Rohini’s keynote at Indus Action’s Schemes to Systems conference. Philanthropist, Rohini Nilekani stresses on how the voice of Samaaj should be amplified and understood, while reducing the administrative gaps.
Thank you to Indus action and all the people gathered here. A special namaskar to the two senior politicians here – Dr Palanivel Thiagarajan ji and Mahua Moitra ji. Civil society groups must find ways to interact ever more with the political class and the business class – after all we are neither anti-government nor anti-market but we are pro people, pro samaaj. That is the first calling of the civil society sector. And everybody, bar none, is a citizen before they are a politician , a bureaucrat , A CEO or an employee, we are all citizens first, and last too, when we shed our day job identities and go home.
It is now exactly 15 years since I started speaking and writing about the continuum of samaaj, bazaar and sarkaar – and it is a continuum always in a dynamic balance and the continuous quest is to make the balance more just to all . And I have been saying that samaaj must become conscious that it is the first sector and it has to work to make sarkaar and bazaar, which come later, accountable to the larger public interest of the samaaj.
But what is the role of Samaaj actors in times like these, when people the world over, and in India too, seem to be fearful and insecure and retreating to narrower and polarized spaces?
I really believe, and this came to strongly this morning as I wrote this speech, is that today, as always, the role of empathy is absolutely critical. Empathy within, for ourselves, and empathy for others.
This is the important inner to outer journey we all struggle to make as civil society actors, isn’t it?
And in this aspect – how civil society institutions themselves behave becomes important –
How can we avoid the cancel culture so prevalent in the west, how can we reduce otherization? It is hard to eliminate otherization completely perhaps, because humans do seem often to define themselves against something else, maybe even an enemy, possibly as part of our evolutionary biology – but can we reduce this tendency through more awareness of the benefits of coming together ? Can we look outside OUR ideological walls if we want others to look outside theirs? Is it the work of samaaj institutions to create windows in all such walls?
Can we create those shared spaces, which are held without judgement, so we can discover ways to build a better society, a better samaaj?
How do we awake to and help awaken people to see ourselves as more than subjects, more than beneficiaries, more than consumers?
To see ourselves as humans in a complex web of humanity, as CITIZENS, as NAGARIKS?
And then, what are these citizens, these nagariks? What do citizens do?
Citizens are aware, they are alive to what is happening around them socially, economically, ecologically, politically. They belong to a community of other citizens. And it doesn’t matter if that is a small neighbourhood community or a global one, each is important, especially if it has thick bonds. One problem that has emerged is that social media has allowed the thriving of very thin bonds, and that has created groups of people that can be easily aroused to negativity. It is part of the work of civil society groups in fact to help build social bonds that are thick, so that people can work together in more harmony for a common cause.
Citizens, when fulfilling their role, are curious about and willing to participate in the co-creation of a society that makes their own lives and all others better, more abundant, more creative. And after empathy, for me, Creativity is an important word because the zenith, the apex of human history may be the ability of people to generate beauty, through their own talent ,agency and co-operation with the talent and agency of others.
To create is the is to be human. And I don’t mean just art and sculpture and beautiful buildings and things, but also the creation of big new social ideas and societal movements too, that enable humans to take such giant strides of consciousness, as in the universal vote, as in so many freedom struggles, and so much more.
That creativity is the most precious thing for samaj organisations to nurture. And we need to debate much more on how we can generate more sympathy and more creativity as the green fuel for the engine of samaaj as a whole and for CSOs too.
But these are challenging times, and our work is not so easy.
In a kind of reversal of the global liberal order which had perhaps gone stale & lost its relevance, and more importantly, its creativity – we seem to be in the grip of a shrinking of identities to narrow and narrower selves –
From Global to National
From National to Regional
From Regional to Religional
From Religional to the Tribal
From Tribal to ??
For the political class, this narrowing of identities frankly, can be useful, as it creates easy to capture voter groups.
For markets too, it can be beneficial , as it creates good segmentation to capture consumer bases.
In fact, sometimes, I only half-jokingly say –
Bazaar has made the tyranny of choice so complex (even to buy rice, a daily staple we have to choose between price ranges, between polished and unpolished, red and white and brown, organic and non-organic, and so on, endlessly, )& the pandemic has made personal/ family choices in the social space so frightening that people want simplicity in their politics- just delegate to one entity and forget about it.
But this is a cop-out and we must all beware of this trap.
Because when we cop out of being citizens, full citizens, what we are likely to get is a monopolies or monoculture of ideas and of practices that eventually will start to make societies less stable and less sustainable. We all know the cliché of the plantation and the rainforest and most people agree that the rainforest, with its diverse ecosystems is more healthy and sustainable, and so it is with societies too. But to maintain the diversity in society, citizens, unfortunately do not have the luxury to sit back and relax. We have to tend to our social gardens, however small they might be, and in all seasons.
Because, no matter what the benefits may be to sarkaar and bazaar, for Samaaj, and for civil society this shrinking to the smaller self only generates more fear, more insecurity and more divisiveness,
inevitably leading to conflict over identities, ideas and resources.
So the role of CSO’s then is to inspire people to see ever more of themselves in relation to the outer world- through collective action, collective creation, through campaigns, projects ,workshops & more. And eventually all of these hopefully, will foster more empathy, allowing people to see themselves in others’ shoes, even looking to the well-being of future generations, and thus to become the highest embodiment of themselves
Is this all too idealistic? Ye of course it is. But if we together believe in this grand human project – of increasing empathy and creativity in society – even if it takes 25 years or a 100, then we can move inexorably towards this 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 .
Thank you for this opportunity to speak among so many amazing organisations seeking to build active citizenship, and also among senior politicians, whom we look to to help shape a positive social agenda. Dhanyavad and namaskar.