This is an edited version of the Charcha 2021 plenary session focusing on the role of the three pillars – government, business and civil society – in enabling India’s development. The participants discuss the major challenges faced by each sector, the key points of intersection, and how the collaboration between Samaaj, Sarkaar, and Bazaar can be strengthened. The panelists included Amitabh Kant, the then CEO of NITIi Aayog, and Renu Sud Karnad, Managing Director of HDFC.
As we have seen through the pandemic, the first responders have been from the citizen sector, and at the end of it – whether it’s Mr. Amitabh Kant, who’s sitting in the government or Ms. Renu Karnad, who’s sitting in the corporate sector – all of us are citizens first, and we all strive in our own ways to build a good society. I think the main point now is how to get the Samaaj sector to be heard loud and clear by Sarkaar and Bazaar? I’ve always said since I began this work, that in this continuum of Samaaj, Bazaar, and Sarkaar, Samaaj is really the first sector. It is for Samaaj to do better that we have the Sarkaar and Bazaar. Therefore, eventually there have to be systems of accountability in Samaaj, so that the Sarkaar and Bazaar are actually working on behalf of Samaaj. Somehow over this century, that has turned topsy-turvy and we must restore the balance. There is absolutely no doubt that we need the Sarkaar and the Bazaar, we cannot do without them. But how can we reduce the friction to collaborate between these three sectors?
Amitabh Kant points out that the golden triangle of government, markets, and civil society is not a new concept. Over the years, the consensus has evolved around the fact that neither the unregulated markets nor a Sarkaar that tries to do everything is desirable for achieving the ends of social justice. We need true synergy between all the three elements to address the challenging development issues. He says that the government has been attempting to achieve convergence of action between all relevant stakeholders and that has been the key guiding force in starting out the development trajectory. In his view, Samaaj, Sarkaar and Bazaar are often perceived as having conflicting motivations, however Sarkaar and Bazaar are subsets of Samaaj, and without this crucial third pillar, both Sarkaar and Bazaar would face a crisis.
Understanding the needs of Samaaj should be our first order of business. It is around these needs that the objective of Sarkaar and Bazaar ought to be aligned. He mentions NITI Aayog’s Aspirational Districts Programme, which identifies the aspiration of Samaaj among some of the most backward districts in India. Using the business principle which is robust monitoring and a sense of competition with rankings of the districts in the public domain, they have seen a radical transformation. A similar exercise was done with the rankings of states for sustainable development goals. At NITI Aayog, he says that they are fully convinced of the need for behavioral change in a very targeted manner and hope to usher in a paradigm of behaviourally-informed policy-making in India.
Amitabh believes that the more rules, regulation, procedures, and paperwork that is removed, the easier citizen’s lives and livelihoods will be. He says that the Sarkaar can and should only be tasked with providing the bare necessities – roads, drinking water, housing, and learning outcomes. The Bazaar has to step in to bring investment, identify opportunities, leverage its expertise, and create space for the demand to unleash itself and Samaaj will inevitably respond. During the pandemic, civil society organizations played a very key and critical role in providing food and livelihood to the citizens of India and created a mass movement of support by partnering with local administrations and panchayats, he says. Therefore, if the government wants to achieve success in better implementation of its schemes, it has to partner with civil society organizations and nonprofits.
The Need for Technological Solutions
Coming from the housing sector, Renu Karnad believes that housing is one of the most basic needs for people. By 2030, we will see about 600 million Indians living in cities. This will result in various challenges of land shortage, strain on infrastructure, health, water, and sanitation, but the biggest challenge will be housing. So we need the Sarkaar and Bazaar, as well as technological solutions to get these services at the cheapest possible way to consumers in an easy and accessible manner. She gives the example of the CLSS scheme where people with a certain level of income are able to get a substantial subsidy to buy their own home. She says that this has triggered such an interest that HDFC itself has seen close to two and a half lakh borrowers benefiting from it. This is a classic example of how the Sarkaar can use financial institutions and involve the private sector to solve for societal problems. She also suggests that more funds like the SWAMIH fund be set up to make the affordable housing segment move and allow people to buy homes, as well as a reduction in stamp duty. One of the best things that the Sarkaar did was ensure financial institutions gave people time to recoup and recover during the pandemic, in the form of moratoriums on payments and restructuring loans. Renu argues technology is one of the ways to stitch the three sectors together, giving the example of the Jan Dhan Yojana.
Agreeing with her, Amitabh states that we need to innovate in terms of technology so that we can ensure that benefits reach the common people. Technology has to be the big level jumper across the board, and digitalization has been pushed by the government across sectors. Recalling his time in the fisheries sector in Kerala, Amitabh says that opening bank accounts for traditional fishermen was a nightmare, whereas now you’re able to open a bank account instantly using biometrics. When he started his career, government schemes used to transfer money from the central government to the state governments, and from there to panchayats and therefore there was a huge amount of leakage. With technology, they have been able to leapfrog and transfer funds directly to beneficiaries, providing millions of Indians with immediate assistance. The goal is to make citizens’ lives easier.
He personally believes that the only way India can grow on a sustained basis for three decades or more, is if we use technology to leapfrog. India is very data-rich but we have to make ourselves data intelligent and use the power of artificial intelligence and machine learning to really use data in a very big way. That is really critical, and therefore he says that IITs and IIMs need to reorient their courses for the new technologies of tomorrow. The Industrial 4.0 Revolution will be a function of many things, but the key will be how to create the new data scientists of tomorrow. How do we create the new artificial engineers of tomorrow? How do we create new designers? How do we skill them? He says that there is a shortage of such skilled people right now in India, and therefore, there is a reorientation needed. We have a lot of passion, a lot of energy, a lot of diamonds, and a lot of vibrancy but we need to slightly reorient ourselves for the world of tomorrow.
Reducing the Friction to Collaborate
With our country’s young demographic and the new kind of problems that we are facing – for those of us who have read the IPCC’s sixth report, we can safely put climate change very high on that list – I think it is young people who are going to have to co-create contextual solutions for the future. People like us have left enough problems for them. I think we need to figure out how to enable young people to do this. And it’s not just in the normal way, okay? As Sarkaar and Bazaar, we have to be careful to create safe spaces for them to try stuff and to fail. And we also have to allow them to be idealistic enough to innovate in ways that we would not, right? They will be radical, young people are radical. Do you remember how we all were when we were 18 years old? So, young people have radical ideas and we should not try to force uniformity on them. Let there be a diversity of ideas, approaches, and innovations, and let’s support that. A lot of it will fail, just like the corporate sector which understands failure so well.
Let’s reduce the mistrust that currently exists between the Sarkaar, Samaaj and Bazaar, and let’s find ways to use technology. Some of us are working on something that we call ‘Societal Platform Thinking’, where we use technology but just a backbone. At the front-end, we are trying hard to see how we can more successfully enable collaboration between the three sectors. And youth play a very strong role in it. In my philanthropy portfolio, I’m so delighted that we have social entrepreneurs as young as 20, who are doing the most cutting edge things. And their aim is to make people more active citizens, to take charge of their local problems and show leadership, but also to work with the political class, MPs, MLAs, and try to bring people’s problems to them to resolve with the state. They try to find opportunities to work with the Bazaar as well. So we need to invest in young people, allow them to innovate, allow them to be radically diverse and support that. Right? Let them fail, let them innovate, support them, and definitely use our youth power to face the many challenges that are coming, including climate change, which I am very invested in helping to solve.
In terms of how Samaaj, Bazaar, and Sarkaar can collaborate to ensure more equitable access to land, Renu says that many state governments are actually earmarking land and working out really good public-private partnerships. In these partnerships, the land is being made available by the state government, and they’re inviting developers from the private sector with the condition that they’re going to make affordable homes. Land prices in Delhi and Bombay, of course, are deterrents but in second tier cities she says that the availability of land over the last few years has increased.
However it’s important to note that land issues do not only belong to the urban sector. We have to look around our country – there are still many landless people in our rural areas. The huge false debate between development and the environment has to be resolved. In some sense, we are dispossessing people of their ancestral lands. So, land is a complex issue. And while I completely agree that a lot is happening on housing for the urban low-income sector, there are still many other land issues, both for the sake of the environment and the sake of our indigenous people, who we also need to consider when we talk about land issues. We need to bring some of the unspoken issues out into the open, and have a very good debate and discourse across the normal divides, without polarization or judgment. So while we talk about the positive, we must also spare some time to examine the challenges we’re facing as well. We have, by some records, 200 million people that have gone back into poverty. How are we going to reframe our thinking, across all three sectors, to address how we have slipped back so much on the SDGs? Over the next two years, how can we make up for these lost years, right? What new things are we going to do together? How are we going to move forward with empathy, with inclusion, with a sense of urgency about the environment? These are the things that we are going to be opening up about in Charcha over the next three days.
Let’s look forward and reduce the friction to collaborate, because what we all need to do is to distribute the ability to solve. We have 1.3 billion citizens who are willing to be part of the solution and not remain part of the problem. What can we design? What effective policies can come from the Sarkaar? What enabling innovative financing from the Bazaar will allow the Samaaj sector to thrive? We have many challenges coming. Let us reduce the trust deficit, let us increase the ability to work together. Lots of good things are happening, some scary things are happening too. Now is the time to reduce all the artificial divides between us and work together and I think civil society is very committed to this.
India has hundreds of good organizations willing to step forward. Sometimes there is distrust but we need to reduce that because there’s lots of work ahead. There are people who have fallen back into poverty and who are looking for support. And in this digital age, our neighbors have become strangers. The pandemic allowed our neighbors to return to being neighbors and strangers to become neighbors too, because we realized how connected we all are. Let’s reconnect with each other’s humanity and work together. We still have a lot to build in this country and I think we can do it. There are pathways and we should focus on some of the innovations for those pathways over the next three days of Charcha.