The Economics Times
New Delhi

Philanthropist Rohini Nilekani believes mainstream media is weighed down by many handicaps and, therefore, wants to co-create an entirely new media platform primarily funded by donor money. While it's too early to reveal details of the new media entity taking shape, she says, it will be fairly meaningful in size and impact, and not some facile effort at tinkering on the sidelines.

She draws inspiration from the early experiences of a mercurial fellow philanthropist and the humungous potential a digital economy offers. Media is crying to be reinvented for a new age. Billionairephilanthropist Pierre Omidyar, founder of eBay, has recognised this and is first off the block. He has committed $250 million to a radically new media platform, First Look Media, which has in its ranks journalists like Glenn Greenwald, who reported on the Edward Snowden documents. Omidyar pitches First Look as a "model for great journalism, free from financial and political interference".

Nilekani too is keen to craft and support a countervailing voice. "A canary in the mine, warning of approaching complications, whether in the corporate space or in society," she explains. CV Madhukar, co-founder of PRS Legislative Research (PRS) who is now leading Omidyar Network in India is a pivotal actor in the new effort. "We want the media business to be sustainable," he says. "We are keen student- investors, and we want to learn what might work."

Why are Nilekani and Madhukar keen on the media space? It's not a desire to be media moguls of sorts. It stems from an inclination to help alter the governance framework in India. Media is one of the vehicles to achieve this goal. Their thinking, in a way, also signifies a certain maturing of Indian philanthropy, which is now readying to enter the so-called no-go areas.

Improving Governance

"Unless the governance piece is put in place, I don't think we can have an India where we would be happy to live in," says Anu Aga, former chairperson of Thermax and Rajya Sabha member. "We have to stand up and speak out to protect the very fabric of our society, our democracy, the freedoms we so cherish."

Aga is not involved in the media initiative, but has always been a keen votary for reforms in the way India is governed. She was an early supporter of two non-profits: Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), campaigning for electoral and political reforms, and PRS, which extends independent, non-partisan research support to Parliamentarians and legislators. For Nilekani, who has been working on issues in water and education, the realisation that governance had to be addressed flows from the impediments she has faced even as a do-gooder.

Even putting quality textbooks in the hands of school children has been a frustrating experience for her. "The political economy of the procurement process in education is horrendous," she laments. Breaking out of the verticals, the silos, was inevitable.

Cross-cutting, horizontal issues of governance have to figure on the philanthropy radar for any meaningful change to happen. Nilekani is now willing to channel much of the Rs 164 crore she raised recently by selling her Infosys shares into this space over the next three years. She is already supporting a host of initiatives, including in media, data access and think-tanks. She is not alone.

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