Rohini Nilekani’s keynote talk on Samaaj and Bazaar: Congruence over Divergence at Dasra Philanthropy Week 2019 in Mumbai. We often set up Civil Society (Samaaj) and Markets (Bazaar) as opposing binaries. In this talk, Rohini proposes that they have more in common and more to gain, collectively, in collaborating to uphold the Rule of Law. What’s good for justice is good for everyone.
I’m so sorry I’ve come back again to this stage, but some of you were not here yesterday. And to those who were here yesterday, I promise I’m going to say something new. First, again, to say thank you to the staff. You’re all here because of them. And as I said yesterday, it’s the one institution that has lasted and has created some kind of ecosystem improvement at scale. Neera, that was such a touching speech. I think we should give Neera, Deval, and Dasra a hand.
And I am very proud to be associated with them. Many of you have heard me talk a lot about the continuum of samaj, bazaar, sarkar, which is state, civil society, and markets, and how for a successful society, all these three have to work in fine balance, and that actually the base of it all is the samaj. If you don’t have good… So civil society institutions, moral Leadership, collective action by citizens, you simply cannot hold the bazaar, the markets, and sarkar, the state to account for the larger interest, public interest, and we have seen in history repeatedly that the bazaar can become too powerful and oppressive or the sarkar can become too powerful and oppressive. And my philosophy and my philanthropy… In life itself is how do we all together create a successful society by being the best citizens we can be? Because we are citizens first, we are not subjects of the state first, we are not consumers for the market first, we are citizens, and we are duty bound for our own sake to help build out that good society. I’m sure you heard all this before.
But today I’m gonna talk about the congruence of interest between the samaj that is society, and bazaar that is the market. So, it all starts with the rule of law, right? We all want the rule of law to be upheld, and in fact the bazaar, the modern corporation as we know it would not even exist if rule of law had not created the limited liability company from 300 years ago, and whoever wrote that is going to go down as a hero in history, we don’t quite know the origins of that. But because of that it has allowed tremendous innovation to flourish in 300 years, and also allowed for the absorption of failure, because wherever there is innovation, there is failure. So companies can fail without going under themselves because of the rule of law.
So for their own sake the bazaar sector, corporations have a great self-interest in upholding rule of law. They need the enforceability of contracts, otherwise they simply cannot function. So for their own sake, the bazaar very much needs rule of law to be upheld. But even outside its gates, the bazaar needs to up… The rule of law to be upheld in society at large, because no business can thrive without social stability outside its gates. We all know the cost. I won’t go into it. We know the cost in India of riots. We know the cost in India of bandhs. We know the cost in India of lynchings. We know the cost in India of several deeply dark social unrest that has taken place in this country from time to time.
We know what happens when the ultra-left Maoist actually stop businesses from going into areas, which could do so much better with economic development. So it is very clear that outside their gates too bazaar has a deep interest in a socially just environment. And samaj spends a lot of its time, institutions of the samaj, many of which are in this room today, civil society organizations driven by passion, driven by commitment, driven by a clear political understanding of what we just said that as Martin Luther King puts it always so eloquently that “injustice anywhere is prevent… Let me just quote him absolutely “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” It is a very powerful quote. And many civil society organizations, human rights organizations, those who look at issues of access to justice truly believe this, and a great personal risk sometimes coming up against the State, coming up against the power of corporations, they go out and create institutions, Moral Leadership, and access to people who would otherwise be left out.
Now corporations can’t do that. So the point is, this is a point which I think most of us understood, but it’s not articulated enough. Corporations cannot go out and uphold the rule of law and take that kind of risk themselves. Civil society can and does, but the case I’m therefore making that there is much more congruence between civil society organizations and corporations than is understood or articulated.
Let’s take some examples. Nike for example had terrible labor practices as we almost have read, and many, many civil society organizations put a lot of pressure on Nike to improve its labor practices. It actually took that on as a challenge. And you can please go ahead and read about it. But it did serious efforts along the whole supply chain to make sure that nowhere, not just in its own gates, but in the gates of its contractors or anyone else, that labor practices were steadily improved. There’s no such thing as perfection, but they kept on evolving. And today, Nike is known for having done that. Similarly with other companies in the world. The beverage companies had to go through a lot of internal processes. Coca-Cola, Nestle, and they’ve reached a point where they’ve actually promised the world, that in eight more years they will reduce 90% of their single-use plastic, and we have to hold them to it.
The Greenpeace for example, to take. Greenpeace has always been fighting, and known as an activist organization. But many corporations which has worked with them understood that that activism is actually good for them inside their… Even for their profitability. And many of them have aligned actually with Greenpeace’s goals. A small example Ananth in the room was just telling me is that when he was in Greenpeace, and they started a campaign in Bangalore for e-waste, against e-waste being just dumped here and there. And they tried to help it get streamlined. Companies like Wipro enforces all the techy companies in India actually. First thought these people were… What are they saying? “We do such a good job.” But then they began to align behind it. And in fact, became the leaders of sustainability, not just in Bangalore, but in the country. So the point I’m making is if you open our eyes to it, there’s a very clear alignment between these two sectors.
I would say, yesterday the Bain philanthropy report said it’s time to up the game. I’m here to say it really is time to up the game. Indian philanthropy is still not taking enough risk and what’s the use of philanthropy without risk? It’s very good to keep honoring service delivery improvement, but it’s time to look at our society as a whole, and for the philanthropy sector to step up and get into more slightly risky and ideal areas such as access to justice. And I just outlined why.
Not only does samaj and bazaar have a serious alignment on this issue, it also helps them to make sure that the State does not abuse its own power. Many corporations… I bet people in this room have been subject to the abuse of State power in running their own businesses. And as citizens, sometimes I feel when we wake up in the mornings, we have already broken three Indian laws because we have so many laws and they’re written so poorly. So, if this alignment is understood and worked on, it also helps curb the excessive power of the State. I’m not talking about any particular government though some governments can be worse than others, but it is the truth that all power will be abused when it can be. It is up to the balance that we drive that can prevent that.
There is a lot of opportunity for philanthropy and existing civil society organizations to move further into the space of upholding the rule of law, upholding constitutional values, because all of us need, all of us as citizens, as samaj sector people, as civil society organization, all of us need well-written laws. All of us need equal access to caution to the justice system. All of us need an independent, impartial, and efficient judiciary. All of us need effective public institutions that help uphold this rule of law and empower the bazaar and the citizens of this country to live as they want to live.
BCG has been doing this work on total societal impact. And you can look up their report, but it has become very clear. And there’s been a lot of research on this, that the non-financial side of business is very linked to the financial side of business. And they’ve repeatedly shown through exhaustive research that those companies that also do good when it comes to ESG, which is the environmental and social issues of this world, consistently are also showing that they do better in the long run on their bottom line. So, there’s a real convergence of interest in this.
And this is my plea to all of us, to commit ourselves that we will, like I said yesterday, it’s time to take big bets to pledge that we will no longer do just incremental work, but that we will try to do something disruptive and transformational. Today, I am saying we should move forward and take the risk of working in this whole area of rule of law and constitutional values, because the time has come.
I’m gonna leave you with a quote from Frederick Douglass, “Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is organized to oppress and rob or degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe.” I’m not suggesting we’re at that stage at all, but I’m suggesting it is we who could make sure that this country’s promise of independence will be met, and met in abundance. I say again, let’s take a pledge to ourselves that we will work. Here we are with Dasra in the philanthropy sector. Dasra is going to open up a whole portfolio on these issues of justice, of system reform in the justice sector, upholding the rule of law, allowing access to all people to the same things that you and I take for granted every day. I think it is an important time for this country to do this. And I hope we can all do it together. I think we can. I know I will. Thank you very much.