It was only in 2007, a full 15 years after I started working in the civic sector, that I had a fortunate encounter that helped crystallise these early experiences into a philosophy and action framework. It all began with a conversation on a bumpy four-hour car ride from Patna to Khagaria district in Bihar. Sunita Nadhamuni, CEO of Arghyam, Eklavya Prasad of Megh Pyne Abhiyan, and I had landed at the Patna airport on the evening of 15th April, 2007. We were on a field visit to Bihar for eight days to see the work of Arghyam’s partners.
Our flight had been delayed considerably and Sunita’s bags had not arrived, which led to an impromptu stop at a generator-lit shopping strip nearby. So, when we started on our journey to Khagaria district it was already dark. However, our amiable host, Prem Kumar Varma of our local CSO partner Samata, assured us it was fine and off we went in the sturdy Scorpio taxi. On the way, Premji, as he is widely known, regaled us with many stories from the Sampoorna Kranti (Total Revolution) movement spearheaded by Jayaprakash Narayan, to the state of contemporary Bihar, its desperate poverty, and the then highly active Naxalite movement.
“Just yesterday,” he said, “Maoists had clashes with villagers; homes were lit and trashed; and dozens were killed.”
“Er, where was this?” asked Sunita nervously. “I’ll show you tomorrow, that’s where we are headed now,” he replied sanguinely.
It was during this memorable drive that Premji shared his core understanding of contemporary India and the power shifts that had taken place over the years. “In the good old days, Samaaj used to be on top. In some sense, the Sarkaar was below it, even in kingdoms and fiefdoms, as the representatives of the Sarkaar would carry out Samaaj-related functions and Samaaj had its own strong organisational structure. The Bazaar was well below the Sarkaar,” he opined.
Although I was not sure about his theory of ‘the good old days’, we listened in fascination as the Scorpio ate up the miles and the dust. Behind us, loaded trucks and petrol tankers blared their horns on the national highway, their headlights blinding us all.
“During the British Raj, the Sarkaar climbed up to the top of this triad,” he continued. “Samaaj was forcefully pushed to second place and the Bazaar stayed at the bottom. Post-Independence, this continued, but with a nascent struggle between Samaaj and Bazaar. Bazaar was trying to get closer to the Sarkaar. People had been left pauperised and weak. After globalisation and liberalisation, the reversal is now complete,” Premji declared.
“The Bazaar has managed to move past Samaaj and even Sarkaar. Now Bazaar is on top, Sarkaar is in the middle and Samaaj is in third place. That leaves Samaaj completely shoshit (exploited), unable even to defend and help itself.”
Premji’s story and this framework of the Samaaj, Sarkaar, and Bazaar had a powerful impact on me. Five days later, I experienced another poignant moment when I visited Bhitiharwa, Gandhiji’s first ashram in India, and stood in tears in front of a plaque with my grandfather’s name. It was exactly 90 years since my grandfather, Babasaheb Soman, had joined Gandhiji there in 1917, leaving his work and family to join the Champaran agitation. And over the next few days, as we witnessed the deep poverty of the people, the flood economy, the latent violence of the Naxalite movement, the brutal response of the state, and the early signs of big business making inroads into Bihar,
I had a lot of time to let Premji’s words sink in. When I returned, I started to do my own reading on the changing relationships and power equations between these three sectors. I started to develop and refine this framing, which has since become the cornerstone of my work. I owe a great debt to Premji for setting me off on this journey.
Around the same time, another one of my mentors, Anupam Mishra, who was then the Director of The Gandhi Peace Foundation and an expert on traditional water conservation practices, had also inspired me to see the power of Samaaj in a new light. An incredible storyteller, he would regale us at Arghyam with tales from the pre-colonial era, when communities, especially in water-scarce geographies, had developed ingenious ways to conserve and share precious water resources.
The real work ahead, he would say, was to restore the confidence of people in their own abilities to manage key natural resources.
He spent years documenting traditional rainwater harvesting practices in Rajasthan. Along with many protégées like Farhad Contractor, he demonstrated how, with very few resources, it was possible to bind Samaaj together with an inclusive vision and a practical action plan. He guided the collective action needed to conserve every drop of the scanty rainfall that fell over the land.
One fascinating custom they helped revive was the laash. This is a tradition where villagers invite neighbours from surrounding villages to help complete a public project such as digging a water body, with their shramdaan (labour as a gift). These reciprocal events were always replete with a feast courtesy of the host village, and much merriment after the work was done.
The laash system was the key to community harmony, resilience, and sustainability. Anupamji’s narrative always rescued hope from the tyranny of despair. It led us to understand how communities could take back the locus of control and how Samaaj could reclaim its rightful space, which had too often been yielded to the Sarkaar or the Bazaar.
I was also lucky to have friends like Rajni Bakshi, the Gandhian scholar and author of books like Bapu Kuti: Journeys in Rediscovery of Gandhi and Bazaars, Conversations and Freedom. For years, we had been talking almost daily about issues of Samaaj, individual action, and eco-political life. Slowly, under the guidance of many experts like her, Arghyam began to root itself in a new understanding.
Here’s just one example from the many innovations Arghyam was able to back – together with hydrologists and other scientists, we supported communities across India to practice Participatory Ground Water Management (PGWM).xiv Our CSO partners helped make invisible ground water visible, and trained village communities to understand local aquifers and develop sound processes to use the finite, though renewable, water more sustainably.
Slowly but surely, many models developed across the diverse hydro-geologies around the country. And the PGWM mandate found its way into policy documents for water management at all levels of the state. Together, we had found a way to work with Samaaj to influence the Sarkaar.
This people-first, society-first approach began to infuse all aspects of my philanthropy over the next few years. As I went beyond Arghyam and water, to support issues of access to justice, gender equity, independent media, active citizenship, and the environment, it became increasingly clear to me that strengthening Samaaj in all its facets was critical in my quest for the good society that I wanted to be a part of. So, we looked for the best ideas, individuals, and institutions that were working to resolve social issues from within society itself.
We looked for leaders who were passionate, committed, and of high integrity – and we found so many. Importantly, no matter which sector we work in or support, the single thread that unites it all is the desire to build a strong, resilient Samaaj.
Today in many societies around the world, there has been rapidly escalating economic inequality, with the staggering rise in the wealth of the top 1%, ironically even during the pandemic. This has invited a rethink on the role and responsibility of wealth. I believe no Samaaj can tolerate the rise of such wealth for too long, unless such wealth creation is seen and believed to be acting in the public or national interest.
Charity and strategic philanthropy can both play a critical role in mitigating some inequity. In fact, civil society organisations depend on the moral imagination of the privately wealthy to carry out their societal work. In India, there has long been a tradition of giving forward, but the wealthy can and need to do far more.
A healthy Samaaj requires such corrections by private citizens, when an imbalance in the Sarkaar and Bazaar creates too much personal wealth in too few hands. It is with this in mind that we give forward from what we have been given.
Excerpted with permission from Samaaj, Sarkaar, Bazaar: A Citizen-First Approach, written by Rohini Nilekani, (© Rohini Nilekani, 2022), published under a CC BY 4.0 licence at https://www.samaajsarkaarbazaar.in.