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In Search of Common Ground

Uncommon Ground: Dialogues between Business and Social Leaders by Rohini Nilekani (New Delhi: Penguin Books), 2011; pp 250, Rs 499.

BOOK REVIEW

In Search of Common Ground

Kalpana Sharma

Aruna Roy comes out as well in print as she does on screen. She is not high on rhetoric. Her arguments are usually reasoned. She does not speak in slogans. So when Mittal talks about a shortage of

T
elevision is a medium designed for the dramatic. To attract eyeballs, the most mundane subject must necessarily be formatted like a boxing ring, a big fight, with extreme opinions providing the thrust and pull of an exciting fight. Indian news television has virtually made this format the norm for what is supposed to be a debate between opposing points of view. There is no debate. No one listens. Everyone talks. Everyone shouts. And the viewer is left as confused as at the beginning of the programme.

Rohini Nilekani, former journalist, philanthropist and social activist, attempted something that is relatively rare on television – a genuine debate between opposing points of view. Uncommon Ground was a series on NDTV where Nilekani brought together some of the best known activists, environmentalists and leading men from the world of business to discuss the issues that underlie some of the major debates in the country. It was a novel idea. She could sell it because she had the clout – traversing as she did both worlds – to bring such opposites together. And the series that ran in 2008 stood out as different with some episodes coming out better than others.

Eight Parameters

Based on these televised conversations, Nilekani has written a book that sets out the parameters for a debate on eight issues

– livelihoods and job creation, health, food security, personal mobility and transport, land, energy, financial inclusion and business and environmental sustainability. To lead into the edited transcripts of the television discussions, N ilekani has written a short introduction to each issue. Here her training as a journalist has held her in good stead. These introductions are in accessible language, contain considerable data and information, and spell out the different perspectives on these eight issues.

Even apart from the transcripts of the programmes, these short pieces are engaging. They are also useful for those

Economic & Political Weekly

EPW
december 24, 2011

Uncommon Ground: Dialogues between Business and Social Leaders by Rohini Nilekani

(New Delhi: Penguin Books), 2011; pp 250, Rs 499.

not familiar with the issues. It is not always easy to gather divergent perspectives from reading what appears in the press sporadically. What you get in print are either random statements made by the actors involved or some opinion and analysis. But the background information to the controversy is often missing, leaving the reader mystified about the reasons for the difference in approach. Television is worse because it reduces difference to a shouting match – much sound and no light at all.

Where the book falls short is in the content of the interviews. This has less to do with Nilekani than with the individuals participating in the dialogues. Thus, while the exchange between Aruna Roy and Sunil Mittal on livelihoods and jobs creation is engaging and informative, the same cannot be said about the conversation between Medha Patkar and Anand Mahindra.

Contents of the Interviews

This is partly because of the difference in the ability of the participants to clearly articulate their viewpoints. On television, you listen and do not always catch the contradictions. You can judge when someone is being dilatory but you sometimes lose the thread of what they are attempting to say. In cold print, both the strengths and the weaknesses of an argument are apparent as also the depth of understanding. Thus, with Roy and Mittal, although the gap in perception is evident, you can understand where each of them stands on the issue. Between Patkar and Mahindra, the dialogue is more like people running on parallel tracks – there is no apparent conflict but no meeting point either. Patkar is used to public speaking; reproducing her spoken word in print does not always work to communicate her views.

vol xlvi no 52

skilled labour and how the government must fill this gap by creating more institutes of skill training, Roy counters that people need work for the skills they already possess. Both are right. Mittal is talking about employment in the organised sector, a minuscule percentage of the total labour force, while Roy is addressing the majority of India’s working population. Can these different perspectives of the same problem meet? Nilekani steers them to some kind of meeting ground. Mittal acknowledges that the state cannot be expected to provide the skill training and that the private sector, which is asking for skilled labour, will have to invest in technical institutions that impart such training.

The debate remains polite throughout. Neither the two being interviewed, nor Nilekani, butt in and cut each other off mid-sentence as is so common on television. As a result, the participants speak full sentences, even full paragraphs. At the end, you feel you get a sense of their position on the issue.

The discussion on “Personal Mobility and Transport” between Rahul Bajaj and Dinesh Mohan also stood out as high on articulation and low on rhetoric. In fact, it yielded a good amount of information on the transport sector, about small cars, about hybrid technology and the public versus private in transportation choices.

More Scepticism, Less Politeness

A debate that could have done with a bigger dose of scepticism and less politeness was the one on energy between R K Pachauri and Mukesh Ambani. Nilekani in her introduction states: “A megawatt of power saved by reducing consumption or increasing efficiency is much more cost-effective than a megawatt generated”. Yet, this is precisely the issue that was skirted around with someone who has thought nothing of building a 27-storey mansion for his family of five people which guzzles energy in a city where half the population live

BOOK REVIEW

in impermanent housing with only the very basic access to electricity. Of course, the interview was done before Ambani constructed his much-discussed home in Mumbai.

But when Pachauri talks about the need to change lifestyles and suggests that Ambani and Nilekani as “icons of this society” should begin, Ambani says, “My view is that we cannot curb the aspirations of people” and that “a higher quality of life, it is very different from a wasteful lifestyle”. The conversation concludes with Nilekani declaring that curbing a wasteful lifestyle is a challenge all three must think about. Neither she nor Pachauri directly question what Ambani means by “a higher quality of life” as opposed to a “wasteful lifestyle”.

On the other side, the conversation on alternative fuels also remains hanging

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-with Ambani speaking of solar energy and Pachauri of biofuels from “agricultural residue”. Yet, this so-called “waste” is actually an important source of fuel for the poor who collect it from the fields where they work as agricultural labour. If even this free resource is monetised to make fuel that will run automobiles, who will provide affordable fuel to the millions of poor people in this country? This was only one of several questions that remained unaddressed.

The last dialogue in the series, on business and environmental sustainability was interesting, especially because of the areas of agreement between Sunita Narain, and Y C Deveshwar. Surprisingly, the immensely articulate Narain did not come out as well as Deveshwar, who used the chance to speak of his “tree to textbook” concept for the paper industry.

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The problem here was that the range of issues to be covered was too wide for a restricted time frame. And, as with others, all three were exceedingly polite with each other.

So while the excessive combativeness on television these days is not very productive, surely the search for common ground need not mean literally walking on eggshells. The plus point of the conversations organised by Nilekani is that they brought people on opposite sides on the same show. The shortcoming was that statements made by the individuals were not challenged adequately. This is a pity. Questioning the logic of an argument is not the same as being rude. It is an essential part of an exchange of ideas and views.

Email: kalpanasharma@epw.in.

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december 24, 2011 vol xlvi no 52

EPW
Economic & Political Weekly

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