The lords of poverty

Salaries of one or two lakhs or more per month are not rare in India. But when such salaries are in the ‘voluntary sector’—the NGOs—it becomes a matter for concern. In the last couple of years, three charities advertised for personnel for their Indian operations. All the positions pay more than Rupees 1 million per annum, and one an astounding Rupees 2.5 million! Unfortunately, it is not as rare as it should be, and is becoming more common. Surely, this is not the kind of millionaires that we want to create. This is not the ‘voluntarism’ that the land of Gandhi needs.

The Indian recipients of such largesse claim that they get ‘only’ in the range of British Pounds 2000-3500 per month, which is the equivalent of a British schoolteacher. However, to comprehend the real magnitude of this scam, other comparisons will be in order. The salary is equivalent to the top information technology professionals in the country. It is more than double the salary of the Indian prime minister and president combined…. And yes, there are the same perks that go with the job… free housing, unlimited telephone bills, foreign travel… On joining these charities, executives can expect a 300 to 600% jump in their incomes. Ninety percent of all Indians do not have taxable income—meaning they earn less than Rupees 200,000 per annum, inclusive of all exemptions.

What makes it scandalous is that the annual grants made by these agencies to the individual grassroots NGOs are sometimes smaller than the monthly income of its chief executives. Some of the annual grants made by these ‘charities’ to NGOs is smaller than the telephone bills of their executives. Annual grants to many NGOs are in the range of Rupees 2-300,000. For this, the poor NGOs have to write a proposal, answer endless queries, have a mid-term evaluation and a final evaluation. In contrast, the ‘charity administrator’ is unaccountable. Whether the project fails or succeeds, there is only an upward career path of ever widening distance from the grassroots. Most of the work actually done is outsourced—either to struggling grassroots organisations, or to activist consultants. The only highly paid consultants are the ex-charity administrators, who come from the same nationally dominant caste and class. While it is self-help for the poor village women, it is 100% subsidy for the charity worker.

As we delve deeper, it gets even more scandalous. The small ‘contractor NGOs’ cannot even pay minimum wages to their staff. They hide behind accounting and legal technicalities such as ‘part-time staff’, ‘volunteers’, and ‘employed by the community’. This is clearly creative accounting. Creative accounting helps hide the enormous pay and perks too. That is covered up by putting it under different heads, and then doing an analysis based on percentages. The NGO world now tracks the 100 largest economies of the world, and reports with glee that 52 are corporations. If a similar analysis is done for the ‘voluntary’ sector, we would find that, of the 100 largest budget lines in their national offices, over 60 would be salaries of administrators. When the administrator gets over Rupees 200,000 per month, when the driver in the charity gets over Rupees 20,000 per month, the lowly field worker gets—hold your breath—Rupees 150 to Rupees 500.

This ‘corporatisation’ of NGOs is not even efficient. The Indian democracy had a Dalit president after 50 years. That has not happened in a charity yet. There are numerous Dalit and Adivasi IAS officers. There are less Dalit and Adivasi regional managers in charities. Their composition is almost exclusively dominant caste and class. If these charities cannot make space within themselves for the socially marginalised, with what legitimacy do they advocate, and even seek to enforce, notions of social justice? Indian society certainly has a better record of accomplishment than them.

The deafening silence of the NGOs in the face of the Foreign Contribution Control and Management Bill [FCMC], which is a threat to their functioning and autonomy, needs to be seen in this light. It is worthwhile to remember that Indian NGOs have traditionally come together to fight for their rights. The first national network of Indian NGOs was formed to fight against the government imposition of the ‘code of conduct’. Those who led the NGOs then are either retired, or have multi-million Rupee operations now. Most have been silenced because they have been compromised. The voluntary ethos has become extinct in many NGOs, whose offices, salaries and perks are often indistinguishable from the corporate world. The influx of large sums of money has led to the extinction of the rough cotton khadhi kurta clad activist, who is replaced with the jet-setting laptop toting corporate NGO executive with little empathy with people and processes, though mouthing appropriate language and vocabulary but practicing management efficiency and business ethics. This is the very anti-thesis of voluntarism.

The corporate world too has caught on the scam. They now set up their own ‘foundations’ and then claim tax exemption for it. The wife and kin of the promoters, often unemployable elsewhere, are given fat pay cheques from these ‘NGOs’. Even when working elsewhere, this becomes a ‘second income’ which can be sometimes a six-figure amount. Practices such as these are little better than money laundering. With such close identification with the corporate world, the government must treat them not as ‘voluntary’ organisations, but as private service providers. True they do provide an important service, but they are not ‘voluntary’. They do not deserve the tax exemptions under Section 80G, 10A or 12A of the Income Tax Act. These exemptions need to be immediately withdrawn. But then, there are many truly ‘voluntary’ organisations, working unsung at the grassroots in the slums, villages and jungles. They need to have the exemptions.

With the withdrawal of the state and ‘downsizing’ due to the compulsions of the market led globalisation, WTO and World Bank, the government is unable to fulfil its traditional roles. It has ceded many of these roles to market forces and the goodwill of the capitalists. From the commanding heights of the mixed economy, when it decided the thrust areas, made the investment, created infrastructure and provided jobs, the role of the government is now reduced to deciding how cheaply it can sell of profit making companies to the private sector, and measures its success by how many of its employees it has laid off. It then desperately relies on NGOs to take care of its social welfare role, since that is the only way to mitigate social chaos and violence. Even the government pays NGO workers less than Rupees 500 a month in government supported programmes. At this stage, what the government requires is active partnership with truly ‘voluntary’ agencies. In such cases, what is required is commitment—a commodity that money cannot buy.

One thing the government could do is to exempt only those organisations whose staff, including those on deputation and ‘consultants’ draw less than Rs 200,000 per annum. If the NGO pays any of its staff or its consultants more than Rs 200,000 per annum, it should lose its ‘charity’ status. Contrary wise, it should also lose its charity status if it does not pay all its staff—whether called ‘part-time’ or ‘volunteers’ or any other—the statutorily mandated minimum wages, and statutory benefits. It would help get the Indian ‘voluntary’ sector back to its roots and voluntary ethos. Commitment, simplicity and sacrifice—none of which money can buy—are the core of voluntarism. We do not need lords of poverty.

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