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BW Businessworld

Negotiating Social Harmony

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No servant can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon." From Biblical times, this has been the conventional wisdom. But humbly correcting the dictum is philanthropist, journalist and activist, Rohini Nilekani, who is famous for being one of the backstage players of Infosys, in Uncommon Ground. In the new world, where the distance between business and social spheres are blurring increasingly, wealth does not hinder one from pursuing social good.
The book tries to address a seemingly simple question, which in fact is an enormously complex one: why has economic prosperity with social inclusion remained a distant goal in India despite years of liberalisation? In fact, if we remember, liberalisation was proclaimed to be the panacea for social inclusion. We believed whole-heartedly that when the government encourages businesses with tax breaks and other facilities, it would ultimately benefit poorer members of society while improving the economy as a whole. Yes, liberalisation has liberated us from the so-called "Hindu rate of growth" and has led to sustained GDP growth and dramatic improvement in the quality of life of many. Yet, unfortunately, millions remain untouched, and are being pushed back further. That is because of their shrinking access to natural resources which they depend on and because access to alternative opportunities are denied to them.
Nilekani's collection brings together industry titans and civil society leaders to explore eight themes that define social inclusion and are probably the pillars of our future development. Based on Nilekani's 2008 show on NDTV, the conversations explore the middle ground between the ideological divisions that often polarise the business and voluntary sectors.

Nilekani brings together the best in the fields—for each topic that is being discussed. Best not only in terms of thought leadership, but also in terms of practice. So, we have a taste of telecom mogul Sunil Bharti Mittal discussing with Magsaysay Award winner social activist Aruna Roy about livelihoods and job creation, while ITC chairman Y. C. Deveshwar discusses business and environmental sustainability with environmentalist Sunita Narain. My favourite is the discussion between RIL chief Mukesh Ambani and R. K. Pachauri on energy.

The author, uniquely placed to moderate these discussions, demonstrates that the relationship between business, society and state need not be necessarily confrontational. In all areas—especially food, energy and the environment, jobs and livelihood, transportation and mobility, poverty and financial inclusion, natural resources and economic sustainability, land use and displacement — non-governmental organisations and businesses can play an enabling role together with the government. Which is the crux of the book.

The most exciting element about the book is the fact that the theme revolves around tapping into diverse views and different fields to find solutions for the most challenging problems of our times. I have always been an admirer of Frans Johansson's theory of The Medici Effect—which says it is in the intersection of diverse fields and realms that extraordinary breakthrough ideas would happen. That when ideas are accumulated from multiple fields, great challenges crack down. This is exactly what Nilekani tries to demonstrate through this book. I am sure that these doyens who converse in this book actively practice this theory. For example, I remember having a conversation with ICICI Bank's head Chanda Kochhar, where she was reminiscing about the time when the bank was grappling with the scalability challenge of providing banking services to the mass—how do you issue a million credit cards in a day, or service a few million accounts in a day. Instead of going through tried-and-tested banking methodologies, she went out and researched how the courier companies or the manufacturing companies are serving millions. Captain Gopinath, again, did the same thing while he tried to democratise air travel.

I am sure that at some point of time, the author might decide to take the idea to the next level by bringing together not just business and social activists, but also artists, politicians, sports persons to challenge more critical problems of our times. That would be an even greater uncommon ground.

Author's Details:
Rohini Nilekani is the co-founder and chairperson of Pratham Books. She also heads the non-profit organisation, Arghyam, which works on water and sanitation issues. She has worked with and contributed to publications such as Bombay Magazine, India Today, Sunday, The Times of India and Mint. Her debut novel, Stillborn, was published in 1998.
Varghese is the author of Open Source Leader

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 05-12-2011)