I am delighted to be here at the Civil 20 India Summit 2023 in this beautiful city of Jaipur. At the outset, let me take this opportunity to say that we are fortunate to have Her Holiness, Mata Amritanandamayi, or as addressed by everyone, Amma, as the C20 chair. With her humanitarian activities and spiritual guidance, she has transformed innumerable lives around us, for which she is rightly revered across the globe. On this occasion, I offer my deepest regards to Amma.
Friends, this august gathering of C-20 in Jaipur brings together many visionaries, experts, activists and change-makers from across the world. Today, I stand before you with a sense of shared responsibility and optimism for our collective future, which shall be shaped by the concerted efforts of the governments and civil society organizations. In the next 20 minutes or so, I will try to put forth my views on the same, not as the Defence Minister of India, but principally as a proud legatee of an ancient humanist civilization and a citizen of the globalized world of today.
As you all are aware, India has assumed G20 presidency in December 2022, under the visionary leadership of our Hon’ble Prime Minister. This has presented a historic opportunity to all of us to address our contemporary global challenges, through the vehicle of discussion and dialogue. Hopefully, we can also identify and implement appropriate responses to the challenges confronting our human society. The theme of India’s G20 Presidency is “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam”, which can be broadly translated as “One Earth, One Family, One Future”. This expression is drawn from our ancient Sanskrit text, Maha Upanishad, and it affirms the love and respect for the entire creation around us, be it human, animal, plant, microorganisms, or even inanimate matter. It shows that our ancient tradition does not conceptualize the process of ‘othering’ about which Toni Morrison, the Nobel laureate, has written so extensively. In India, there is no ‘othering’ on the basis of race, religion, etc. We have never seen the other as different from ourselves, and we have endeavored to embrace the whole world as our own family.
Most of you would already be aware that in our culture, we worship rivers, forests, mountains, etc. and thus, we hold even the non-living entities with great reverence. It has been said very wisely that “as is the microcosm, so is the macrocosm”, which has also been very beautifully captured in Sanskrit language as “यत् पिंडे तत् ब्रह्माण्डे” meaning “जो सूक्ष्म में है, वही विवर्त में है”. This statement encapsulates a very profound wisdom that has also contemporary relevance in the age where the ravages of climate change are staring us all in our faces. The ruthless over-exploitation of nature to serve the insatiable human greed has led to pollution, environmental degradation, and of course, the climate change. The approach of “One Earth, One Family, One Future” provides us a better way to live our lives and to structure our socio-economic systems.
The Civil 20 Engagement Group, or the C20, which was launched as an official G20 Engagement Group in 2013, plays a very crucial and important role under the rubric of G20. It provides a platform for Civil Society Organizations from around the world to bring forth non-governmental perspectives on the issues being taken up by the official G20.
It gives an alternative, non-governmental voice to the people’s aspirations from across the globe. I am aware that there are various C20 working groups, which are working on diverse domains ranging from Integrated Holistic Health, Education and Digital Transformation, Gender Equality to Technology, Security, and Transparency. These have the potential to impact official policies and programs, across all the dimensions of social, economic and environmental challenges that we face today.
Friends, when we speak about civil society, there are various perspectives on it. Some see the civil society as the space of voluntary associations and intermediary institutions that exist between the individual and the state. At times, it has also been stated that the civil society necessarily works in contradiction or opposition to the State. However, in my humble opinion and understanding, this view-point is not the correct one. The Civil Society organizations are not intrinsically antithetical to the State apparatus. We have plenty of examples, where both the government and the Civil Society have played a complementary role in enhancing the human well-being.
There are various sectors, ranging from education to health sector, from gender equality to environment, where both Governments and the Civil Society institutions have worked hand-in-hand and have achieved significant quantifiable progress. In the immediate context of the present day India, many of the Government’s landmark initiatives such as Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, Beti Bachao Beti Padhao Abhiyan, etc., which have brought significant transformational and attitudinal changes in the society, were complemented by the herculean efforts made by various Civil Society Organizations in these fields. In fact, at a broader level, it can be asserted that a robust and enlightened Civil society is essential for a functioning democracy, as it enables the citizens to engage in deliberative dialogues and cooperative efforts, outside the adversarial arena of electoral politics, towards achieving the national objectives.
Friends, sometimes, we tend to think that the emergence of Civil Society is a modern phenomenon. But, even a cursory look at our history tells us that it is not so. In our ancient traditions, we find various examples as to how we had robust civil society structures way back then, which played a significant role in shaping the socio-cultural and political fabric of their societies. The Rajas, that is the kings, ruled by upholding the Rule of Law or Dharma, the comprehensive Charter of duties that a raja was supposed to perform, ranging from providing peace, security and order to the people, promotion of art and culture, enforcing justice, to the welfare of people, and much more. It was primarily the contemporary civil society organizations and structures which were instrumental in operationalizing the ideals of Dharma mentioned earlier by me. We have the prominent examples of Buddhist Sanghas, profession-based shrenis (श्रेणी) or merchant-guilds, charitable endowments and institutions, academic institutions called ashramas and gurukulas, temples, dharmasalas, monasteries, etc. These civil society structures fostered a sense of unity of purpose and harmony of interests, among the populace, and participated in innumerable social affairs, thereby assisting the king in the business of governance. They played a crucial role in shaping India’s social, cultural, and political landscape and the proper functioning of the social machinery.
Friends, as we fast-forward to the current age and look at the modern democratic traditions, we observe a very healthy growth of Civil Society Organizations across the globe. They have positively impacted the policy making in various areas. In modern times, civil society organizations play a very important role in reflecting the concerns of the peoples around the world.
Friends, I have been saying that the governments and the civil society organizations can complement each other, but it is not the same thing as saying that they are one and the same. Of course, the two are different. The functioning of the Government and Civil society is different from each other. Ideally, the government is guided by Constitution of the realm and the laws subsisting under it, and thus, the Government apparatus is more rigidly organized, structured and institutionalized by its very design.
The dreams, aspirations, thoughts, ideas, needs, requirements, hopes of the people and the corresponding actions, once they become structured, aggregated and organized at the national level, get integrated into government policies and programs through a formal process. Usually, the Government’s initiatives on any subject broadly represent the ideas of a substantial majority.
But it usually takes some time to translate a new or novel idea to become an accepted idea of a substantial majority. In modern state structures, as the governments have the monopoly of lawful coercive power, the governments cannot act in a hasty manner on novel, untested ideas. Otherwise, chaos and instability may injure the social well-being.
Friends, in this context, civil society organizations have plenty of scope and opportunity to play a significant role by their very design. Civil society organizations have fluid, informal, less structured, and nimble-footed structures. They provide a greater scope for new ideas, themes, processes and practices to play out in the society. Traditionally, civil society operates in a bottom-up approach and is more responsive towards the ever shifting ground realities.
Friends, we live in the era of market economies, where the motifs and concepts of economy and business permeate every discussion. We also sometimes, tend to speak in the figurative language of business.
Here, if we speak in modern business parlance, Civil Society Organizations act as incubators for new ideas and practices, which if found successful and beneficial at the micro level, can be scaled up at the macro level by the government agencies. We have numerous examples in this regard. Earlier, many charitable institutions were active in some schools for provision of a healthy meal to the needy students. This was subsequently incorporated in the Mid-Day Meal Scheme of the Government. Similarly, the current regulatory architectures in modern states for professions, businesses, etc are scaled up and refined versions of the bygone internal regulatory systems of civil society organisations such as artisan and merchant guilds or shrenis (श्रेणी) in India, Europe, etc.
Friends, the point I am getting to is that the afore-mentioned comparative advantages of the Civil Society Organizations and the traditional Government structures can be harnessed for the overall progress of the society. Civil Society organizations can act as force-multipliers for the governments. In India, Civil Society organizations have made many noteworthy contributions in improving the quality of life our people, particularly in the health and education sector. Their consistent and determined efforts, for the betterment of the vulnerable groups, have significantly altered the social and economic landscape in a very positive manner. In my mind, there is no better example than Amma herself. Her selfless contribution towards alleviating the pain and suffering of the poor, along with the charitable activities in the field of healthcare, disaster relief, women empowerment, etc. are non-pareil. Amma, you are a true inspiration for all of us and to all the Civil Society Organizations across the world.
Friends, if we look at the inception of G20 after the Asian Financial crisis of 1999 as a forum for Finance Ministers and Central Bank Governors, it was primarily to discuss ways to maintain international economic and financial stability. Later, in the wake of the Global economic and financial crisis of 2008, G20 was upgraded to the level of Heads of State or Government. Although, its scope has significantly expanded since then to cover various areas ranging from sustainable development, health, energy, environment to anti-corruption, it still is primarily designated as the “premier forum for international economic cooperation”. G20’s focus on economy encompasses economic development, improvement of quality of life, standards of living, etc.
Friends, if we want to work towards realizing these noble objectives, then we have to look at the different agencies involved in the process. To begin with, the Governments function as domestic regulators, act as facilitators and provide basic framework and architecture under which holistic development takes place. At the global level, governments engage with one another, so that international trade and commerce can flourish and movement of human, capital and material resources can go on as smoothly as possible, subject to national constraints.
Friends, moving beyond the governments, if we identify the principal stakeholders and participants in this developmental processes, we notice that these mainly comprise workers, consumers, firms, business leaders, managers, women’s organizations, trade unions, peasant organizations, volunteer organizations, professional associations, religious and charitable institutions, etc., and these all constitute the broader civil society.
Similarly, if we look at both G20 and C20, it is important to note here that while G20 is a rigidly structured forum, C20 can represent numerous civil society organizations from across the spectrum. Thus, while there is only one G20 forum, there can be many fora of C20. It is so because C20, by its very nature of being related to the civil society, has the unique ability to accommodate diverse ideas and themes, coming from different sections of humanity. The flexible, inclusive approach of C20 forum can both learn from and teach the G20 forum, leading to further improvement in the design and implementation of policies and programs at the global level. Thus, at the levels of C20 and G20, there exists a symbiotic relationship through which a positive feedback mechanism can be established. Hence, a need to nurture this relationship on a sustained basis.
Friends, I would like to convey my sincere thanks for giving me the opportunity to express my views. Once again, I express my abiding reverence for Amma. With her profound wisdom, I hope that she will always act as a guiding light, for one and all.
Friends, as I conclude, I want to say that we are all in the same boat, sharing the same ‘pale blue dot’ that our planet is, sharing the same ancestry and the nearly identical genetic code. Our problems are similar, and at any rate, interconnected. The solutions, therefore, have to coordinated and harmonised. The scale of threats we face and opportunities we have are colossal. The immensity of the tasks ahead of us requires all of us, the governments and the civil society organisations, G20 and C20, and everyone else to work together for creating a better world around us. Invoking a beautiful phrase, together we can and we will.