The recent disquiet among NGOs over provisions of the Lokpal Act gives good reason to examine this sector more closely and find better ways of separating the wheat from the chaff. In the 1980s and 1990s, a new phase began in which many large “voluntary” organisations set up by well-meaning people — management professionals, engineers and extensions of foreign agencies — began to get generous funds from international bodies, produce slick annual reports and often tailor their work according to a donor’s agenda. Many NGOs chose to seek foreign funds for development work that hid their political agenda. Some were philanthropic, but others were subversive, in terms of ideology and religion.
There has always been a fractured approach in the way governments viewed NGOs. Foreign companies were welcomed post 1990, but a French family of potters imparting better technology in a village in Andhra Pradesh was turned out of the country. Foreign funds were welcomed by governments as aid, but NGOs were discouraged. A decade ago, someone in the FCRA office propositioned two women applicants from an NGO, asking them to meet him “after hours” if they wanted clearance. Certain ministries sometimes patronised “westernised” NGOs, but Indian ones who refused to seek foreign funding had to find godfathers or mothers to influence their applications for government grants.
There is no denying crooked and bogus NGOs have flourished with the increase in funds for development. In the ministry of textiles, small grants attracted genuine applications. Suddenly, during the UPA regime, the Planning Commission lumped schemes together to offer Rs 2 crore for cluster development programmes. Unsurprisingly, the sharks took over. It also encouraged all manner of influence by politicians and bureaucrats in the direction in which grants to certain NGOs were approved. No one can deny NGOs have been set up by their relatives. If the present government wants to prevent this, even if it affects their own politicos, what’s wrong with that?
Instead, parliamentarians have tried to push back the clause of relatives declaring assets when NGOs take large sums. Wanting more than Rs one crore from the government as grants and seeking foreign funds for grassroots work should be secondary to addressing the real problems of the poor.
Since they know ground realities, if capable NGOs can help government implement projects more effectively, they should be extended a welcoming hand. NGOs with standing and experience are usually ignored. When NGOs offered to develop handicraft souvenirs and set up temporary kiosks at the Commonwealth Games in 2010, they were rejected with the comment that they have no certification criteria.
Government departments often feel threatened by NGOs, as if they are competitors who may know more than they do about ground realities. No one has even cared to assess and certify them properly. NGOs that prefer to be in dissent mode constantly are welcome to do so. But they should have the self-respect not to ask the government to fund their agitational activities. If a protest crops up in the course of an NGO carrying out constructive work, the government must have the receptiveness to listen with respect. The present turbulence within the NGO sector is a failure of governance, particularly those highly paid IAS officers who would rather create more red tape to block the slightest likelihood of wrongdoing. By strangulating NGOs in toto, instead of finding simple and effective methods to separate the wheat from the chaff, laying out simple rules that apply to all and creating transparent systems for grant givers and receivers, the failings of the administrative system end up at the doors of politics. As a result, sincere NGOs are weakened, sidelined or become hostile.
Political parties, mass movements and even the RSS are technically NGOs, that is, registered societies that are not part of the government. Over time, differences have blurred in this cauldron, in which some flourish, some feel harassed. The reasons for this should be studied and dealt with efficiently.