suspicion. Profit-making companies are regulated by the registrar of companies but NGOs come under the home ministry, as if this sector is inherently a national security risk.
NGO voices can be a nuisance, for their dissent, their insistence on giving a voice to the poor, for pointing out inconvenient truths, challenging government action and insisting on accountability. But their work goes well beyond perceived pesky obstructionism.
It was civil society collectives like the Servants of India Society (founded by Gopal Krishna Gokhale), Dayanand Anglo-Vedic Education Society (founded by Lala Hansraj), the People’s Education Society (founded by B.R. Ambedkar) and the Mohammedan Anglo-Oriental College (founded by Syed Ahmed Khan) that fuelled the independence struggle and spread, beyond boundaries, the ideas of non-violence as a weapon against oppression. Today, NGOs, foreign-funded or otherwise, are deeply involved in the expansion of freedoms and improvements to quality of life. They implement huge government schemes, such as midday meal programmes, mobile health clinics and skills development for rural and urban youth. These are themselves supported by foreign aid routed through government. Organisations such as Sewa help hundreds of thousands of women and are the self-help model for other nations. The women’s empowerment movement, the push against bonded labour, against corruption, for reform of institutions like the police and other national campaigns for ordinary people’s right to information, right to work, housing, education and food security have been fuelled by NGOs working in partnership with progressives abroad. Their contribution to the GDP must surely be incalculable.
Undoubtedly, vociferous individuals and active associations sometimes step on bureaucratic toes, but the last 20 years under both the BJP and the Congress have seen a welcome growth of citizen participation in governance. Yet, the report allegedly castigates agenda-setting, drafting documents, writing in the media, highlighting scholars-turned-activists and lobbying diplomats and governments for a cause.
It resentfully points out that NGOs combine with outside interests to criticise the government at forums that look at child rights, labour laws, women’s issues and environmental protection. But these are international forums that the government has voluntarily submitted itself to. International evaluation of progress and shortfalls encourages change at home. How can this be bad for progress and development? For instance, it is thanks to civil society efforts at home and abroad that government is considering a much improved anti-torture law. Who but the most cruel and insensitive would think that to be meddling? All wisdom does not rest in government or at home. That is why governments seek aid and corporations financial infusions and technological know-how. Why deny this to others in civil society who work for public interest and not for profit?
Name-calling in the press has a ready audience, and insults like “anti-national” stick even when there is no evidence. It is unfair. It forebodes an intolerance that calls to mind Indira Gandhi’s Emergency. To see dissent, debate and critique as anti-national is too petty, especially for a new government that is powerful and unassailable. Its bureaucracy has been given the go ahead to repair, reconstruct, continued…