Corporates Should Support the Rule of Law

Corporates Should Support the Rule of Law

January 16, 2020 | CSR

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.

India Development Review

Times of India


Hindustan Times

Hindustan Times PDF

Good laws make good societies: Unfortunately, we now have a spate of excessive legislation that criminalises ordinary citizens

Good laws make good societies: Unfortunately, we now have a spate of excessive legislation that criminalises ordinary citizens

December 13, 2019 | Governance

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.

Times of India


एक दूसरे के साथ बातें करने से स्वस्थ रहते हैं पेड़

एक दूसरे के साथ बातें करने से स्वस्थ रहते हैं पेड़

October 5, 2019 | Environment

परवाह… इस बार त्योहारों में परिवार के साथ उत्सव मनाते हम कुछ वक्त पेड़ों के रोचक दुनिया को भी जानें।

अब ज्यों ही त्योहारों का मौसम आ रहा है, हम इस साल भरपूर मानसून के लिए खुश हो सकते हैं। दुर्भाग्य से कई इलाके ऐसे भी हैं जहां बाढ़ के गंभीर हालात बने। इस देश में हमें अब बदलते वातावरण के साथ अतिवृष्टि और बाढ़ से निपटना सीखना होगा। पेड़ और जंगल इसके बचाव की रणनीति का एक महत्वपूर्ण हिस्सा हैं। ये सूखे महीनों के लिए पानी को इकट्ठा कर रखते हैं और मिट्‌टी का कटाव बचाते हैं। इन दिनों पेड़ और पर्यावरण से जुड़े मुद्दे हर वक्त खबरों में रहते हैं। शहरी भारत की नई पीढ़ी को यह एहसास होने लगा है कि पेड़ उनके स्वास्थ्य और भविष्य के लिए कितने अहम हैं। शायद एक नई ‘चिपको पीढ़ी’ तैयार हो रही है। हाल ही में मुंबई के आरे मिल्क कॉलोनी में पेड़ काटने के विरोध में युवा सड़कों पर उतरे। वह पेड़ जो शायद उस शहर में साफ हवा की आखिरी उम्मीद में से एक हैं। उस शहर की, जिसने पिछले 20 सालों की सबसे खराब एयर क्वालिटी 2018 में झेली है। यह विरोध सालों से चल रहा है। मुझे भरोसा है कि ये लोग जो खुद मेट्रो से चलते हैं, शहरी इंफ्रास्ट्रक्चर की अहमियत समझते हैं, जिसके लिए ये पेड़ काटे जाने हैं। फिर भी, दुनियाभर के युवाओं की तरह ये युवा भी बड़ों से पर्यावरण और विकास के बीच सामंजस्य बैठाने की गुहार लगा रहे हैं। हम जानते हैं कि रियल एस्टेट और मेट्रो के लिए शेड बनाने की कीमत क्या होती है। लेकिन हमारे पास ऐसा कोई तरीका नहीं जिससे एक तंदरुस्त जंगल का मूल्य पता कर सकें। जंगल या पेड़ों को मिनटों में काटा या जलाया जा सकता है, लेकिन उन्हें उगने में कई दशक लग जाते हैं। और लोगों को इसकी असल कीमत वायु प्रदूषण, बढ़ते तापमान जैसी दिक्कतों का सामना कर चुकानी होती है। खासकर मुंबई जैसे तटवर्ती शहरों में पेड़, वेटलैंड्स और मैंग्रोव बाढ़ से जुड़े खतरों से बचाते हैं। इसलिए यह अच्छा साइंस और कॉमनसेंस है कि हम ज्यादा से ज्यादा पेड़ों को बचाएं। क्योंकि हर पेड़ न बचाया जा सकता है न ही बचाया जाना चाहिए।

मुझे हाल में अपने बगीचे में कई पौधे लगाने का मौका मिला। अपने हाथों से पौधा रोपने से जो संतुष्टि मिलती है उसे व्यक्त करना मुश्किल है। और उसकी देखभाल करना तब तक, जब तक वह मजबूत पेड़ न बन जाए ऐसी खुशी देता है जिसे अनुभव ही किया जा सकता है। वास्तव में पेड़ थैरेपी भी दे सकते हैं। जापानी लोग “जंगल स्नान’ करते हैं, जिसे वे शिनरिन-योकू कहते हैं। रिसर्च के मुताबिक इस स्नान से रोग-प्रतिरोधक क्षमता मजबूत और तनाव कम होता है। उनका सुझाव है कि पांचों इद्रियों के साथ महसूस करते हुए जंगल में चलना-बैठना चाहिए। कंक्रीट के जंगलों में रहने को मजबूर दुनियाभर के लोग इसे अपना रहे हैं। पड़ोस का पार्क भी यह उद्देश्य पूरा कर सकता है। वैज्ञानिक पिछले कुुछ सालों में पेड़ों के बारे में बहुत कुछ सीख रहे हैं। नई रोचक रिसर्च से कुछ जानकारियां मिली हैं जिसे अब वुड वाइड वेब कहा जाता है। जिस तरह वर्ल्ड वाइड वेब दुनियाभर के लोगों को जानकारियां साझा करने का जरिया देता है, वैसे ही पेड़ों का अपना जटिल कम्युनिकेशन सिस्टम है, वह भी 4.5 करोड़ साल पुराना। जाहिर तौर पर हम इंसानों के नर्वस सिस्टम की तरह पेड़ों का भी ऐसा कुछ होता है जिसकी मदद से वे एक दूसरे से बात कर सकते हैं, सीख सकते हैं और याद भी रख सकते हैं। पेड़ बैक्टीरिया और फंगस के सहजीवी सिस्टम का इस्तेमाल कर एक दूसरे को खाना और ज्ञान देते हैं। पेड़ों की जड़ों पर मौजूद फंगस उनसे शक्कर लेती हैं और बदले में नाइट्रोजन और फॉस्फोरस के रूप में पोषण देती हैं। पेड़ फंगस के माइकोरिजल नेटवर्क का इस्तेमाल दूसरे जरूरतमंद पेड़ों को खाना देने के लिए करते हैं। वह केमिकल सिग्नल के जरिए शिकारी या आक्रामक प्रजातियों से खतरे की चेतावनी भी भेजते हैं। ताकि वह पेड़ खतरनाक हार्मोन्स या केमिकल्स पैदा कर खतरे से खुद को बचा सकें। जंगल में अचानक आई विपदा जैसे कि वनों की कटाई के वक्त, पेड़ एक दूसरे को तनाव के संकेत भी भेज सकते हैं।

फंगस के जरिए तैयार यह कम्युनिकेशन नेटवर्क जंगल के सिस्टम को तंदरुस्त रखता है। कुछ एक फंगस और पेड़ों के बीच खास रिश्ता होता है। इसलिए ज्यादातर संवाद एक जैसी प्रजाति के बीच होते हैं। इसके बावजूद वह दूसरी प्रजाति के पेड़ों से भी बात कर सकते हैं। रिसर्च में पता चला है कि अलग-अलग प्रजातियों के बीच संवाद से पेड़ों को स्वस्थ और लचीला रहने में मदद मिलती है। शहरों में पेड़ ज्यादातर अकेले रहते हैं। कंक्रीट ढांचों के बीच वह दूसरे पेड़ों से संवाद नहीं कर पाते और उनके फंगल नेटवर्क को भी नुकसान पहुंचता है। जिससे उनकी उम्र और जीवन शक्ति कम हो जाती है। पेड़ उगाने के अभियानों में शामिल शहरी लोगों के लिए यह समझना और याद रखना बेहद जरूरी है। वह एक प्रजाति के पेड़ों को समूह में लगाएं और उनके बीच की मिट्‌टी को अतिक्रमण से मुक्त रखें।

हमारे भाग्य को पेड़ों से अलग नहीं किया जा सकता। उन्हें जीने के लिए जरूरत है स्वस्थ इकोसिस्टम की और हमें जिंदा रहने के लिए दरकार है स्वस्थ पेड़ों की। वह ऑक्सीजन देते हैं, कॉर्बन सोख लेते हैं, मिट्‌टी का कटाव रोक, पानी सहेजते हैं। इन सब जगजाहिर जानकारियों के अलावा हमें अब ये भी पता चला है कि पेड़ों को फंगल नेटवर्क की जरूरत होती है इसलिए मनुष्य को भी है। इसलिए हमें पेड़ों की जड़ों पर रहनेवाले विविध जीवों को बचाना होगा। यह जानकारी हमारे लिए कवच सी है। क्योंकि नई पीढ़ी ने बीड़ा उठाया है खुद को सेहतबख्श कर प्राकृतिक दुनिया को सेहतबख्श करने के चुनौतीपूर्ण काम का। यह शुरुआत है भारत में लंबे त्योहारों वाले मौसम की। कोई भी त्योहार पेड़ों से मिले उत्पादों के बिना अधूरा है। आम के पत्ते, नारियल, फूल, फल या सोने की पत्ती के नाम से महाराष्ट्र में दशहरे पर बांटी जानेवाली पत्तियां। क्यों न इस साल देवी देवताओं को नमन करते हुए या फिर परिवार के साथ उत्सव मनाते हम कुछ वक्त माइकोरिजल नेटवर्क के बारे में सोचें। उस जीव के बारे में जो पेड़ों की जड़ों पर मौजूद है। आखिरकार, त्योहार और दस्तूर बने ही हैं हमारी पवित्र भावना को तरोताजा करने और धरती पर जीवन के इस जटिल जाल से अपने गहरे संबंधों को दोबारा जोड़ने के लिए।

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Closing Keynote | Strategic Non-Profit Management India | 2019

Closing Keynote | Strategic Non-Profit Management India | 2019

July 26, 2019 | Philanthropy

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 Philanthropyat Ashoka University.

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), the samaaj must come first. Bazaar and sarkaar were created to serve the samaaj. The samaaj includes all of us, and it has simply created the bazaar to serve its economic interests and the sarkaar to serve equality to all people, on a large scale.

However, over the centuries, the other two sectors – 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’s crucial that we understand the implications of the accumulation of power by the state and markets. In our hearts, we are citizens first, before consumers or subjects of the state. So we need social organisations that protect the wellbeing of the samaaj, and hold the bazaar and sarkaar accountable.

Balancing the Scales

Both the bazaar and the sarkaar have become 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’s accumulating 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.

What we really need in the social sector, is a mechanism of checks and balances, to hold these powers accountable to society. Today, civil society has an especially critical role in ensuring that the state increases equity, along with efficiency, and that markets are responsible while increasing profitability. Both the state and the market have also recognized that they cannot achieve success on their own, without the cooperation of the samaaj. Human problems are so interconnected today, that the state and the market are quite open to the intervention of civil society in many areas.

However, there are other 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 don’t get talked 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 being distorted.

It’s therefore important for all of us in the social sector to ensure we play a balancing role. While the state and the markets have been remarkably successful at achieving scale, whether the social sector can achieve that has always been a bit doubtful. Sometimes, I wonder if being unable to scale is a failure of imagination on our part. After all, Mahatma didn’t just try to improve the lives of people in the Porbandar District. He wasn’t just trying to improve the lot of all of the citizens of India. Rather, he was trying to transform humanity at its core. His imagination was that big and nothing would come in the way. The trade-off for our independence was not going to be sacrificing our humanity –that was the scale of his imagination.

Vinoba Bhave is another example that comes to mind. 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. That’s how these stalwarts achieved scale, because of the scale of their imagination and their intent to affect change on that level. I wonder if the social sector now has lost a bit of that zeal for imagination. We all belong to the tribe of Gandhi, Vinoba, 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

Clearly, the motivation for scale is different in the 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, Imandari to people. So when our goal is different from the market or the state, it’s clear that we can’t think of scale in the same way that they do.

Over the last 30 years, Nandan and I have been working in very different fields. Nandan has been a successful entrepreneur with Infosys, managing to get some 1.3 billion people another kind of system, as well as doing philanthropic work. I have been working within the social sector, helping individual institutions and ideas spread and grow. Through our work, the goal was to create more public goods in the public sphere, but we’ve also failed a lot in this regard. This is because it’s far easier to make a profitable company or a successful state, than it is to create real, lasting social change. Many wealthy philanthropists I’ve met have expressed the same feeling. They start out assuming that if they can create a successful business, why not a great social sector organisation? But when they actually try it, they find just how hard it is to create scale in the social sector. So 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. We both have different but complementary approaches to achieving this, and through the years, we have developed something called Societal Platform Thinking. When we are trying to solve complex, interdependent societal problems, we have to be careful how we go about doing this. 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’ve learned is that however great a certain solution might be, if our aim is to solve at the root cause level and scale, just pushing one solution down the pipeline will not work. We have to design to distribute the ability to solve. This means that you need to implicitly trust people, and trust in their ability to be part of the solution. It becomes a question of design, where people need to see clearly, and be trusted to get involved in coming up with solutions.
The other thing that we learnt over time is that resources like money, people, talent, etc. are hard to come by. So many things, in terms of public goods, are hard to come by when you’re trying to scale something. 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. Sometimes there is abundance under your nose, it just exists in different forms. For example, if we think about education, it’s very difficult to find professional, competent teachers. But if we look at the system, there are parents, and para-teachers in abundance. So now the question becomes how to involve them as part of the solution?

Most of the problems that we need to scale for are contextual. The solution that might work in one place, might not work 100 kilometres down the road. There is a lot of diversity in India, and therefore pushing just one cookie-cutter solution won’t work. So how do you design to scale up diversity? How will your solutions work for 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. There’s no use having a completely disparate kind of structure. It has to be unified but not uniform, so that you can achieve this contextual diversity at scale, which is necessary in a country like ours.

To ensure this, you need a digital tech backbone to distribute the ability to solve because you need multi-directional feedback loops. You need data coming in, not just being delivered at one end, but moving around all the streams so that people can use the data. But while technology is needed, we have learnt that you have to be technology-enabled. If you’re technology-led, you tend to make a lot mistakes about outcome thinking, because technology-led solutions can give you 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. That’s important to keep in mind, because people today can get carried away thinking that the technology is the solution.

These are the kind of building blocks we are using at EkStep to design, to reach those 200 million people. We’re working with the state, and civil society, and the markets, to move the needle to reach those kids. So in the social sector, when we are thinking of scale, we need this kind of societal platform thinking, these social innovation labs where we can generate ideas, and more importantly, we can fail and learn from them.

Taking Risks and Embracing Failure

We all fail, but what’s important is that we are not afraid of failure. I think a lot about Gandhi, and how one of the reasons he went to South Africa was because he had failed as a lawyer. That failure launched a transformational epoch for humanity. Clearly, it’s how we deal with that failure that matters. Social innovation labs allow for that, that pull and push of failing, getting up, failing again, and succeeding.

However, in this sector, it’s very hard for us to acknowledge failure. Philanthropists are very risk averse. Most philanthropists are very successful in business, and they’ve taken huge risk to get there. But often, 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 organisations, it’s very hard to tell your donors that you’ve failed, but still need more money from them as well.

However, it’s time that we create spaces and platforms where donors, foundations, and members of civil society organizations come together and destigmatise this notion of failure. The question should now become how we do deal with failure, so that we can keep innovating? When we think about scale, we need failure, because without failure, there’s no innovation, and without innovation, there’s no solution for scale. So fear of failure may also lead to fear of scaling, and I think we are stuck somewhere in that fear. We should strive for platforms where donors and civil society organizations can meet in a safe space to talk about these things.

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 techno-phobic, 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, 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 the sarkaar and bazaar accountable. 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 all this, the motivation for our work is to restore dignity and agency to people. Roosevelt once said, “Look to the stars, but keep your feet on the ground,” and I think that’s what we should keep in mind when we think about scaling our work, especially in the philanthropy sector.

How Samaaj Impacts the way in Which Sarkaar and Bazaar Work

How Samaaj Impacts the way in Which Sarkaar and Bazaar Work

July 22, 2019 | Governance

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. Through reading extensively and talking to people, especially at the grassroots level, I have tried to create a certain philosophy for myself through which to view the world. This theory is fairly simple – that there is a continuum of samaaj, bazaar, and sarkaar. But we must understand that samaaj is the foundation on which this system is built. It is not the third sector, as some people call it, but the first sector. Bazaar and sarkaar were simply created to serve the samaaj. The markets and state evolved as responses to the needs of diverse societies, and over the centuries, bazaar and sarkaar have developed from simple management systems, in order to serve the evolving samaaj.

We are citizens first, not consumers or subjects of states and kingdoms. The bazaar and the sarkaar are therefore accountable to the larger needs of samaaj. This is the starting point of all my philanthropic work, and eGov is similarly a samaaj actor first, that is simply working with the sarkaar and the bazaar. As time progresses, this dynamic between samaaj, bazaar, and sarkaar will obviously keep evolving and shifting. But at the heart of it all lies power and power structures, with the potential to pull things out of balance.

Depending on how power structures play out, the fluidity, roles, responsibilities, and strength of these three sectors keep changing. In the last century, both bazaar and sarkaar have become very powerful and extremely oppressive in many parts of the world. With examples like Mao and Stalin, we have seen how the sarkaar can literally take 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 have seen how a group of transnational corporations, tech companies who represent the market, have pretty much decided how we should think and feel.

An Age of Extremes

The pendulum has swung too far on either side. In many cases during the last century, we have observed the market and the state colluding. When that happens, the samaaj must be happy with crumbs. The power of the state and market combined is really detrimental to the samaaj. Additionally, the samaaj is not one homogenous unit, and therefore not as united in their goals as the sarkaar or the bazaar. We’re living in an age of extremes, where the mobile phone revolution has seen individual liberties being stretched too far as well. Anybody can do anything they want from anywhere, at any time, which includes the ability to spew hate and encourage violence, without any accountability. So there are issues within the samaaj as well.

On the samaaj side as well, we have seen a response to this kind of accumulation of power, which strangely enough gave individual liberty one last run in these last 25 years. With access to a mobile phone and a computer, you can do absolutely anything, connect to anyone, anytime, anywhere, including all the negative fallout that we are seeing today. We are in the middle of a huge societal correction, where we will see new societal norms being formed around this notion of individual liberty, market power, and state authoritarianism in a digital age. It’s unclear where this will lead, but the corrections happening right now look like upheavals. Recent advances in technology make me fear the power of bazaar and the surveillance state.

While all of this is going on, there is a pushback as well. When power accumulates, there’s always a responsive force that tries to pull it back, and maintain a dynamic balance. A lot of interesting things are happening in the samaaj sector in response to this accumulation of power. We’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 organisations like eGov. I think eGov has been very successful, working on the supply side for urban areas, which was pretty non-existent before. The team did a fantastic job of gaining the trust of the state at all levels, and understanding the political economy in order to work with the state’s institutions, bureaucrats, and administrators to ensure more 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.

Scott argues that this is “seeing like a state,” i.e. wanting to organise citizens and issues in a way that is efficient and convenient to deal with. So the impetus is to create visibility for the state, rather than to serve its citizens. Scott describes many experiments, including Le Corbusier’s work, the collectivization of the farms in China, and similar land experiments in the Soviet Union, 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 the original intention of eGov was to make the state more accountable to the public and to acts of public good. No matter what we achieve from the supply side, if we don’t hold this as a principal value of the work being done, we may end up with negative 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. However, it may not serve the samaaj well enough or be as focussed on maintaining equity. This is why the lens of the samaaj is crucial for eGov. So now we need to identify the actors within the 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. They need to be at the centre to figure out what are the challenges for them and how can we redesign to their benefit. While in terms of efficiency, standardizing systems is the most convenient thing to do, in reality these need to serve a diverse group of people. 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? We did this by creating a Creative Commons platform, which allowed everybody to participate, putting a book or a story in every child’s hand.
After I left, the team went on to create other things such as the platform called StoryWeaver, which 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. 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 organisations 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 like a citizen.