For all the wrong reasons

Limiting the number of projects awarded to a NGO will do more harm than good. The civil society is an important ingredient of governance. Why fetter it?

Published: Sunday 31 January 1999

A journalist in the Press Club of Delhi wanted to know how to start a non-governmental organisation ( ngo ). It is the fastest way to make money, he said. You get grants worth several lakh rupees for doing nothing, just a little bit of writing. Which goes to show how little the media understands what is a ngo or what it does.

An excellent example of this is an article in The Times of India . The writer says that the government has just decided to blow the whistle on money-making ngo s. The author also examines the guidelines proposed to check the mushrooming of ngo s which are formed to make money. These guidelines have been proposed by the department of administrative reforms and public grievances. The government realises that it is time to amend the Societies Registration Act of 1860 and the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act ( fcra ).

The public at large would welcome a change in the Societies Registration Act. So would persons desirous of setting up a ngo . The reason in simple: the Act makes it mandatory that the organisational structure of a trust set up to manage a temple or a scientific research organisation be identical. There is no room for flexibility. How far these changes -- or those in the fcra -- will go to check the formation of ngo s out to make a quick buck is debatable.

How will the new guidelines help determine who is setting up a ngo to make money? One way out would be to impose a blanket ban on ngo s and their activities. Unfortunately, most of the successful development work in India is carried out either by communities or ngo s. Another way would be to say that ngo s should not be funded to work in areas where the government is already working. No ngo would like to work on the construction of a large dam or build a road, the kind of work a government normally does in India. The government also specialises in the creation of 'social hardware' in the form of schools and dispensaries. ngo s compliment the government. They bring in the 'software' to run these schools and dispensaries. They are a vital component of governance.

Moreover it is a well-known fact -- and any journalist worth his/her salt is aware of it -- that the creation of hardware suffers from the '10 per cent syndrome', a euphemism for the money-making endeavours of corrupt government officials. One may ask what guidelines are proposed to deal with the mushrooming of money-making within the government itself? Are there going to be restrictions on the number of tasks the government undertakes? The answer is obviously no. If corruption within the administration is not reason enough to restrict its functions, why shackle the entire civil society for what the government believes to be the wrongdoing of some of its components?

A blanket extension of this concept -- barring ngo s from working in areas where the government is already working -- would prevent all societies from working in the area of, say, air pollution. But how would this help the public? Data regarding air pollution is brought to the knowledge of the public by ngo s. The pollution control board does precious little to make this data public. Spreading awareness is therefore another important function of ngo s. Pollution control boards in India fail to perform at this level. A look at the daily newspapers is proof enough. It is normally ngo s that break news on air pollution levels, environmental damage, exploitation of child labour and other such crucial issues. It takes years of intensive and extensive research for them to come up with the evidence to support their findings, as it takes that much more effort on the part of ngo s to substantiate their claims. This kind of writing is quite unlike the reportage in the mainstream media, which is usually based on press hand-outs or a press briefing.

A third way could be to limit the number of projects given to a particular ngo . But this may prove counterproductive. Research and advocacy in India suffers from an abject absence of inter-disciplinary exchange; different government departments do not communicate well or work together. Socio-environmental issues are inveterately linked to several subjects. Forest conservation has as much to do with biodiversity as with the survival issues of communities living in the forests. A cap on the number of issues undertaken would also cap this vital link. A ngo with a good track-record may not be given another project which may be passed on to an untried, untested party. On the other hand, a sensible government will always know how to use the civil society to its own advantage: getting it to do the kind of work done which governments in India have regularly failed to do.

Perhaps the only way to check the mushrooming of ngo s could be to make an attempt to form a ngo a cognisable offence under the Indian Penal Code ( ipc ). So far the only offence punishable at the planning stage under the ipc is an attempt to commit dacoity. The government already has sufficient foreign exchange regulations to control contributions to ngo s. It is also armed with a set of formidable tax laws and accounting procedures to tax and audit the income of ngo s. Any addition to these would only create more work for the bureaucracy. More paper work that is. And only good ngo s will suffer. The bad ones will continue to flourish.

If the government wants to stop corruption in the ngo sector, it should start by cleaning up its own stables.

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