When I hear the word “NGO”, the image evoked in my mind is that of my mother setting us homework to do on a Saturday morning and going off with her friends to teach knitting and sewing to indigent young girls in our hometown, Kannur, in the Malabar area of Kerala. My mother and her friends – wives of doctors, lawyers, government officials and prominent businessmen – had committed their time to voluntarily lend a hand to the less fortunate citizens of our town. They did it under the umbrella of the “Mahila Samajam”, something that would be called a non-governmental organisation (NGO) today. Which is why I was more than a little puzzled when our normally mild-mannered and scholarly prime minister was reported as having said in an interview with Science magazine that there are “NGOs, often funded from the United States and the Scandinavian countries, which are not fully appreciative of the development challenges that our country faces”.
Obviously, I am not the only one perplexed. Many public intellectuals, as scholarly as the prime minister, have quickly weighed in. Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s comment in The Indian Express that the prime minister’s remark showed that “Indian democracy has diminishing place for dissent” is just one example.
I, like many Indians, perceive NGOs as do-gooders unencumbered and untainted by the politics of government or the greed of the market. Their very self-description, with its emphasis on defining themselves in terms of what they are not – “non-governmental” and “non-profit” – makes us idealise them as organisations through which people help others for reasons other than profit or politics.
Siddhartha Sen, who has done scholarly work on NGOs, says in his study titled “Some aspects of state-NGO relationships in India” that the relationship between NGOs and the Indian state has seen several phases.
The first phase, the early post-Independence period, was one of co-operation. NGOs were mainly Gandhian or Church-related, and they concentrated on things like providing relief during floods and famines.
The next phase, the late 1960s, saw the arrival of a new breed of NGOs staffed by officials disillusioned by the development strategies of the post-Independence period. They proposed empowerment of people as an alternative. This was the start of the NGO-state antagonism. This phase also saw action groups like the Sarvodaya movement led by Vinoba Bhave. Then came the Emergency, during which younger members of this movement rallied against authoritarian rule. The state, under Indira Gandhi, suppressed this movement and imprisoned many of its supporters.
The triggering event in the conflictual relationship between NGOs and the Indian state, says Sen, was in 1967 when it was disclosed that a prominent NGO was funded by the US’ Central Intelligence Agency. Many foreign missionaries and NGO officials were expelled. As an outcome of this uproar, the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act was passed in 1976. This Act serves as the main plank of the regulatory framework for NGOs till date.
The NGO-state relationship took a turn for the worse with the arrival in India of issue-oriented NGOs with links to worldwide networks working on issues like energy and environment. The Narmada Bachao movement, opposing the Narmada valley project, was an example of one such network.
The clash between NGOs and the state is not unique to India; it is a feature in many developing countries. The transnational links that NGOs have forged offer these organisations increased leverage and autonomy in their struggle with national governments — but, on the other hand, expose them to direction or control or even co-option by international players, says William Fisher of Harvard in his article “Doing good? The politics and antipolitics of NGO practices” (Annual Review of Anthropology). This can happen, he says, because by depending on such type of international funding, constituencies become “customers” and members become “clients”. This process of co-option of NGOs by development agencies, says Fisher, is by now so advanced that NGOs may be destined to become little more than the frontmen for such interests.
NGOs have, on their part, carried the battle into the state’s territory. The 2002 edict from the Supreme Court that electoral candidates must disclose whether there are criminal charges against them was the result of a petition by an NGO.
Clearly, NGOs have travelled a long way from the time they drew in wives of doctors, lawyers and other professionals to help their less fortunate brethren. Some of them are now full-fledged political interest groups.
This is a pity because Gandhiji, who was the original true believer in the NGO idea, believed that voluntary action was the real path to India’s development. During the freedom movement, volunteers undertook multiple programmes through organisations formed by Gandhians; the Mahila Samajam that my mother and her friends served was one such.
Isn’t there a way for NGOs to return to their original role?
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