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Editorial of the Day: The Future of India’s Civil Society Organisations (The Hindu)

Context: The article is discussing the suppression of civil society organisations (CSOs) and movements in our country that has resulted in a decrease in their ability to shape policy and public discourse. It highlights the repercussions of targeting of activists, journalists, academics, and students by both state and non-state actors, as well as their restriction of access to resources.

The Future of India’s Civil Society Organisations Background

What are Civil Society Organizations (CSOs)?

  • According to the World Bank, Civil Society refers to a wide array of organizations, community groups, Non-governmental organizations [NGOs], labour unions, indigenous groups, charitable organizations, faith-based organizations, professional associations and foundations.
  • Globally, the term ‘Civil Society’ became popular in the 1980s, when it started to be identified with non-state movements defying authoritarian regimes, especially in Eastern Europe and Latin America.
  • When mobilized, civil society – sometimes called the “third sector” (after government and commerce) – has the power to influence the actions of elected policy-makers and businesses.
  • Examples of well-known civil society organizations include Amnesty International, the International Trade Union Confederation, World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), Greenpeace and the Danish Refugee Council (DRC).

Civil Society in India

  • Civil society derives its strength from the Gandhian tradition of volunteerism, but today, it expresses itself in many different forms of activism.
  • In independent India, the initial role played by the voluntary organizations started by Gandhi and his disciples was to fill in the gaps left by the government in the development process.
  • The volunteers organized handloom weavers in villages to form cooperatives through which they could market their product directly and get a better price. AMUL, a dairy cooperative society is the product of such cooperative movement.

Role of CSOs in good governance

  • Civil Society plays a crucial role in good governance. As India is not a participative democracy but a representative democracy, the government takes all major decisions by itself. Civil Society acts as an interface of interaction between the government and the governed.
  • Civil society’s functional contribution to good governance could be:
    • Watchdog — against violation of human rights and governing deficiencies.
    • Advocate — of the weaker sections’ point of view.
    • Agitator — on behalf of aggrieved citizens.
    • Educator — of citizens on their rights, entitlements and responsibilities and the government about the pulse of the people.
    • Service provider — to areas and people not reached by official efforts or as government’s agent.
    • Mobiliser — of public opinion for or against a programme or policy.

Decoding the Editorial

The article talks about the significant challenges and restrictions that civil societies in India are facing that hampers their ability to operate freely. It discusses about:

  • Suppression of Civil Society Organizations:
    • Suppression of civil society organizations and movements by State and non-state actors makes it difficult for them to shape policy and public discourse.
    • The government’s efforts to restrict civil society are motivated by a perception that CSOs are a new frontier for foreign interference and war.
    • As a result of this crackdown, activists, journalists, academics, and students have been targeted by both state and non-state actors, who have resorted to violence and abuse, both online and offline.
    • The government has also restricted the access of civil society organizations to resources, including cancelling Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act clearances, revoking 12A/80-G licences, imposing retrospective taxes, and pressuring private companies and philanthropists to redirect funding.
  • Limiting CSOs participation in the democratic process:
    • Currently there have been a number of instances where several civil society organizations that advocate for the welfare of citizens and address social issues are being portrayed as disruptive to India’s development trajectory and, therefore, anti-national.
    • This kind of a portrayal poses a serious danger to India’s political system’s integrity because civil society serves as an essential safety valve for tensions within a polity.
    • It will also limit the ability of citizens to participate in the democratic process and address social issues, which could lead to increased social tensions and political instability.
  • Restructuring CSOs’ Landscape:
    • The State has been taking efforts to restructure India’s civil society landscape by promoting institutions affiliated with political parties.
    • These affiliated CSOs receive government patronage, as well as corporate social responsibility funds, and have influence over select departments in state governments, particularly in areas such as education, culture, and welfare for Dalits and Adivasis.
    • This has led to programmatic implications, with activities related to women’s welfare, human rights, and freedoms increasingly shaped by the political parties’ ideological imperatives.
    • Impact on other CSOs:
      • The restructuring of civil society in India has had an impact on other CSOs and movements, which are being restricted as a result of the financial and political power of the affiliated parties.
      • Despite the threat that this poses to civil society, many actors have not adapted their normative and operational methodologies, continuing to rely on outdated tactics such as sanctioned protests, speeches, and petitions which prove to be ineffective in influencing the State.
  • Failure to Integrate socio-cultural values with their work:
    • The article suggests that progressive civil society organizations (CSOs) in India have failed to effectively integrate socio-cultural values with their work towards promoting welfare and protecting constitutional values.
    • This has resulted in their inability to influence and shape public consciousness, especially among those who have been radicalised.
    • Despite securing benefits from progressive CSOs, local communities have been observed to ideologically align with the political parties.
    • This dichotomy has led to a sense of exhaustion and questioning of the effectiveness of their work among key activists.

Tackling Challenges faced by CSO:

The article highlights the current challenges faced by progressive civil society organizations (CSOs) in India, including financial and structural constraints, lack of sustained support, and diminishing ability to shape policy due to their suppression.

  • Realignment of Operational Methodologies: The author argues that this situation is unsustainable and calls for a realignment of progressive CSOs’ normative and operational methodologies.
    • The realignment should focus on blending socio-cultural values with welfare work and calls to protect constitutional values to reshape hearts and minds and guide mass consciousness.
    • There must also be sustained support for CSOs and their impact on the nation at large.
    • Migration of CSOs to safer avenues and their political inclination should be taken care of.
      • This would result in a significant reduction in the ability of civil society to hold the government accountable, represent the voices of vulnerable sections of society, provide constructive feedback on policies and legislation, and promote the common good.
  • Persuade young activists to join Political Parties:
    • Another possible solution to the challenges faced by progressive civil society in India could be for young activists to join political parties.
    • By doing so, they could create a moral force within the parties that would balance electoral interests with ethical and human rights considerations.
    • This approach would provide parties with a multi-layered and systemic approach to addressing complex issues, rather than relying solely on electoral strategies.
  • Collaborating with Progressive Stakeholders:
    • CSOs must urgently collaborate with other progressive stakeholders, including political parties, to find solutions to the systemic problems facing the sector.
    • Private philanthropies and companies have a critical role to play in supporting progressive civil society organizations in India.
    • Conscientious Citizens should also work together and collaborate on new methods of supporting and protecting civil society, which is vital to safeguarding and advancing the constitutional idea of India.

Other Challenges:

  • There is a gap in understanding of rights, human rights and political rights between the State and a section of the civil society.
  • There is too much dependency on external resources, which brings along with it huge restrictions and application of laws.
  • Leadership has been a big challenge for the sector as the leadership grows old and gets entrenched in transfer of power issues and power struggles.
  • Many CSOs lack the skills and resources to create and maintain professional management systems.
  •  CSOs often face misconceptions about their role in society. This can hinder their ability to gain support from the public and donors.

Beyond the Editorial

Strategies to Restore Credibility of Civil Society Organisations in India:

  • Embrace voluntary work and spirit of voluntarism: The traditional Indian approach to voluntary work, which is inspired by a sense of indebtedness towards society, should be embraced to restore credibility.
  • Establish movements for the people: Civil society organisations should aspire to become movements of the people, by the people, and for the people.
  • Balance individualism and collective spirit: Indian civil societies should strike a balance between individualism and collective spirit, as our philosophical approaches have always done.
  • Repay societal debt through daan: Our ancient scriptures emphasise the importance of daan as a duty and as part of repaying societal debt, which should be practiced.
  • Focus on education, public awakening, and mobilisation: Like Tilak, Gandhi, Ambedkar, and Savarkar did during the freedom struggle, organisations should focus on nationalistic education, public awakening, and popular mobilisation.
  • Transparency and Accountability: Civil society organisations should be transparent in their functioning and accountable to the people they serve, to gain their trust and support.
  • Collaboration and Networking: CSOs need to collaborate and network with other stakeholders, including political parties, to tackle issues of national importance effectively.
  • Addressing pressing issues: Civil society organisations should work towards addressing pressing issues faced by the society, such as poverty, education, healthcare, environment, and social justice.

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