Recently, unseasonal rains flooded the city of Bengalaru. Visuals of privileged citizens living in upscale independent bungalows, riding tractors to get away from their inundated spaces, as their luxury cars lay submerged in the water, flooded our phones. Delhi is choking. As I write this, there are alarming newspaper reports of the rise in pollution levels in Pune where I live, and how complacency is sure to lead to a catastrophe. It’s glaring that if Sarkaar has to tackle this, it can do so only with the support of Samaaj.
We are aware that climate change or saving water or a city’s poor infrastructure are not other people’s problems. Nor are they the lookout of only the Sarkaar. To effect a change we, the Samaaj, need to shed our laxity, roll up our sleeves and take action. This is the earnest appeal that author and philanthropist, Rohini Nilekani makes in her book, ‘Samaaj Sarkaar Bazaar: a citizen-first approach’.
As citizens, we are so used to the secondary status accorded to us by those we elect to power that not only have we become cynical, we are also conditioned to believe that action on our part is either insignificant, or too onerous or futile. But the pandemic proved otherwise. During the migrant exodus forced by the sudden nationwide lockdown, we witnessed the opening of doors and hearts. Strangers came out in large numbers to help the migrants, leveraging technology for good. Such incidents have convinced the author that it is possible for a strong, resilient and active Samaaj to play the most important role keeping the other two–Sarkaar and Bazaar–accountable to public interest, notwithstanding the fact that the past century has seen Sarkar and Bazaar accumulate vast powers. Rohini also acknowledges that while the digital age has “enhanced the opportunity for mass civic engagement, it has also made empty clicktivism an easy replacement for true action.” Her optimism stems from her vast experience—more than 30 years in civil society and philanthropy.
The book is a compilation of Rohini’s articles, interviews, and speeches, and has been self-published under a Creative Commons license that enables people to download it freely, read and share it forward, and further the discourse on the roles of Society, State and Markets. Rohini concedes that “with a subject like this which encompasses all human interplay, there is a high likelihood of generalization, oversimplification, reduction and the exclusion of vital historical trends”. She emphasises that she writes as a concerned citizen and not as a scholar.
In the introduction, Rohini narrates a heart-rending account of losing dear friends to a horrendous car accident on the Bangalore-Chennai highway, which took their unborn daughter and orphaned their three-year-old son. This unnecessary loss created a searing impact on her and moved her enough to want to do something to improve road safety, which led in 1992 to the launch of a public charitable trust called Nagarik, with the tagline, ‘For Safer Roads’. This experience taught her many early lessons. With the founding of Arghyam and Pratham Books, and her involvement in several other philanthropic institutions, Rohini gained tremendous learning.
I confess that when I began reading the book, my hard-boiled cynicism refused to yield to the optimism and can-do approach in the book. As I read further, the earnestness, the conviction that is born out of hands-on experience, the author’s trailblazing initiatives, the concrete results, the significant changes brought about thereof, and the never-say-die spirit that remains intact despite reality checks and setbacks, began making a slow but sure dent in my obstinate stance that the author’s vision was utopian. Therein probably lies the problem with Samaaj. We have forgotten to dream. Very few of us are driven to act. By settling for our subordinate status as citizens, and probably intimidated by the effort required to drive a change, we have begun to perceive the achievable as a pipe dream.
Rohini knows that her views are idealistic, but she asserts that “we can move inexorably towards the magnificent goal with a feeling of hope and belief that all our actions, however small, like little drops of water – will eventually create the ocean”.
By working on our trust deficit aided by civil society organisations, by creating more safe spaces for people to talk across their divides, by creating mechanisms for the three sectors to work together, by taking that one step forward, we can move towards “ever greater inclusion, ever more dignity, choice and freedom”. What’s more, it can be done in a way that is balanced, sustainable and deeply human.
Archana Pai Kulkarni is the Books Editor at SheThePeople. The views expressed are the author’s own.