Excerpt: Samaaj, Sarkaar, Bazaar: A Citizen-First Approach

Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies
5 min readAug 10, 2022


Rohini Nilekani — Chairperson, Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies.

In ‘Samaaj, Sarkaar, Bazaar: A Citizen-First Approach’, Rohini Nilekani outlines her philosophy of restoring the balance between the state and markets, by positioning society as the foundational sector. Here is an excerpt from the book:

I am so happy that the phrase ‘Samaaj Sarkaar Bazaar’ has received widespread acceptance recently and has come into regular usage across the board. I am certainly not claiming to have invented the phrase but am perhaps guilty of overusing it. I find it especially gratifying when people who do not speak any Indian language still attempt to use these three unfamiliar words, along with Society, State, and Markets.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. There is so much more to be analyzed and written about this framework, where I posit that we should think of Samaaj as the foundational sector, which alone can hold the Sarkaar and Bazaar accountable to the larger public interest. I have put this book together with the fond hope that it will trigger thinking, especially among young people, about the role of all three sectors.

Given India’s demographic, with 43% of the population under the age of 25, young people may have to bear the brunt of a Samaaj that cannot heal itself. With rising inequality, there is potential for a backlash against wealth creation itself. With rising climate anxiety, there is fear of a return to a zero-sum mentality. With rising polarization, there is the dread of the breakdown of the social order. All these will disproportionately impact young people and their future. To counter these negative energies, we can be inspired by the simple truth that to be human is to have empathy. To be human is to be creative. To be human is to collaborate.

In the face of the negative trends mentioned above, we need to build societal muscle to prevent and reduce conflict. We need safe spaces for people to talk across their divides in our thriving democracy. Years ago, I experimented with bringing leaders from the corporate and social sectors to talk to each other instead of at each other. I hosted a show called ‘Uncommon Ground’ on NDTV and wrote an eponymous book later. Now Kshetra, a new social start-up, is going way beyond that to build safe spaces for dialogue. They are developing creative tools and processes that groups can use to talk beyond divides and to nurture empathy. So far, the demand has been more than the team can manage, which is a good portend.

I also feel very inspired by the hundreds of organizations that have sprung up recently to galvanize young people into civic action. When I catch up with young, dynamic leaders like Krutika Ravishankar and Arti Dhar of Farmers for Forests, Shloka Nath of the India Climate Collaborative, Jithin Nedumala of Make a Difference, Abhay Jain and Swapnil Shukla of Zenith Legal Services and many others, any anxiety I might be feeling about the future simply vanishes. They bring so much energy, passion, diversity, and creativity into the work they do, whether it is for better access to justice, or more environmental sustainability, or for the rights and dignity of the most vulnerable of communities. Slowly but surely, they are building solid processes for youth to become more active as concerned citizens. That is tremendous news and makes me hopeful for the future.

While Samaaj must look inwards first, it also needs to reach out to the state and markets. Given that we are facing incredibly complex issues in this century, it seems imperative that Samaaj, Sarkaar, and Bazaar reduce the friction to cooperate since no problem worth solving can be resolved without all three sectors doing what they know best. As examples, we are seeing some interesting tripartite partnerships being attempted, especially in the existential issues of clean energy and climate change.

At its best, such inter-sector cooperation can do wonders. I glimpsed this potential at Pratham Books, where we saw how a societal movement to create content for children can be unleashed by using open-source platforms, partnering with the state, and inviting the market to leverage the content for a fee. Perhaps it is relatively easy to reach tens of millions of children with stories, as society is well-vested in children.

We saw a more recent and powerful example of the collective power of cooperation during the global pandemic of Covid-19. In so many places around the globe, and certainly so in India, ordinary people, civil society institutions, private philanthropy, the state, and also markets came together in record time to push back the virus. For all the dark days of death and desperation, it was truly an important two years in human history. We have learnt so many lessons that when the next crisis comes around, we might be better prepared to cooperate more quickly and effectively.

For some years now, my husband Nandan, myself, and our many highly talented colleagues, such as Pramod Varma, Shankar Maruwada and Sanjay Purohit, have been imagining a new framework, which we hope will provide one of many pathways to better align the talents of the three sectors. We call it Societal Thinking.

Here is the official descriptor of Societal Thinking — “It is a systemic approach, including a set of values and design principles, to reimagine and induce exponential social change by redesigning the core interactions between all the actors across Samaaj, Sarkaar, and Bazaar.”

In essence, the approach is fairly simple. Most people might agree that we need to create mechanisms for the three sectors to work together with some common shared infrastructure, which is unified but not uniform, since problems have to be resolved contextually in diverse situations. For this, we believe there is a need for an open-source, technology-enabled backbone that helps many nodes connect to many others. This allows for rapid knowledge exchange which leads to better feedback loops and coordination. As the network keeps growing, everyone can contribute to this system, which leverages the strengths of each one and improves the value of all.

….To be honest, though, the real issue preventing more such inter-sector cooperation is the trust deficit. People don’t trust each other or the government and markets; the government doesn’t trust civil society institutions; the Bazaar is wary of the state; and so on in multiple combinations of mistrust. While some of that is creative tension that separates the powers and responsibilities of each sector, it can also delay common goals of abundance and inhibits freedom for all.

Civil society organizations are good at helping bridge this trust divide between citizens and citizens; citizens and their governments; corporates and the state; and markets and consumers. They create mechanisms to cool passions, enable compromise by holding community meetings during turbulences, and they can help shine the torch on problem areas before they cascade by compiling good data and through compassionate journalism.

Samaaj, Sarkaar, Bazaar is self-published under the Creative Commons License, CC BY. The goal is to allow people to download it freely as a pdf, read it and share it forward, so as to further a meaningful discourse on the roles of Society, State, and Markets.

You can also find the book on Amazon & other e-commerce sites as well at your local bookstore.