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At long last a positive note has been struck to end the Union government's ambiguity towards non-governmental organisations (NGOs). The Planning Commission has circulated a draft of a clear-cut policy on the voluntary sector, the lack of which has irked the latter a great deal. NGO representatives involved in the exercise are largely satisfied with the document's tone and tenor, though a policy may not bring about any real change in the short term
at long last a positive note has been struck to end the Union government's ambiguity towards non-governmental organisations (ngos). The Planning Commission has circulated a draft of a clear-cut policy on the voluntary sector, the lack of which has irked the latter a great deal. ngo representatives involved in the exercise are largely satisfied with the document's tone and tenor, though a policy may not bring about any real change in the short term.
The issue has its roots in the Emergency declared by the Congress government in 1975, says Rajesh Tandon, president of the Society for Participatory Research in Asia, New Delhi. One of the most controversial events was the introduction of the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act (fcra) in 1976. While the government claimed that the act was meant to prevent anti-national activities, ngos allege it was actually a bid to control them.
Several people who opposed the Emergency joined the voluntary sector. Tandon notes that when the Congress returned to power in 1980, a large number of such people and institutions faced persecution. The 1980s saw the further strengthening of fcra, and stiff opposition to it from the voluntary sector.
The demand for a policy was first made by some ngos in 1988. Over a period, governments changed and several committees submitted reports. But there was no real effort to roll back or streamline regulations that led to the harassment of ngos, says Anil K Singh, director of New Delhi-based Voluntary Action Network India (vani). " fcra puts ngos at the mercy of bureaucrats in the Union ministry of home affairs. The system promotes corruption and harassment," points out Singh, reeling off a long list of regulations that are "Draconian".
The process that has produced the present draft got underway in 1994 at a two-day convention of about 100 ngos, senior ministers and bureaucrats in New Delhi. The then Prime Minister, P V Narasimha Rao, chaired the meet. The result was a document entitled Action plan to bring about a collaborative relationship between voluntary organisations and government .
It recommended the creation of a joint consultative machinery and initiation of a dialogue by the Planning Commission among the Union ministries of home affairs, finance and labour. The talks were prescribed to facilitate simplification of regulations governing the ties between the government and ngos. The joint mechanism was created, but it met very seldom. Singh says that the suggestion to simplify fcra procedures was turned down.
On the contrary, in 2001, there was talk of an amendment to make fcra stricter, including a clause for annual renewal of registration. An aggressive media campaign ensured that there was no formal proposal, says Singh. In late 2002, the plan panel made another attempt to draft a policy for the voluntary sector. The joint machinery was reconstituted with several members of the sector on board. Official sources say that a suggestion by the committee of secretaries to improve government-ngo ties contributed to this initiative.
Those who understand the history and politics of the issue say this shift can be attributed partly to politicians and bureaucrats who run ngos. Vijay Mahajan of Basix, an ngo of Hyderabad, is a part of the renewed process. "The government-ngo relationship has seen many ups and downs. So this is a good revival," he says.
But he asserts that the definition of voluntary sector in the draft is misleading. The document says: "Voluntary action is strictly defined as an activity or function undertaken...for the benefit of others without any personal, financial or material returns." Tandon is of the view that volunteerism is being mixed up with the voluntary sector, which has grown rapidly in response to development challenges. The sector now needs full-time employees and professional inputs, feels Mahajan.
The final outcome of the draft is also a grey area. ngos are demanding that it be made an act of parliament. This seems improbable as official sources disclose that it would be cleared only by the Union cabinet. ngos fear this could result in a new government overriding the policy. Moreover, they want a legally binding document to confront a bureaucrat with when they face harassment.
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