Navigators Of Change

As government, corporates seek to engage with NGOs, they gain new significance
Lola Nayar

Brave NGO World?

• The Planning Commission is courting NGOs for policy inputs, views on how to make plans work
• NGOs and local activism forced govt to stall Vedanta, Posco plans
• NGO opposition to snacks being served in schools changed plans to scrap hot meals
• NGO have made the government rethink the Polavaram dam project
• Their criticism of the leakage of NREGA funds led to the creation of monitoring mechanisms
• NGOs have worked to enshrine education as a fundamental right
• Matters related to environment clearance—like GM foods, mining —now go through public debate, thanks to NGOs.
• NGOs played a crucial role in strengthening the nuclear liability bill, securing rights for gays

The jholawala is the latest lobbyist in town. He or she has top policymakers on speed-dial, is now feted by the media and sought out by companies eager to promote ‘India Inclusive’. It’s a remarkable, even heady, transformation. For long derided as irrelevant trouble-making activists largely focused on rural India, NGOs (registered arms of what is loosely called civil society) are basking in the warm embrace of recognition and relevance.

As recent events have shown, NGOs have played important roles in the big debates of the day. With a little help from fellow travellers—and occasionally backed by political support—they have been able to swing policy decisions in the citizen’s interest, be it stalling plans for Bt brinjal cultivation, or questioning the Polavaram dam project or bauxite mining in the Niyamgiri hills. The outcome has often hit the grand plans of corporate giants like Posco, Vedanta and Tatas. More lasting perhaps will be the civil society’s contribution in ushering in a range of rights regimes—information, education or livelihood, and soon, the right to food.

Given the apparently in-built adversarial relationship between NGOs, governments and companies, it’s a controversial thesis to put out. For every voice that celebrates the new power behind NGOs, an equal number urges caution and stresses that the ground realities haven’t changed. Is it right then to see NGOs as a necessary, important power centre? Are they really becoming indispensable in matters of governance, delivery of services or voicing the needs of the marginalised? Or is it just a politically correct trend that covers a few, high-profile outfits, leaving the vast majority just where it always was?

Experts differ in their assessment of the role and relevance of ngos. “Over the last decade things have changed. We are being sought for policy inputs. The demand is also coming from below—the community, the beneficiaries, the vulnerable sections—who know their needs,” says Farida Lambay of Pratham, an important NGO in the education space. With a growing grip on best practices, Lambay feels civil society is filling the space a pole that can represent the people’s concerns and aspirations. (మరింత…)