From the beginning of 1930, when Indian Independence movement was taking momentum, Mahatma Gandhi called his followers to devote themselves to the work of village upliftment. It was called the ‘Village Constructive Programme’. Later the Sarvodaya Movement joined it. One of the objectives of the movement was to improve rural conditions and bring self-sufficiency among the communities. The movement aimed at mobilizing the communities and re-constructing the village life, such that people could solve their problems and meet their needs by helping themselves. It began spreading in all the regions of India thus, enabling many communities to improve their conditions.
After independence it continued; but around 1970 the movement began to lose its effectiveness and popularity. At the same time, new and independent institutions with different ideologies began emerging with the objective to organize and work with the rural and urban poor. These were pre-dominantly voluntary efforts of individuals and groups; but most of them were legally registered under Societies Registration Act of 1860.
They were known as Voluntary Agencies.
During this period the voluntary agencies working on various issues such as primary education and adult education, land alienation, protection of forest and water bodies, rights of tribal communities, economic upliftment of dalits etc. were very much influenced by the Latin American educationist and activist Paulo Freire, particularly his book ‘Pedagogy Of The Oppressed’
So it could be said that the approach of the voluntary agencies were basically ‘interventional‘ by being one with the people and the communities. Accordingly, innumerable local movements like Narmada Bachao Andolan, Save Western Ghats March, Balco Hatao Movement, Save Chilika Andolan etc. could achieve their objectives.
Soon after 1990, the Government began to involve and incorporate the voluntary organizations in various programs and schemes as intermediary bodies between the people and government departments. Thus the number of organizations began to increase and multiply and the terminology of Non-Government Organization or NGO came to being.
Language often changes the way we construct our views and vice versa. It is hard to say in this altered nomenclature from voluntary agency to NGO, what really was the order. Coming back, the approach of the NGOs was not based on interventions by being with the communities but was based more on providing services. The NGOs started acting as a mediator between the government and the people to ensure better reach, especially in difficult geographies and excluded social groups. Not an unworthy cause, one will argue, but certainly the key function then became acting as a pressure cooker really; from time to time, releasing the pressure of discontent from amidst the citizens.
In other words the once keeper of moral consciousness of our society, whose key function was to work as ears, eyes and voice of the people and hold the elected and represented leaders responsible, altered dramatically. In the 90’s and early 2000’s, a good deal of work revolved in coming up with innovative approaches like the Mitanin programme in Chattisgarh (ASHA programme in the same lines by GoI), the Employment Guarantee Scheme in Maharashtra (which was adopted as NREGA act), efforts by many SHG federations, especially in eastern and western India (which shaped the NRLM programme) were all championed by NGOs. The genesis of Right To Information and Right To Education can all be traced back to the non profits. But these are a handful; what about the others?
Cut to today, what does the scenario look like?
I am not going to shy away from drawing a gloomy image for you here. Most of the organizations that started for the upliftment of tribal and rural population might not be having their real and required presence there. People who lead these organizations in tribal and rural areas are to be rarely seen in the villages now. Even the manpower or staff members working in the difficult regions and trying situations might not be given their true remunerations, even minimum wages and doing these more due to lack of other livelihood opportunities than the true spirit of service and volunteerism (as Gandhi talks about in Hind Swaraj). Nepotism can also be witnessed in some organizations which by themselves have become self- sustaining and working more for the good of a few families of the owners and staff, than the community at large.
According to the home ministry’s dashboard, the number of FCRA registered organizations in the country has decreased from 22,832 to 16,829 as a result of the removal of 6,003 organizations. If these organizations worked according to the ethics and they were banned, why did the rest of them refuse to protest against this injustice?
So where is India leading in this matter? Is India going to lose its alternative voice? Very serious problems are happening in several regions today and how many organizations are able to come out and work towards the required changes ‘with’ the community, rather than ‘to’ the community?
A sympathetic narrative is that the reason behind this could be the changes in the attitude, objective and structure of these organizations itself, which has rendered them simply as service providers. Also the fear of being left out from the schemes and policies the government offers and their own existence in an ever tightening regulation is real. And this is a matter of great stress when looked through the mind of a young aspirant like me whose aim is to bring social change from the grassroots through direct action.
The interventions we can do for this problem for a better tomorrow must include:
- Provisions for starting an organization should be made proper to avoid the exploitation. It can be avoided by amending the old/redundant acts that exist so that these organizations cannot be formed by anyone without proper vision, values, ethics and education
- A new regulatory body like a separate ministry may be formed to monitor the non-government organizations
- But above all, the state should stop using these organizations as only the intermediary bodies for their developmental program and scheme execution
*** Written with inputs from Anupama Pain, 2010 alumni.