Fifth Columnist: NGO blues
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 constitutes 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, presumably eying lollies on the way.

But even in this crowd, the NGOs invariably make their 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 has been left untouched by voluntary action: education, health, drinking water, sanitation, environment, industry, information — you name it. From somewhat modest beginnings in the 1960s, it is today a behemoth in every sense of the word.

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 in India, a young generation has got its teeth into an effective anti-corruption campaign after the Anna Hazare-Arvind Kejriwal inspired movement at the start of this decade, a sharper appreciation of development issues has emerged and as the 2G scam and other acts of public impropriety demonstrated in the latter half of the UPA-2 regime, 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 American and other European politicians connected to the Christian Right who consider proselytising their primary political concern.

The BJP-led government’s distaste for NGOs, therefore, is understandable. First, the party believes that the dissent from well-oiled and self-funded PR machines with a human or environmental cause is impediment to India’s staggering growth.  The now infamous leaked intelligence report of 2015 claimed that NGOs like Greenpeace were damaging the country’s economy by campaigning against key developmental projects.  This in turn has led to government pursuing bureaucratic solutions to solve human problems with the use of the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) withdrawing licenses so that NGOs cannot receive overseas donations, effectively strangling them. What’s worse, NGOs cannot appeal against the withdrawal nor is there any means to seek an explanation.

Party leaders raise the accountability quotient. If you are a company or a business, you are accountable to shareholders. Likewise, any government is accountable to its electorate, but what about a NGO? So a big NGO like Oxfam has an inbuilt accountability mechanism, for most others, such factors simply don’t exist.

There are over two million NGOs in India and it is a fact that a vast number of them do not do what they say they are doing. For every efficient, globally-known NGO helping those in need, there are a number of outfits, whose operations are less transparent and whose aims fall around the collection and spending of other peoples’ money. 

Former prime minister Manmohan Singh’s indictment of US-backed peace activists in Koodankulum for slowing down India’s nuclear  power acquisition programme falls under a similar category, albeit less pronounced.

Opinion remains divided. The NGO sector sees these government moves 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 under the current ruling dispensation and a 2010 amendment to the FCRA carried out by the UPA government, prominent groups are a bit nonplussed over the direct attacks on them.

This, they believe, is a prelude for imposing further, even more stringent, 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, particularly in those parts of the country, which are hit by extremism and civil strife. There have been sporadic admissions from the government of NGO support for pro-radical outfits in Kashmir and the North East.

Ranjit Bhushan