Arguably, this is the hottest political summer for Delhi. Reason: friction between anti-corruption activists and the Union government over the anti-graft Lokpal Bill. It has been more than three months, but there is no sign of ebb in the confrontation. Rather, it has metamorphosed into an all-out war between the government and non- government groups. The polarisation is getting sharper. Most political parties have joined hands with the ruling alliance to oppose the “legitimacy” of non- government groups in taking part in legislative affairs. The confrontation has left many questions in its trail.
Does this reset the relationship between government and non-government organisations? Is it a battle for space between government and non-government? Why is the government adopting such an aggressive approach towards the other side? Or, have the non-government organisations strayed into the political arena?
There are no yeses or noes. The crisis is an outcome of a post-liberalisation churning taking place. In the past 20 years, the state has undergone changes and comfortably settled its relationship with the market. Government is shrinking its role in development works leaving space for non-government players. The private, for-profit companies are entering the health and education sectors through private-public partnerships. Non-government not-for-profit organisations are also rediscovering their roles.
Subjects that NGOs dealt with as “social contractors” have now gone to the Panchayati raj institutions. That is why NGOs have started reinventing themselves into groups advocating for rights and empowering legislation. But elected representatives see this as a threat to their mandate.
Richard Mahapatra, Arnab Dutta and Ruhi Kandhari analyse this transformation as India marks 20 years of liberalisation
Civil v political
Just over three months ago, Jantar Mantar became the epicentre of a nationwide frenzy against corruption. Social activist Anna Hazare was on a fast-unto-death over his single-point demand of enacting a stringent Lokpal Bill, which would establish an institution to deal with cases of corruption in high offices. Hazare was joined by thousands of supporters at the venue, while millions across the country endorsed his fight. Within four days, the government gave in and announced formation of a 10-member joint drafting committee to script the proposed legislation. Hazare was to nominate five of these members as representatives of civil society. The other five were to be ministers.
In the weeks that followed, the drafting committee held nine meetings but the atmosphere at most of these was far from cordial. Both sides stuck to their guns on contentious issues like bringing the prime minister, senior judges, members of Parliament and the bureaucracy under the ambit of the Lokpal. The situation reached a flashpoint on June 22 when the two sides declared that they had failed to achieve consensus on a single draft of the Bill.
The government said it would convene an all-party meeting to discuss the logjam. This meeting was held on July 3 when the government announced that it had the mandate to draft the Bill, which would be introduced during the monsoon session of Parliament starting from August 1. It is now clear the Bill can be ready for vote only in the winter session towards the end of the year.
The impasse is far from resolved because Hazare has declared he will again go on fast from August 16 in protest against the government’s “betrayal”. His ultimatum covers every political party represented in Parliament. The provocation got a swift rebuttal at the all-party meeting chaired by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The parties disagreed on many aspects of the Lokpal Bill, but were unanimous in asserting that only Parliament has the prerogative to discuss and enact it.
The entire episode has pushed the relationship between civil society and the government into a conflict zone. Asked whether involving non-government groups in drafting the Lokpal Bill was a one-off affair, Union minister for human resource development Kapil Sibal recently said: “I would imagine so.” Sibal, who was also a member of the joint drafting committee, later told a news agency: “I do not say it is a precedent. Given the situation the government was in, it was a decision that we took with open eyes.”
The government has cleverly manipulated the anti-corruption campaign and turned the public debate into a battle between civil society and Parliament. Leaders of almost every political party have questioned the legitimacy of civil society in drafting a bill. “Small groups comprising three or five people cannot claim leadership on such issues,” says Congress media head Janardan Dwivedi.
The main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has gone as far as to question the Constitutional and legal mandate of the non-government group, the joint drafting committee and even the National Advisory Council (NAC) appointed by the Prime Minister’s Office and headed by UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi.
BJP spokesperson Prakash Javadekar has reservations regarding the term civil society. “Does this mean politicians are not civil? I would rather call them empowered and awakened citizenry,” he says. “Who are the members of civil society?” asks CPI general secretary A B Bardhan. “Can they speak on behalf of the entire country? The five members have an exaggerated notion about themselves. One must be modest,” he says.
“There is a parliamentary process to a bill being passed. We cannot short-circuit it,” says M Veerappa Moily, Union law minister and member of the drafting committee. “Civil society representatives cannot be expected to have the legal skill to draft a complex legislation.”
On the other side of the divide, non-government groups have questioned the coercive ways of their representatives in the drafting panel. But they have been one in asserting their right to dissent and develop policies.
“No one is questioning the role of the legislature. But it is a fact that the legislature is not sanctimonious any more. So many decisions are taken without a debate in Parliament. So why should a citizen not demand the right to be heard?” asks Madhuresh of National Alliance for People Movement, an association of non- government groups.
“The boundary between civil society and political society is porous,” says Amitabh Beher, executive director of the National Foundation of India, a non-profit in Delhi. “In the face of a dwindling governance system, we have the right to dissent. I do not think civil society has crossed the Lakshman rekha,” he says.
The idea that a Lokpal would curb corruption in India is misplaced, says Deep Joshi, member of NAC and social scientist. “But accusing civil society of entering the political sphere is also not right. In a democracy, there is nothing apolitical,” he adds.
Government’s aggressive stand against non-government group’s protests has surprised many. It was belligerent against the protest by popular yoga instructor and alternative medicine manufacturer Ramdev who had a set of demands which included bringing back black money from foreign countries.
In the past seven years, the UPA has tried to create a pro-people image for itself. Congress spokesperson Manish Tiwari says that NAC was UPA’s attempt to engage with NGOs. “Many have called NAC the original sin. But the UPA wanted to engage with civil society and get different viewpoints,” he says.
It made a conscious effort to co-opt non-government groups. Setting up the NAC gave a formal and powerful space to them. Some key pieces of legislation like the Right To Information Act, the Forest Rights Act and the MGNREGA have been designed by these members. Drafting of the 11th Five-Year Plan had wide representation from the non-government sector. Its mid-term review also, for the first time, involved members from the non-government.
Political analysts say UPA-II is in a comfortable period in terms of anti-incumbency as it is still in its second year. But there are key differences between the two tenures of the UPA which, analysts say, are the reasons for an aggressive government.
First, UPA-I did not face many corruption cases. The current anti-corruption campaign and popular sentiments against corruption are preceded by a series of high-profile scandals involving hundreds of billion of rupees. Both the ruling and opposition parties were shocked by the swell of support to anti-corruption campaigns by non-political figures like Hazare and Ramdev.
Second, the first tenure of the UPA had a common minimum programme (CMP) with the Left parties as its allies. “CMP was oriented towards rights-based programmes and was constantly under Left scrutiny. As it is known now, the government needed civil society for inputs and advise for this. The second tenure does not have a CMP as the Congress has majority and does not need much help for survival,” says Beher.
“In UPA-I the Congress wanted to strengthen its constituencies by focusing on welfare agenda as it had been out of power for a long period,” says Yamini Aiyar, senior research fellow with the non-profit Centre for Policy Research. Economic reforms have become the main agenda of UPA-II despite the NAC being revived with an agenda similar to CMP. This could explain the visible clashes between the NAC and the government on many issues. The Right To Food Bill is the most notable one.
The government uses think-tanks like NAC to get public comment, thinks Javadekar. The joint drafting committee of the Lokpal Bill should be seen in the same light, he adds. Civil society has three functions— to inform, empower and ensure accountability whenever the government gets distracted. But the government has fooled the people by producing two different drafts of the Bill, says Javadekar.
Rise of third sector
The non-government sector has come of age. Never before has it hogged the limelight as now, following the agitation over the Lokpal Bill. “Civil society has made national news for the first time. We have been in the headlines for three consecutive months,” says Amitabh Beher, executive director of the National Foundation of India, a non-profit in Delhi.
India has around 3.2 million registered non-government organisations (NGOs). Indians have more per capita NGOs than hospital beds. The Central Statistical Organisation of India states there are around four NGOs for every 1,000 people in urban areas and 2.3 NGOs for every 1,000 rural population. Their work spans a wide spectrum, from judiciary to legislatures to media. There is hardly any ministry that does not support or engage an NGO. Due to its wide reach it is often called the third sector.
The non-government sector came into prominence in the late 1960s when a new generation was maturing in post-Independence India. This was a generation that measured legitimacy of a political party according to its skills in meeting popular aspirations.
Historians say this was the period when India was getting restless with Congress’ two decades of uninterrupted rule. “The decline of the Congress occurred precisely when popular expectations had risen,” says Neera Chandhoke, professor of political science and director of developing countries research centre at Delhi University.
The big break for the non-government sector came after the national Emergency of 1975-77. For the first time, a non-Congress government, led by the Janata Party, had come to power. It was during this phase that civil society assumed political responsibilities. Besides creating an alternative to the Congress, Emergency also gave rise to a breed of civil society groups which supported a proactive political agenda. “The idea of civil society countervailing to the state began during Emergency,” says T K Oommen, social scientist and commentator on civil society.
Emergency had meant a ruthless political clampdown through the suspension of people’s fundamental rights, which led to social struggles outside the political party arena. “This reinforced the belief that the party system was totally ineffective in representing political demands,” says Chandhoke.
The Janata Party had co-opted many of these groups. So, the new government pursued an agenda largely influenced by them. It was during this time that the seeds of legislation like the right to education and employment were sown in the government agenda.
New development space
The Janata Party experiment was short-lived. In 1980, the Congress returned to power. Over the next decade, the non-government sector saw a steady growth but with little government support. Relationship between the two was redefined as India began the course of liberalisation in the early 1990s. Experts say the impact of liberalisation on civil society was similar to that of Emergency.
“Economic liberalisation can be the new basis to explain the changing relationship between government and the non-government,” says Souporno Lahiri, an activist who works with many people’s movements in India. It redefined the relations between public good and private interest. Government downsized the roles and responsibilities of non-government groups and instead, favoured partnership with the private sector. That’s when the non-government sector reacted and “filled the development gap left by the government and market since 1990s,” says Mohamad Haleem Khan, the director general of CAPART, a government wing to support NGOs.
Post-liberalisation, the number of NGOs increased rapidly and over 70 per cent of the current organisations came into existence (see Post-liberalisation boom). “Foreign funding started flowing in as government started to promote them,” says Ajay Mehta, member of task force appointed by the Planning Commission on decentralised funding mechanism for the voluntary sector. “Terms like civil society and participatory development came in vogue along with liberalisation,” says Madhuresh of National Alliance for People Movement, an association of non-government groups.
Liberalisation coincided with another development in India’s governance structure—adoption of the Panchayati raj system in 1992. The Constitution grants 29 local functions to panchayats. These were the functions on which NGOs focused. “So where would have the NGOs moved to? It involved makeover for some and looking for other works for others,” says Rajesh Tandon of the non-profit Society for Participatory Research in Asia. Many NGOs switched to advocacy. Many others got involved in empowering the elected panchayat representatives through government-supported schemes. Of late, foreign donors have also started supporting such works. “So now, from village to Parliament, NGOs are poised in opposition to elected representatives,” he says.
When UPA came to power in 2004, civil society entered into a new phase of political association. The series of recent empowering pieces of legislation—Right To Information, Forest Rights Act, Right to Education and rural employment guarantee Act—saw NGOs play a major role in their enactment. Each of these Acts has been preceded by years of local movement and intense negotiations with the government. An important change was taking place on the other side as well. The government was adopting a “right-based” approach to governance.
After getting re-elected in 2009, Manmohan Singh declared his government would provide legal sanctity to people’s rights to all basic services. “This was the best phase in terms of government and non-government engagement. The results were encouraging,” says Deep Joshi, member of NAC and social scientist. Both the government and non-government groups were speaking the same language. But this bonhomie may not last forever.
“Once the government’s liberalisation agenda is back, the inherent conflicts over resources and their use will also return. This is where civil society and the government will come into head-on collision,” says Tandon.
Pushpa Sundar of Sampradaan Indian Centre for Philanthropy, an organisation that encourages philanthropy, gives an interesting insight into the conflict. “Usurping legislative rights may not be right. Civil society cannot say it needs to be part of every legislation. During UPA-I, Sonia Gandhi usurped government’s role by favouring most of NAC’S decisions. This has led to a backlash in UPA-II,” she says.
“Initially, it seemed Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption movement was acceptable to the government. Binding social activists in committees and legislative processes is a time-tested strategy to confuse, confound and fudge. But the government is now fuming because Hazare has set August 15 as the deadline to enact the Lokpal Bill. Delay is a powerful tool of the state to deny rights, justice and accountability,” says Tandon.
But civil society has also indulged in an evident oversight. “Civil society organisations can lobby for and mobilise people to demand the realisation of fundamental rights from the government. But ultimately realisation of these rights depends on structures and institutions of governance, which seem to escape the control of civil society agents,” says Chandhoke.
The government-civil society relations appear to have hit the nadir. The political class termed the five civil society members of the Bill’s joint drafting committee “unelectable tyrants”. But civil society groups argue that despite being self-appointed, the work of NGO leaders is more open to public scrutiny.
In this context, the assertion of advocacy NGOs cannot be missed. These groups have confronted the government and the political class the most. They are also linked to international campaigns and networks which provide them instant global acknowledgement.
The changed scenario has prompted the government to set new conditions while engaging with NGOs. The government does not want civil society to have any say in formulating rules. For instance, its views are not being taken while drafting the land acquisition and right to food legislation.
This has created division between NGOs that take support from the government and “activist” groups which adopt aggressive policy postures. Community-based organisations and people’s movements also look upon both kinds of NGOs with suspicion. “Liberalisation has split us on the ground of money. Movements do not have money, but they form the core of any campaign for change,” says Madhuresh.
Move to leash NGOs
The battle over Lokpal has entered its next big phase. The question now is: how will civil society react to the outcome of the July 3 all-party meeting in which all political parties discounted the role of non-government groups in formulating a law?
The government’s draft of the Bill makes provisions to bring non-government organisations (NGOs) under it. “Civil society groups preferred not to make an issue out of it. But it does show the contour of future relationship between government and non-government,” says head of an NGO who does not want to be identified. Many NGO representatives are worried as the government and political parties have branded civil society as a monolith, that includes everyone non-government. “I recently invited someone for a civil society review of government plans. He refused, saying he cannot be identified as a civil society member in the present context,” says a prominent NGO activist.
Political parties usually see NGOs with suspicion. An analysis of the government’s recent steps to regulate NGOs points towards it. To check misutilisation of foreign funds, Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act 2010 was introduced, replacing a similar Act of 1976. The new Act brought some key changes. But the most repressive change was to disallow foreign contribution to NGOs “political” in nature. And, it is government’s prerogative to declare which organisation is “political”.
While debating the law in Parliament, most members supported it. Nishikant Dubey, a member of Parliament, said: “NGOs are attempting to impede the process of development.”
According to P T Thomas, another parliamentarian, “The sole authority to declare an organisation political in nature rests with the Centre”. While charting out the objectives of the law, Union minister Ajay Maken said, “One must check the forces which may divide the people of the country”.
Government’s suspicion towards NGOs is also clearly seen in the Voluntary Sector Policy that came into force in 2007. Its objective, said the government, was to “encourage, enable and empower an independent, creative and effective voluntary sector”. But Harsh Jaitly, head of non-profit Voluntary Actions Network of India (VANI), says the rules and regulations contradict the very spirit of the policy.
Many believe such recent government actions would dry up foreign funding for NGOs. The new taxation policy, the Direct Tax Code (DTC), discourages tax incentive for donations. Expected to be effective from April 1, 2012, DTC will cut down tax benefits to donors of the non-profit sector from 100 per cent to 50 per cent.
Already, there is an attempt to create a regulatory mechanism for NGOs. A task force constituted by the Planning Commission has suggested a statutory body called National Accreditation Council of India. NGOs oppose it calling it a government control mechanism. They argue the body cannot be “self-regulatory” as it will have significant government representation. The body will have 51 members, of which 20 will be from the non-government sector. The rest will be nominated by government and industrial houses.
These arm-twisting measures have not gone down well with NGOs. Raghuvir Pradhan of people’s association Ekta Parishad sums up government’s attitude: “Government is using democracy and the role of legislation as a cover to not listen to the common people.”
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