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.