'In India, we have to worry about those who think they are above the law'

Written by Rajiv Tikoo | Updated: Oct 30 2011, 07:20am hrs
Though Rohini Nilekanis new book Uncommon Ground is based on her 2008 TV programme by the same name, it instead of detracting from its importance only enhances its contribution to the development discourse by seeking to disseminate to more people the vision of a middle ground between leading industry and civil society leaders. So you have discussions between Anand Mahindra and Medha Patkar on land resources, Mukesh Ambani and RK Pachauri on energy, Sunil Mittal and Aruna Roy on livelihoods, YC Deveshwar and Sunita Narain on environmental sustainability, Habil Khorakiwala and Mirai Chatterjee on health, MS Banga and Suman Sahai on food security, Rahul Bajaj and Dinesh Mohan on transportation, and Uday Kotak and Vijay Mahajan. Nilekani, who is also chairperson of Arghyam as well as Pratham Books, talks to FEs Rajiv Tikoo about the book and the issues. Excerpts:

Since you were searching for common space between the

corporate world and civil society, why did you call the TV programme/ book Uncommon Ground and not Common Ground

We were creating an uncommon space by bringing these people together. I played on the word common as it also means unusual. It sounded catchy too! And those who needed to, quickly understood that we were aiming for the middle path or the common goals.

Since the government has always played a bigger role than businesses and civil society, wouldnt its inclusion have added more value to the discourse in the book

I thought long and hard about it. I doubt that government representatives can talk very frankly on TV. They are bound to give the official view. Besides, I was very keen to explore the somewhat antagonistic, sometimes collaborative relationship between corporates and civil society organisations, because both sectors have so much influence on what the state does or does not do.

You got the best of leaders on the show. While it would not have been possible to include everyone, but still Ratan Tata is conspicuous by his absence. Any particular reason not to have him on the show

There are so many leaders and I had designed it for only a few shows. Actually, I first looked at what are the sectors where both business and NGOs have direct experience and have played a key role in defining policy or in the delivery of public services. And that is how I found my names. You are right though, it would be good to get Ratan Tata, Narayan Murthy, Indra Nooyi and Lakshmi Mittal into the discourse.

Over the years civil society seems to have become more a partner of governments and businesses rather than play its mandated adversarial role. While it has both advantages and disadvantages, on the whole is it good or bad

I think there is a tectonic shift happening in the third sector. In the market dominated economy, established older NGOs (civil society) that emerged in the 70s and 80s are finding themselves in a quandarysome are becoming more radicalised; others are actively opposing the state and the market forces. But many others have embraced the new challenges and are looking for solutions that are neither purely market oriented, nor are antagonistic to technology or outcome-based philanthropy. It is an interesting phase for sure. We do not know where it will lead to. As usual in india, it will probably lead to diverse resolutions. The government on the other hand is being somewhat schizophrenic about the third sector. FCRA redesign and the Direct Tax Code (DTC) are making operations tougher for NGOs. Yet, the government speaks of encouraging philanthropy. And it has this strange idea of mandating corporate social responsibility (CSR). It is most confusing. It will be a real pity if the government drives legitimate protest or alternative world views underground.

What do you think of the governments attempt to make CSR mandatory

To me, CSR as it has developed is important but we cannot generalise. Some companies have a good intent, others do it out of fashion. But if the government makes it mandatory, it will distort the picture completely. We do not need companies to do CSR. We want them to be socially responsible. As a society, we must have extremely low tolerance for bad labour practices and bad environmental practices by companies. But we also have to suggest how they can get better and acknowledge that it cannot happen all at once. We cannot ask them to shut down or be first movers. It is impractical. Yet there is a space for new thinking. I find the bigger companies are trying to get sensible on this. It is partly economic consideration, but it is also about image, and a new understanding of the reality. But we need to think about newcomers, medium companies, those under the radar. In India, we have to worry about those who think they are above the law.

But should not Indian companies focus more on sustainability to take a lead globally and acquire a competitive edge

We can take the lead on sustainability. But from what baseline In some sense , much of our economy is relatively sustainable environmentally. Must we copy the West, become unsustainable and then cut back to say, see, we are doing sustainability I think not. We do not have the luxury, not I hope the stupidity to do that beyond a point. Which is why we must all talk together and explore what is possible. Young people are so different from us in their world view, in their optimism, their comfort with strange technologies. We must not assume linearity. We have to try to be less harsh of the other view because everyone is evolving. I find it very tough to do myself, I do admit. But I absolutely know it is worth trying, all the time. And thats why the attempt at the show and the book, and all my other work as well.


Finding the right balance

Uncommon Ground was structured quite simply as a series of face-to-face, one-on-one dialogues between leaders of key corporations and leading NGOs with a minimum role for the moderator. Certainly this had not been tried on television before. I began to get nervous. What if everyone refused After all, many of the people I had in mind had not ever met the other person before, let alone had an intensive conversation on controversial issues. What was in it for them to do this now on national television

My audacious wish list of guests was ready. It was a challenging exercise to find the right people for the important discussions I had in mind. But eventually I believe we found the right balance between people with experience, with known leadership in the sector, with good articulation and most importantly, a clear point of view and a desire to both talk and listen.

On the corporate side, Mukesh Ambani, arguably the most powerful businessman in the country would have to be on the show. So would Anand Mahindra and Sunil Mittal, icons of the new economy.

For the corporate heads, going on my show was a dicey proposition. They would have to voluntarily enter a lions den. And many of these lions are known to roar loudly. In spite of my repeated assurances that this was not going to be a fight but a dialogue, it was definitely going to be tough for them to go on national television with NGOs known for raising fundamental and potentially awkward questions.

I have to admit I used the camaraderie of our Davos days to approach Mukesh Ambani, Anand Mahindra, Yogi Deveshwar, Uday Kotak, M.S. (Vindi) Banga, Rahul Bajaj and Sunil Mittal. I believe it was their indulgence and perhaps also their regard for Nandan which made them agree so readily. Mukesh magnanimously said he would record the show whenever I wanted. Anand was a bit cautious when I said he would be in discussion with Medha Patkar. Deeply as he respects her, he knew the risk in representing corporate India against whom she has a well-articulated critique.

Eventually, they all placed their trust in me and took the risk. For that I am very grateful to all eight of them. I must also say my thanks to Habil Khorakiwala, whom I had never met before I called him to be on the show, and who readily agreed.

It was a little more difficult to get the corresponding eight leaders from the other side. They too had something to lose. Sometimes, our political positions push us into a binary of us and them. When we define the otherthat which is not us, we are making it easier to define ourselves, but also setting some limits, a lakshman rekha that is hard to cross. Our ideologies can erect many barriers that have to be pulled down before we can converse beyond them. For social sector leaders, who have often had cause to point out the wrong doings of both the government and business, would a cozy dialogue be seen as a sign of weakness, of being co-opted

To their credit, after giving it some thought, and in some cases, after consulting their colleagues, as part of the inner democracy in their organizations, they all agreed. To me, it was imperative that Medha Patkar, Sunita Narain, Mirai Chatterjee and Aruna Roy be part of the series. These are women I have long admired for years of selfless work for social justice. My morale was boosted when they not just agreed but quite kindly added that what I was trying was a good thing. They affirmed the real need for such platforms for dialogue. You cannot imagine the relief I felt. It took me some time to find Dr Suman Sahai, who was travelling, but when I explained the concept of the show, she took me at my word. Vijay Mahajan, Dr R.K. Pachauri and Dinesh Mohan were my other guests from the social sector. But the three of them have had many occasions to talk and work with the corporate sector and so it was less difficult for them to say yes. But I am, nevertheless, very grateful that they quickly consented and gave me dates, despite their hectic schedules.

Excerpted with the permission of Penguin Books India from the book Uncommon Ground: Dialogues between Business and Social Leaders by Rohini Nilekani