February 14, 2020
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Double Dissent

NGOs differ on Jan Lokpal, pick on Team Anna’s shortcomings

Double Dissent
Jitender Gupta
Double Dissent

Conflict Amongst NGOs?

  • Great response to Anna seen as success of civil society
  • NGOs agree on wiping off corruption in government, not on solutions
  • They celebrate the middle class finding voice; but mourn lack of reach among villagers
  • Divergence in views seen as healthy for debate; onus on govt to take final call


First the good news: after over 40 years of procrastination, there are suddenly three drafts of a proposed legislation to wipe off (or at least curb) corruption stemming directly from government. The fact that two of them have come from non-governmental organisations is yet another affirmation of the rising power of civil society. But the strong critique of Team Anna’s version by Aruna Roy, a member of the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information (NCPRI), which has drafted the third version, has surprised, even upset, observers. For, Aruna Roy’s team has an undeniably formidable reputation.

“I don’t buy the artificial Aug 30 deadline. We must have a public and parliamentary debate.”
Ramesh Ramanathan, Janaagraha

Is this attack, they ask, motivated by politics (Aruna Roy is also a member of the powerful National Advisory Council), or could it even have been driven by a spot of wistfulness, given the huge support garnered by Team Anna? Some of these charges were possibly made in the heat of the moment. But it does put the focus on how influential civil society groups view the cause espoused by Anna. Not surprisingly, there are markedly different takes on the way forward.

Dismissing conjectures of any government hand or rivalry, NCPRI member Nikhil Dey emphasises that civil society being the largest and the most diverse of categories outside government, there are bound to be differences. For a democratic view, “those plurality of voices have to be heard. Are we going to look at the rationale or the issues involved?” Dey asks. He bristles at the suggestion of professional rivalry. “Everyone has concerns about corruption but I don’t think the solutions are the same. They need to be rationally debated,” he says.

Deep Joshi, a member of both Sonia Gandhi-led NAC and NCPRI, reveals Aruna Roy had started wide-ranging consultations (including with some Team Anna members at the outset) for drafting a Lokpal bill in April. But for the present developments, “in the normal course, the draft bill would have been presented to the full NAC after completion of the outside consultations,” says Joshi, who is not part of the drafting team.

“If the Jan Lokpal is so important it should not be debated only by virtual people, but by real people in the last village.”
P.V. Satheesh, Deccan Development Society

To a nation used to demonstrations, picketing and hunger strikes—with the masses rarely joining in unless for a cause closely linked to them—Anna Hazare’s huge support base has struck a deep chord among NGOs. “So far we were seeing the political space shrinking for outsiders (with no political lineage),” states Amitabh Behar of Wada Na Todo, a network of over 400 NGOs.

Yet there are many like Ramesh Ramanathan, co-founder of Bangalore-based Janaagraha Centre for Citizenship and Democracy and the campaign against corruption ‘I Paid a Bribe’, who are questioning the haste with which the Jan Lokpal bill is now sought to be pushed. “I don’t buy the artificial August 30 deadline. We must have a public and parliamentary debate. A delay of 3-4 months will not take away the heat as the age of Indian irrelevance is over,” says Ramanathan. Showcasing Parliament’s will to enact an effective legislation could in fact help reinforce a public consciousness of how democracy should function.

Other NGOs attack weaknesses in Team Anna’s campaign. While describing the people’s movement as “no different from what you have heard recently in other parts of the world”, Rajesh Tandon of PRIA, an NGO working in the training space, points out: “This movement has not taken on board diverse views and thus lacks an automatic self-corrective mechanism.” This is one of the main reasons why the Anna movement has lent itself to criticism within the civil society space, with questions on inclusiveness being repeatedly raised.

“This movement has not taken on board diverse views and lacks an automatic, self-corrective mechanism.”
Rajesh Tandon, PRIA

Calling himself the development face of civil society, P.V. Satheesh of the Deccan Development Society stresses that “if Jan Lokpal is a very important issue, it should not be debated only by virtual people but by real people (in the last village and hamlet).” Unlike in the cities, where TV and the Internet kept people hooked to developments at Ramlila Maidan, there was no awareness or interest among 2,000 people in Satheesh’s village—Pastapur in Medak district of Andhra Pradesh. Ditto for the poorly connected villages of the Sundarbans in West Bengal where Mohammed Nazrul Islam, regional president of Confederation of NGOs of Rural India (CNRI), is based. Even in the tribal belts of Orissa, where the NAC’s Deep Joshi is currently, Anna’s struggle is making no impact.

That said, building on the foundation of the RTI movement, which has enabled many people to take action and led to their empowerment, the Anna movement reflects the changing face of Indian democracy. Despite the many discordant notes, Anil Bairwal, national coordinator of Association for Democratic Reforms, points out that both the civil society drafts seek a very strong Lokpal, unlike the official draft. If the government is really serious, it would strive to find a middle path and bridge the gap in credibility reposed on elected representatives. After all, he stresses, it is not just the Lokpal bill; there are innumerable other reforms bills (including electoral and judicial) pending for years.

The general mood is conciliatory. Medha Patkar stresses that the differences are mainly on the structure of the Lokpal—whether all bureaucracy, MPs and judiciary should be under one umbrella or put under different institutions: “If consensus is not there, it can be achieved through dialogue, because at heart we belong to one biradari.”

Situations such as these are likely to reappear: NGOs will have greater voice, given that inclusive development is not happening as envisaged. “The age has come when people are demanding their rights in a more vocal way, and not just in urban areas,” says Rajendra P. Mamgain, director, Indian Institute of Dalit Studies. NGOs too will compete with each other to occupy emerging political spaces for dissent and participation. Unless the government rebuilds people’s faith in the state and democracy—with room to debate divergent views—more such movements will become the norm.

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