A quest to balance State, society, market
On April 24, one more life came to a premature end. Civil society lost yet another leader. Prem Kumar Varma died in Delhi at the age of 65. He was the founder and secretary of Samta, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) in Bihar’s Khagaria district. Everyone knew him simply as Premji.
Premji could have had two more decades to thrive and work on his crusades against man-made flooding, and the injustices that continue towards the Musahar community. It was not to be.
Like many others, Premji began his civic engagement as a socialist student leader influenced by the teachings of Ram Manohar Lohia. Later, in the 1970s, he became a follower of the Gandhian socialist Jayaprakash Narayan, with others such as Bihar’s chief minister Nitish Kumar. Their goal was social transformation through “Sampoorna Kranti” or Total Revolution, but many landed in jail for their pains.
Those were difficult but heady days for India’s civil society, as the clouds of authoritarianism were gathering before the Emergency in 1975. Many groups were able to band together to defend democracy, constitutional rule and justice. It was hard and dangerous work. But it has served as the foundation for much of the expansion of civil society movements in the country, headed by a host of idealistic leaders with an inclusive vision and a mission of equity and justice.
Premji went on to establish Samta with the goal of a more egalitarian society. He focused on the most socially and economically marginalised Musahar community of Bihar, working on issues of human rights, flood relief and rehabilitation, safe drinking water, sanitation and livelihoods. Samta joined the water security collaborative, Megh Pyne Abhiyan, that my foundation, Arghyam, was privileged to support. For half-a-century, no matter the setbacks, he persevered in the mission for social change and justice.
On a memorable visit in 2007, when we travelled together in Bihar on a field visit, Premji explained to me his theory about why things were so lopsided in the world.
“Earlier”, he said, and I am paraphrasing here, “even when there were kings and emperors, people’s lives revolved around their communities – the samaaj. But ironically, post monarchy, the sarkaar began to get very powerful around the world and claimed a mandate for people’s welfare and began to act on behalf of the samaaj. And then later, the corporations of the bazaar began to go global and acquire even more power than the State.
So samaaj, which used to be the apex formation, was slowly replaced by the power of the State and then the power of the market. Now, samaaj is at the bottom and we are struggling to make the State and the market responsive to us as citizens.”
His words had a profound impact on me, and I began to chew on the idea and read more of history to develop the theory further. I became convinced that the work of this century is to restore the balance between samaaj, bazaar, and sarkaar. I dedicated my philanthropy to keep active citizens and society at the centre, so that markets and the State are more accountable to the larger public interest.
A heartfelt thank you, Premji, for starting me on this journey.
There are many Premjis in this country, who are totally immersed in the struggle to consolidate constitutional values in society. Sometimes, they risk life and limb in the pursuit of societal transformation.
The passing on of such leaders may not be understood for the social tragedy it is, for some time to come. As various factors, including the constrictive policies of the State, force many small organisations to fold up, samaaj will feel the impact over time.
Even the smallest NGOs go where the State and market often cannot or will not. They give voice to people. They shine a light on issues which can be tackled to prevent a future cascade. They make a good society more possible.
In the memory of such social sector professionals and volunteers, we have to rededicate ourselves to the work of supporting and sustaining a resilient samaaj. What better time than this current moment?
Rohini Nilekani is chairperson, Arghyam
The views expressed are personal