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Civil Society vs Govt:NGOs FOR RURAL GROWTH , by Dhurjati Mukherjee, 6 June 2011 Print E-mail

Open Forum

New Delhi, 6 June 2011

Civil Society vs Govt


By Dhurjati Mukherjee


Activist Binayak Sen’s release from jail has raised two important questions. One, the relevance of the 150-year old Indian Penal Code (IPC) and individual rights in our democratic polity.


Many political analysts believe that Sen’s detention was unjustified and there was no rationale in keeping him in custody. Indeed, the public outcry for his release in India and abroad created tremendous pressure which finally led to his release. And now the Planning Commission has inducted Binayak Sen as a member in its steering committee to formulate strategies for revamping the health sector.     


In fact, there is a strong public opinion against the IPC as it was a law to maintain Imperial control and has no meaning in independent India. But it has continued over the years. Legal experts are of the opinion that it needs to be redrafted so that people like Sen, who might be a Maoist sympathizer, have the right to express their opinion and should not be taken into custody only on the basis of presumptions.


Undoubtedly, a transparent and democratic society has to give freedom of expression to all sections of society, specially intellectuals and civil rights activists. Notwithstanding, that the behavior of civil society, specially the upper middle class has been passive about the rights and privileges an individual should enjoy from whichever segment he or she might belong. It is also clueless about the sufferings of the poor and the economically weaker sections of society.   


On the other hand, the middle class is vocal about the need for bestowing basic human rights to all sections of society. They clamour for an alternative development strategy and want “inclusive growth” to become a reality. A curious feature of this binary divide is that both groups enjoy an uneasy co-existence within the country’s Establishment. The furore over Sen’s conviction and subsequent exoneration by the Supreme Court epitomized this dysfunctionality.       


It is only in the last few years that civil society has become vocal and public protests are gaining momentum. Primarily, because Government policies and programmes have failed to reach the targeted beneficiaries due to a defective delivery mechanism set-up. Most of the agitations have been peaceful but there is no guarantee that such activities will remain non-violent just because the organisers speak in the name of civil society.     


True, the Opposition is an important institution in Parliamentary democracy but civil society has also emerged as a strong voice to highlight the demands of the oppressed and backward sections of society. Though protests in Egypt, Tunisia and other Arab countries turned violent, these movements gained legitimacy and the masses support. Thus, the Government cannot ignore the voice of the civil society and this was manifest when Anna Hazare began his fast at Delhi leading to the Government ultimately agreeing to form a committee to redraft the Lok Pal Bill.    


What should be the future role of civil society in India? This question has been discussed and debated in various workshops and seminars across the country and abroad. Whereby, the anti-poor policies of most Third World countries has put a greater onus and responsibility on civil society to voice the genuine demands of the lower segments of society for a dignified existence.   


Another aspect of the problem is that while countries like India have certain plans and programmes for the poor, the delivery mechanism is tardy. For example, a recent report has pointed out that though one per cent of the GDP is spent on PDS, only 41 per cent of foodgrains reach the poor due to high leakages. “Majority of the poorest households were not accessing PDS grains with the rich taking most of it”, the report stated. 


Apart from politicians, intellectuals, planners and sociologists have admitted that civil society representatives have a key role in formulating and implementing strategies at the grass root level as they work at these tiers. Besides, the intimate contact they have with the people helps them carry out various types of work in a cost-effective manner.   


Shockingly, not only has the administrative machinery become corrupt but also the costs involved in reaching society’s lowest tiers are high. Hence civil society could take up work, at least in some sectors, with ease and responsibility. In fact, it would be prudent to give civil society, namely non-Governmental organizations (NGOs) and community-based organizations (CBOs), more responsibility. Both in decision making and implementation of Government plans and programmes, pertaining to the poor and economically weaker and backward sections.    


Sadly, the performances of State-run institutions, including panchayats are inefficient and embedded in corruption. Making induction of NGOs and CBOs representatives prudent to improve the working of these institutions and reach the targeted beneficiaries. But it appears that neither the Union nor State Governments are interested in making these institutions transparent and efficiently run. Never mind the Planning Commission’s core committee to underline NGOs activities which has hardly met and no noteworthy suggestion has so far emanated from its deliberations.     


Significantly, with the Government giving civil society a cold shoulder, the Sonia Gandhi led National Advisory Council (NAC) which has been trying to broaden the spectrum of the Food Bill for over two years continues to face resistance from bureaucrats. Underscoring how NGOs are treated.


Most scandalously, there is no policy to involve civil society in rural development, spreading low-cost sanitation, generating scientific, environmental and health awareness, disease prevention and direct intervention in rural and semi-urban areas. Also these NGOs are rarely used to upgrade livelihood standards of slums dwellers, squatter settlers and pavement dwellers, which responsibility should be bestowed on them.    


In sum, with the political apparatus virtually failing to carry out its responsibility vis-à-vis the poor and marginalized sections, it is necessary that civil society be involved in developmental work and adequate financial support be extended to it. Only then can the oft-repeated slogan of inclusive development become a reality. ---- INFA     


(Copyright, India News and Feature Alliance)

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