Empower civil society

  • 29/11/1999

In his address to parliament, president K R Narayanan said that the new government's development strategy will rest on a 'triad': the government will provide a strong policy and regulatory leadership; the private sector will bring dynamism and efficiency to the economy in a competitive environment; and, local democratic institutions and the civil society will be encouraged to bring about enthusiastic participation of the people in the development process. If this is what the government intends to do, nothing would be more welcome.

Unfortunately, the speech does not indicate how the National Democratic Alliance intends to carry this forward. Given the past track records of Indian governments, it is quite likely that these wonderful words of the President will soon be forgotten and the government will soon get lost in itself and in the private sector. For over a decade now, governments have been professing the importance of civil society but precious little has been done to empower them.

The government's approach remains highly fractured. Hardly any effort has been made to develop a coherent policy to promote this sector. A key area, for example, is the funding of the sector. At the moment, the sector remains heavily funded by foreign organisations and is supervised under the Foreign Contributions Regulations Act ( fcra ), which was promulgated during the Emergency period to monitor and ensure that foreign funds are not used for anti-national activities. But in reality the act has been used to keep the non-governmental organisations ( ngo s) under control. And politicians and government officials are quick to denounce ngo s as anti-national and foreign-funded. The important issue is not to monitor foreign funds but to monitor anti-national activity, whether it is undertaken with foreign money or Indian money.

Is there any evidence to show that those who receive foreign money are more prone to anti-national activity than those who have huge amounts of Indian money? Even if this were to be the case, though it is highly unlikely, will those indulging in anti-national activity like militant organisations in Assam or Kashmir - care to send in fcra forms to the Government of India?

On the other hand, a government truly interested in the civil society would provide tax incentives for Indians willing to fund local institutions as all governments in the West have done. This will truly help and encourage India's civil society to move away from foreign funds. Institutions like Greenpeace raise tens of millions of dollars from the public every year for their work. In 1994, individuals in the us donated $105.1 billion (Rs 4,20,000 crore) to the country's ngo s - twice the amount of North-South aid flows. India's middle class is also growing rapidly and can surely be encouraged to give funds for literacy, anti-poverty, community mobilisation, social welfare and environmental efforts. It is indeed often ironic that money raised from the middle class in the United Kingdom by groups like Oxfam has to be used by Indian ngo s to work with India's poor. The government must create this financial framework.

The current mind-set of government officials is so deplorable that the Ministry of Finance does not even encourage the un Development Programme, an intergovernmental body of which India is a member, to give money directly to the civil society. Does the government feel that the un is also indulging in promoting anti-national activity in India? At a time when the country is liberalising the private sector, these restraints on the civil society are highly undesirable.

The government feels that fiscal incentives to promote civil society will be used by businesspeople and others to siphon off their ill-gotten gains. There have indeed been such cases in the past. But then the answer does not lie in strangling what can become a highly dynamic sector whose potential is today being recognised by no less a person than the President. It lies in effective regulation to ensure that these are not misused. In fact, because of its weakness, the government turns around and makes another sector of Indian society weak.

Neither politicians nor bureaucrats know how to deal with a critical civil society that is inevitable in the social morass that the country finds itself in today. The state would like to see the civil society confine itself to social work and leave the rest to the political world. If the government truly wants to encourage the civil society, the ruling party as well as other political parties must develop a very healthy respect for it - in fact, for democracy and plurality itself - and learn to dialogue with it. In fact, if there is anything that one can learn from Gandhiji's life it is that one cannot be a good politician unless one is also a good social worker and one cannot be a good social worker unless one is also a good politician. Gandhiji combined both in his own life and encouraged all his followers to do the same. It is not surprising that it was Gandhiji who gave birth to the numerous so-called Gandhian institutions that have given birth to a large part of the modern civil society. Government must take a few lessons from Gandhiji.

- Anil Agarwal

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