Perspectives on democracy, progress & changemakers

Book discussion: A conversation between D Shivakumar and Arun Maira on Maira’s book, ‘Listening for Well-being’

Founding Fuel

On April 28, Friends of Books (FROB), a social platform for book lovers, founded by Mohit Gupta and Nipun Jain, organised a discussion at DLF Auditorium, Cyber Park, Gurugram, around Arun Maira’s book, Listening for Wellbeing (published in 2017 by Rupa Publications India).

Arun Maira’s span of work offers a rare combination—he has worked with private enterprise (the Tatas and then as chairman of BCG India), with government (as former member of Planning Commission) and with the social sector (various roles, including chairman of Help Age India). 

He was in conversation with D Shivakumar, Operating Partner, Advent International, and a voracious reader and book lover.

Their discussion covered four aspects:

  • democracy, 

  • progress and GDP, 

  • business, 

  • changemakers. How do you bring change into society?

Highlights (9-min read)

(Edited for brevity)

Video sections:

0:00 Introduction

13:35 On democracy

18:23 Where is democracy working?

24:06 Pillars & spans of democratic bridge

29:32 How can individuals improve trust?

42:00 Measuring GDP

46:38 Sustaining well-being

54:54 Companies should learn to listen better 

1:01:36 Advice to young managers

1:09:59 Active listening in a family & women’s roles 

On democracy: An ideal vs a workable democracy

(Starts at 13:35)

People describe a democratic government as government of the people, for the people, by the people. … [Then there are the ideas around] liberty, equality, and justice… [Ambedkar] before the final constitution insisted that it be liberty, equality, justice and fraternity… For India, this is particularly important, because we have so much diversity, historically, geographically, in religions, languages, and cultures within the country. Unless we listen to people who appear very different to us, and have had different histories, different cultures than ours, and therefore might think differently to us, unless we can listen with respect to who they are, why they believe what they do, we are not living as a fraternity. 

To make a democracy work, we have to make it work. We can't rely on the courts… In the United States matters like abortion rights — you say it's a modern society. Surely, they would be respecting that women have equal rights as men have.

Where is democracy working?

(Starts at 18:23)

When I was in the planning commission, I became officially concerned that we could not progress in improving jobs, livelihoods, education, health, unless we worked as a community. Unless we could solve some basic differences amongst ourselves, we would not be this inclusive country in economic terms also.

So, I started looking around. Many countries are advancing much faster than we are on matters of everyone gets education, everyone has public health. There seems to be less violence in those societies. Scandinavian countries come up. Some smaller countries like Costa Rica. More recently, Bhutan.

How does democracy work? That could be a monarchy like Bhutan. It doesn't matter. It's the quality of the conversations we found inside. 

In Sweden, the government was doing a survey every few years in every locality, asking citizens questions about do you feel the local government listens to you? Do you feel that your neighbour understands you? How could we improve it? They were building democracy through processes of participation of citizens.

In your book you talk of the pillars, the spans, of what you call the democratic bridge.

(Starts at 24:06)

Someone thinks differently about whether women should cover themselves up so that men don't think of them in a dirty way. And others say, like in France, that a woman has no business wearing a full cover when she's in a swimming pool. She must appear in French culture normal. If we're going to have conversations about these matters, we’ve got to have a back and forth; your views must come here and be listened to and my views must go there and be listened to. So there is a span of the bridge across which all this heavy traffic must flow.

We have created with the internet, a very wide span through which people are able to say anything on everything. But society is collapsing, democracy is collapsing. Because the bridge does not have strong enough pillars. 

What are the pillars? That bridge’s pillars must be grounded solidly in rock below. What are the deep pillars for a conversation? We listen to what people are saying, the words they're using. That is the traffic across. Am I inquiring why someone feels that way? For which I have to stop and listen.

I have to, as a real listener, ask a question that occurs to me when I hear your words. To learn how to inquire respectfully into the other person's perspective, why the other person says what they say, their biases. I must learn to question.

But in the questioning what is happening? One is about myself. Why do I want to ask this question? It is because I have made a certain category in my mind that this person sounds to me like a leftist. What do I mean by leftist? And why does it matter to me if he's a leftist or not, so I begin to understand my own bias, side by side, if I'm inquiring why that other person came to this belief, and the person will tell me something about his history, his life, how oppressed and left behind they felt, I understand why that person is a leftist. So there's a history and to discover who the person is, we have to discover who we each are. For which deep listening are the pillars.

Those conversations must try to explore the other person's point of view, and allow them to also explore my point of view.

What can individuals do to improve trust amongst ourselves?

(Starts at 29:32)

We must trust each other.

In America, we have trust that the market would work because it's efficient and organised. But if you step into a street in New York, I've been told, you don't look a stranger in the eye. Don't engage. Keep to yourself, mind your own business. Because you never know how that person might take advantage of you. So, there is trust in the market systems, but there is no trust amongst people. 

So in the Swedish example, they were asking people, do you trust each other? Do you trust the local government official that this person is doing what a government person is supposed to do? And do you trust that the teacher in the school is doing what the teacher is supposed to do for your children?

The trust comes out of understanding and respecting each other. I will trust that no matter what the circumstances are, you will look out for my interests also.

This is not the philosophy of the market — it's all competition. If the other person is in trouble, or the company is in trouble, good, let's take advantage of it.

On measuring GDP

What in your opinion, are five holistic measures you would use to judge how our country is doing?

(Starts at 42:00)

Measuring progress, well-being and GDP.

We've talked about India becoming an aspirational country. And the example we used to give well before the pandemic also was that, look, people want their own cell phones, scooters, cars, they want more of things. That's what will make the economy grow. And so people are coming and investing in India, because there’ll be a big market growing for many, many, many, many, many things.

There is a great search, even amongst economists, to understand what is it that people really want? And the deeper, more encompassing word has turned out to be well-being. People want well-being in their lives and in their communities.

The other word is sustainability. The sustainability of the conditions for well-being.

A more holistic idea is the well-being of humans as part of a larger system — a social system and an environmental system. And human beings do feel historically through our Vedas and other traditions, the Buddhist tradition particularly, that live with respect for nature, be humble, don't harm it. It can't harm you. But your next generation will be harmed, if you don't take care of it. 

What do we need to do to keep sustaining this well being?

(Starts at 46:38)

Well, now with automation, we've come to the point we don't need human beings. And now we worry that who will buy all the stuff that all these automated factories are producing? The human beings, but where are the human beings going to earn to buy all this stuff? We talk about universal basic income. Where's the money for the universal basic income going to come from? Now obviously, it has to come from the people who made the wealth, but they say no, don't tax the wealthy because there's no incentive for them to make more wealth. We are caught in a very nice, stupid circle actually.

So in our country, when we talk about what we should measure, we have to measure the quality of the society and that means everybody must feel equal in the society.

We have to talk about the condition of our environment.

India is a country with the largest number of people in the world now. However, we have less land resource for the number of people. China has two-and-a-half times as much land per person, the US many times more than we have. We have to be much more mindful of the use of resources ... our natural capital. That we nurture and restore that capital, keep the capital alive. People must be employed in a dignified way and paid enough. Otherwise our economy won't grow. More importantly, when there are differences in the earnings and wealth, it is not a good society. You will get the leftist uprisings and Naxalites are back again in action. It is inevitable. People will stand up to say, you know, “main to jaan deke loonga” (I will give my life to take it), because there's no other way I can get it. 

When I was in the planning commission, we got independent consultants using the metrics that they called sustainable economic development assessment. For every unit of increase of your GDP, how much is it affecting your natural environment? And how much is it affecting the society and the quality of the employment generated? We were already celebrating the world's fastest growing democracy. They showed us that India is damaging its natural environment per unit of GDP growth, more than every country in the world. We were creating the least number of good jobs of any country in the world. Even though we said demographic dividend — demographic dividend will be realised if people can learn, earn and save — if they can't first earn enough, where’s the question of the demographic dividend?

On the environmental side, we’ve got to stop preventing people in underdeveloped or tribal areas from speaking up and saying please don't put this factory here. They are not coming in the way of the well-being of everybody. They are reminding us where our well-being lies.

How should companies learn to listen better?  

(Starts at 54:54)

With the business of businesses being only business, you cannot expect a person who has been appointed by society and legally by investors to not care first and foremost, or even only, for investors. So you may listen very well as a human being to others. But when you're back in your chair, you can't make the corporation do things which will balance out the needs of society and environment, compared to the investors’ needs. BlackRock’s Larry Fink said four or five years ago, come on, guys, we’ve got to be for the sake of, as you say, the future, making sure that all your investments are ESG compliant — environment, society, governance are compliant. And right now, the states of the United States, especially the Republican states, as well as the financial community, is telling him, behave yourself. We've given you money to make more money out of it. Don't start putting your personal values right in front. Go and do it, retire to the Himalayas, if you want to, but don't run BlackRock. It's not easy.

Advice to young managers

(Starts at 1:01:36)

As the Bhagvad Geeta says, you only have a right to the work and not to the fruits thereof. 

And so, what is the work that it is my right to and my responsibility to do? And what are the fruits of this work?

When I was in the corporate sector, when I'm going to take a decision, I say to myself, what will be the benefits of this? The fruits of it, the fruits to whom? Well, I have to say, there must be some fruits to the corporation, because I'm responsible. But more than that, I begin to say that I must look like an effective manager, so it becomes a matter of ego also. The fruit to me, of being successful, is my ego. So by being a good CEO, what are the fruits thereof? Yeah, the money, the fame.

I'm talking about the gung ho 90s — companies were going up and many were collapsing, surprisingly. So this Dutch Business School did a survey — a sort of historical thing — correlating the collapse of companies with the number of times a CEO appeared on the covers of magazines, and they found a really interesting correlation that if the number of times the CEO appeared on business magazines covers, particularly business newspapers, please take your money out of it. This company is going to collapse — the hubris!

We talked here that corporations have a role in society. Governments also have a role in society. Cooperation, no one says it's for the people, corporations are for investors. So if corporations are not behaving well, appealing to the corporations to behave well, can't work. So who do we go to? One is, of course, we won't allow you to set up your plant, we'll stop buying your products. But do they really care? We have to turn to the government, because on our behalf, they are supposed to protect us and protect our environment.

So the government must regulate business and have the courage to regulate business. Unfortunately, when we talk about the ease of doing business, it is about making it easier for corporations to make profits, environmental regulations, labour regulations, and so on. 

So if you wish to get a good government, which is going to improve wellbeing, you’ve got to elect the right people. 

But we're at the point where the election system, all over the world, has been organised around political parties for the sake of its efficiency. And so the political parties have their ideologies declared on this side of the house or that side. So do not rely on the present structures of political democracy to solve this existential problem that the world is having, and democracy is having at the same time. It will have to be a people's movements — changes in the forms of governance, have always come about by people's movements.

In the small unit of a family, there are people that are not like us. How do we start with active listening from that smallest unit of a society?  

(Starts at 13:35)

Because of age or sex, we have different roles. And yet we trust each other… So listening to each other, respectfully, is a quality of a good family.

On women’s roles 

(Starts at 1:09:59)

We are not respecting things that are natural. And we want a woman to be exactly like a man. 

And we bring them into the for-pay sector. And what do we do? I noticed this in my BCG days because we have a lot of young, smart women from the same schools. They'd learn to dress like men, talk like men because we would judge them by saying, are you communicating clearly? Or are you being quiet and listening? We’d say this about women, that she's holding back. But I say, holding back and listening is what makes a family actually right. So there are thoughts here for all of us.

This has become the problem in the world today, and in the USA, we talk about the brahminical culture of the northeast, where the big universities are. The experts, they tend to come from the same universities who are not listening to the people and women say, we are not even being admitted. And the profession in which the fewest number of women are admitted is economics.

But I say why should women have to be learning man's economics? It's about time we asked women, how do you maintain such a good economy and a society at home? And they do that. 

By the way, when we say India doesn't have enough women in the for-pay workforce, India has always had more women going out from the house to do something which would bring material or money — much more than any country in the world. Women farmers, women cleaners, women domestic workers, women caregivers — this has been our tradition. So what are we trying to do? Say no, no, stop doing that, come I'm going to teach you how to run a computer and come and work in Infosys and see how many women have joined the Apple factory. What are we doing to ourselves as a society and to the world? 

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Founding Fuel

Founding Fuel aims to create the new playbook of entrepreneurship. Think of us as a hub for entrepreneurs- the go-to place for ideas, insights, practices and wisdom essential to build the enterprise of tomorrow. It is co-founded by veteran journalists Indrajit Gupta and Charles Assisi, along with CS Swaminathan, the former president of Pearson's online learning venture.

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