This Pandemic Should Help the Govt Acknowledge the Crucial Role NGOs Play

While the government seems to appreciate the potential of NGOs in addressing the immediate aftermath of the lockdown, the need is to foster a complementary and collaborative engagement which looks far beyond.

“A crisis is the sum of intuition and blind spots, a blend of facts noted and facts ignored.” This observation made by Michael Crichton, an American author, a few decades ago could not have been more relevant to our rulers at present.

As realisation of the imminent threat posed by the COVID-19 pandemic sank in, the government took some concrete steps focusing on social distancing. The nationwide three-week lockdown was key among them.

In the aftermath of the lockdown, the prime minister reached out to NGOs. Speaking through a video link on March 30, Narendra Modi called on the NGOs to help the government during the lockdown by providing basic necessities to the underprivileged, supplying medical and protective gear, and assisting with awareness campaigns on social distancing. Exactly a week later on April 6, NITI Aayog, the think-tank of the Union government, wrote to over 90,000 NGOs, industry associations and international organisations seeking their assistance in delivering services to the poor and health and community workers to combat the pandemic.

The NGOs, and civil society in general, had already started reaching out to people who were facing crises. Even the informal groups which had come together during the recent agitation against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and National Register of Citizens shifted their focus and started helping the poor and the needy.

The outreach by the highest echelons of power, though understandable in the face of a crisis, is hugely at variance with the government’s policy of clamping down on NGOs. India has witnessed a fast-shrinking civic space and intolerance towards any kind of criticism of government policies and decisions. The last decade, regardless of the ruling dispensation at the Centre, has seen a host of adverse actions aimed at curtailing NGOs’ operations and whatever autonomy they had.

From strictures introduced through revisions of the Foreign Contributions (Regulation) Act in 2010 to the cancellation of FCRA licenses of over 20,000 NGOs in 2018 to the recent amendment to the laws governing tax exemption to NGOs thereby forcing them to register afresh every five years, the list is long and every blow more painful than the previous one.

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It is no one’s case that reasonable regulations on NGOs should not be introduced, and laws should not be implemented to address issues of their violation. But opposition to the very idea of NGOs based on the ruling dispensation’s ideology, and considering their activities ‘detrimental’ to the national interest, is certainly adversarial to the idea of a republic and the interests of its people.

An article by a serving Indian Police Service officer of additional director general rank published in the RSS mouthpiece Organiser in January this year, for instance, advocates for a complete ban on foreign funding for NGOs regardless of their purpose. It recommends that as an exception, only Overseas Citizens of India should be allowed to donate to Indian NGOs for the purpose of the preservation and study of ancient Indian texts and traditional knowledge. This is only one example of the onslaught on NGOs, with government sanction.

While foreign funding is not the only source of money for NGOs, it does constitute a substantive part of it, considering India’s constrained capacity for social sector spending on account of a low tax-to-GDP ratio of only 17 (China’s is 24, South Africa’s 28, Russia’s 30 and Brazil’s 35) and very small corporate social responsibility contribution to social sectors.

The Organiser article cites total foreign funding of over Rs 2 lakh crore during the last two decades. On the other hand, the Asian Centre for Human Rights (ACHR) had mentioned in its report (2013) that on average, around Rs 950 core were provided as grant to NGOs from both Union and state governments for the period from 2002-03 to 2008-09. Assuming, the quantum of funding remained similar over the next decade also, it would roughly amount to around Rs 20,000 crore government funding to NGOs during the last two decades, which is only about 10% of the foreign funding received by NGOs during this period.

The first pan-India exercise to enumerate NGOs and gather information about them was carried out in 2015 not by a social organisation but by the federal investigator, Central Bureau of Investigation, on the orders of the Supreme Court to assess their compliance to the regulations governing NGOs in India. The CBI reported at least 3.1 million NGOs registered across all the states and UTs in India under the Societies Registration Act. The number has since increased to over 3.4 million.

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NGOs in India play a wide range of roles including but not limited to service delivery, welfare works for community development, promoting democracy, human rights, equitable governance and citizens’ participation etc. In view of the limited fiscal space available to the government, its social sector spending remains highly inadequate.

The effects of inadequate social sector provisioning are exacerbated by the erosion of safety nets at the community level. Lack of childcare arrangements for working women, especially those in low-income groups, and decline of elderly care in families across different income groups are two examples. In such a situation, the contribution of NGOs, to marginalised sections of society in particular, assumes significance.

Coming back to the COVID-19 crisis, our response will have to be both immediate as well as long term. While the government seems to appreciate the potential of NGOs in addressing the immediate aftermath of the lockdown, the need is to foster a complementary and collaborative engagement which looks far beyond. Support in expansion of facilities and capacity in the health sector, as well as frontline service providers like ASHA, ANM and AWW etc., are obvious areas of collaboration in the medium and long run.

There are other numerous less obvious yet very crucial spheres where NGOs can play a role to enhance the effectiveness of the government’s response. For example, as the government re-prioritises its spending to address the economic impact of the crisis, the ministries and departments for marginalised communities and for social sectors such as women and children, social justice, tribal welfare, water and sanitation and education etc. will be best placed to benefit from the research-based advocacy of NGOs about protecting budget allocation for the focus groups/areas of these ministries/departments.

NGOs can also help in bridging the gaps in safety nets affecting migrant labourers, rural and urban poor as well as most marginalised communities like sex workers and transgender people etc. The lurking danger of an environmental disaster due to climate change further necessitates the need for effective and sustainable collaboration between government and NGOs. Not only that, NGOs have the human resources, expertise and experience in these areas, the re-prioritisation of international donors for addressing the aftermath of the crisis gives them the leverage to  bring some additional funds into the country, which is the need of the hour.

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However, for all this to materialise, an environment of mutual trust and respect is absolutely necessary. It can be achieved by taking a few confidence-building measures like withdrawing the newly introduced rule of NGOs having to register afresh for IT exemption every five years, which is scheduled to come into effect from June 2020.

These small measures have no consequence for the government, nor do they have any financial implications. Yet they are likely have a tremendous effect by signalling the government’s shift in attitude towards NGOs. Appreciating NGOs’ work, regardless of their approval or criticism of the government, should be the corner stone of this shift.

Asadullah works with the Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability. He can be reached at [email protected].