Civil Society Operations : Are they Opposed to Development?

Dr. Rao VBJ Chelikani

Recent trends indicate that our NGOs are becoming more and more efficient in their management capacities and are in a collaborative mindset with the governments in the interest of scaling up their operations in multifarious domains. They are proving to be a fertile source for social innovations. Departing, vastly, from the traditional ‘poor feeding’ approach, the new generation of NGOs place high value on the worth and dignity of the needy person and treat him with respect. There is a definite cost-effectiveness in their operations. They are able to draw from the vast pool of talents, expertise, and experience available in the society with genuine interest, in contrast to the previous situation, where people used to set up NGOs for self-employment. They deal with all human beings, whether s/he is a citizen or not, or a voter or not.  The Central Bureau of Investigation, conservatively, estimated them to be around 20 lakhs involved in the developmental activities. Around 30,000 of them can be considered as national in their outreach.
There is a definite cost-effectiveness in the operations of NGOs today. They are able to draw from the vast pool of talents, expertise, and experience available in the society with genuine interest, in contrast to the previous situation, where people used to set up NGOs for self-employment.

  • Many later generation civil society movements concerned with nature, environment and pollutions are criticized for appearing to be always opposed to development due to their strong passion for certain causes and deep sensitivity to certain situations. They are able to, easily, mobilise people who do not, always, understand the other dimensions of a core issue but who are definitely, affected by the project. In such circumstances, the NGOs are not known to be joining the local authorities, political representatives, and officials in negotiating with the local people in order to reconcile their direct and immediate interests with that of the larger interests of the whole society. In certain cases, one might have to ignore the objections of the local interests in the larger interests, while proving that there is no hidden political agenda behind such a decision.

  • It happens that some activists or organisations or political activists might take up such issues in order to fuel agitation or to justify their ideological positions. One can easily dramatise a situation by projecting some immediate victims and try to gain media attention, without any research on alternative solutions. We have seen in the case of environmental issues, in particular, that it is possible for a person to be fundamentalist, setting aside wide and long term priorities of the human being. Yet, we should uphold the privilege of an NGO to be idealist.

  • Who should have the upper hand in a tussle between an activist and the authorities? In this prosecution of intentions, often, the operations would be paralysed and the situations would further deteriorate. In the case of the Narmada river dam project, neither the benefits of the dam reached the locals nor the rehabilitation of the evacuated people completed. Inordinate delays in the execution of projects and cost over-runs are often attributed to the challenges raised by the civil society organisations (cs). Since the people have given a mandate to the political representatives (reps) to take decisions and to operate, a rep has a right to make mistakes also. The CS activists have no moral right to stop or to delay a project indefinitely, though they have every right and obligation to influence the decision-making process and to improve the quality of the operation. They have even the obligation to try to get the decision changed. In case, they fail after all the efforts, they should, finally, turn towards the stake-holders and voters to encourage them to make a better choice at the time of next elections. Meanwhile, the will of the elected executive authority should prevail.

  • Does the civil Society hinder or delay the functioning of the governments and its growth targets? The Economic Survey  2012 published before announcing the annual budget did think that it did, though it blamed the coalition politics also.  A recent Intelligence Bureau report on the “Concerted Efforts of Select Foreign-funded NGOs” cast serious aspersions. The report also alleged that these NGOs had a negative impact on GDP growth by 2-3 per cent by stalling projects, such as, nuclear power plants, uranium mines, coal-fired power plants, genetically-modified seeds and products, etc. Only history would tell us whether it was justified, or whether it is the bureaucratic way of handling and the opposing political parties that are, really, responsible for such consequences.

State and the Dissent

Another accusation that is levelled against the activists by the people in power is that they are politicised. They are, often, perceived as unofficial opposition to the party in power. But, the political role of a civil society activist has never been directly related to the conquest of power but only to influence power. Its mission has, always, been to increase people’s participation in the decision-making. Today, we favour democracy as the most acceptable form of governance because a citizen has opportunities to raise solid barrage against political arbitrariness, without the fear of victimisation. Sometimes, the NGOs might take up certain causes, believing in the famous expression of Voltaire: “I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” The CS have been providing a platform for the ruled to express their dissent in an informed, reasoned and non-partisan manner. In fact, the history of progress of mankind is a history of informed dissent; much of creative activity in all areas of human endeavour has been reflected in such dissent. But, in authoritarian or dictatorial or colonial regimes, dissent led to the severe punishments, as in Hitler’s Germany or in Stalin’s USSR.

  • Now in the 21st century, the public opinion is being collected and reflected by the CSO, directly, in a more organized way through the traditional media as well as the social media. In addition to those popular expressions of the pulse of the people by way of random surveys, they ventilate the conscious voice of the elite and the intelligentsia also.They reflect but do not claim to numerically represent the society. In other words, they represent the moral conscience of the society.

  • Thanks to Gandhi, we have evolved, after long experiments, some unique practices of people’s actions that have become models even for the civilised societies, such as, passive resistance, civil disobedience, boycott, Satyagraha, Hartal, Bandh, and, finally, indefinite fasts which became very powerful tools. Many governments, which do not respect human rights, even after signing many international covenants and treaties, try to close the channels of communication and participation to the foreign NGOs, fearing the pressure from international circles. The local NGOs, which collaborate with outside international NGOs are, easily, accused of being ‘foreign agents’ or abettors of outside political interference.

It would be unrealistic to expect the activists to work for free. Their efficient and professional functioning demands decent salaries and facilities for extensive travelling. Thus support from diversified sources like the governments, private sector, trusts and foundations, as well as international organisations should be accessible to them liberally.


i). Foreign Aid:   The first generation of NGOs, after independence have been very much focused on developmental issues independently or in cooperation with local, state and central government officials, with or without grants from outside. Contrary to many of the developing countries, the Indian NGOs, both national and local have been very autonomous and did not depend, too much, upon foreign aid for their existence. However, the foreign aid that has been received by the Indian NGOs has been very substantial since the Sixties, since India was considered as the poorest country in the world. Till a couple of years ago, the funds being received by the NGOs were estimated to be in the order of three thousand crore rupees, per annum.

a). It would be ungrateful, if we do not admit that India of the 60s was, utterly, dependent upon foreign food and aid. The free shipments of American wheat under PL 480 programme and other food stuffs from other countries were desperately awaited. The erstwhile Soviet Union also had offered many facilities to buy food items. It would be hypocritical to ignore the fact that much funding was also received from the American NGOs and foundations like the Ford Foundation and the Rockefeller foundation. The Green Revolution was made possible by the studies and research carried out by foreign funding only. The gates to the American universities were, initially, wide open to the bright Indian students thanks to these Foundations. Much later, the American corporate philanthropy has started inspiring the Indian corporates as well. All said and done, we should not ignore the fact that the Indian bureaucracy and not the National NGOs that remained till very recently, the largest recipient of foreign aid and loans, directly, from both multi-lateral and bi-lateral agencies.

b). Further, we cannot say that all foreign funding is bad by itself. While the rich Indians of the early generations were notorious for their insensitiveness to the miseries of the human beings next door, many individuals and governments from the so-called liberal democracies of the North American and West European countries, had been showing extra-ordinary generosity and human solidarity. Of course, it is also an undeniable fact that except the USA, the European countries became prosperous due to their colonialist past. In such context, what was wrong in receiving funds from such individuals or bona fide organisations abroad who wanted to help a worthwhile cause in India? At the same time, we never remained dependent and pursued a determined policy of self-reliance for national development. Now, rewriting history, are we not, year after year, increasing our budget allocations for international and bi-lateral aid? But, while doing so, we are adopting the old modalities of acting through diplomatic and bureaucratic channels and committing the mistake of showing the state as the generous donor and not the people. Japan and Germany, for example, are operating abroad, instead, through their private sector and their national NGOs. In a globalised and humanised world, the human solidarity cannot be expressed through politicians and diplomats. Now, some successful Indian-alumni have been generously donating to the American universities,to which they are very much indebted.

ii). There have been, of course, some NGOs which are engaged in illegal or immoral or objectionable activities for the sake of funds. Of course, funds flowing in for religious campaigns and conversions and for fomenting hatred, internal dissensions and conflicts or terrorism have to be condemned and arrested, without any hesitation. The networks of national NGOs should take the initiative to expose them and to weed them out. However, we should be aware of ‘witch hunt’, where a government when feels challenged or threatened, would try to vilify some NGOs, by undertaking a scrutiny of their financial management in order to tarnish their reputation or credibility. The Indian Ministry of Home Affairs is known for making their lives difficult, in order to comply with the wishes of the political leaders in power. The CBI submitted a report in 2015 to the Supreme Court in which it estimated that less than 10% of the total 29-lakh registered NGOs across the country filed their annual income and expenditure statements. If it is a proof of their bad faith, what about the absence of declarations by our representatives and the political parties? No doubt, financial management by the NGOs should be more transparent and accountable, without serving for any un-announced agenda.

iii). It would, similarly, be unrealistic to expect the activists to work for free. Their efficient and professional functioning demand decent salaries and facilities for extensive travelling. Support from diversified sources like the governments, private sector, trusts and foundations, as well as international organisations should be accessible to them liberally. The Union Government of India used to put unreasonable restrictions on their travel abroad, as much as on the foreign NGOs to work in India.

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