positive responses. I can’t speak for all of the wealthy, but I can say for those who I have spoken to, they are more than open. And the younger ones especially, have already started giving in really interesting ways which my generation also doesn’t understand how to do. So I am hopeful, but this doesn’t happen. We can’t only depend on the generosity of the wealthy, right?

0:24:08.3 BD: Of course.

0:24:09.8 RN: You need public policy, you need taxation, you need media attention, you need the discourse on the responsibility of wealth to be alive. And there’s a lot of stuff happening now. The Hurun list comes out, people want to be on here. There’s a lot of spotlight now, so, fingers crossed, I think we saw that individuals and families can be incredibly generous, okay? The wealthy have no choice but to follow the Dharma of the Samaaj is what I feel.

0:24:40.5 BD: Well, may there be many more like you. I found the book absolutely fascinating and when you think lot about…

0:24:45.5 RN: Oh thank you. I feel so good when you said that.

0:24:47.6 BD: No, really. The balance between government…

0:24:50.3 RN: You know, why did I choose. One point is that I want it in writing…

0:24:52.5 BD: Yeah, yeah.

0:24:55.3 RN: I just wanted to put it out because this phrase has caught on, Samaaj, Sarkar, Bazaar. And I thought I should explain a little more what I mean by that. And that the conversation needs to deepen in your homes, in your offices and with you political representatives. That was the goal.

0:25:11.1 BD: Absolutely.

0:25:15.4 RN: And that’s why, by the way, I put out the book in the Creative Commons. So, that it could also be available free. So trying a new model so that students, you know people can also get it and start their own discussions.

0:25:28.0 BD: That’s an important point. We will actually have a link in the description below, if you want to download this book, you will be able to click that link and download it for free. This is a self-published book, it’s part of Rohini’s large philosophy of democratising access to information and ideas, which is a large part of deepening democracy and democracy isn’t just what happens in elections, but what happens in between elections. Thank you, Rohini. It’s a pleasure as always. Thank you.

0:25:55.5 RN: Thank you so much.


0:25:58.6 BD: It’s great to see you here. Thank you for watching our work. If you haven’t subscribed yet, don’t forget to click the bell icon and subscribe to Mojo Story and support independent, robust journalism.