Let’s be civil, please

On July 18, the Russian Parliament passed a law by overwhelming majority according to which those NGOs that receive funds from abroad would be branded “foreign agents”. This will sound disconcertingly familiar to many civil society groups in India since they too were branded “foreign agents” by no less than Prime Minister Manmohan Singh himself during the agitation against the Koodankulam nuclear plant. Thankfully, India manages to demonstrate democratic norms in some important issues, so this dangerous slander against the people by its own government has not yet passed into law. The people in Russia are not so lucky. But truth be told, there has been talk that such a law is being seriously considered in India, too.
The fact is that the Indian government, particularly its bureaucrats, are almost unanimous in their implacable opposition to NGOs. And why wouldn’t they be? It is the NGOs that show up their inefficiencies, their malpractices and their nepotism, when not directly their corruption. It is the babus who most vehemently opposed the Right to Information Act because it gave civil society the power by law to uncover their misdeeds. This is not to say that all babus are cussed and all NGOs are as pure as the driven snow. There are outliers on both sides but these are exceptions rather than the rule. There are bureaucrats who are immensely appreciative of civil society and seek their partnership in implementing important projects and there are NGOs who, if not foreign agents, are less than above board. One will have to concede nevertheless that a corrupt babu does far more damage than a corrupt NGO.
Individual political parties on the other hand have been far more willing to work with NGOs, recognising their value as providers of intellectual inputs and their ability to identify and bring to the fore people’s grievances, particularly the poor and disadvantaged. Dr Singh’s shocker of branding the protesters at the Koodankulam nuclear power plant site as foreign agents was, therefore, extremely surprising. Not only because Dr Singh is not inclined to extreme statements, but because as head of a democratic government, his statement sounded ominous, a threat to free speech and democratic rights.
The government has been taking steps to choke off civil society for some time now, though in more subtle ways than in Russia. There was the substantial revision in the Income Tax Act some years ago which made it illegal for NGOs to generate funds for their work through the sale of their publications or by providing training. This avenue of reducing dependence on external funding and enabling NGOs to become more self-reliant was a deliberate move to curtail the activities of the NGO sector. The revisions in the FCRA (Foreign Contributions Regulation Act), under which NGOs get permission to receive funding support for developmental work from foreign donors, are designed to restrict the flow of such funds and bring them under the government’s control. The proposed modifications would require the district magistrate to decide whether an NGO could take a foreign grant.
This is not only high-handed but fraught with danger, given the appalling levels of corruption in the bureaucracy. Let me give you two examples from Jharkhand. The Gene Campaign had to seek clearance from the district magistrate in one instance to receive a grant from a government fund. The concerned official wanted a “cut” and when we refused, he buried the file so deep that it could not be found even months after he had been sent to jail, along with the then chief minister, Madhu Koda. In another instance, when we competed successfully for an international grant and required the state government’s permission to receive the money, the concerned official again wanted to know what his share would be. On being told “nothing”, he refused permission for us to receive the grant that we had competed globally for and we lost the money.
No one sector is the repository of all wisdom, not the bureaucrats and not the NGOs either. It is in the interest of enlightened public action that the two sectors work together. It is distressing to see at international negotiations that in foreign delegations government officials work closely with their NGOs and put forward their best case. In the case of India, this is never seen and we have often found some level of government functionary marking India’s presence but not being able to make any coherent contribution. I was witness to this at meetings of the Biosafety Protocol where the Indian team had not one single thing to say on the crucial issue of the safety of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
It is self-defeating on the part of government agencies not to take on board civil society groups. They are often much better informed about current happenings than government officials are. Many civil society actors have advanced domain knowledge (which most bureaucrats don’t) and because of their linkages with international civil society groups, they are usually very current in their information about international developments. Instead of working as a team, bringing different kinds of expertise together, the Indian government chooses to put all its eggs into a solitary babu basket. We have seen time and again but especially during the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) negotiations how this has worked to the detriment of the final outcome for India, where the country repeatedly conceded positions it should not have.
Instead of seeing the jholawalas as adversaries and finding novel ways of clipping their wings, the government and its administrators must recognise that the two sectors have complementing skills and knowledge. An advantage that the jholawalas bring is their direct connection with communities and their first-hand knowledge of what is happening to real people on the ground. For a government that is concerned about the welfare of its people, this would be crucial input. Look at what Brazil did to conquer hunger through its now iconic Zero Hunger programme. It was the decision of President Lula that all actors, government and non-
government, would pull together to make the programme a success. Each group had its own responsibilities and together they made it happen. Brazil has managed to make a serious dent in hunger. Let us learn some lessons from others.

The writer is convenor of the Gene Campaign

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