Whither civil society?

  • 14/09/1998

IT is high time that non-government organisations (NGOS) demanded a national policy for the civil society. The words of K R Narayanan, the President of India, are pertinent in this context.

On the occasion of the 50th anniversary celebrations of India's independence, the President said, "Social movements are required for fighting ...environmental degradation. In all this 1 call for a new partnership between the government and the people."

President Narayanan made another critical point when he assumed office in 1997. He said, "The underprivileged ...and the poor of every strata of our society... must be made to feel the sensation of participation and empowerment."

If these words had become gospel for the government, we would not have had to publish an article on the way the system is treating civil society. The founder of India's NGO movement was Gandhiji, who launched numerous organisations to further his work, and in recent years Rajiv Gandhi made efforts to open up the government to NGOS.

It is obvious that as the civil society grows, it will not only take up various activities itself but will also take on various agents in the society and will also attract unscrupulous elements. The government and the political system must, therefore, develop a new relationship with civil society - one that is tolerant of criticism, as indeed there is no dearth of things to criticise in India today, and yet generate mutual trust. The idea that those who depend on government largesse cannot criticise the government has to be eschewed. Officials and politicians must realise that it is public money which the government merely controls.

An environment secretary, once told me bluntly when I met him for the first time, "Mr Agarwal, let me tell you that my colleagues are very wary of working with you because you call a spade a spade." I could only reply, "Then I can only say that I am happy. At least my reputation is intact."

Secondly, the government must learn to deal with the funding aspects of the civil society. India's NGOS do not take foreign funds because they love foreign funds. They take them simply because the government has provided no incentives to taxpayers to donate money to India's civil society. Nor has the government provided enough money to replace the foreign funds. It is vital today that the country's decision-makers revamp their income tax rules for this purpose. The Indian middle and upper classes must be given the right incentives, not the petty provisions of the section 80G of the Income Tax Act. Is it not sad that the money given by a British middle class woman to Oxfam has to come to India to help Indian NGOS work with India's poor? Why can't our own middle class support such activities?

As regards foreign funding, the government must also seriously evaluate the effectiveness of the Foreign Contributions Regulation Act. The main purpose of this act is to protect the country from foreign funds being used against national interests. But 'national interests' does not include fighting against social or environmental exploitation. If that be so, then the law questions the very democratic character of the country and is anti-Constitution. The question, therefore, is: Is the act helping to identify those institutions which are truly threatening India's integrity. I have serious doubts that that is the case. Why would such people even file a return under the act? I am sure the United Liberation Front of Asom and Kashmir militants do not tell the home ministry what money they are getting from abroad. If my fears are true, then clearly the act must be jettisoned and a clear policy worked out to help NGOS raise funds from India itself.

Thirdly, the government must have a mechanism which promotes and coordinates NGO interactions with government agencies. Sweden even has an ambassador whose job is to keep in touch with NCOS and coordinate with the government agencies. Not surprising for a country in which every adult is a member of one NGO, if not two.

Lastly, the government must develop transparent mechanisms to deal with the misuse of tax provisions by the civil society. There can be no doubt that there will be a lot of people who would like to do that. But Indian tax officials, instead of harassing all and sundry, can learn from systems that exist in countries like the us which have extremely supportive mechanisms to promote the civil society but still make efforts to ensure that there is little misuse of the tax benefits. Don't set rules that harass everyone but set rules which help to identify those who do not play ball.

The NGOS themselves need to come together and get over their bickering about who is good and who is bad - whether the urban ones are bad ones as compared to the rural, grassroots ones-because all types of institutions are needed within a country's civil society-from those who read and write to those who act, campaign or organise. And they must with one voice demand a policy statement from the government for the promotion of the civil society and for civil society-government inter-actions which is endorsed by the Parliament. It will only strengthen what is the best and most vibrant thing about India: its democracy.

Anil Agarwal