Nandan Nilekani, the ‘process’ philanthropist

Nandan Nilekani and his entrepreneur wife Rohini are ranked 69th on Forbes’ list of richest Indians with an estimated wealth of $1.58 billion (Rs 10,465 crore), almost all of it from the wealth Infosys created.

So what does Nilekani think of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s recent decision pledging 99 per cent of his wealth to charity?

“I think it is a process,” he says. “India is not America where they give away everything.”

Indeed. But that hasn’t prevented Nilekani to become increasingly public and vocal about where the philanthropist’s heart—and wallet—lies.

Nilekani figures prominently among the recently released list of top 40 philanthropists in Asia. According to the latest Hurun India Philanthropy Ranking that was released on Friday, Rohini and Nandan Nilekani stood second, with disclosed contributions of Rs 2,404 crore.

Their latest effort: EkStep, an ambitious plan to teach India’s poor, school-age children math and language skills through the use of primarily mobile gaming technology.

The goal: using smartphones, tablets and apps, improve literacy and numeracy among 200 million children in a five-year period.

The couple has made an initial personal commitment of $10 million (Rs 67 crore) for EkStep. But, that is just the beginning.

“We launched the first app,” notes Nilekani. “It is for the hundreds of millions of children who are coming to school for the first time, and whose parents are not educated and are in a poor-resource environment.”

“In philanthropy, I do education and urban governance, and she (Rohini Nilekani) focuses on water”

“What if we could democratise creative learning tools?” asks Rohini Nilekani.

The first EkSetp app was launched with the help of Pratham, an NGO that Rohini Nilekani has been involved with, one that aims to improve educational standards in underprivileged settings in 100,000 villages and communities.

“This is going to be the next big thing from Nandan,” gushes his former Infosys colleague, TV Mohandas Pai. “There are too many moving parts to it. But, I am sure he will pull this off, given his tremendous track record.”

Nilekani demurs saying it is way too early to speak about results at EkStep. Still, EkStep is one of the more high-profile efforts where the Nilekanis are both publicly involved in the same project.

“In EkStep we are involved together,” he notes. “Otherwise, she does her own. I do my own. In philanthropy, I do education and urban governance, and she focuses on water.”

Rohini Nilekani is also founder of Arghyam, an initiative for safe and sustainable water.

Both Nilekanis have taken an avid personal interest in media and have decried falling standards. They support scholarly publication, Economic and Political Weekly, as well as data journalism initiative, IndiaSpend.org.

Increasingly, it is Rohini Nilekani who is zeroing in on media. She, along with Wipro chairman, billionaire Azim Premji, is among the top contributors to the recently formed Independent and Public Spirited Media Trust, with a Rs 30-crore personal commitment.

“As a former journalist, she is passionate about supporting diverse media that does good work,” says Nilekani. The idea behind the Trust is to create an independent media and to take advantage of the fact that digital is going to be the future. “So, how do we give digital media a push which is also independent (and there is) much more variety in the media. It is independent media, data-oriented, hopefully unbiased and centrist,” he adds.

Rohini Nilekani is also active with the India Philanthropy Initiative, a forum which Wipro founder Azim Premji and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates are part of, to encourage philanthropy among rich Indians with Premji personally already donating 40 per cent of his shares at Wipro, then worth $8.5 billion for charity. 

(This is the fourth article in a four-part series on Nandan Nilekani. Read the first part, on his startup investments, here and the second part, on his short political life, here and the third part, on his role as a one-man think tank, here.)

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