Flutter in NGO circle... What's changing?

By Rajiv Shah
There is a flutter among voluntary organisations in Gujarat, as elsewhere. With the change of guards at the Centre, there is a rising apprehension about what would be the government's new policy towards civil society, in Gujarat as well as in India. Would the NGOs’ space shrink? Would they have to make political compromises with the powers-that-be for the sake of survival? What kind of structural changes they might have to undergo in case they have to survive in the new atmosphere? What would happen to sources of foreign funding, on which many NGOs depend? These are some of the most common questions currently being asked by several leading members of civil society, which have involved themselves in different types of activities, developmental or rights-based, across Gujarat. Informal meetings have been held. Despite their differences in approach, all of them agree: That there is a need to find fresh ways to work in the new situation.
Without any doubt, the situation in the country has undergone a major change. Those who have come to power are known to hold a particular kind of extreme conservative political view, and are considered inimical towards civil society. Of course, the civil society knows, in case of an attack on it, there would be an international uproar, and things would not be as easy, and political masters know about it. But the fact is, a particular type of political force has come to power with the help of the brand image of one person. Grassroots experience suggests that one of the major reasons why this may have happened is because people were guided and believed in what this particular leader said, and there was virtually no discussion, let alone awareness, on issues involving people. A random survey by Martin Macwan at the Dalit Shakti Kendra (DSK) suggested that majority of school pass-outs who are currently involved in being trained in some trade at DSK to earn a livelihood have little or no idea about even about the type of elections that were being fought in India.

Political education

"Of the 25 students in a group I posed the question, I found that 17 of them did not know that Lok Sabha elections were being fought. While most of them knew that there were going to be elections, they had no idea about whether elections were for installing a new government at the Centre. All of them knew only about one election -- panchayat. But beyond that their knowledge was limited", Macwan said, adding, "They all had heard about the most talked about person, and they knew his name. In such a situation, clearly, people are driven by the image of the person projected to them through media and society. To them, issues do not matter. It doesn't matter, for instance, whether those fighting polls are concerned with education, health, women's empowerment, creating jobs, especially for the backward and deprived sections of the population."
Suggesting that this lack of grassroots awareness has taken shape, partially, as a result of failure to politically educate people on rights they should enjoy, Macwan's said, "Increasingly, the civil society is getting confined to activities like seminars and training workshops. Direct mass touch is getting a beating. What needs to be done is to get in touch directly with people, educate them about the rights they should enjoy but are deprived of them. There is a need for direct interaction with the community. Especially important is the teaching of history. People, and especially the younger generation, have no idea that the forces that have acquired power once provoked a powerful anti-reservation agitation in Gujarat in 1980s. All deprived sections of society -- Dalits, tribals, minorities, other backward classes -- must know the role played by different political forces in different times, how they were driven to deprivation centuries ago, and how they can come out of it now."
Most non-profit organisations which are known to take a rights-based approach feel that, in the new situation, they may have to face the brunt of attack from the forces that have come to power. Rohit Prajapati of the Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, for instance, says that he expects the powers that be to crackdown on him and his colleagues more vigorously because he is considered a major hurdle by the powerful industrial lobby wanting to obtain indiscriminate environmental clearances. The industrialists in Vapi, which instituted cases against him after his campaign against environmental pollution, may now feel more emboldened. What should one do then? Prajapati’s answer was simple: "I am not afraid. We must continue fighting, even if we are sent to jail."

Networking issues

However, Prajapati insisted, as there would be an increasing crackdown on civil society, there should be a very strong networking across India to defend those fighting for human rights. There are laws which have been promulgated to defend the rights defenders, and those should be invoked. A similar need for networking in the face of increasing threat from extremist quarters was felt by Father Cedric Prakash of the Jesuit Centre for Human Rights, Justice and Peace, who – like many others – apprehended an attack on NGOs fighting for communal harmony and justice. “There may an element of revenge”, believes Prakash, adding, “Things were not as simple till now in Gujarat because. Neglect of minorities in the state has continued, but there was a different government at the Centre. But now things will turn worse. In such a situation, Prasad Chacko of the Development and Research Centre said, "There are networking centres in existence, such as VANI, which encourage and advocate voluntarism with governments, but more needs to be done. The need is to have a more concerted effort for a broad networking".
Medha Patkar of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) has a different view of things. While declaring that "we must continue to fight on, as before", she says, "Mass movements such as ours should continue their campaign, and should have no problem in negotiating with those in power on different issues, keeping in mind that new laws do exist providing people different types of rights over natural resources – these laws are related to forest rights, land acquisition, right to food, and in defense of rights activists." While not denying that there could be a rise in the attacks on mass movements, she said, "There is a higher possibility of unity to fight for people's cause and against corruption, which is the mai hurdle in way to entitlements to the people. We have been doing that for the Narmada dam oustees through the National Alliance for People’s Movements (NAPM), and this should be strengthened."
There was a strong view among NGOs that increasing number of organisations will be tempted to move towards a privatisation model, which the new government may want to promote. Manjula Pradeep believes, while the Dalit organisations like Navsarjan will continue to fight for the Dalit rights in general, and there would be let down on it, on the whole, those wanting to promote community through corporate social responsibility (CSR) would become increasingly important in government scheme of things. "They will get a bigger cake of the share distributed by the government to implement state-sponsored schemes, while those with rights-based approach would be discouraged", Pradeep pointed out.

CSR and government funds

There is a section of NGOs which felt that one should not see anything wrong in case CSR or government funding allows one to ensure community development. "We have the instance of DS Ker of the Gram Vikas Trust, whose activities with government and CSR money has helped reduce girl child mortality in Jamnagar. Once a rights-based activist, Ker’s work on reducing child mortality, especially of girls, in Rupen Bandar, an island next to Poshitra, has helped Jamnagar district to improve its under-six female sex ratio", says Pankti Jog of Mahiti Adhikar Gujarat Pahel (MAGP), adding, "There was a time when Ker fought against a port and an SEZ in Poshitra, against land acquisition. The SEZ and the port were stalled because of his effort. But his approach has changed.” In the same way, there is the instance of Mittal Patel, of Vicharata Samuday Samarthan Manch, which has been working with government and CSR funds in order to get entitlements like houses and plots for denotified nomadic tribes.
At one point, Patel was terribly frustrated when she was told by the Shoff Foundation (of industrialist-philanthropist Kantisen Shroff) that she could not be funded to help the denotified nomadic tribes. She was, in fact, told that she could not be funded because she was attached to a rights-based organisation, Japnath. "She was advised by Harinesh Pandya of Janpath to set up a separate organisation so that the community gains", Jog said, adding, "Currently, with government and CSR help, she has been to get 2,500 houses built for these poor people. So, what's wrong if the community is being helped? Who gains politically shouldn't be our concern." However, Jog, and like her several others, added, alternative ways to fight for people’s rights should not be abandoned. There would be a need to fight against the government for the rights of saltpan workers, and for the activists who fight for getting information under the right to information Act.

Foreign support

An important concern was about what might happen to foreign funding. A few activists felt that there would be a major review of those getting aid under the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA), 2010, in 2016, and many NGOs getting foreign funds would be deprived of it by making necessary changes on the type of funds that would be available. "This has happened earlier, too. We know what happened even under the UPA government, when about 4,000 NGOs were blacklisted, including some from Gujarat. So, there is nothing new about this, though under the new regime, this would adopt an aggressive posture. Especially the NGOs with rights-based approach would suffer the most; either they would be forced to move towards CSR and community development, or abandon their activities”, said Chacko. “The trend is already visible, with nearly 25 per cent of the NGOs in Gujarat adopting the new ways", predicted Benoy Acharya of Unnati, adding, "One would also have to watch to see what might happen to the Right to Information law, whether it will be diluted, to other programmes like the National Rural Empoyment Guarantee Scheme, the right to food, and so on. Already, there is a view that these programmes are a drain on coffers."
While the issue of funding seemed to agitate most NGOs, who also feel that conservative and extremist forces might want a cake of the government funding, Rajesh Shah of Vikas believed that time has come when what he had said two decades ago is implemented with renewed vigour in order to avoid problems of funding. "I advocated social enterprise, and many in the NGO sector called me a capitalist. I have successfully experimented it this in Gujarat, am selling salt and other products through SAVE, a social enterprise. It is a small business, and its profits go to the community, instead of individual entrerpreneur -- this is where it differs from a capitalist organisation", Shah says, adding, "With foreign funds shinking, and difficulties in getting government funds, one should give a try to the social enterprise experiment as an alternative. This would reduce NGO dependence on any type of funding."

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