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Navigators Of Change

As government, corporates seek to engage with NGOs, they gain new significance

Navigators Of Change
Narendra Bisht
Navigators Of Change

Brave NGO World?

  • The Planning Commission is courting NGOs for policy inputs, views on how to make plans work
  • NGOs and local activism forced govt to stall Vedanta, Posco plans
  • NGO opposition to snacks being served in schools changed plans to scrap hot meals
  • NGO have made the government rethink the Polavaram dam project
  • Their criticism of the leakage of NREGA funds led to the creation of monitoring mechanisms
  • NGOs have worked to enshrine education as a fundamental right
  • Matters related to environment clearance—like GM foods, mining —now go through public debate, thanks to NGOs.
  • NGOs played a crucial role in strengthening the nuclear liability bill, securing rights for gays

The jholawala is the latest lobbyist in town. He or she has top policymakers on speed-dial, is now feted by the media and sought out by companies eager to promote ‘India Inclusive’. It’s a remarkable, even heady, transformation. For long derided as irrelevant trouble-making activists largely focused on rural India, NGOs (registered arms of what is loosely called civil society) are basking in the warm embrace of recognition and relevance.

As recent events have shown, NGOs have played important roles in the big debates of the day. With a little help from fellow travellers—and occasionally backed by political support—they have been able to swing policy decisions in the citizen’s interest, be it stalling plans for Bt brinjal cultivation, or questioning the Polavaram dam project or bauxite mining in the Niyamgiri hills. The outcome has often hit the grand plans of corporate giants like Posco, Vedanta and Tatas. More lasting perhaps will be the civil society’s contribution in ushering in a range of rights regimes—information, education or livelihood, and soon, the right to food.

Given the apparently in-built adversarial relationship between NGOs, governments and companies, it’s a controversial thesis to put out. For every voice that celebrates the new power behind NGOs, an equal number urges caution and stresses that the ground realities haven’t changed. Is it right then to see NGOs as a necessary, important power centre? Are they really becoming indispensable in matters of governance, delivery of services or voicing the needs of the marginalised? Or is it just a politically correct trend that covers a few, high-profile outfits, leaving the vast majority just where it always was?

“The old mindset in government perceives NGOs as a challenge to non-transparency. It’s making space for partnership now.”

Eddie Premdas, Jana Arogya Andolana, Karnataka: This coalition of 150 NGOs has been strengthening the voice of communities and primary healthcare in 450 villages. (Photograph by Nilotpal Baruah)

Experts differ in their assessment of the role and relevance of ngos. “Over the last decade things have changed. We are being sought for policy inputs. The demand is also coming from below—the community, the beneficiaries, the vulnerable sections—who know their needs,” says Farida Lambay of Pratham, an important NGO in the education space. With a growing grip on best practices, Lambay feels civil society is filling the space a pole that can represent the people’s concerns and aspirations.

Policy wonk N.C. Saxena, a member of the National Advisory Council, paints a different picture. While giving credit to community health workers for making a big difference to health services without high-cost intervention, the development expert feels not all NGOs have a good knowledge of the grassroots. “In fact, a large number of them may have good intentions, but they look upon development as a zero-sum game (if the rich are losing out, the poor will gain),” he says.

Despite such concerns, the Planning Commission, backed by the prime minister, is envisaging a bigger role for NGOs in chalking out its strategy for inclusive development. For the first time, the panel is seeking inputs from leading civil society groups ahead of drafting the Twelfth Plan (2012-17) approach paper. In meetings with 15 groups, including women, the disabled, the urban poor, Dalits, tribals etc, panel members got each to arrive at a consensus on their specific requirements and innovative solutions for better utilisation of funds.

“If the govt wants to engage NGOs in policy framing, it should know who captures the voices at ground level.”

Arvind Singh, executive director, Nidan: Is providing voice to street vendors and influencing policymakers and governments to ensure basic amenities for them. (Photograph by Jitender Gupta)

“There is a procedural change: take inputs before drawing the roadmap, instead of making the building and then asking whether you like it or not,” states Amitabh Behar of Wada Na Todo Abhiyan, a coalition of scores of NGOs. Having been part of expert panels in the past, Behar has raised the bar of hope this time. “If we are able to influence the core philosophy of the approach paper, which is the guiding document for the Plan, it would be a step forward.”

Explaining the philosophy behind creating the new platform for NGOs, Planning Commission member Arun Maira stresses that many of them are implementing good innovative solutions in areas like water harvesting, literacy, skill development and panchayat-level governance without much money. The new approach is to help planners draw upon their views and “represent concerns of the citizens in a way that would be better understood by the policymakers.”

Of course, this isn’t the first time government has reached out to civil society. During the Janata Party rule in 1977, a group was set up in the Planning Commission to explore how best to use NGOs’ services. Since 1986, government funding has been provided to 12,000-plus voluntary organisations out of about 4 million registered bodies to help implement various development work, including training and advocacy programmes. Not everybody is in tune with this “privatisation” of social development work, as CPI(M) general secretary Prakash Karat puts it (see interview).

Economist Jean Dreze, for one, remains sceptical, given that NGOs are generally accountable to funders, particularly overseas ones, and not the people for whom they are working. Given their reliance on foreign, government and corporate funding, it is not unusual to see NGOs often display political, and in some cases, corporate leanings. The corporate influence seems to be growing, with many companies using NGOs to implement their corporate social responsibility activities, often a tool to win over local resistance to any industrial activity or land acquisition.

Though NGOs have the potential to be change agents, “it is rarely their strong point”, states Dreze, a strong believer in the power of collective action and “free” association. Dreze, who is linked to development issues like the Right  to Food campaign, says that characterising civil society groupings as “the new power centres” is to give them far too much weight. Prof Neema Kudva of Cornell University, who has researched the “uneasy relationship” between NGOs and the state since independence, agrees: “If we are to change development strategy, it can’t happen through NGOs. They can’t be the primary change agents. The change has to come from the ground, from strong social movements and transforming politics.”

"It definitely makes better sense to seek policy inputs as NGOs know the grassroots pulse and issues."

Dr Pradip Kumar Sarmah, Centre for Rural Development: Is working in about 20 cities to help rickshaw-pullers get better-designed vehicles, loans, insurance etc. (Photograph by Sanjay Rawat)

On the issue of relevance, however, many experts feel that despite the system exposing various rogue elements, by and large, they are able to voice the concerns of the marginalised—or else they would have no takers. But as Mohammed Haleem Khan, director general of CAPART (set up primarily to develop alternative models of development), states, “The government is yet to develop a good toolkit to assess the effectiveness and the role of NGOs.” A task force headed by Khan has recommended accreditation of NGOs to help weed out the rogue players.

As governments seeks to engage more closely with NGOs—beyond  empowering panchayat bodies, monitoring NREGA or designing water harvesting schemes and sanitation models—more complexities can be expected. Take Delhi’s Mission Convergence. Akhila Sivadas of CFAR, which works with the Delhi government to maintain a Vulnerability Index through a live census of the poor and vulnerable, admits, “NGOs can no longer play an adversarial role as they are part of governance. We have to ensure a proper percentage of funds reach target groups.”

In a model copied from Brazil, NGOs are envisaged as pressure groups meant to ensure greater transparency and improved service delivery while maintaining control on the delivery cost, which together with corruption eats up over 80 per cent of development funds. Likening their role to “canaries in the coal mine”, which alert miners of approaching danger, Maira emphasises that in the last few years, some prominent NGOs, with their global exposure, have emerged as communicators, with their ability to represent issues in the language understood by policymakers.

“Involvement in govt projects compromises your ability to criticise, as politicians do not want public criticism.”
Rajesh Tandon, PRIA

Leading NGOs concede they can’t work alone if they want to scale up operations. The option then is to plan the government way, work the NGO way. Alternatively, many NGOs are opting for stakeholders outside government in health, education and such areas. Pratham, for instance, does not take government funding but works with states like Bihar, Orissa, Chhattisgarh, Himachal, Maharashtra and Punjab in policymaking and implementation of primary education programmes. It is the critical appraisal of government policies and programmes by the likes of Pratham and Wada Na Todo that has made the government take notice and strive to rope in their services.

Despite the pressure brought to bear on the government by civil society, Ramesh Ramanathan of Bangalore-based Janagraha admits, “Not even 10 per cent of our suggestions get accepted. But there is a direction of change as the government willingness is increasing.” This in part is due to success stories like Kerala’s literacy campaign or Karnataka’s outreach programmes in 22,000 schools with civil society help. As Anurag Behar, CEO of Azim Premji Foundation, puts it, “The government is an eager partner in improving the quality of education.” Reports from many states like Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Punjab reveal a willingness of the government to engage with NGOs more effectively.

For instance, Bangalore-based ESG’s initiatives around displacement and town planning have led to a rethink on many city development projects. Similarly, Akshaya Patra Foundation in Bangalore has won over policymakers with its model for cost-effective and hygienic mid-day meals. West Bengal’s Masum is just seeing its efforts to get specialists to conduct autopsies on police torture victims yield results. Madhya Pradesh’s success in adult literacy, better rehab packages for Narmada dam oustees and improved IT infrastructure in villages are but few examples of NGO persistence.

It’s clear that many NGOs are helping government design schemes better. That by itself is a significant step. “NGOs have a responsibility to ensure that both government and corporates act with fairness, accountability, transparency,” says N.R. Narayana Murthy, chief mentor at Infosys. That smooth statement notwithstanding, NGOs remain wary—not necessarily of top political and bureaucratic pressures, but the last-mile link at delivery point. That is where all good intentions and partnerships perish.

By Lola Nayar with Sugata Srinivasaraju, Arindam Mukherjee, Dola Mitra, K.S. Shaini

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