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Rohini Nilekani has her heart in the right place

August 09, 2013 12:49 IST

Photographs: Courtesy, Arghyam Surabhi Agarwal

Through the last decade, philanthropist and writer Rohini Nilekani has invested across sectors such as education, environment and sanitation. Wife of Infosys co-founder and Unique Identification Authority of India chairman Nandan Nilekani, she last week sold about 577,000 shares of Infosys for about Rs 163 crore (Rs 1.63 billion). In an interview with Surabhi Agarwal, she says for the last one and a half years, she has been working towards devising a strategy for her philanthropic initiatives. Excerpts:

How do you plan to deploy the proceeds of the recent sale?

I plan to continue and amplify my philanthropy work. I have decided not to set up another foundation such as Arghyam right now.

But I will use the money to support various people in the country who are doing a lot of good work, especially in the areas of governance, transparency, data, etc.

These are some of the emerging areas where lots of innovative ideas are coming up, areas that need early support. I am also interested in the enhancement of our natural resource base, issues related to justice, etc.

We have identified a few organisations. There are some think tanks, along with some good research that need to be encouraged.

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Note: Rohini Nilekani is theFounder-Chairperson of Arghyam, a foundation she set up with a private endowment, to work on water and sanitation issues in India.

Rohini Nilekani has her heart in the right place

Image: A file photo of Nandan Nilekani and Rohini Nilekani.
Photographs: Courtesy, Infosys

What kind of organisations would you like to invest in? Have you identified any such organisation?

Recently, I supported an institution called Parliamentary Research Service (PRS); some money has gone to ATree (Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment), Dakshin Foundation, IndiaSpends, the Association for Democratic Reforms, etc.

So, I have done some exploratory grants. But I will have to do more homework.

So far, how much have you invested in your philanthropic work?

So far, I have given Rs 210 crore (Rs 2.1 billion) from my personal money, which doesn’t include Nandan’s. Of this, Arghyam got Rs 150 crore (Rs 1.5 billion), while the remaining Rs 60 crore (Rs 600 million) went to multiple organisations over the last 10-12 years.

In the early years, I didn’t have that much money, I was just dribbling it out. In the last few years, it has gone up more rapidly.

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Rohini Nilekani has her heart in the right place

Photographs: Reuters

Do you have a timeline for spending the Rs 160 crore?

Since the money isn’t going to a foundation, it would stay with me. But I am deliberately keeping it in a separate account. I am ring-fencing it; I am morally accountable to myself for giving it away.

This way, I will have the freedom to give either large or small amounts.

But I haven’t set a timeline. I hope I won’t take more than five years to exhaust the funds. Also, there is a question of absorptive capacity.

The kind of areas I am looking at might only need little amounts of money, which could be critical for them.

If you weren’t going to sign a big cheque immediately, why sell so many shares at a go?

You don’t go about selling a share every day. I want to do it transparently and correctly.

Suppose I want to make a very large donation to an institution in the next year or so, I don’t want to keep going back to the Securities and Exchange Board of India and say I am selling 10 more shares or 15 more shares, as I am classified as a promoter by them.

I haven’t sold a single Infosys share in the last six-seven years because I didn’t need to.

I have spent a year devising my philanthropy strategy… I have hired an advisor. We did hundreds of interviews, etc. So, for one and a half years, I thought about the strategy that I want to follow and deploy over the next few years.

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Rohini Nilekani has her heart in the right place

Image: Water is available at the doorstep even in hilly areas through gravity flow water supply systems.
Photographs: Courtesy, Arghyam

You set up Arghyam so that you could you have more control over your investments. What led to the change in strategy?

I don’t have a desire to have control, as it would operate on trust. Of course, I would want that money to make a difference, but I wouldn’t be in those institutions.

Personally, I don’t have all the answers to the issues. I also value diversity of thought and approach very much. You have to try a bunch of things and see what works in a country such as India.

One size doesn’t fit all, and I don’t have a monopoly over good ideas. There are lots of passionate and committed people in the country who are working very hard on the ground…they need support.

Do you have a team to identify projects, etc?

I have a philanthropy advisor, Hari Menon, who was earlier at the Gates Foundation. He and I have been working for about a year and a half, trying to identify areas for my philanthropic work.

Addressing governance issues are important because whichever silo you work in, be it education, microfinance, sanitation, food or health, you would eventually hit governance deficit.

The reason we don’t have equity and sustainability is because somewhere, our governance failures catch up with us. For examples, there is so much burden on panchayats…we need to figure how to help them function better.

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