The Union Cabinet recently cleared amendments to the Maintenance and Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizens Act, 2007. The amendments, according to reports, expand the list of those responsible for looking after aged family members. Now not just biological children, but also sons-in-law, daughters-in-law, adoptive and stepchildren will be liable. Official caregivers who fail to comply can face a jail term of up to six months, against the current maximum of three months, if these amendments become law.
As ordinary citizens, we don’t spend much time reading about and thinking through the creation of new laws or amendments of old ones. We forget that the main constitutional responsibility of the MLAs and MPs that we vote for is law making, and oversight of the executive to implement those laws. During my husband’s 2014 election campaign, I did not hear a single voter mention this aspect of the legislator’s role. Most were concerned with local issues, which they felt helpless to address, and expected the MLA and MP to personally deliver on.
Yet, it is good laws that make for the good, functional society that most voters crave. Good laws are fair, do not discriminate against any group and are reasonably implementable. These create the very bedrock, on which samaaj, sarkaar and bazaar can maintain co-operation and peace; be more productive and reach for higher goals.
Bad laws, on the other hand, can harass and persecute innocent people; put the burden of proof on the citizen instead of on the accuser or the state; give excessive punishment; and create an atmosphere of fear. They also create opportunities for rent seeking and corruption by putting excessive discriminatory power into the hands of enforcing authorities.
Once in a while, as in the Nirbhaya case, the broader middle classes get agitated and rightfully express rage and helplessness. This creates the environment for passing newer, harsher laws or amendments for terrible crimes.
Unfortunately, there is little evidence that more severe punishment in the law acts as enough deterrence for future similar crimes. Recent events in Unnao and Hyderabad require us to pause and think, even as we grieve.
Societies have debated the severity of punishment for vile acts over millennia, with complex moral arguments on both sides of the question.
But citizens and society should pay more attention to the trend of over-criminalisation of common human failings and frailties. Some laws have moved issues from the civil to the criminal domain with severe penalties and jail sentences for non-compliance. This is by no means new. But recent Parliament sessions have been more productive than ever in terms of both attendance and legislation, though there has been very little substantive discussion on the Bills. And this has led to even more policies, bills and laws that fall into this category.
Let’s take a few examples, in addition to the proposed amendment on parent welfare.
The Banning of Cryptocurrency and Regulation of Official Digital Currency Bill, 2019 proposes up to 10 years in jail for possession and trading in cryptocurrency. Recent amendments to the Motor Vehicles Act include prison terms for certain violations, such as driving an uninsured vehicle. The Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) Act, 2019, declares triple talaq a criminal offence, punishable with 3 years’ imprisonment. The Union government recently banned e-cigarettes and now, even just the storage of them can merit a jail term of up to six months for the very first offence. Offences on a private member’s bill to prohibit Paan and Gutka similarly proposed a criminal liability of 10 years’ imprisonment. The Central Goods and Services Tax Act, 2017, introduces greater scope for GST officers to arrest tax evaders and offences are non-bailable if the amount involved exceeds Rs 5 crore.
A similar attempt at criminalisation was made for non-compliance of the obligations for Corporate Social Responsibility. Every officer of the company in default could face imprisonment for up to 3 years. That received such a reaction from powerful corporate lobbies that it was withdrawn in a hurry. But not every policy or law has an affected constituency with such a direct line to the government as business does.
These are just some examples of a creeping trend that should worry us all. Criminal law may be quite unsuited to address many societal issues. Some of them are about inter-personal obligations and duties, such as the very basic duty to look after your own parents who gave you life. Others affect individuals and create private wrongs and may not require a public law remedy, or may have already a civil law remedy.
Equally importantly, if ‘justice delayed is justice denied’, we have to think of the implication of more and more offences that lead to more and more imprisonment. It takes up tremendous resources of the state. Our prison system is already over crowded, with absolutely inhuman conditions. A majority of prisoners are under-trials, which means that their guilt has not yet been proven. None of us would like to be imprisoned without a just verdict.
Maybe it is time to reflect and reimagine what issues belong to samaaj to address, however slowly and painfully, and which must fall to the state or sarkaar to uphold. Meanwhile, let’s communicate strongly to our legislators. Let’s hold lawmakers accountable to draft, to pass and to uphold good laws that work for citizens and not against them.
This is an edited version of Rohini Nilekani’s closing keynote address delivered to the 2019 class of the Strategic Non-Profit Management – India offered developed in conjunction with the HBS Social Enterprise Initiative and offered in association with the Centre for Social Impact and Philanthropy at Ashoka University.
I think we are at a fairly critical time. People often refer to the social sector as the third sector, but I would argue that it actually has to be the first sector. In the continuum of Samaaj (society), Bazaar (the marketplace), and Sarkaar (the state), Samaaj must come first. Bazaar and Sarkaar were created to serve Samaaj. Samaaj includes all of us, and it created the Bazaar to serve its economic interests, and the Sarkaar to serve equality to all people, on a large scale.
But what has happened over the centuries, especially the last century, is that the state and the market have acquired tremendous power. Technological advancement has enabled the accumulation of that power in ways completely unimaginable even a few years ago. It is crucial that we understand the implications of the accumulation of power by the state and markets. In our hearts, we are citizens first. We are not consumers first, though sometimes a couple of companies would like us to forget that nowadays. And we are not subjects first, though a few governments might like us to forget that too. We are citizens first, we are human society members first, and we create institutions of social organization that are supposed to increase the well-being of Samaaj, but also hold the Bazaar and Sarkaar accountable.
Balancing the Scales
Both Bazaar and Sarkaar have grown extremely successful at driving scale, especially over the last few years. The market will always chase profits, acquire more customers, and accumulate power. Similarly, when the state achieves scale, it accumulates a lot of power for its continuing legitimacy. Both these forms of accumulation of power can create tremendous public good. Markets improve our lives in amazing ways every single day. The state enables the distribution of public services in a way that a sole individual could not possibly achieve.
So, what I’m talking about is more of a checks and balances mechanism that we need in the social sector, to hold these powers accountable to society. I think today, civil society has an especially critical role in holding the state to increase equity, along with efficiency, and holding the markets to reduce negative externalities to society. And it’s a very interesting time to do this because both the state and the market have also recognised that they cannot do anything on their own. Human problems are so interconnected today, especially driven by things like climate change, that the state and the market are quite open to the intervention of civil society in many areas.
While at the same time, there are other global threats as well. The three freedoms of democracy – the right to speak freely, the right to associate freely, and the right to practice one’s own beliefs, come with duties which we do not talk about enough. People must have the right to speak freely, but without deliberately hurting others; the right to form associations without turning into mobs; and the right to practice one’s beliefs, without preventing others from practicing theirs. So there are duties and rights, but these freedoms are increasingly coming under various kinds of shadows.
Never has it been more important for all of us in the social sector to play that balancing role. While the state and markets have been remarkably successful at achieving scale, it always remains a question whether the social sector can do that. I wonder if being unable to scale is a failure of imagination on our part. Mahatma Gandhi did not just try to improve the lives of people in Porbandar District. He did not just try to improve the lot of all of the citizens of India. He was trying to transform humanity at its core. His imagination was that big and nothing would come in the way. The trade-offs were not going to be that we would get independence by sacrificing our humanity. That was the scale of the imagination of his work.
There are so many other examples. Take someone like Vinoba Bhave. He was not trying to rescue land from just one district. He was talking about the redistribution of land, a very primary source of inequity in this country, across the nation. Jayaprakash Narayan’s Sampoorna Kranti was not only about one class or one identity group replacing the other. It was an imagination at a much loftier level. And that’s how they achieved scale, because the scale of their imaginations and their intent was powerful and very clear in their minds. Have we, perhaps, in the first sector lost a bit of that zeal for imagination? Sometimes I wonder about that. We belong to the tribe of Gandhiji, Vinoba Bhave, and Jayaprakash Narayan, and we need to look to the state and markets to understand how we can achieve scale in this sector as well.
The Need for Societal Platform Thinking
The motivation for scale is different in all three sectors. In the social sector, our goal is to improve human dignity, to create better access to goods and services, to restore agency, to increase creativity, and much more. Essentially, it is to give Izzat, Insaaf, and Imandari (respect, justice, and truth) to people. That is our real job, no matter which sector you work in. So when we want to scale, can we think of scale the same way that the Sarkaar or Bazaar does? I don’t think so.
Over the last 30 years, Nandan and I have been working in very different fields. Nandan has been a successful entrepreneur with Infosys, while doing philanthropic work. I have been working within the social sector for the last two and a half decades, helping individuals, institutions, and ideas spread and grow. Through our work, the goal was to create more public goods in the public sphere, but we have also failed a lot in our work in the social sector. I’ve learnt that it’s far easier to become a unicorn in the market or to become a successful state, than it is to create real, lasting social change. I meet many billionaire philanthropists around the world and they express this very humbly after first thinking “If I can create a great business, why can’t I create a great social sector organization?” But when they actually try it, they find just how hard it is to create scale in the social sector. And that’s because we have to understand why scale is very different in this sector.
Since 2015, Nandan and I have been working together on EkStep, with the goal that we will reach the 200 million children in this country with increased access to learning opportunities. What keeps us together is that we have different but hopefully complementary skills and we have brought those skills together with the pursuit of this goal. We have learned a lot from each other and so we have developed something called Societal Platform Thinking. We have to be careful when we are trying to solve complex, interdependent societal problems. Our methods have to be based on certain morally undeniable principles and philosophies. We have arrived at five of these basic principles, to help us and others get started.
The first thing we have learned is that a single solution will not work, no matter how great it is. If our aim is to solve the problem at the root cause, and scale, we have to design to distribute the ability to solve. We need to trust people and their ability to be part of the solution implicitly. Everyone can learn, everyone can solve, and everyone can be part of the solution. It is a question of design: where people need to see clearly, and where they need to be trusted to get involved in coming up with solutions. So, we have to also distribute the ability to see to solve, and we’ve come up with more detailed architecture about how to do that. That was the first big thing.
A second thing that we have learnt over time is that resources like talent, people, and money are hard to come by. When trying to scale, in terms of public good, a lot is hard to come by. So, we began to think through this, and we found that if you unpack complex social problems, you often find a core that is common. When you look at the common core, you realize that there are ways to make those scarce resources plentiful. Because sometimes there is abundance under your nose, it just exists in different forms. For example, if we think about education, it is very difficult to find professional, competent teachers. It’s very hard to train great teachers. But if we look at the system, there are parents, and teachers in abundance. So, that’s a simple example of how you can find abundance and make scarce resource un-scarce. We need to keep this in mind when we design for scale.
The third learning that is very dear to my heart, is that if we want to scale in a country like India, you need to address the diversity of context. Most of the problems that require scale are contextual. The solution that might work in one place may not work 100 kilometers down the road or it needs a little extra spices to be added into the mix to really work well – whether it’s food or social solutions. There is a lot of diversity, and pushing something will not work. So how do you design to scale up diversity? How will your solutions and your framing work to reflect diversity at scale? For that, in your design, you have to create a unified but not uniform intervention, design, infrastructure, and framework. Unified because we all have to achieve the same goal.
And for that, of course, you need good feedback. You need a digital tech backbone to distribute the ability to solve because you need multidirectional feedback loops. You need data coming in, not just being sucked up at one end, but moving around all the streams so that people can use the data well, in whatever form and when they need it. So you do need technology. But we have learnt that you have to be technology-enabled. If you are technology-led, you tend to make a lot of mistakes about outcome-thinking, because technology-led solutions can give you a false sense of success. You can just rack up the numbers, rack up some data points, but you may not actually get the social outcome that you want. This is important to keep in mind, because people today can get carried away thinking that technology is the solution.
These are some of the building blocks we are using at EkStep to design and reach those 200 million people. Because of this kind of thinking, we are working with the state, civil society, and the markets to move the needle to reach those kids. And so, in the social sector, when we think of scale, not everybody needs to do 200 million, right? Obviously we can’t, if all of us are trying to chase billion and two billion numbers, it will be crazy. We need many people to be doing small things well, as well. We need social innovation labs that can take some of these ideas, because failure is very important.
Taking Risks and Embracing Failure
We all fail, but what is important is that we do not grow afraid of failure. I think a lot about Gandhiji, and how one of the reasons he went to South Africa was because he had failed as a lawyer. Imagine, that failure launched a transformational epoch for humanity. So we will all fail, but it’s how we deal with failure that’s going to be important. And so many of these social innovation labs allow for the pull and push of failing, getting up, failing again, and succeeding. It’s not that every organization needs to scale, but some of our ideas need to scale.
In this sector, it is very hard for us to acknowledge failure. Philanthropists are extremely risk-averse. Usually philanthropists are very successful in business, and they have taken huge risks to get there. But when they move to the social sector, they forget how to take risks. Since they are now dealing with people’s lives and futures and common public goods, they want every venture to succeed. Businesses are allowed to fail. In fact, failure in Silicon Valley is celebrated. But in the social sector, if you fail, you might adversely affect a thousand people’s lives because of your mistake. As social sector organizations, it is very hard to tell your donors that you have failed, while needing more money from them. It’s very hard to do that. So then everybody stumbles by trying to prove just how successful they are.
It is time that we create spaces and platforms where donors, foundations, and members of civil society organizations come together and destigmatize this notion of failure. The question we should now ask is, how do we deal with failure so that we can keep innovating? When we think about scale, failure is inevitable and necessary because without it there is no innovation, and without innovation, there is no solution for scale. The fear of failure may also lead to fear of scaling, and I think we are stuck somewhere within that fear. And there is not enough celebration of the failure that leads to other successes, like Gandhi’s first failure as a lawyer. We need to strive for platforms where donors and civil society organizations can meet in a safe space to talk about these problems.
Another thing I want to touch upon is how to think about scale in this digital age. Although we live in a digital age, civil society in India has a lot of catching up to do. Some of my civil society friends are downright technophobic, and they assume all technology is bad. This is a huge challenge for us as a country of people who are not digital natives but need to advance a younger population who are. We cannot afford to stay the way we are, we cannot stay outside the gates, because the accumulation of power is also happening digitally. Unless we understand how to work efficiently in a digital age, and through digital means, we will not have the internal resources and external tool kits to hold sarkaar and bazaar accountable. So, kicking and screaming, the Indian civil sector needs to come into the digital age, which means the donor community needs to support this as well.
At the heart of it all, we still want to restore dignity and agency to people. Theodore Roosevelt once said, “Look to the stars, but keep your feet on the ground”, and I think that is what we should keep in mind when we think about scaling our work, especially in the philanthropy sector.
This is an edited version of a talk Rohini Nilekani gave at the offices of the eGovernments Foundation on how samaaj impacts the way in which sarkaar and bazaar work, and the role of samaaj in eGov’s mission.
The Continuum of Samaaj, Sarkaar, and Bazaar
Since the past 25 years, I’ve been deeply involved in the civil society sector of India, which is very thriving and diverse. From listening to people, especially at the grassroots level, reading a lot, talking to people, and observing what’s happening around us from the lens of Indian society, I have tried to create a certain philosophy for myself through which I can do my work and see the world.
So, the theory is fairly simple – that there is a continuum of Samaaj, Bazaar, and Sarkaar. But we must understand that Samaaj is the foundation, Samaaj is the pillar, Samaaj is the first sector, not the third sector, as people sometimes call it. And over centuries, Sarkaar and Bazaar developed in the service of the Samaaj. The Bazaar and Sarkaar evolved as responses to the needs of diverse societies.
We are citizens first, not consumers or subjects of states and kingdoms. The Bazaar and the Sarkaar are set up and are expected to be accountable to the larger needs of Samaaj. So this is the starting point of all my philanthropic work which embeds itself in Samaaj and actors of Samaaj. eGovernments Foundation (eGov) is a Samaaj actor that is working with the Sarkaar and the Bazaar.
Over time, this dynamic between Samaaj, Bazaar, and Sarkaar obviously keeps evolving and shifting, and there have been many tugs. At the heart of everything is always power and power structures. So depending on how power structures are playing out, the fluidity, roles, responsibilities, and strength of these three sectors can keep changing. For example, my lessons from the last century is that both Bazaar and Sarkaar became very powerful and extremely oppressive in many parts of the world. With examples like Mao and Stalin, we have seen how the state began to get very powerful and took over people’s lives, oppressing the Samaaj they should be serving. Post-World War II, as reconstruction was taking place all over the world, capitalism began to advance and make substantial inroads, to the point of even dismantling the Soviet Empire. The markets began to gain an increasing amount of power, which we can see even today. Back then, they called it the military-industrial complex, but the fact is that the market had acquired a lot of power even on the consumer side, affecting the Samaaj. Today we know what is being discussed – how a clutch of transnational corporations, tech companies who represent the market, have pretty much decided how we should think.
An Age of Extremes
The pendulum has swung too far that in many cases during the last century, we have observed the market and the state colluding. When that happens, Samaaj must remain happy with crumbs. So this is really dangerous for Samaaj. And remember, Samaaj is not one homogenous unit. By Samaaj, I mean all the identities. Social identities that we hold, the human identities that we hold, the groupings that we hold, the institutions of society that exist – that’s what I mean by Samaaj.
But today, we are finding that individuals in the Samaaj sector are really subject to enormous forces of the state and the Bazaar. In 25 years, with the Internet and the mobile phone revolution, we saw individual liberties being stretched so far as well. Anybody can do anything they want from anywhere, at any time, and that includes the ability to spew hate and encourage violence, without any accountability. So from Samaaj side there are issues as well.
On the Samaaj side, we have begun to see a response to this kind of accumulation of power, which strangely enough gave individual liberty one last run in these last 25 years. I feel that we are in the middle of a huge societal correction, where we will see some new societal norms being formed around this notion of individual liberty, market power, and state authoritarianism in a digital age. I don’t know where this will lead, but I can see the corrections happening, they look like upheavals right now. Recent advances in technology have led to the fear of the capture of our days, and our hearts, and our minds by the power of the Bazaar through technology and the surveillance state.
Now, while all of this is going on, a lot of other things are happening that are very positive as well. I really don’t believe in black and whites unless I’m fighting with my husband, in which case I always do. But otherwise, a lot of very interesting things are happening in the Samaaj sector in response to this accumulation of power. Because when power accumulates, there’s always a responsive force that tries to pull it back and maintain a dynamic balance. And so you’re seeing the emergence of many civil society actors around the globe who are responding to this accumulation of power by the state and the market. And that is the interesting space in which I work.
Seeing Like a State
This brings me to the reason why this understanding is so crucial when thinking about organizations like eGovernments. I think eGov has done a fantastic job of working on the supply side for urban areas, which was so broken and almost non-existent before. The pioneering teams here did a successful job of coming from good intentions, and were able to gain the trust of the state at all its levels.
eGov was able to understand the political economy and work with the state’s institutions, bureaucrats, administrators, and officials to ensure more transparency, efficiency and accountability. But this was done from inside, behind the walls of the state. In James Scott’s book, Seeing Like a State, he talks about how the state needs to look after equity, since the market is naturally interested in profit. The main responsibility for maintaining equity on behalf of the Samaaj, falls to the state. However, while the state is mandated with the idea of equity, it often is more comfortable with efficiency. This is because efficiency is easy to measure, it is easy to design for, and it is a placeholder for equity. You feel like you’re moving somewhere good when you try to put efficient systems in place. So that’s what James Scott calls “seeing like a state.”
Here, the state looks to organize citizens and issues in a way that is efficient and convenient to deal with. So, you try to create visibility for the state, and not so much for the people. Scott describes many experiments, including Le Corbusier’s work, the collectivization of the farms in China, and similar land experiments in the Soviet Union. He talks about the redesign of agricultural places like Tanzania and scientific forestry in Germany as examples of actions that were designed to create efficiency for the state, but did not always translate into public benefit. Even with the best of intentions, the way the state sees us is very different from how we would like the state to see us. So when eGov is sitting on this side, we have to always keep in mind the original intention of eGov is to genuinely make the state more accountable to the public good in the best way it can. So no matter what all we do from the supply side, if we don’t hold this as a principal value of the design of whatever supply-side work we do, you may end up with unintended consequences.
For example, the Grievance Redressal mechanism, even if it’s designed efficiently, unless it actually works on the ground for citizens, it cannot be called a success. It may function beautifully from the state’s point of view, and it makes bureaucrats work more efficiently, since they can process 1,000 complaints at a time instead of just one. So while it brings efficiency, it may not bring equity, it may not bring well-being on the other side. This is why the lens of the Samaaj is crucial for eGov because you have come very far with bringing supply-side to some point where it understands its accountability, it understands the need for transparency, it understands how technology can transform the needs of the citizen.
So, now we need to identify the actors within Samaaj who can work with eGov to make sure that all the amazing groundwork they’ve been doing for 16 years gets translated into real public good. This might mean going back to the drawing board, to rethink the designs of some systems that are already in place. From the citizen’s side, what are the challenges for them and how can we redesign to their benefit. When we want efficiency, standardizing systems is the most convenient thing to do, but in reality these need to serve a diverse group of people. And if we’re trying to look at Societal Platform Thinking, where the goal is to address complex societal problems, one of the principles of this is to hold on to and cater to that diversity. This applies to the context of eGov as well. Diversity is at the heart of resilience, so if we want to respect and understand the importance of diversity, especially in a place like India, then we have to be willing to design for that diversity at scale.
Diversity At Scale
When we think of designing for diversity at scale, the challenge is figuring out how to standardize change. Cookie cutter standard mechanisms will kill diversity, but if you believe in diversity as a fundamental principle of good design, then you have to design for diversity at scale. Within the Grievance Redressal mechanism, for instance, the diversity of language has been taken care of, but there may be other contextual, cultural things which we might need to redesign for, to make it effective for both state and citizen.
This is what we’ve tried to do at Pratham Books, where we decided it was time an Indian publisher was able to distribute and democratize the joy of reading. We kept this principle of diversity at scale, to unlock the potential of ordinary people who created a whole reading movement for the children of this country. There are 250 million children in India, the total population of many other countries. So how do we unlock the potential of parents, teachers, writers, illustrators, translators, editors, and storytellers, in order to make a movement of people? We did this by creating an open platform, a Creative Commons platform, which allowed everybody to participate, putting a book or a story in every child’s hand.
Since I have left, the next team has done even better. Sometimes you have to leave so that the next creativity can come into an institution. And the next platform, called StoryWeaver, allows anybody, anywhere in the world to write and publish a story, to translate somebody else’s story, and to illustrate somebody else’s story. Of course, the original has to be acknowledged. You can print other people’s stories, you can sell other people’s stories, because once you take greed off the table, once you take certain power ideas off the table, you can unleash public good and creativity. So, tens of millions of children around the world have benefited by unleashing the imaginations of writers, artists, mothers, fathers, and teachers. But all of this comes from the philosophy that the Samaaj must form the base, and the Sarkaar and Bazaar should not oppress them. Instead, they should unleash the potential of Samaaj.
When we think about organizations like eGov, the time has come to shift to the Samaaj side and look at eGov’s work from that lens. We need to strive to not see like a state, but see like a citizen.
For centuries, individualism or the notion that every human individual has intrinsic value has underlined ideas about societal organisation, the economy and justice. Recently, however, the primacy of the individual’s inalienable rights and freedoms has come under immense pressure.
Individualism in the West originated from the Enlightenment. It believes in the moral worth of the individual and that his/ her interests should take precedence over the state or the social group. This birthed laissez faire capitalism, in which the individual is a free market agent.
Western style individualism has had its greatest run since World War 2. Even with large parts of Europe behind the Iron Curtain, and even with China in pre-market mode, the sheer hegemony of the US ensured a bull run for the frontiersman idea of individualism – with the rugged, proud individual at its centre, spinning progress from the unbroken thread of his free will.
Another form of individualism was also at play in those same years, based on the belief system of Mahatma Gandhi and his mentors. Their individualism had spiritual roots. Gandhi recognised that Western style individualism could end up as mere materialism. He saw the individual as an autonomous moral agent, not just someone with the means to fulfil personal desires. The individual’s inviolable human rights are placed at the heart of societal progress. The focus is on the personhood of the last, most vulnerable human being, in whose name state and society would practice their dharma.
The first idea of individualism propelled furious innovation for three centuries. The entrepreneur, the creative artist, the public intellectual generated a global marketplace for ideas, products and services. Arguably, this generated more material prosperity for more people than ever before.
The second idea has driven the largest state and societal intervention of welfare and patronage to various vulnerable groups of individuals. It has been a grand experiment, though not fully realised, to leave each individual with social safety nets, while preserving his dignity and risk taking capacity.
However, over the past decade or more, individualism and the primacy of the individual have been seriously threatened.
There are three key reasons for this. The first is terrorism combined with economic collapse. When 9/11 happened, it changed things overnight, giving the biggest shock treatment to individual agency. People in the US, the absolute stronghold of individualism and libertarianism, had to give up many cherished freedoms and privacies in exchange for the promise of public safety. Then came the financial meltdown of 2008. In its wake, we entered a post-globalisation world, which coincided with the rise of authoritarian regimes that consolidated state power.
In many countries romantic patriotism, where an individual’s love for the country could be expressed as honest criticism, shifted to a harder nationalism of ‘my country, right or wrong’. Dissent was discouraged, and this nudged the independent individual further off the political stage.
The second reason is the rise of the internet giants with their massive social platforms. At first, these appeared to bulwark the primacy of the free individual. The anytime, anywhere, anything consumer was king. The labourer employee was now a self-employed entrepreneur; and the citizen was now a netizen, expressing his opinion around the world.
Unfortunately, individual choice turned out to be an illusion; a shimmering mirage. This was the beginning of what is now feared as surveillance capitalism, where the gig worker remains underpaid and overworked; the consumer is but a packet of data, and his free will can be bent by artificial intelligence. These same technologies also further enabled the surveillance state, shrinking the individual’s rights and privacies at an alarming pace. Even an individual’s vote, his most precious gift in an electoral democracy, has become an object of manipulation.
Third, the world has become even more interdependent. Climate change and air pollution know no borders, and antibiotics resistance respects no boundaries. Bacteria from Africa can make people in America sick. The burning of Indonesian forests can keep Asia gasping for breath.
Now, the Covid-19 pandemic might well be the last nail in the coffin of individualism, unless we are alert. It has quickly led us to surrender personal privileges and submit to the diktat of the state or the decisions of the proximate group – the apartment complex, the village and the city. We have rightly been willing to give up our individual freedoms, because we sense the danger from exercising this freedom willfully.
Frontiersman ideas of individualism stand exposed as we realise just how much our actions impact others.
But we must beware against losing the positive aspects of individualism. We must ensure that the individual identity is not subsumed by a coercive group unaccountable to larger structures or to the rule of law. It is one thing to obey a government order. It is quite another to succumb to resurrected irrational fears, especially of ‘the other’. We are already witnessing the rise of vigilantism, and even mob rule. Fearful villagers ban all outsiders; doctors are prevented from returning to their urban homes; the policeman wields a lathi with impunity.
Such reactions to this pandemic could bring about the end of positive individualism for the foreseeable future. Samaaj must act quickly and creatively to recover the balance between individual agency and the collective good. No man is an island, but let’s not undermine the intrinsic value of every individual human being. It is the foundation for all good societies.
The time has come to align self-interest and public interest in support of the rule of law and constitutional values.
I have often talked about the continuum of sarkaar, samaaj, and bazaar, and why, for a successful society, these three sectors must work together in a fine balance.
Ideally, sarkaar, or the state, should not grab too much power, bazaar, or the market, should not flout the rule of law or appropriate public resources, and vigilantes from the samaaj, or civil society, should not take the law into their own hands.
This requires awareness and active participation from all citizens. After all, we are citizens first; our primary identity is not as a subject of the state or as a consumer for the market. As citizens, how do we then help build a good society?
The bazaar’s interest in the rule of law
There are many interests between samaaj and sarkaar; bazaar and sarkaar; as well as between samaaj and bazaar. For the purpose of this article, we will examine the congruence of interest between samaaj (society) and bazaar (markets). And it starts with the rule of law.
“No business can thrive without social stability outside its gates.”
We all want and need the rule of law to be upheld. In fact the bazaar—or at least the modern corporation as we know it—would not exist if the rule of law had not created the limited liability company 300 years ago. This allowed innovation to flourish over the centuries, and also provided for the absorption of failure, because wherever there is innovation, there is failure. It is because of the rule of law that companies can fail without going under themselves; and therefore, for their own sake, corporations have a great stake in upholding it. They need the enforceability of contracts, protection of property, availability of fair competition, and so on, otherwise they simply cannot function. But even beyond this, they need the law to be upheld by society at large, because no business can thrive without social stability outside its gates.
Civil society and business therefore have more in common than either believe. Sure, in some cases, civil society has to position itself against business interests, when those interests are being deployed unfairly on the ground. For instance, in the case of public goods like water and land commons, or with environmental issues like pollution and contamination, civil society and business knock up against each other. But they also have a common concern—to keep the sarkaar in check.
Keeping the sarkaar in check
State power worldwide tends to accumulate, and it is to the advantage of both business and civil society, to make sure that the state does not abuse its own power.
Many corporations have been subject to the vagaries of state power while running their businesses; excessive discretionary power also adversely affects the climate in which businesses operate. If the alignment of samaaj and bazaar is understood and worked on, it helps restrain the state.
For example, civil society institutions and business corporations might together, or separately, appeal to the state on poorly framed laws. In the recent proposal to criminalise non-compliance of CSR, both samaaj and bazaar would have been adversely affected.
Both successfully voiced strong reservations against it, and it was rolled back.
“We all need good laws, and an independent, impartial, and efficient judiciary to verify the constitutionality of those laws.”
We all need good laws, and an independent, impartial, and efficient judiciary to verify the constitutionality of those laws. We all require equal access to the justice system. We also need effective public institutions that help uphold the rule of law. It is the only way to both empower the bazaar and uphold the rights of the country’s citizens.
The samaaj has an interest in the rule of law as well, as it is critical for addressing access issues, especially for the poor. Civil society organisations (CSOs) representing samaaj are often driven by passion and a commitment to rights and freedoms.
Sometimes, at great personal risk, they go up against the power of the state and corporations, to create campaigns, build institutions, and push for more agency for people who are left out. Civil society must however learn to communicate better the long term benefits of such work to business.
Because, the bazaar itself cannot do this work. Though they benefit indirectly, corporations cannot support or implement politically sensitive programs, and risk the fallout of such action. It would make them vulnerable to all sorts of state action.
But they can certainly do more than what they’re doing at the moment.
With the civil society institutions that they trust and already have a relationship with, they can, and should, give core institutional support to continue work beyond project-based funding. Even if they do just this, it strengthens civil society capacity to take on issues of rights and exclusions that are adjacent to their work on service delivery.
It’s time to take big bets
Swami Vivekananda said, “Take risks in your life. If you win, you can lead, if you lose, you can guide.”
Indian philanthropy doesn’t take enough risk. However, it cannot achieve its potential without risk-taking. It’s good to keep honouring service delivery improvements, but it’s time to look at our society as a whole, and for the philanthropic sector to step up and get into more important areas such as access to justice. And the congruent interest of samaaj and bazaar is exactly why.
From a recent Boston Consulting Group report—‘Total Societal Impact- A New Lens for Strategy’, it’s clear that corporations which align with samaaj’s ideals will be better off in the long run. There is now exhaustive research that shows that the non-financial side of business is linked to its financial side, and that companies that do well when it comes to ESG—environmental, social, and governance issues—also consistently show better results on their bottom line.
Can we—as corporations and philanthropists—pledge that we will no longer do only incremental work, but will try something transformational? The time has come to align self-interest and the public interest in support of the rule of law and constitutional values.
The common within uncommon ground
It doesn’t have to be the state versus civil society, or business versus civil society, or the state versus business. They are not neccessarily antithetical to each other.
Society is successful when it reduces the friction for the three to co-create solutions. And it’s important for all the three sectors to recognise that—to discover the common within the uncommon ground.
It is an especially opportune time for business and civil society to act more creatively from their own, unrecognised common ground. Poised at a new decade, we can together ensure that this country’s solemn promise to itself—to secure liberty and justice, social, economic, and political—for all its citizens, will be met, and met in abundance.