Civil society in India: Characteristics, Challenges, Capacity
Anita and Edwin, OpenSpace
1 Characteristics of civil society in India in the current social, economic and political situation
Civil society is sometimes defined as a utopian ideal, everything that does not fit the ideal (such as gender and caste discrimination) becomes a ‘flawed part’ of civil society, as though civil society itself is perfect, though made of imperfect human beings. The traditional definition of civil society—the part of the middle class that is not in government—is a good starting point. However, that is not sufficient in a deeply stratified society. ‘Civil society’ needs to be carefully and more restrictively defined.
The middle class has a small section of active citizens, and a passive majority. It is divided on class, caste, gender, ethnic and many other identities. It is deeply hierarchical and privilege based. It shares an almost universal abhorrence for honest physical labour. All things American, and approval by America, has a large mindshare, and is neo-liberal/ neo-con in its outlook. In the past two decades, a significant section has been fed on a diet of victim-hood, and there is a significant shift to the right, re-imaging of India as a ‘Hindu’ nation, Muslims as terrorists and conversions as an issue of national security—all this with the willing complicity of the state. This affluent and dominant mind set dominates the media, public spaces and set the national agenda, but are out of touch with the 70% of Indians who live on less than Rs20 a day.
Civil society organisations range from Rotary and Lions Clubs and organisations of the reactionary right that have large networks across the country, to small fragmented grassroots groups of idealistic youngsters selflessly working for the betterment of their community. It would include the upcoming coalitions of the Residents Welfare Associations to the older established ‘Gandhians’.
There is a minuscule section of civil society that is actually connected with the masses. But they are often marginalised using religious and cultural archetypes. They are sometimes dismissed as ‘do-gooders’. However, in recent years, there have been better strategies employed by these activists for systemic change. There is better understanding of the system, more professionalism in getting to change the system itself to ensure transparency and a degree of accountability. Right to information, employment guarantee, and protection of women are examples of success. There is increasing use of instruments of state to get work done. There is sporadic use of the mass media, but media attention is fragmented when it comes to the non-middle class.
Though a vast majority of organisations would be working on a ‘reform’ agenda, those working for structural change and accountability remain few. Yet these are the civil society actors who actually work to protect and secure the rights of the poor: the poor who are overwhelmingly Dalits, Adivasis and Muslims; the women and children among them being the most affected.
In this note, therefore, we will use the more restricted definition of civil society: that part of society that works for social justice.
2 Challenges facing the civil society in its effort to protect and secure rights of poor, vulnerable and marginalised groups
The space for dissent is consistently becoming smaller and more restricted. It is becoming easier for the state and the other dominant powers to label all dissent as terrorism or anti-national. State violence has a new found legitimacy as it label anyone as a ‘anti-national and terrorists’ if required . The corporate sector both national and multinational, have the same immunity to break laws and most often negotiate their own terms of association individually, only to maximise profit.
2.1 The state of siege: preventing solidarity
Civil society solidarity with the poor has been deeply hampered by the legitimacy of coercive state action that the atmosphere or fear and siege created by the so called ‘war on terror’. (Another instance of copying USA). Those portraying themselves as hard on terror are forgiven their ‘lesser crimes’ such as mayhem on the vulnerable and ethnic cleansing due to their ‘nationalist’ credentials. Cloaking themselves in the nationalist colours, the reactionary forces are able to set the agenda. Everyone is the ‘other’—religion, caste, language, region, sexuality…
This atmosphere of siege results even in death penalty to assuage the ‘conscience of the nation’ (and not evidence), arrest of respected human rights activists such as Binayak Sen for over a year, armed militia such as Salwa Judum promoted by the government…. Targeting of human rights defenders goes on with impunity even up to the SC. The human rights activists even have coined a term for it: Strategic Litigation Against Public Purpose, with the rather appropriate acronym SLAPP.
The judicial space—the PIL—is fast disappearing, and applied at the whims of the judges. There is suo moto case when a judge is caught in a traffic jam, but not when the mothers of Manipur protest.
The courts are overtly influenced by the political compulsions. The SC went to the extent on diluting its direction on rehabilitation before eviction on the explicit appeal by the PM. This has dangerous consequences. The non-responsive state has led to some taking up the gun. Others have despaired. Prominent intellectuals losing hope have unilaterally declared individual secession.
2.2 Fragmentation preventing concerted, coordinated action
Though civil society proclaims that ‘there is more that unites us, than that divides us’ the reality is that civil society is hopelessly fragmented. There is seldom solidarity across boundaries. Fragmentation and overspecialisation (those working for Dalit rights seldom work with those working for Dalit women’s rights let alone Adivasi rights…) sharing of expertise and experience across the different ‘specialist’ campaigns is practically non-existent. Those working on WTO, TRIPS, TRIMS etc routinely use copyright and proprietary software despite there being a robust copyleft, freeware and opensource movement in the country, and are not connected to the grassroots movements. Those at the grassroots seldom even know that such campaigns are being fought on their behalf.
It would be comic were it not for the consequential isolation of the community organisations promoted by these CSOs. The lessons, experience and expertise that would immensely benefit each other is seldom socialised.
This is almost a mirror of dominant society dividing the oppressed and making them fight against each other. (Salwa Judum in Jharkhand, Pana-Khand in Khandamal, Orissa, Dalit-Adivasi in Dangs, Gujarat)
2.3 The government by other means
NGOs have now become the preferred institutional model of civil society. But here too we have government promoted NGOs—the Gongos (most notoriously in Chandrababu Naidu’s government, where the government set up an NGO in each district headed by the district collector!)—and retired officials starting NGOs bringing in the same government ethos. Religious institutions too set up ‘secular NGOs’, and gain access to the planning commission consultative bodies in that capacity. Some ‘NGOs’ also oppose the rehabilitation efforts of the Narmada Bachao Andolan.
Many educational institutions are registered as trusts and societies to tap into funds that are raised for the poor and marginalized as part of their ‘out-reach’ programmes. More for reaching out for funds than the people concerned. Similar is the story of foundations established by corporate houses. Where a sound marketing strategy is often well embedded as part and parcel of community outreach.
The CS space is now dominated by many well equipped to bring out professional reports and media support, many of whom are far from social change agendas. In such a situation grassroots NGOs are most often short of funds. They are forced to accept government largesse. Once they accept this, they are relegated to being social ‘contractors’—a cheaper means of getting work done. When lacking in staying capacity, they also have to pay bribes to get their bills passed, just like any other contractor.
2.4 Lack of role clarity
The role of CSOs is to empower communities (perhaps with the creation of community organisations), ensure their participation in governance and then move to support roles: make the poor and their issues visible and provide legitimacy in the dominant discourse.
But this is a tough call. CSOs are called to fill up gaps in government at short notice—for everything from mid-day meals to disaster relief. As the 2004 tsunami showed, it is difficult to stick to a rights based or watchdog role at all times. The clarity of a human rights and solidarity based approach is not deep enough to provide clear direction as to when charity or corruption free implementation roles should be assumed. This again leads to them backsliding to social contractor roles.
3 Ways the civil society requires support in protecting and securing rights of the people
CSOs need support in moving from their leadership positions to support of CBOs. At present most of the leadership is with outsiders, therefore there is a vast concentration of power and charity approach. Such a role transformation would help in strengthening democracy at the grassroots.
3.2 Institutional mechanism for interacting with the state
There is no institutional mechanism for civil society to engage with the state. There is no formally accepted institutional representation and mandatory consultation and incorporation of interests within state polity. Such an institutional mechanism needs to be created. Though a small step, the sharing of some reports and draft policies with the ‘public’ on government websites is welcome. Many ‘consultative processes’ are more a façade for credibility, or required procedure, rather than an honest attempt for an open more democratic process.
3.3 Capturing mindspace
The culture of democracy, which includes the right to dissent, and accountability from the state has not really sunk in. Civil society cannot function in such a democratic vacuum. Support needs to be given for the creation of such a democratic mindset. The right to dissent and creating a culture of human rights from the individual, to family, community and the state is a tall order. The first step would be to create a confidence that voices will be heard and listened to and not ‘ silenced’ or victimized.
It could involve engaging the mass media on a large scale to create the right enabling environment so that solidarity with the poor is not seen as promoting extremism or terrorist sympathy.
3.4 Management capacity and vision
Micro-interventions are good, but unless they are scaled up it does not provide systemic change. However, at the grassroots the vision of a ‘critical mass’ needed for sustainable social change is absent. Without this critical mass, the same battles are fought over and over again, sometimes for many lifetimes.
The modern advances in skills and tools are yet to trickle down to the grassroots. Even when there is knowledge available, it is priced beyond the means of those who actually need it. This ‘knowledge delivery’ could be done post haste.
3.5 Alliance building
Civil society is stressed with too few people and resources taking on too many stressful tasks. This results is fragmentation mentioned earlier. Civil society needs help in making both horizontal and vertical links. Some don’t have the skills. Most don’t have the time. Yet they need to make space for others within the social justice movement (Dalit women within Dalits/Dalit—Adivasi; etc) and be sensitive to exclusion within the excluded (not for nothing are Dalit women called the Dalits among the Dalits).
A nationally respected platform (or a handful of them) that would provide the critical mass is an urgent need. These bodies should also have the legitimacy to internally critique the CSOs and grassroots organisations to enable democratisation.
Have purpose, the means will follow is a good slogan. Unfortunately, many idealistic groups become social contractors due to the lack of finances. Civil society initiatives can be, and are, scuttled by the sheer inertia of the state that simply waits them out.
Those who opt for a life of sacrifice often miss out on social security—the simple things of good education for their children, health coverage for their parents and loved ones, legal support, and a retirement nest egg. Provision of some form of social security in line with community standards would help at the grassroots.
4 Advantages of indigenising international NGOs in supporting civil society groups in protecting and securing rights of the people
Indigenising iNGOs has the following dimensions:
• Programme management.
Each of these has distinct implications—both advantages and disadvantages—the most significant being rootedness and legitimacy. When there is a deliberate sense of victimisation and ‘otherness’ being cultivated amongst the majority (about 80% even according to conservative estimates), the importance of rootedness and legitimacy cannot be overstated. The bogey of being ‘foreign’—foreigner, foreign funded or foreign agenda—is a sure recipe for failure.
Tangentially, Indigenising iNGOs also appeals to the growing national pride which is an outcome of demographics as much as economics (India as superpower). Nuclear powered India is no longer willing to play second fiddle. It wants to set the agenda. Moreover, India does have a mature civil society. Just as NGOs should not articulate issues or set the agenda where the community can, similarly expatriate do not have the legitimacy to do so on behalf of Indian Civil Society.
Most iNGOs do have most of their personnel from within India. However, those that don’t have non-Indians in their top most positions with a vast gulf in salaries. Having Indian personnel would (or should) erase this disparity (we are aware that it is not so in some cases). Local personnel would also be able to hold the partner NGOs to higher standards (see programme management below).
The flip side is also important. Indigenising often means that the local elite take up positions of leadership. It is a rare iNGO that has a significant section of Dalits and Adivasi in its staff, and rarer still for them to be at the leadership level. Indians can’t always mean Brahmin men, and ‘gender’, employment of Brahmin women, many who refuse to even recognise caste based discrimination. So though there is ‘gender balance’ and local staff employed this conservative section practically closes the door to caste, ethnic and other forms of equity. Indigenising personnel should be preceded by a diversity policy which is strictly monitored.
Raising money within India (even with the international brand name) would result in sensitising the growing Indian middle class, giving them an opportunity to give (other than to religious causes, which claims the largest chunk of giving), and engages them in social change. It helps the iNGO to set the pace of change at the level society is ready for. It is an accurate reflection of the acceptability of its agenda and its success in convincing its core support base.
It would deter some conspicuous consumption and ostentatious lifestyles that are presently followed.
At present most iNGOs and their staff are more conversant with their policy documents and international covenants than the constitution of India or implementation mechanisms. The long history of human rights and social movements in India does not form part of the policy discourse. Indigenising the ideology and policy discourse would help the grassroots identify with the agenda of the iNGO. At present most of this indigenising is done with the limited resources of the grassroots NGO.
Due to the asymmetric power relations arising out of the donor-recipient relationship, the agenda of social change is often set by the iNGO. Indigenising the agenda, with genuine respect for the local conditions and risk taking capacity would lead to more realistic and achievable goals based on the priorities of the community (for instance, why is it that 60 years down the line all those eligible could not get ration cards?).
This is not to dilute the agenda, but for a more robust engagement in both directions. The iNGO agenda during tsunami helped in addressing caste discrimination though it was not an NGO agenda.
With indigenisation, the experience can also be socialised globally. Some iNGOs have successfully socialised the experience with caste based discrimination to their global policy on social exclusion in all its forms (not just caste). This would be another level in horizontal linkages where locals socialise local learning across the globe.
4.5 Programme management
Indigenising iNGOs help in better programme management. For instance, women are more likely to hold women headed NGOs and NGOs working on women’s rights to higher performance standards than men. Similarly for Dalit empowerment etc. Indigenisation helps the programme move from the charity space to performance based, to a rights/entitlement based mode at least attitudinally.
The flip side is that the blurring of roles of the NGO/iNGO could lead to replacing of the local NGO from agenda setting and leadership to merely implementation. The leadership passes to the iNGO. This has to be guarded against. Without role clarity, indigenisation would prove to be a disaster for the development of civil society at the grassroots.
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