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Samaaj and Bazaar: Congruence over Divergence

Strategic Philanthropy | Access to Justice | Mar 8, 2019

This is an edited version of Rohini Nilekani’s keynote talk on Samaaj and Bazaar: Congruence over Divergence at Dasra Philanthropy Week 2019 in Mumbai. We often set up Civil Society (Samaaj) and Markets (Bazaar) as opposing binaries. In this talk, Rohini proposes that they have more in common and more to gain, collectively, in collaborating to uphold the Rule of Law.


I have often talked about the continuum of sarkaar, samaaj, and bazaar, which is state, civil society, and markets, and how for a successful society, these three aspects must work together in a fine balance. At the base is the samaaj, the people. You simply cannot hold the bazaar (the markets) and the sarkaar (the state) accountable for the larger public interest. Over the course of history, we have seen how that power, in the hands of the bazaar or the sarkaar, can result in oppression. So how do we create a successful society as citizens? We are citizens first, before being subjects of the state or consumers for the market, and therefore we are duty bound for our own sake to help build our society.

The Bazaar’s Interest in Justice

However, we also need to be aware of the congruence of interest between the samaaj and bazaar. It starts with the rule of law. We all want the rule of law to be upheld, and in fact the bazaar, the modern corporation as we know it would not exist if the rule of law had not created the limited liability company 300 years ago. This has allowed tremendous innovation to flourish over the centuries, and also allowed for the absorption of failure, because wherever there is innovation, there is failure. So companies can fail without going under themselves, because of the rule of law.

For their own sake, then, the bazaar sector i.e. corporations have a great self-interest in upholding the rule of law. They need the enforceability of contracts, otherwise they simply cannot function. But even beyond this, the bazaar needs the rule of law to be upheld by society at large, because no business can thrive without social stability outside its gates. We all know the costs here, of riots, bandhs, and lynching. We know the cost of social unrest that has taken place in this country from time to time. We know what happens when the ultra-left Maoist groups actually stop businesses from going into areas, which could benefit with economic development. So it is very clear that outside their gates too, the bazaar has a deep interest in a socially just environment.

The samaaj has an interest in this as well. Civil society organizations are driven by passion, commitment, and the understanding of what Martin Luther King so eloquently states, that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Many civil society organizations and human rights organizations working on issues of access to justice truly believe this. Often at great personal risk, they go up against the power of the state and corporations, to create institutions, and provide moral leadership, and access to people who would otherwise be left out.

Corporations, on the other hand, cannot do this. It’s a point most of us understand but perhaps we don’t articulate it enough. Corporations cannot go out and uphold the rule of law and take that kind of risk themselves. Civil society can and does, but the case I’m making is that there is much more congruence between civil society organizations and corporations than is understood or articulated.

Nike, for example, had terrible labour practices and many civil society organizations put a lot of pressure on Nike to improve this. The corporation actually took that on as a challenge. They made a serious effort to improve labour practices along their entire supply chain, not just within its own gates, but amongst its contractors and suppliers. There’s no such thing as perfection, but they kept on evolving. Today, Nike is known for having achieved that. Similarly other global competitors like beverage companies, had to go through a lot of internal processes. Coca-Cola and Nestle have actually promised the world, that in eight more years they will reduce 90% of their single-use plastic, and we have to hold them to it.

Another example is Greenpeace, which has always been fighting corporations, and is known as an activist organization. But many corporations that have worked with them understood that activism is actually good for them, even from a profitability angle. So many of them have actually aligned with Greenpeace’s goals. In Bangalore, Greenpeace has started a campaign to help streamline the e-waste that was being dumped in places. At first companies like Wipro and other tech corporations pushed back, but then they aligned with these goals, and actually became the leaders of sustainability, not just in Bangalore, but in the country. So there is a very clear alignment between these two sectors.

Keeping the State in Check

Indian philanthropy is still not taking enough risk and what’s the use of philanthropy without risk? It’s very good to keep honouring service delivery improvement, but it’s time to look at our society as a whole, and for the philanthropy sector to step up and get into more slightly risky areas such as access to justice. And the congruence of samaaj and bazaar is exactly why.

Not only are the samaaj and bazaar aligned on these issues, it’s also both their advantage, to make sure that the state does not abuse its own power. I’m sure many corporations have been subject to the abuse of state power while running their businesses. Meanwhile, as citizens, sometimes I feel when we wake up in the mornings, we have already broken three Indian laws because we have so many and they’re written so poorly. If this alignment of samaaj and bazaar is understood and worked on, it also helps curb the excessive power of the state.

There is a lot of opportunity for philanthropy and existing civil society organizations to move further into the space of upholding the rule of law, upholding constitutional values, because all of us, as citizens, as samaaj sector people, and as civil society organizations, need well-written laws. We all need equal access to the justice system; an independent, impartial, and efficient judiciary; and effective public institutions that help uphold this rule of law. It’s the only way to both empower the bazaar, and uphold the rights of the country’s citizens.

The Bottom Line

From the recent BCG report, it’s clear that corporations who align with samaaj ideals will be better off in the long run. There’s been a lot of research on the fact that the non-financial side of business is linked to the financial side of business. It’s been repeatedly shown through exhaustive research, that the companies that do good when it comes to ESG, i.e. the environmental and social issues, also consistently show better results for their bottom line. So, there’s a real convergence of interest in this.

It’s time to take big bets, and pledge that we will no longer do just incremental work, but that we will try to do something disruptive and transformational. The time has come for us to move forward and take the risk of working in this whole area of rule of law and constitutional values. Frederick Douglass once said, “Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is organized to oppress and rob or degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe.” I’m not suggesting we’re at that stage, but I’m suggesting it is we who could make sure that this country’s promise of independence will be met, and met in abundance. I hope we can all do this together.

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