“When I first joined the Centre for Civil Society,” says Baishali Bomjan, referring to India’s premier libertarian think tank, “I became very confused. What were these people talking about? You see, I had grown up in a very conservative Indian family. For us, the government was the supreme power in everything, and everything government did was for the greater good of the people.”

Bhuvana Anand, now former director of research at New Delhi’s Centre for Civil Society, was never under any illusions about government. She came from a working-class family and had seen up close the adverse results of government overreach. “My parents were from Mumbai,” Anand says, “and Mumbai in the 70s and 80s was an economic mess because industry was falling apart because of a legacy of socialism and bad central planning.” 

After around a decade at the Centre for Civil Society, Bomjan, who had long ago shed the belief that government knows best, and Anand, joined together to launch a new organization, Trayas, which describes itself as “a knowledge-driven public purpose enterprise” that partners with other objective-aligned organizations and state governments in India on “transformational regulatory initiatives.” 

If Anand came to the liberty movement from her entrepreneurial parents, Bomjan’s involvement was more of an intellectual enterprise.

“Trayas is not a conventional nonprofit, it’s a public purpose enterprise,” Bomjan explains to IWF. Trayas’ suite of services includes reform planning, regulatory research and communication. “The goal ultimately is more freedom than yesterday through brick-by-brick reform,” Bomjan says.

Trayas is a word with Sanskrit roots. “We were adamant that the name we choose for the entity would be something with deep meaning in an Indian language,” Bomjan says. “In Sanskrit, Trayas means independent, or three, or third. For us, it symbolizes the relationship and interplay between the self, state, and society, and self—so, the individual, the arms of government, and the society. ‘Three’ also became a way to describe our what and how. We want to examine, understand, and show how markets work and why liberalism is a good idea for Indians. We want to achieve reason, action, and progress. The name helped us in framing both our goals and our ways of working.”

The Trayas website further explains: “Three decades since the liberalization of India’s economy, businesses in India grapple with burdensome and arbitrary regulations that thwart their growth. Trayas works with the Global Alliance for Mass Entrepreneurship and two state governments as a strategy, research, and policy lead transform the Ease of Doing Business in Punjab and Tamil Nadu. In this engagement, they identify technically correct reforms, work alongside the executive to implement recommendations, and enable effective dissemination of research findings towards greater economic freedom.” 

One area in which Trayas is particularly active is in promoting economic agency for women. To call attention to barriers women can face, Trayas published The State of Discrimination Report. 

“Legacy laws,” according to the Trayas website, often promote economic discrimination against female jobseekers. “Social attitudes can stymie women’s agency and entrepreneurial spirit,” Anand says. “But we have the state erecting hard barriers in addition to these social attitudes.” Laws and rules across India’s states prevent women from working at night, in jobs deemed hazardous, arduous, or morally inappropriate. Trayas’ report scored all of India’s states on the extent of legally sanctioned discrimination. The report drew the attention of senior policy makers, including the Economic Advisory Council to the country’s Prime Minister. They also released a series of op-eds to draw public attention to this oft ignored issue. 

The goal ultimately is more freedom than yesterday through brick-by-brick reform,” Bomjan says.

In “No Cabaret, Crooning, or Cocktails: How Laws Impact Women in India’s Hospitality Industry”, Trayas researchers highlight how state laws limit what a woman can do in the hospitality field in India. Women must obtain a special license to work as housekeepers in hotels. Women in Calcutta must get a “crooner’s license” to sing on stage, even if the hotel already has a license permitting performances. A Punjabi law prohibits women from being employed where alcohol is sold, meaning that if a woman studies hotel management, her graduate certificate might not help her get a job in some places.

Only 18.6% of working-age women in India are in the workforce, according to a Trayas data story headlined “The Curious Case of Indian Working Women,” written by Anand, Bomjan, and Sarvnipun Kaur. This is three times lower than the rate for men. According to the World Bank, India has among the lowest female labor force participation in the world, with only Arab countries showing lower rates. Women in India work in lower-paying, less secure jobs. The Trayas report does indicate that some Indian states are reviewing discriminatory laws, but such laws remain real and pervasive in India.

“The most important things to me are freedom of conscience and freedom of action, right?” Anand tells IWF. “It is important that people be able to rise economically. You are able to do what you believe you should, the right things for the right reasons. That’s what’s important about the Liberty Movement. I come from a society where there is a lot of poverty. There’s poverty all around. I lose sleep over that kind of deprivation. It’s not right. The biggest reason for this poverty is that people are sometimes unable to use their abilities, and sometimes they lack the willingness to work hard and improve their lot. Changing this is only possible if people have the freedom to work and freedom of conscience.”

Anand first saw how important it is for people to be able to direct their own economic paths growing up. “My parents were able to start a small business on the side,” she recalled. “The business was related to shipping and clearing and forwarding in India’s ports. My mom became personal assistant to people who worked in the field of manufacturing chemicals. She was low on the totem pole, but she had learned the business, she had figured out who the suppliers were, who the contractors were, and she was able to help in various small ways, and earn small commissions on that. In fact, my mother, even today, it’s been seven years since she formally retired, but she refuses to retire, and she still does what she calls consulting on the side.” Anand’s parents were able to prosper through small entrepreneurial ventures.

Bhuvana graduated from Holy Cross Convent School in Mumbai, and then went on to St. Xavier’s College, founded by the Jesuits, also in Mumbai. When she learned that she had been accepted at the prestigious Fletcher School at Tufts University in Massachusetts, Bhuvana, who was already attending liberty movement conferences and panels and had had a Koch Fellowship, feared she might not be able to afford to go. She mentioned this to the late Leonard Liggio, a classical liberal author, George Mason University professor and executive vice president of Atlas Network. “He said that money was a terrible reason not to do this,” she recalls. “He applied to Earhart Foundation on my behalf and got full support for me to go, which is one of the most incredible things that the Liberty Movement gave me.”

If Anand came to the liberty movement from her entrepreneurial parents, Bomjan’s involvement was more of an intellectual enterprise.

In “No Cabaret, Crooning, or Cocktails: How Laws Impact Women in India’s Hospitality Industry”, Trayas researchers highlight how state laws limit what a woman can do in the hospitality field in India.

Baishali Bomjan grew up in Darjeeling, a small municipality in West Bengal famous for its tea industry. “I grew up in a joint family, a huge family, middle class, very conservative. I have four brothers, so it was four brothers, four sisters-in-law, lots of nieces and nephews all back home. I studied in Loreto Convent. I’m convent educated. I went to St. Joseph’s College in Darjeeling. I majored in ecology and environmental science. My career trajectory took me to a different setting from what I expected.” Although Bomjan’s affluent family believed that government was always good for the people, she does in retrospect see a foreshadowing of liberty movement views. Her mother developed a real estate business. “She was an independent and realistic agent who believed that it was business, not a job, that led people to prosperity.”

When Baishali was 28, she landed a job at the Centre for a Civil Society, the prestigious libertarian think tank in New Delhi. At first, she wasn’t sure she belonged there. “I think I was a social liberal very, from very early on in life, but I really didn’t understand the relevance of economic freedom as much as I now do when I first started my stint at CCS. I have a small story for you. Three months into my job, I thought that perhaps the Centre wasn’t the place for me. But then we had a speaker—a man with a big beard named Sauvik Chakrabarti. He was the author of a book entitled ‘Free Your Mind.’ It introduced me to a new level of critical thinking. One thing led to another. I had a chance to work with Atlas Network and I opened up this engagement with a global network of people. And I saw firsthand, right, interacting with people, freedom champions from all over the world.

“The kind of stories they brought to these forums got me thinking about freedom and how lucky we are in India when I see things happening in North Korea, or in Hungary, or in Afghanistan. I worked with CCS for over a decade, and the first couple of years were formative and sharpened my own thought process, developing my own worldview. One part of it was attending seminars, interacting with experts, scholars and activists, but I must say my worldview really changed when I met with people, or with real interactions on the ground with people. We started running a program on school vouchers in New Delhi, and we gave about 400 vouchers to children from low-income communities in the slums of Delhi. And the first time I interacted with these parents, I thought, oh they’re uneducated, they are poor, they really don’t know how to decide what is good or bad for them, and I really went with that thought process right?” But working with poor parents who wanted better education for their children, Bomjan learned that they did, indeed, know what was best for their children. “I saw that we weren’t very different from each other. That was an ‘aha’ moment when I realized that these parents were the ones who could make the best judgments about their children’s education.”

Anand and Bomjan launched Trayas a little over a year ago. They consulted with prominent libertarian leaders such as Tom Palmer of Atlas Network and Katherine Mangu-Ward, editor-in-chief of Reason, the leading libertarian magazine. They plan to provide research that will facilitate the elimination of burdensome and arbitrary regulations.

“I want to say two important things about our purpose and why we’re doing what we’re doing,” Bhuvana says. “India is huge. We have 1.4 billion people. China is the only comparable country in terms of impact. So, we need to pay attention to how India develops. And the second part is, unlike China we are a democracy. We’re a constitutional democratic republic and we’re the closest thing, in some way, to America. And put those two things together and here is this remarkable experiment that we need to do everything in our power to get right, to help make India a functioning, rule-of-law, liberal democracy. And that is what we aim to do. It’s what keeps us up at night.”

Speaking with Bhuvana and Baishali reminds IWF just how much we have in common with freedom fighters in places like India. The fight to remove needless governmental barriers to human flourishing continues here as well as in India and around the globe, and we are gratified to know that we have allies like these impressive and dedicated women.