The roots of volunteerism lie in the very ethos of the Indian tradition, culture and understanding. Every religious stream regardless of its antiquity and regional affiliations has embedded within its fabric the elements of tolerance, peace, service and values and these are the values and tenets which are broadly applied by civil society organisations, including the NGOs.
The growth, evolution and development over the years of the NGOs has been debated, contested and often appreciated based on their relationship with the establishment. Given the size and role that NGOs play in Indian development, the importance of the sector has only grown due to grassroots intervention and various initiatives to empower citizens. Lately the role of NGOs in streamlining their public awareness campaigns on a range of issues including to sensitise public on fighting corruption, environmental violations by the government and corporate sector and fixing accountability of the government to provide effective delivery mechanisms to serve people better, have been redefining the state and NGO relationship in the recent past. Some events following these do not augur well for democratic traditions and vibrant democracy that India is.
India currently is the world’s largest capital, housing nearly million NGOs of all types and kinds dotting every nook and corner in the country and undertaking various activities that range from spreading awareness through advocacy, delivery of essential services to fighting against corruption, inefficiency of the establishment, human rights and whistle blowing against the system. Lately, NGOs nuanced stand against the nuclear power plant in Tamil Nadu seems to have sparked a fresh row on its utility for people of the state dividing the establishment and the NGOs starkly.
If one were to follow the contours of the relationship between the establishment and the NGOs over a long period of time, one would notice a trend that is hard to ignore. The trend has been one of cosiness at times and at other times adversarial. There are also instances where the state collaborated with the NGOs and an equal number of instances where the two came face to face with each other. Some examples where the two came to collaborate include working together on developmental projects with resources being contributed by the state and where the two sides came face to face where the state was challenged by the NGOs on the issue of fresh enactment of FCRA in 2007 when the state decided to repeal the 1976 act by a fresh legislation that triggered a debate on whole range of issues, the two sides again taking a nuanced stance.
Some of such examples only prove that the relationship between the state and the NGOs has been driven by mutual convenience and co-option. In the process many NGOs blame the state for having failed to have defined the relationship between the two, unlike what the state has done vis-a-vis the corporate sector. Over the years, there have been several attempts made to bring about reconciliation between the state and NGOs, but not successfully so far. One of the best attempts made in this direction has been from the Planning Commission, which on several occasions provided both support and platform to the NGOs to leverage the relationship to further build up its cross sectoral bridges with other ministries and government departments.
In March 2000, the Planning Commission was declared as a nodal agency for the interface between state and NGOs. In 2007, it came up with a national policy on voluntary sector, which was essentially written by senior NGO professionals in the country.
The commission also started a civil society window to give space to their voices and take their inputs for planning and development of various people-centric schemes. It also provided the NGOs a mechanism to enrol themselves on the website of the Planning Commission to be able to have access various government grants. Efforts were made to involve civil society organisations both in deciding the plan document and also to put them through the finance ministry to enable them to articulate their perspectives on development issuesbefore the budget.
(Pandey is executive director, UN Global Compact Network India.)