The last couple of years has seen an aggressive assault on the civil society by the government in the form of clampdown of activities of many NGOs. This is done on the pretense that many of them receive foreign funding and are therefore working against the interest of the country. In fact in a report which came out just before the 2014 election, the disruptive activities of the NGO’s was accused of reducing India’s growth by around 2-3%. Meghalaya also came in for special mention its anti-uranium protest. In fact section 6 of the report is titled ‘activism against extractive industries in North East’. The report is problematic for many reasons not least the figure provided for the simple fact that it came from the Intelligence Bureau which brought the report and not from an accredited agency tasked with studying the Indian economy, e.g., Reserve Bank of India. Also there is the whole problem of the definition of development itself which the report seems to be concerned only with production and not with the various negative externalities associated with such an approach. But in terms of perception the damage was already done. The debate on the impact of NGO’s is still raging on with the new measure recently proposed to treat an NGO as a public entity and its office bearers as public servants thus forcing them to declare their assets. Under the garb of transparency it’s an attempt to bring these bodies under government control. However, at the same time the Government have been following a development paradigm which has encouraged the growth of NGO activities in the country. Many NGOs in the country are involved with various social issues, like education, health, sports, finances, etc., all of which are under the purview of the government. The fact that many more are coming up points to a very disturbing trend, i.e., outsourcing of development to the private initiatives. If private initiatives, i.e., NGO’s are coming forward to share the responsibility for these areas it reveals the failure of the government machinery in performing its obligation. This outsourcing of development is a nationwide trend and it will only accelerate in the future considering the political trajectory in the Centre and the State.The last general election saw the overthrow of 10 years of Congress rule at the centre and the emergence of BJP as the single most important party in the country. This rise of the BJP, the party itself attributes to its ‘development’ agenda rather than its sectarian policies. It would be naïve to suggest that only the BJP has been engaged in sectarian politics; the Congress and all manner of political parties in the past and the present have done the same. But due to its association with professed sectarian bodies like the Sangh Parivar, BJP bears the brunt of the blame. It didn’t do any good to its reputation by stoking sectarian issues like the ‘beef politics’, ‘ghar wapsi’, ‘love jihad’, etc. after assuming power at the Centre. Come election time the communal elements will only become more emboldened. But what about is ‘development’ agenda? The growth in the economy is not very inspiring but much of it is also because of the global slowdown. Even the title of being the fastest growing economy in the world is due to the other countries like China not doing well rather than the performance of Indian economy per se. One can indeed complain that the ‘development’ that was promised has not materialized. This though is focusing only on the outcome but the process of development itself is also important. Here the type of agency that would guide the process becomes a very important issue as this would determine whether the development that would come about is measured in terms of GDP numbers or overall quality of life measures.
Development has mostly been understood in terms of the GDP numbers, i.e., the value of goods and services produced in the country. Within this perspective the mostly hotly debated question is the identity of the agency that would be responsible for producing this value—government or free market. When India got Independence, it followed the socialist mode with the State playing a very important role in managing the country’s economy and producing value. The growth during this period was very sluggish and hovered around 3% which was sneered at as the ‘Hindu rate of growth’. With the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the financial crisis in the country, India was forced to open its economy to free market forces, i.e., ‘liberalisation’. It’s been more than two decades after the liberalization and the growth in the economy has certainly picked up, which means the production of value in the country has accelerated. But at the same time, inequality has been found to also have become intensified with it being best exemplified by the multistory private mansion of Mukesh Ambani surrounded by a sea of slums. On its part the previous Government tried to contain poverty by introducing outrageous parameters, the ₹ 32/- per day cut off for defining the BPL. If poor people don’t exist in the records they don’t exist at all. But poverty cannot disappear by just changing the definition. It is not just a number but a condition being lived daily by actual people of flesh and blood and you cannot wish away half or more of India’s population. How then to mitigate or ultimately eliminate it?
The answer to it is surprisingly not very difficult—ensuring that the value generated by the economy is used to alleviate poverty. However, what seems to be a simple solution is in fact the most difficult because of the fact that the government (State and Central) claims that it is in a very tight financial situation. As a consequence, in the last budget the current Government slashed plan expenditure by about 20% hitting spending on core social sectors such as education and women’s empowerment (it will be interesting to see whether this trend of squeezing social sector spending will be continued during the upcoming budget as well). This is just one manifestation of the tight financial situation of the Government. The Government sector which previously would employ a huge number of people has also started downsizing itself by not hiring permanent workers anymore. In their place, contractual workers are brought in who do not enjoy the same benefits as the permanent employee thus reducing the financial burden. This is happening all over the country with Meghalaya also being a part of the trend. Apart from being deprived of benefits, work security is also taken away making the workers very vulnerable to exploitation. All this though is justified under the argument that the government has very limited financial resources. Also huge expenditure is supposed to lead to wastage, inefficiency and non-competitiveness. But how is it that when increasing amount of value is being produced regularly in the national and state economy the Government’s financial situation is constantly deteriorating. This is a paradox which defies explanation. The State government having neglected the economy and kept itself dependent on Central government doles inevitably will also complain of financial crunch.
But if the Government decides to abdicate its responsibility towards the social sector what should happen to them? The answer is—outsourcing of development.
Private initiatives should come out and take responsibility for provision of social goods. There has a spurt of non-governmental organizations in the country. According to one estimate, India has more than 30 lakh NGO’s which is more than the number of schools in the whole country. These bodies are now performing the activities that the Government abdicated. But this is not a healthy scenario because at the end of the day they are not the mandated agencies and it encourages further outsourcing of development initiatives to private interest. This serves to weaken democracy because by virtue of being private initiatives the NGO’s are in principle not accountable to the public. It is their goodwill that compels them to undertake development initiatives but they have not been publicly mandated to do so. As a result, those who choose to help are applauded but those who refrain cannot be blamed—praise a few and deprive the rest is the motto. It perpetuates the propaganda of ‘self-responsibility’ in a society which is characterized by differing capacities. Ultimately in a scenario where the agency (the Government) which collects the resources and has been given the mandate to provide social services has chosen to abandon its duty, “everyone for himself/herself” becomes the adage to live by. This is because the mechanism of collective responsibility has failed and one has to depend on voluntary kindness. Other than that, people are responsible for their own fates.
On the one hand, the current trend has been of vilifying the NGOs, but at the same time, a situation is created where they are encouraged to proliferate. It would be unwise to assume that all the NGOs are genuine and performing a good job. At the same time it is foolish to state that their activities are a danger to the economy of the country. Many of them are providing services which would otherwise be unavailable to the common people and are thus ensuring that the nation’s human resources is in a healthy state. However, by their activities they are helping the very problem which they tried to solve, the outsourcing of development. However, one cannot wait for the political economy of the country and the state to change while people are deprived of their rights a daily basis. Though the various NGOs are a product of the cause which created the problem in the first place, they cannot protest by exacerbating the consequences. But at the same time, it is important that private initiatives do not become the norm as well. The desirable situation is when collective responsibility and not individual altruism is the norm and not the other way around. Therefore, it is important that these various NGOs should also endeavour to create critical citizens who are conscious of their various, social, economic and political rights. If they really want to help the people they profess to care about they need to work towards a situation when they themselves become superfluous. Otherwise they are fighting a losing battle.