Tete a tete with Rohini Nilekani

Saturday, April 2, 2016

A high profile philathropist Rohini Nilekani waded over familiar and unfamiliar waters ably steered by Madhabi Puri Buch at a delightful tete a tete organized by Bridgeable Singapore in association with Dasra, India's  leading strategic philanthropy foundation. 

Whats not to like about a ‘pani-puri’ swilling Rajesh Khanna/Farhan Akhtar fan? Rohini is a romantic and a pragmatist who chose the company of her husband to be marooned with for a year on a deserted island because she , as she said “ We know how to fight. We know how to make-up too!"

The committed philanthropic folks of Singapore invited by Bridgeable came with high expectations on a sleepy Saturday afternoon, such is the drawing power of both entities.

Having seen her as a quiet but resolute foil to her dynamic husband Nandan Nilekani at a talk two days ago, it was interesting to see what intellect, technology, good intent and newly earned wealth can do to the trajectory of a nation. In her own words, “When you take greed off the table, the possibilities are endless”.

Madhabi drew out Rohini in her roles as a mother, author, philanthropist and international statesperson.

As a mother she leads by example and being an Indian, leads too, by talk and story telling. She thinks that role models like her freedom fighter grandfather, deeply influenced the moral fiber of every member of her family, and will continue to do so for generations to come.

As an author, she duly plugged for her book  Uncommon Ground and her short stories targeted at children for Pratham Books.

As a philanthropist, she had simple sound advice to profer for those tussling with which NGO to contribute to –

1.    Diversity of choice is important

2.    Sector should be close to your heart

3.    Gather top line information on the scope of work, team and projects

4.    Understand the philosophy of the social impact instead of obsessing about quantifying it. Some social  impact cannot be captured purely in numbers

5. Mutual trust is very important. 

The spectrum of giving ranges from ‘pure charity’ to ‘enabling and empowering individuals’, to ‘institution building in this sector’.

Rohini is involved in wonderful change making institutions as  diverse as Arghyam, a foundation she set up to enable safe and sustainable water and sanitation; and  Atree, (Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment). Earlier , she headed Akshara Foundation and was Founder-Chairperson of Pratham Books.  Her heart is set however in building institutional infrastructure to catalyse change in India and making education accessible to children in India through Ek Step.

As an international, influential figure she believes in globalisation of efforts and sharing best practices. However, focussing on the myriad issues in India is keeping her determinedly local which she believes when got right, will create huge learnings and shall galvanize change globally.

There was ample opportunity after the talk for the audience to ask questions and link up forces and resources with the initiatives stewarded by Rohini or other mainstream initiatives.

What summed up the essence of Rohini the individual however, was the two final rapid fire questions, where she she played word association –

1.    Money – useful

2.    Education – critical

Rohini embodies what Mahatma Gandhi said, “ Be the change you want to see in the world”. And Bridgeable will be her able partner to link the wealthy Singaporeans to the deserving causes in India.

by Sanchita Mahajan