The future of India’s civil society organizations

Context: The government’s suppression of civil society has made it difficult for civil society organizations (CSOs) to shape policy and public discourse. Recently many activists, journalists, academics, and students have been targeted by the state and non-state actors. 

What is Civil Society?

“The term civil society refers to a wide array of non-governmental and not-for-profit organizations that have a presence in public life, expressing the interests and values of their members or others, based on ethical, cultural, political, scientific, religious, or philanthropic considerations.”

What are Civil Society Organizations (CSOs)?

  • These are Non-State, not-for-profit, voluntary entities formed by people in the social sphere that are separate from the State and the market. 
  • Civil society organizations (CSOs) therefore refer to a wide of array of organizations: community groups, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), labor unions, indigenous groups, charitable organizations, faith-based organizations, professional associations, and foundations.

Role played by CSOs 

  • Upholding civil liberties: Association for Protection of Democratic Rights helps provide legal aid to those who have no access to courts of law. Usually, such types of CSOs enable legal services and protect the citizens against the repressive attitudes.
  • Accountability of government: They monitor the activities of the government and its agencies to ensure that they are acting in accordance with the law and the interests of the citizens. They conduct research, collect data, and analyze policies and programs to identify gaps, loopholes, and areas where the government needs to improve. E.g., ADR report on criminalization of politics
  • Mobilization of citizens: They promote public participation by raising awareness on important national, Regional or Local Issues – helps to strengthen participatory democracy in India.
  • Policy formulation: They can advocate for policy reform and make recommendations to improve policies and their implementation. By engaging with the government and other stakeholders, CSOs can influence policy decisions, advocate for policy changes, and push for implementation that is more equitable, efficient, and effective. E.g., PUCL pushed for PDS reforms.
  • Implementation of Policies & Programmes: They partner with the government and other stakeholders to facilitate policy implementation. By working together, CSOs can share expertise, resources, and knowledge to ensure that policies are implemented efficiently and effectively. E.g., MDM by Akshaya Patra Foundation.
  • Feedback to Government: They provide feedback and oversight to the government by monitoring the delivery of public services, collecting feedback from citizens, and reporting on the performance of government agencies. They also engage in social audits and citizen scorecards to assess the quality and impact of government programs and services. E.g., ASER Survey by Pratham.
  • Helps in Capacity Building and filling development deficit in diverse sectors – health, education, environment awareness, social inclusion, skill enhancement etc.
  • Partners in social development: CSOs play a crucial role in advocating for policy reforms that impact the rights and services of vulnerable groups in society. E.g., Organizations like Pratham and ASHA focus on providing education to children in rural areas and slums. 
  • Provides platform for vulnerable sections to raise their voice – e.g., concerns of sex workers, LGBT, HIV victims, victims of custodial torture etc.

Challenges faced by CSOs

  • Dependency Syndrome: Most of the CSOs don’t have adequate funds to carry out their work, as the people they serve lack the capacity to pay. Hence, they depend on receiving funds from the government/non-government bodies/international institutions. Now, with stringent provision of FCRA Amendment Act 2020, the problem of financial inadequacy of CSO’s is only increasing.
  • Inadequate staff: There exists a huge shortage of professional and trained personnel in the voluntary sector. Most of the personnel are unqualified and unskilled. 
  • Accountability issues: It is one of the issues plaguing CSOs in their operations and working. There have been increasing incidences of misuse of funds by these organizations. In January 2017, the Hon. Supreme Court of India called for an audit of nearly 30 lakh NGOs. This move was taken in the background of the NGOs failing to give an account of expenditure made out of the moneys they had received.
  • Government – Civil Society interface: The partnership of CSOs with the government has helped in successful implementation of many welfare and developmental programmes. CSOs have also successfully engaged with government in formulating various national level policies. But this interface between the CSOs and government seem to be clouded with an overbearing attitude of governmental officials, bureaucratization, and inertia that has led to a gap in the interface between the two.
  • Parochial interest: Civil society organizations may sometimes be influenced by the interests of their donors or supporters, which can result in them prioritizing the concerns of these groups over the broader public interest. In such cases, civil society may become a vehicle for advancing the interests of powerful groups or individuals rather than promoting the common good.

Way forward

  • Accountability mechanism: There should be regular social and performance audits of Civil society organizations working in the country. 
  • Trained staff: Building capacity through training, networking, and mentorship can help these organizations become more effective and sustainable over the long term.
  • Financial Resources: CSOs should explore a range of funding sources, such as grants, donations, crowdfunding, and social impact investing, to diversify their revenue streams. Building strong partnerships with other organizations, businesses, or government agencies can help CSOs secure funding and other resources.
  • Foster civic engagement: CSOs can work to increase civic engagement and participation among India’s diverse communities. This could involve empowering marginalized groups, providing education and awareness programs, and promoting greater citizen involvement in decision-making processes.
Source: The Hindu

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