Samaaj, Sarkaar, Bazaaar – Role of Active Citizenship in a Democracy

Dec 16, 2022


Rohini Nilekani’s keynote address at Volcon – India’s flagship national conference on volunteering.

This is an edited version of Rohini Nilekani’s keynote address at Volcon – India’s flagship national conference on volunteering.


Like so many of us, I grew up on stories of volunteerism in my family because my paternal grandfather, Babasaheb Soman (Sadashiv Laxman Soman), was among those clutch of people who were the first to respond to Gandhiji’s call during the Champaran agitation in 1917. Gandhiji said, “I need people here to support this community.” At the time, the whole indigo agitation was over and the people were in deep distress. We forget just how brutal the British rule in India was and Gandhiji just wanted good people to come. So my grandfather was on that first train that went from Beldaur all the way to West Champaran in Bihar to stay there and help build the first ashram in Bhitiharwa, to set up schools, to build toilets, to work with the local farmers, and so on. Why did he do this? Because of the really big question of our times, as Martin Luther King said, which I am paraphrasing – what is it in our lives that we are going to do for others? I think he answered that question himself. He was a lawyer but half the time he was busy getting the two conflicting parties to agree out of court which means he did not get any fees. My grandmother did not like this strategy very much but that is how he lived. And so the most meaningful thing he could do in his life was to join Gandhiji. He remained a Gandhian, working hard for the freedom of our country and he died just before independence but left a legacy that still goes on in our family.

So in my family, this power of volunteering to put society before self was always held up as an aadarsh i.e. a goal, a vision, and an ideal and it has really animated the spirit of all our lives. For me, the highest personal ethic is to volunteer. As we all know the word ‘volunteer’ comes from the French word, ‘volontiers’ which means willingly and that is the most important thing. Willingly, from intrinsic motives, from inside we wish to give of ourselves, right? One’s time, one’s talent, one’s money, whatever we can give to enhance the greater public good. And so this volunteering, it is from self to create society, to create a better Samaaj. It is a very English word actually. If we try to bridge it in our languages, there is no exact translation. So then we will end up saying ‘seva’ maybe or ‘swayam seva’ which means to give yourself forward. But maybe if we were to search for a common animating spirit to bridge these two – volunteering and seva – maybe we can turn to a wonderful word which concisely illuminates the universal truth that I am because you are, right? In the Bantu language, they use the word ‘Ubuntu’ which means you are because I am. And I think that word really captures why this room is so full of people, because we intrinsically understand our deep connections and that unless we keep up the flame of seva, of giving forward of ourselves, we cannot get back the society that we want.

Building Samaaj Through Seva

Seva is as old as human beings are, and even primates do seva in the sense that they serve each other. The American anthropologist, Margaret Mead, said that the first sign of civilization that she could uncover was when they found a skeleton with a healed femur. And what did the healed femur from so many tens of thousands of years ago imply? In much of the animal world, sometimes when a weak animal has a limb that is broken, the other herds move on and just leave the animal to die. But a healed femur means that even when the person could not walk, had broken his thigh bone without which he could not fend for himself, somebody was caring for this person and probably getting nothing back in return. This is what Margaret Mead called the dawn of human civilization – when there was proof of volunteerism, of seva, of service before the self. And ever since then, volunteering has been strong and active in human society all around the world. In fact, UN Volunteers, an organization of the UN, claims that 1 billion people have been volunteering at some point in their lives globally. Now, I am not sure exactly how they define volunteering, but that is one-eighth of the population, that is one-eighth of humankind that has self-declared that they are doing some form of volunteering in their lives. What excites me about that is if each of these 1 billion could inspire just one more each, that makes it 2 billion. And if those 2 billion could inspire just one each, that makes it 4 billion people, right? Imagine, that is half of all humanity and maybe that should be our goal. Even in this room, can we manifest this idea that half of humanity will be trying to serve somebody else, not from morning till night, but at some part of the day? If that is the goal, then working backwards, how do we all have to organize the volunteer movement so that half the world feels animated to give of themselves at some point in their lives? So I do believe that seva and giving of oneself is absolutely critical in today’s time. We proudly live in a democracy and that volunteer spirit strengthens democracy. In fact, it is absolutely at the core of building the kind of Samaaj that we all want to live in.

Democracy is not created for us and gifted to us by leaders, democracy is of the people, by the people, and for the people. That is why people – Samaaj – has the foundational supremacy to keep democracy alive. This democracy of Samaaj goes way beyond electoral democracy. It is not just about voting during every election. Real democracy is about much more than voting. And inside, we all know that. Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom, and we cannot forget that, we cannot take our freedoms for granted. And if eternal vigilance in a democracy is the price for our freedoms, then I am going to say today that maybe eternal empathy is the price for a good society. And that is something that we need to remember.

In fact, none of us would be sitting so comfortably and proudly in this room as citizens of a free nation if not for the tremendous waves of volunteerism across the length and breadth of the country for 100 years. Tens of lakhs of people participated in our historic freedom struggle, our unique Satyagraha. And for me, the lasting image is always a very common and powerful one, that of the Dandi March in 1930, when Gandhiji just picked up a fistful of salt against an unfair tax that the British had imposed, which led to the 24 day march from 12th March to 5th April. After that first act of Gandhiji, at the young age of 61, bit by bit, thousands of people joined his brave act of selfless service to the idea of a free nation. These acts are what we must really be grateful for, for all of us being able to sit here today. The young people in the room especially need to look deep into our history books, to really understand what has kept this diverse nation together. A lot of it has to do with the selfless voluntary service of not just countless leaders that made up India’s modern nation, but many, many unnamed ones just like my grandfather.

Another highlight of volunteerism in India was during the ’67-’68 Bihar famine. At that time crops had failed and the weather had let us down. There were policies, perhaps, that needed to have been different, but lakhs of people were facing death by starvation. And that actually became the cradle for the modern volunteer movement of India. I know dozens of people, now getting on in their years, who were so troubled by the fact that people at the time could be so close to death that could be preventable, that they left their cushy jobs. Vijay Mahajan is one of them. It was the birth of the Jayaprakash Narayan movement. That crisis really brought out the humanity in many people and it also birthed many of the nonprofits in India today. So we are all wired to reach out to other humans who are suffering. That is just one example and there has been a tradition of service in our society.

There is a practice in Rajasthan called ‘laash’, where people volunteer to go from one village to the other to create public works, usually around water, such as digging farm ponds and laying roads. It could be any physical public good that is being created and they all take off in their bullock carts or their tractors, go to some designated village, and do Shramdaan i.e. voluntary labour for the whole day. They get a magnificent meal cooked by the local villagers and then they charge back home with the pride of having helped that village create its own new public infrastructure. And naturally, those villagers then similarly reciprocate in a history of mutualism that runs through the veins of this country.

In India today, there are also thousands of organizations, many that are faith-based and ideology-based, that depend entirely on volunteers. The largest organizations in the world are volunteer-based and I think the most scalable thing in the world is actually service. Of course, some things need to be scaled by the Bazaar or by the Sarkaar, but those two sectors came out of Samaaj itself. So in some ways, we can see it as a continuum, that some innovation started through service, through volunteerism, started in the non-profit sector, eventually gets embedded in either Bazaar or Sarkaar. But the most scalable thing in the whole wide world is service to others. Right here in Bangalore we have Art of Living and so many others that get volunteers across caste, class, and religion simply to serve others as much as they can. We all know about the langars and there are so many other examples, more modern examples that I am very proud to have been associated with.

One of those initiatives is ASER, the education report that comes out every year. It is such a simple idea but tens of thousands of volunteers from literally every district of India come forward, go to a village and they have to do a statistical sampling. I have participated in these surveys, where you ask the children of the house to come sit with you and see how much they have learnt in school. And all the children, everybody gathers and it becomes like a festival. And through this, we have learnt that in fact, we have a very long way to go to ensure every child in school and learning well. So this is another example that is driven by volunteer energy and the spirit of that, and shows what that volunteerism can achieve. For me, the ideal volunteer is not one animated by an ideology or a sect or a religion or a faith, but only with the highest form of humanitarianism. It does not matter who is in front of you, which religion, which country, which geography, which choice, which anything they belong to, we see the human in you. As I said earlier, I am because you are, so when I do something for you, it is for both of us together. That is the highest ideal of volunteerism and that is why volunteers do not get paid, someone said, not because they are worthless but because they are priceless.

I know there are many corporations represented here, which have large volunteer programs, which is really good because we are getting more and more data that employees want to work for corporations that do good rather than those that are there for greed. People want to work for corporations that are not only for profit, but there to be citizens of the societies that they participate in. Young people especially want to be very sure that their companies are doing good as much as they are doing well, and volunteering is a huge part of that. But even when people go out as corporate volunteers, can we reach deep into our hearts to find that humanitarianism? It does not matter which corporate logo is on your t-shirt, what you have to find when you go out there is that human thing for which there is no logo except that inside our hearts. So, that is the opportunity really, for corporations today to allow their employees to do much more strategic, long-term work in communities. Because I have absolutely no doubt that if we look at the balance sheets, eventually even that bottom line is going to get enhanced if we look at this frontline.

And as Samaaj, we need to put more pressure on corporations to do better. We need more transparency and authenticity in ESG disclosures, for example, it is not just some whitewashing you put on the walls. It is genuinely linked to the success of your business. And more and more corporations are beginning to see it. Right now there is still a bit of airbrushing going on, but it is up to all of us now to hold companies accountable. Never, never forget that we are Samaaj. We have the power. We must exercise it. And whether they are corporations or the government, they have no choice but to bend to genuine public pressure. So we have just begun the journey where the public is holding businesses accountable to ESG, apart from the government’s regulatory frameworks and it is a journey that has to become more transparent and more authentic over time. Obviously volunteering will be a big part of this and it is up to all of us to find ways to hold corporations accountable and do so without fear or favour. 

So in philanthropy, corporations play a huge role. After all, volunteers also have to eat. Volunteers also have to dress. Volunteers also have children to put into school. And that is where philanthropy plays a big role in supporting the acts of volunteering. And I think in India, this is really a call to action to philanthropists’ foundations in the room. How can we come together to support a national movement of volunteers? How can we help platformize it so that I stop getting asked, “What can I do?” And our philanthropy is not really set up to just take in volunteers. I wish it were because it is a hard thing to do. So how can we knock our heads together to see how is it possible to find or to create a platform? We have a team that we call ‘Societal Thinking Team’, where we look at what architecture is required to create urgent impact at scale, and how we can distribute the ability to solve in context. And importantly, how can we create a technology backbone that allows people to co-create on top of it?

Volunteerism in the Digital Age 

One of the goals we must all keep for ourselves is to create that enabling infrastructure so that millions more people can join the volunteer movement. We live in a digital age and volunteering has also gone digital. How many of you have ever signed a petition for Well, the ones who have not, try it out. Sometimes it can be clicktivism, meaning it is very easy to just say yes or something like that and not to know what happens next, though is quite relentless. It tells you what happens next. And I know the young, enthusiastic founder who set it up, but it is one pathway to start your volunteering journey in the digital age. And it is very important because it is the first step that then leads to the next step. So there are many such innovative apps and platforms that have really increased volunteering in India. And there are more techie volunteers of the digital age. ISpirit was set up purely to use tech talent to help other nonprofits to help ideas develop further.

I know when Nandan set up the Aadhaar team, dozens of highly qualified, highly successful corporate professionals from around the world wrote to him and said, “Can I join and give my time?” Some spent two years here in India, gave up everything that they were doing, often from America and Europe and came and just gave their time and talent to set up India’s digital ID. Similarly, with all the other public digital infrastructure that is being rolled out in India today, India has the best public digital infra in the world because it is all open, free, and unleashing innovation everywhere. It is the foundation of economic democracy in our country and it is powered by volunteer energy. So it is very, very important to understand that.

Talking of technology, all of us sitting here would probably have mobile phones and computers that we spend hours on, and we should all doff our hats to Tim Berners-Lee. He created HTML and http, which is the backbone of the world worldwide web which is really today’s internet. But his energy of society before self allowed the internet to be completely open in the public domain, and allowed people to co-create on it. Just imagine what public good that man has unleashed in the last 30 years. So that is the kind of energy and impact that can come from that creative impulse to do good for others.

So, of course, we need more visionaries like Tim Berners-Lee. Of course, we need more Mahatmas like Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. But you know, there is a bit of both in each one of us. And surely we saw that during the pandemic, when so many of us reached out to help someone else. We have internalized, more deeply perhaps than ever in our lifetimes, how interconnected we all are. No matter if we are rich, no matter if we are not so rich, all of us are in the same boat. Some of us are in the upper deck, I must admit, but we are all rowing in the same ocean. And Ubuntu has come really to the fold. As Mahatma Gandhi said, the best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.

I must say that sometimes in our philanthropy, I can feel a bit remote from what is actually happening on the ground. And I really got re-energised when I participated in a small project outside my office with The Ugly Indians. It is an organization that allows everybody a chance to participate in just taking agency to improve our own society, our own roads, our own infrastructure. I can do it. I do not need to wait for the BBMP, the electricity board or anybody else. I can do it with you because together we are what makes Samaaj possible. I was able to work for half an hour in the hot sun picking up stones and making what they call a ‘beauty spot’ from an ugly spot. It reconnected me to say, it is so easy to give of one’s wealth and so hard to give of oneself.

One of the things we want to be working on very seriously is how to provide discoverable opportunities to volunteer. Of course, people will volunteer where they are and do what they can, but many people want to do more but do not know how. We have to make it much, much easier for people to consistently volunteer their time and talent. And I think that is not happening. There are many great intermediary organizations in this room, but there need to be many more and then we possibly need some kind of societal platform that allows them all to discover each other. I think that is the work ahead and we are committed to it. The other difficult thing is how to sustain volunteer energy. We need to create the structures around volunteering. How can we continue volunteering in the post-pandemic world? And I hope at the end of this two day conference, I will also learn from everyone. What I can think of is to create the platform for discovery and co-creation and also to enable people to not just see each other’s work, but to create new opportunities. I think that is necessary. We also need to provide people with structuring for more sustained opportunities and we have to make it easier, that is the challenge ahead of us. 

Of course, people’s motivation to volunteer might affect this, like students who volunteer very vigorously just before they file for college applications, right? All of us begin somewhere, but somewhere during that journey it becomes its own inspiration. Neuroscience has proved today that we are so wired for doing something good for others, that it actually releases endorphins and oxytocin and all the good chemicals in our bodies. You have to keep that person in it only till he gets that first reward back. And then you cannot stop really, because it is such a joyous thing in and of itself. I think the key thing to us is how do we handhold a person till that point where actually evolutionary biology kicks in? Because we would not be a successful species, if not for the human urge to serve. I think you just need to cross that one point. Even after submitting your college application, if you can make the person do one more thing for its own sake, then we will reach the numbers of volunteers that we want.

And these acts can start small and in the home. There are a lot of opportunities even for 5-6 year olds. My grandson is very animated in his school, he came back one day and said, “I am a nature protector.” So, he is clearly learning something and is motivated to do something to save nature today. Mostly it involves planting trees or understanding bugs or something like that. But you can put such ideas into young children’s minds because they also want to be, they can also see, they can discover themselves by discovering others and doing something good. Of course, there is plenty of potential. And in fact, the new national curriculum framework for foundational learning and early schooling has many of these elements embedded in it. Now it is up to all of us to make sure that they actually get implemented in the schools. So, the earlier you start, the better. And you know how young ones are always trying to train their parents to save water or save nature. I think it is very important to involve them in this wonderful journey of humanitarianism.

One thing we know for sure is that collaboration is key. You can do volunteering alone, like ‘each one teach one’ was a big thing that was working for a short while. And in fact there still are lots of organizations that do that. But organizations and intermediaries are needed to enable good collaboration and not just temporary collaboration. So again, I go back to that, the structures of the intermediary organizations that make it easy to collaborate, right? In any case, if you are doing some task, like building out a public infra, cleaning up a public spot or improving facilities in a school, you cannot do it alone. And I will tell you, if you are a good storyteller, if you can carry your story well, you will attract collaborators very quickly. So one of the things all of us must focus on is to tell our stories much better. Because we believe in what we are doing and what we are saying. We need to hone our skills to carry the message better or to have powerful symbolism. Just imagine what picking up just one small fist full of salt could do. What is the metaverse in 2022 that all of us can visualize together, so that as we take the next few steps, a million people will come along with us. That is the challenge for all of us today.

So let us enjoy, explore, and continue on that journey of giving, and let us really push for half of Indians, that is 700 million, to do some volunteering at some point in our lives and put society first, before ourselves. It is doable if we all do it together.



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