Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) constitute a critical element of civil society and it would be no exaggeration to say that they are, in fact, its main drivers. The civil society is a motley assemblage: voluntary activists, PIL lawyers, media persons, general do gooders, public spirited fellows and lately, a sprinkling of celebrities who have jumped on the bandwagon eying lollies on the way.
But even in this crowd, the NGO will make its presence felt. Unlike the other civil society players, they know the rules of business, they can research and dig up facts which have not seen the light of the day and have the wherewithal to pursue a case for weeks, even months and years, to take it to logical fruition. In addition, they have the resources to trail relentlessly.
India is home to one of the world’s most powerful, effective and vocal voluntary sectors. There is virtually no field of activity which is untouched: education, health, drinking water, sanitation, environment, industry, information — you name it. From somewhat modest beginnings in the 1960s, it is today a behemoth.
The results of NGO activism too have been encouraging. Some major environmental acts have been enacted at the back of noteworthy ecological campaigns , there is more than ever a starker realisation of communalism post-Gujarat, a young generation has got its teeth into anti-corruption after Anna Hazare’ campaign, a sharper appreciation of development issues has emerged and as the 2G scam demonstrated, NGO action has a sharp cutting edge as well.
Some recent researches have focused on alternative themes, the most notable of which is the role of foreign-funded groups working as Christian proselytisers, mainly in India’s tribal belt, exploiting the country’s natural fault lines to whip up a frenzy of anti-state feelings and unhealthy secular relations. In an indictment of just how strongly networked such groups are, Rajiv Malhotra and Arvindan Neelkandan in their book ‘Breaking India: Western Intervention in Dravidian and Dalit Faultlines’, reveal patronages that go back to the US Congress and influential US and other European politicians connected to the Christian Right who consider proselytising their primary political concern.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s recent indictment of US-backed peace activists in Koodankulum for slowing down India’s nuclear power acquisition programme, has raised hackles. Opinion is divided. The NGO sector sees it as a direct interference in their affairs, one which is open to competitive interpretations. Coming at the heels of greater scrutiny of their sources of funding by the ministry of home affairs and a 2010 amendment to the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA), prominent groups are a bit nonplussed over a direct attack on them led by the Prime Minister himself.
This, they believe, is a prelude to imposing further curbs. Their rivals say more than 50 per cent of NGOs have yet to account for their global funding. There are still others who say there is need for greater synergy and dialogue between the government and the voluntary sector.
Happily, there is one consensus: financially hamstrung governments with archaic rules of business cannot work on their own and need the help of the voluntary sector as partners to take their development programmes down to the grassroots. In a government machinery dominated by British-Raj regulations, NGOs have been able to inject a fresh dose of vitality of thinking, displaying a much larger connect with people on ground. Not helping the NGO cause is India’s difficult security environment. Conspiracy theorists are wont to raise questions on NGO funding in those parts of the country which are hit by extremism. There have been sporadic admissions from the government of NGO support for pro-radical outfits in Kashmir and the North East.
This issue of Governance Watch takes a comprehensive look at this critical area of Indian social and political life. Along with interviews, columns and views that do not tread the beaten path, it should throw light on a subject which is both vast and significant at the same time.