Reclaiming the power of the collective: Samaaj-Sarkaar-Bazaar

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“What really changes society are social movements, shifting how we think about things.”

Kevin Kumashiro

India is a mosaic of topographies, religions, cultures, languages and communities. Every tile, every colour in the country has a rich history – of the power of communities coming together and driving change. These collective campaigns, or social movements, have ignited and sustained efforts towards making our society better for all and, at the same time, sparked our imagination to wonder: What kind of a world do we want to live in? What is our role in making this world reality? 

Our world is influenced by many forces, the bastions of which are samaaj (civil society), sarkaar (the State) and bazaar (markets). Together, they shape our cultural, political and economic life. Social movements bring to life samaaj as central in rewiring the power that flows between these three actors. It ensures power is not concentrated in the hands of a few market players, communities are not exploited and rather, protected by robust institutions to lead lives of agency and dignity. In fact, samaaj has had a critical role to play in the civil liberties and rights we enjoy today – from democracy to the ever-expanding scope of gender- and caste-focused rights.

However, in the last few decades, globalisation, the emergence of Big Tech companies and greater closeness between bazaar and sarkaar, samaaj has moved to the bottom rung of the power hierarchy. This frame of power has led to many repercussions on citizens. It places citizens as consumers of goods and services from bazaar and beneficiaries of samaaj, putting into question the agency citizens exercise in making meaningful decisions for their well-being. 

How many times do we spot something that needs fixing while walking around our neighbourhood? How often do we shake our heads in disappointment as we face or read about our fellow citizens struggling for sustenance and civil liberties? 

What do we do? Where do we begin?

To solve any problem, we must first ask ourselves if we’re solving the right problem. Do we want to reinstate samaaj at the top of the power pyramid? What if we reimagine the role of samaaj, sarkaar and bazaar as complementary? Click To Tweet

India is a vast and diverse country with social problems complex and multi-faceted. Solving these problems at scale needs a new approach – synergy between samaaj, sarkaar and bazaar. It is only when these three actors work together will we see true social progress. If we think about it, all three actors are integral to each other thriving. Bazaar and samaaj can, together, exert regulatory power over the State to uphold the interests of diverse competitors and safeguard labour rights. Moreover, being dependent on samaaj for smooth functioning, bazaar has to understand and support civil society efforts towards equality and peace. To make sure bazaar is fair and un-exploitative, samaaj and sarkaar need to work in tandem. This delicate balance between the three pillars of our society can restore the agency of citizens to see, sense and solve the problems they face in their day-to-day lives as well as collectivise to demand and drive transformative social change by way of policy, law and systemic reform. 

As Rohini Nilekani says, “At the heart of my work is the belief that we are all citizens first, rather than simply subjects of the state or consumers of the markets. Even during the reign of monarchs, people interacted freely as civilians or nagariks and only identified as subjects when the gaze of the king turned to them. The Samaaj sector comes first, after all. The Sarkaar and Bazaar were created over millennia to serve an evolving human society and the larger public interest. Even when we act as representatives of the state or the market, we do not forgo our rights and duties as citizens. When we leave our places of work, we return home as citizens, as members of the public, as humans in a collective. All individuals, regardless of their position in the current power structure, need to belong to a society in which they can exercise agency and freedom, and thrive in the association of other citizens.”

Samaaj is the wind, sails and North Star of sea change. Exponential societal change is in the hands of the citizenry. 

Rohini Nilekani has drawn on years’ of personal experience as a philanthropist to illuminate the need for an integrated samaaj, sarkaar and bazaar. Read her book ‘SAMAAJ, SARKAAR, BAZAAR: A Citizen-First Approach’ here.

Learn more about Societal Thinking here.

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