“Civil Society in Changing India: Emerging Roles, Relationships and Strategies”
A series of Roundtable Consultations were conducted between January – March, 2012 in the states of West Bengal (Kolkata), Maharashtra (Pune), Kerala (Madurai), Karnataka (Bangalore), Madhya Pradesh (Bhopal), and Gujarat (Surat). The idea was to develop an understanding of the issues and challenges being encountered by the Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) in the backdrop of the ensuing socio-political and economic changes in India. The discussions also delineated the future roadmap to be pursued in order to cope with the changing contexts globally as well as in India.
- The greatest challenge of the CSOs is to understand the values for which they are working and to plan/ redesign accordingly. The sector is facing a crisis of vision and identity as well; thus need for a sectoral review in order to plan future course of action is required, especially in the present context where the NGOs are either in the loop of the government or of the market forces, thereby losing their independent identity.
- Politicisation of the CSOs. Throughout India, many CSOs have not been able to maintain a non-partisan and non-partial approach
- Civil Society (CS) sector suffering from generational stagnation; how to overcome and march forward? Most of the CSOs are not fine-tuning themselves and hence not able to keep pace with the changing context.
- CSO’s are facing a crisis of leadership. What role is envisioned for the youth in this sector?
- The face of civil society has been used by many (like fundamental religious groups/ business associations for e.g. FICCI) to satisfy their parochial and vested interests.
- Lack of depth, transparency and professionalism within the Non-Governmental Organization (NGO)s in India; the issues of accountability, legitimacy and deficits in functioning of the NGOs are to the tee. Are they accountable to the funders, sponsors, promoters or to the beneficiaries for whom they are working? Questions relating to the credibility of the NGOs are coming up.
- To find ways of coping with the donor agencies’ tendency to impose rigid criterions on the recipient organisations and thereby influencing the latter. To find strategies to cope with the contracts and the externally driven agendas that are forcefully imposed on the NGOs either by the government or by the donor agencies; the NGOs, unable to refuse or resist, are responding with deteriorated quality of work.
- There is a need for local sensitization; programs of the CSOs should be based on the needs and expectations of the locality. The focus should not be towards hampering the lifestyles of the local and indigenous people and encourage displacement or destruction in the name of development. Rather efforts should be driven towards research and analysis of the local contexts and plan accordingly.
- The FCRA and DTC regulations are becoming over-arching on the CSOs; in spite of good work they are unable to cope up with the regulations and the real work at the ground is being compromised under this regulatory environment.
- There is an increased role of the market and the CSR initiatives of the corporates with the voluntary organisations moving out of the social space and subsiding into oblivion. On a different note, a common phenomenon is the growth of the corporate funded and launched NGOs as tax saving mechanisms for the for-profit unit of the corporate houses.
- The Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is currently interpreted as emerging source of funds. Better understanding of corporate – civil society relationship, focusing more on convergence of values and approaches is required.
- The government policy of siphoning funds only through its approved list of NGOs reinforces the problem of limited access of government funds for the ‘non-approved’ NGOs outside its list. This also buttress the idea that the government looks at the NGOs as just sub-contractors/ implementers of the programmes therefore hindering the possibility of a proper partnership between themselves. Also, there is a tendency to ignore the more critical NGOs and only the ‘approved’ ones are taken into account.
- In the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh the government is trying to co-opt the Voluntary Organisations through ‘Jan Abhiyan Parishad’, a state-government affiliated forum for the VOs. More so, only the government ‘approved’ NGOs are receiving funds from the government irrespective of their credibility where as those outside the government’s list are struggling for survival.
- There is an increasing disjoint between the traditional CSOs and the new grass-root movements; though some of the established organisations definitely came forward with their information, resources, expertize in order to help the movements like POSCO or the Anna upsurge. But in general, the survival/ existence of the CSOs and their supremacy become so important that they do not want to associate themselves with the spontaneous movements.
- The role of civil society has historically shifted from sacrifice/ voluntarism/ charity to movements/ advocacy/ policy making/ interventions; as a result, the younger generation coming into this sector are taking it more as a professional career devoid of spirit of voluntarism. How these two can be addressed is a major challenge.
- With increased depletion of natural resources globally, there is an increasing need for CSOs to engage with such issues. Similarly in India, depletion of natural resources in such regions has led to impoverishment in some states and there needs to be larger involvement of CSOs.
- Politicisation of media. How can media creep into the CS composition with an independent identity/ stand and free of external influences.
- Networking and linkage amongst the various CSOs is very important in order to strengthen the sector from within and voice the challenges jointly.
- Rebuilding the reputation of the CS sector as a whole is very important; need to engage in introspection from within with parallel processes of trainings and capacity building and staff development.
- In order to rebuild the image of the sector as a whole, there is a need to introduce mechanism of self-regulation to strengthen accountability and transparency. This also needs a rigorous budgeting system. Besides, the sector should also pass through a deep analytical exercise and thereby develop an appropriate image which in turn can help earning recognition of its work. It should not be forgotten that the governance deficit towards the NGO sector is due to the gaps in systemic organisation of the sector as a whole.
- To find ways of coping with the donor agencies’ tendency to impose rigid criterions on the recipient organisations and thereby influencing the latter.
- Find strategies to cope with the contracts and the externally driven agendas that are forcefully imposed on the NGOs either by the government or by the donor agencies; the NGOs, unable to refuse or resist, are responding with deteriorated quality of work.
- Involving the academic institutions in the data generation processes of the CS; CSOs, specifically those engaged in policy advocacy, hardly have any links with the professional academic institutions; it is important to involve the academic institutions into meaningful and socially relevant research for the benefit of the CSOs.
- Information flow within institutions (inter) and mapping of work (intra) being done which can be generated into a database available in the public domain for future reference.
- Need for the formation of a standard set of eligibility criterions in order to be called as ‘civil society organisation’. This is specifically relevant in the context of the mushrooming growth of NGOs/CSOs in India.
- Need for a detailed research on the same in order to explore newer ways of engaging with the corporates’ social initiatives. To analyse whether the CSR initiatives are complementing the efforts of the voluntary sector. Those CSR activities that come in the form of supplementing the depletion of natural resources (because of the profit-making ventures of the corporates) should be carefully dealt with? Opposed? Here the question of ethics is coming up. Rather, it is important to analyse whether the CSR activities create an environment for facilitating its own development as opposed to social welfare.
- To be open towards exploring new and innovative methods to engage with the growing middle class and the corporate (or market-based) actors. As acknowledged that market force will only become more conspicuous in the coming years therefore the need to keep an ‘open’ mind towards CSR initiatives.
- The idea of addressing development issues with the help of foreign money only should be discarded; Nature of collaboration in order to use the in-country money (either the government or the corporate houses) should be rethought by the CSOs.
- To review the various sub-sets within the CSOs and assess which level is more vulnerable? NGO or CBO?
- Need to focus and explore the virtual internet platforms that have generated an alternative civil society space.
- Focus on the religious institutions operating in and around Tamil Nadu, especially churches in this context is important.
- Proliferation of welfare schemes from the Tamil Nadu/ Gujarat governments is curbing the CS space?
- Role of caste groups increasing in civil society? Need to analyse what values do the Khap Panchayats or the organizations controlled by Patels in Gujarat promote.
- Self-governance of the NGOs and adhering to a standard code of conduct (defining internal governance, ethics and practices) is very important in order to maintain the credibility of the sector.
- The role of civil society in gearing up social movements globally in various countries of the world, may it be the Anna upsurge in India or the movements in the Middle East instrumental in declining the decades long dictatorial regimes cannot be denied. However, the sustainability of these movements depends on strong leadership as well as the amount of support gained from the larger society.
- Need to review the existing/ out-dated laws like the Charities/ Public Trust Act in the present civil society context
- The relationship between CSOs and the government is one of acrimony and distrust with regard to each other’s activities/ roles. Need for development of a collective understanding between state and civil society organization whereby they complement each other’s work and not hinder development related work.
- Creating agenda for multi-stakeholder dialogue and collaboration (Civil Society, academic institutions, governments, corporates, media etc.)
- CS should be in a position to negotiate spaces within market and policy making institutions.
- It was felt that evaluator reports were not getting fed into any policies as a result it was suggested that CSOs undertake more rigorous evaluation which can be linked up to policy making
- Making local governance institutions i.e. panchayats more effective.
- It was also suggested that CSO actors conduct an internal review to ‘show’ the impact of the work the CSOs have done in the last few decades. This would help in spreading awareness about the organisation and collectively about the sector as well.