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Oh, What A Racket!

The hills are alive with the buzz of self-seeking NGOs, many existing only in name

Oh, What A Racket!
Tribhuvan Tiwari
Oh, What A Racket!
Lush forests are not the only bounty that Uttaranchal got in its kitty after it became a state in November 2000. It also got close to 45,000 NGOs—mind-boggling for a state so tiny, with a population of only 84.7 lakh. Records from the offices of the chief commissioner of income tax and the registrar of societies confirm this huge NGO presence. What has also come as a surprise to the authorities is the unusually high density of NGOs in a state with 13 districts. That's nearly 4,000 NGOs per district!

When Uttaranchal's IT commissioner Ashwini Luthra initiated a survey of NGOs in May, he did not expect to chance upon a fraud that runs into crores of rupees. "When the IT department started collecting data, we found that many NGOs did not actually exist or were non-functional," says Luthra. "Yet, money is being pumped into trusts, educational societies, NGOs and ashrams all over Uttaranchal." While the IT office lists a total 44,824 groups, the office of the registrar puts the figure at 41,826.

No wonder then that Uttaranchal's NGO community is rife with allegations of corruption and diversion of funds. Amidst the profusion, one can find registered NGOs such as the Mahila Vikas Sansthan and Priyadarshini Himalayan Seva Institute that don't exist at their addresses, educational societies that have run up huge accounting discrepancies, and blacklisted NGOs that are ostensibly unaware of their disrepute.

Take, for instance, the Bal Evam Mahila Kalyan Sansthan in Dehradun's Nehru Nagar. This NGO has been blacklisted by the Central Social Welfare Board (CSWB) for "non-refund of loans and non-submission of accounts", but its founder-director Parmanand Agarwal denies it outright. "In the past, we have run a tailoring centre, training sessions for making incense sticks and health relief camps with funds from CAPART. Who says we have been blacklisted?" asks Agarwal. He took voluntary retirement from the army to pursue his "mission", which is to provide "literacy, health and employment for the people of Uttaranchal". His tiny one-room office, which sits atop his residence, houses the meagre tools of his mission: a computer, a typewriter, two desks, government pamphlets and a telephone.

Since 2001, Agarwal's NGO has been running a tele-counselling centre for HIV/AIDS under a Rs 2.74 lakh grant from the National AIDS Control Organisation. "People call every few minutes asking about HIV/ AIDS," he informs us and opens a register to show calls recorded at two-minute and three-minute intervals. However, in the one hour we sat in his office, there was not a single call. Agarwal insists it is because it's "lunch break", presumably for callers too. Neither he nor his colleague Dinesh Chand seem to know much about HIV/ AIDS. "Hum pamphlet se padh ke batate hain (We read out answers to queries from the pamphlets)," explains Chand.

Faced with reports and allegations of such misconduct, Dehradun's district magistrate ordered a survey of registered NGOs and societies in June last year. Dehradun district is home to 7,469 NGOs, the largest concentration in the state. The initial results of the survey show that of 223 organisations checked so far, 139 NGOs and societies are fraudulent or registered only on paper. "It is quite evident that barely 10 per cent of the NGOs in Dehradun district are functional. The rest just sit there, waiting for funds to come by," says chief development officer P.S. Jangpangi. He says the situation in the rest of Uttaranchal is "even worse".

Examination of bank accounts has yielded irregularities in the funds of many NGOs. The Van Karamchari Welfare Society, for instance, could not identify the source of Rs 4.6 lakh in its bank account when questioned by officials of the District Programmes Office (DPO).Setting up schools appears to be another racket. In October last year, a survey of educational societies by the IT department showed unaccounted funds to the "tune of several crores", says an IT official. However, Devender Mann, chairman of the Doon International School Education Society (not to be confused with the renowned Doon School), which is one of the schools surveyed, dismisses it as "baseless". "We are a no profit, no loss society. All the money we earn from students is spent on improving school facilities," he says.

Furthermore, a rough estimate by the registrar's office shows that nearly 10,000 NGOs and societies have been registered since Uttaranchal was created. "After schools, NGOs are the sunrise industry," says Geetanjali, a social worker with the development NGO Rural Litigation and Entitlement Kendra (RLEK).

"Many paratroopers, lured by the funds on offer for a newborn state, have come in and set up NGOs," alleges RLEK chairman Avdhesh Kaushal. Uttaranchal is one of the few states that enjoys special status with regard to central government development funds. Besides, several international aid agencies too have pitched their tents here. "There is money to be had, respect to be earned and very little work to be done. No wonder, starting an NGO is a very attractive option," says Kadambari Gosain, who helps her husband S.S. Gosain run the Kunwari Human Development Institute in Dehradun.

The Gosains, however, have run into financial difficulties and now run private vocational training courses even though their institute is registered as a 'no profit, no loss' one. "We are poor and honest. Why don't you talk to all those relatives of government officials who have also started their own NGOs?" asks Gosain.

There is much speculation among the NGO community about the wives of Uttaranchal's bureaucrats running NGOs to line their pockets. But in the absence of any proof, the suspicion is mostly based on observation and hearsay. "These NGOs never participate in workshops and meetings, so we don't know what they do. They say they have no sources of funds but they bring out glossy calendars and stationery every year," says J.M. Singh of NGO Mamta Samajik Kendra, which works on health-related issues in the Chakrata region.

The government policy itself may be a reason for the mushrooming of NGOs. Says Sushil Sharma of Aarohi, which has been working in the Nainital-Almora region for 15 years, "Top government officials have been mindlessly promoting development through the creation of women's self-help groups, which are registered as societies." At present, registered mahila and yuva mandals, which are intended as grassroots empowerment groups for women and the youth under a CSWB scheme, number 20,401. Meanwhile, Singh argues that development NGOs should be registered separately from religious, cultural and educational societies in order to bring the number down to "manageable" levels.

Uttaranchal is not the only state in the country with such a large number of registered NGOs and societies—Maharashtra has approximately 50,000. But the number is suspect because of the state's size. According to Sanjay Bapat of the website www.indianngos.com, which maintains a database of NGOs in India, of the 20 lakh registered NGOs and societies in the country, only 30,000 or so are actually doing developmental work. How many of these are in Uttaranchal is anybody's guess.

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