Chairperson of Arghyam and Pratham books, Rohini Nilekani is one of the most active Indian philanthropists in areas ranging from water to education. A former journalist and the wife of Nandan Nilekani, ex-CEO and cofounder of Infosys, one of India’s largest IT companies, she shares her thoughts on the new wealthy and the state of Indian philanthropy.
Youphil: How did you become a philanthropist?
Rohini Nilekani: I was already working in the social sector; but when I came into some money because of the shares I invested in Infosys, I thought I didn’t need to keep it and decided to give it forward to support the kind of work I was doing.
Is it easy to measure the social impact of your work at Arghyam and Pratham books?
R.N.: My work brings me intense joy, and I hope it also benefits society. It is hard to measure social outcomes because of the long gestation period to effect real change. In the case of Pratham Books, it is easier, since we actually know that we have reached around 25 million children with attractive books in many languages. For many children, it has been their very first storybook. We are trying to democratize the joy of reading.
With Arghyam, which works in water, we make grants to other NGOs and we are active in 18 states in India. There has been much work done to ensure that communities have a strong voice in ensuring safer and more equitable domestic water. There have been some interesting low-cost innovations and some policy gains. We also host the India Water Portal, which is an open web based platform to generate, nurture and share water knowledge. Water is a key resource and is under threat and there is so much more to be done.
Some people say that philanthropy is not working well in India.
R.N.: It depends on definitions. I think that [what they are referring to] is a new and Western notion of philanthropy. If we talk about it as love for human kind, then Indians have been practicing it for millennia. But if it’s about big bucks philanthropy, strategic philanthropy, then yes, it is taking a new direction.
R.N.: Until now, concentration of wealth was mainly amongst family businesses that kept their money within their family to continue the business - so only small bits would trickle out. It’s only in the last 20 to 25 years that new wealth is accumulating amongst a wider and more diverse section of society who has a different relation to their wealth - like us.
What is this new relation to wealth?
R.N.: We are more independent to do what we like with it. Wealth makes me accountable to society at large. Any society will allow such wealth creation to happen only if it believes that wealth in the hand of a few people will help society. Or at least that it will be used as well as government would have used it if it had taxed it. Also, wealth creation can’t happen only because of the genius of one or few people so it’s not as if it can really belong to one person. We can only be trustees.
Is your way of giving new too?
R.N: We certainly are a class of people who have come into wealth through liberalization and the opening up of the economy. Yet I practice a more traditional kind of giving, like the Fords or the Rockefellers. But other wealthy are giving in a market kind of way, in an new American kind of way.
What is traditional about it?
R.N.: My philanthropy giving - even though I have a diverse portfolio - is less focused on the end of the pipeline. For example, I wouldn’t rush out to heavily fund water filters, though I think they are important. I would rather look at systemic issues, on how the water quality dropped so much, whether the people are empowered enough to make a proper demand on the supply side to ensure safer and more sustainable drinking water.
What about the other wealthy?
R.N.: My observation is that they have benefited from the market and have great faith in it. In India, many of the civil society activists come from the left side of the spectrum. My suspicion is that many of the newly wealthy do not feel that confortable with it. So they ‘re setting up their own institutions in education or healthcare, etc. They’re working with the government in public private partnerships and support social entrepreneurship. It’s a new angle.
Do people sometimes confine you to the traditional role of the wife of a billionaire?
R.N.: That would be a very sexist approach. I do not see myself as the wife of a billionaire. It’s the money that I put out of my earnings into Infosys that brought this wealth.
Warren Buffet and Bill Gates were recently in India to present the Giving Pledge. Will wealthy Indians adhere to it?
R.N.: Their declared intent is not to make people give 50% of their wealth because they understand the different cultural sensibilities. Neither Bill nor Warren say that they know how Indians should give nor do they expect Indians to give in any particular way. Both Nandan and I have said many years ago that we’d be engaged in the task of giving away our wealth. We’re not officially signing any pledge. But I think what they are saying is right: people have to think about their giving.
Some Indian columnists have ironized that this talk about philanthropy is happening while the State is allowing the rich to get richer in India.
R.N.: The government’s economic paradigm is market-led economic growth with the hope that it will create the kind of economic resurgence and trickle down that will pull people out of poverty. But the point of the philanthropic debate – and even Gandhi made it – is: wealth creation, yes but, after that, wealth creation must help society.
Is philanthropy the sign that the State is failing?
R.N.: However great the government, the people, the economic conditions, there will always be a need for philanthropy because there will always be a gap between what communities, the state or the markets can do and the universal well-being of people. Ideally, you wouldn’t want to see philanthropy flourish – it should be something redundant. But that’s a utopia. You can’t have a society where there is no need for philanthropy even if philanthropy has – and should have – limits.
What are these limits?
R.N.: You cannot create an equitable society merely by the willful distribution of surplus of wealth. It can only be an accompaniment to the state, to the work of society itself and to the market. It can support the kind of social risk-taking that is required in that space where the market cannot go and the state is ineffective to go - the bottom of the heap or where innovation is needed.
How do you see philanthropy evolving in India?
R.N.: I feel quite optimistic. Philanthropy as defined by the West is maybe just picking up but with public pressure mounting and the young wealthy being engaged and disturbed to see the inequity and are increasingly reaching out to address it, things are bound to change.
Credit Namas Bhojani
Read more articles on Philanthropy: