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Non-Government Organisations: Unsung Heroes in Social Landscape

A. J. Philip A. J. Philip
13 Nov 2023

I do not usually read Mint, the financial daily from the Hindustan Times stable. On Monday, it was available for free at the Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi. With a little over an hour to wait for the Dehradun flight, I read the paper thoroughly. It carried a half-page story based on a study of the funding patterns in non-government organisations (NGOs).

Having been associated with an NGO in New Delhi for two-and-a-half decades, the NGO sector has always been dear to me. I have first-hand knowledge of the challenges the sector faces in raising resources to scale up its interventions. Once someone asked me how I defined the success or failure of an NGO.

For instance, if a company made a profit of, say, Rs 10 crore after meeting all the costs of production and distribution and making provisions for the depreciation of the value of the machines, it can be considered successful. Remember, Amazon took over five years to make a profit. In other words, profit is the yardstick for measuring success.

How can the same yardstick be used for measuring the success of an NGO, which is also called a non-profit organisation? My answer to the query was, if an NGO was able to bring a smile to, say, 1,000 children, it can be considered successful. Instead of profit, it is the enhancement of the quality of life of its beneficiaries that an NGO should strive for.

In other words, the yardsticks for measuring the NGOs and the corporates are different. Playwright George Bernard Shaw had divided people into two categories: the reasonable people and the unreasonable people. The reasonable people are those who adapt themselves to the situation, and the unreasonable people are those who try to adapt the world to themselves.

In the end, it is the unreasonable people who have contributed to making the world a better place to live. Most NGOs were started by unreasonable people. Take the case of Bunker Roy, who started the Barefoot College in Rajasthan. He believed that high academic qualifications were not necessary to equip students in the countryside with knowledge and skills that will enhance the quality of their life. It was an out-of-the-box idea. And it clicked.

Roy was able to attract people ready to shift to a village and earn a monthly salary not exceeding $100. The Barefoot College became a success and it spawned a string of educational institutions which were equally daring in approach. He was able to craft a success story only because he was able to raise resources from abroad where his idea caught the fancy of philanthropists.

What is the condition of the Indian NGOs? According to the Mint report titled "For India's NGOs, it is a struggle to raise resources," there are three million NGOs in the country. Out of them, only 19 recorded a turnover of over Rs 100 crore in 2021-‘22. For a country whose Prime Minister periodically claims that India would be a five-trillion-dollar economy by 2025, this is pathetic.

During the same period, the corporate social responsibility (CSR) spending of 34 companies exceeded Rs 100 crore each. The combined total earnings of the top 100 NGOs were less than the total CSR spending by the top 100 corporates. The analysis covered only a small percentage of NGOs in the country, to be precise, 171 in 2019-20, 169 in 2020-21, and 144 in 2021-22.

One interesting finding is that NGOs established in the 21st century, i.e., since 2000, have been able to raise more resources than older NGOs. This may be because the older NGOs might be finding it difficult to break free from the rut in which they were stuck. They might also be led by older individuals who revel in the past.

There is a passing reference in the report to the government not being supportive of the NGO sector. This is indeed true. There is no other government in the world, as controlled by an NGO as the Modi government. It is often mentioned that no policy decisions are taken without the clearance of Nagpur.

What Nagpur stands for is the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), whose headquarters is situated in the second capital of Maharashtra. The RSS is an NGO, and under its protective wings are dozens of NGOs. That's why I mentioned that the Modi government is an NGO-run government. Yet, the irony is that the government has not been friendly to the NGO sector.

When I say this, I do not mean that the Congress regime was favourable to the NGOs. In fact, most of the regressive laws like the FCRA and FEMA were introduced and enforced to control NGOs critical of the government.

The BJP has not only tightened the laws but has also made the decisions concerning them communal. Thousands of NGOs have lost their FCRA accounts for one reason or another. Opaqueness, not transparency, rules when it comes to FCRA matters.

For instance, all the FCRA licenses were canceled with effect from a particular date. NGOs were asked to apply for renewal by opening an account in the Parliament Street branch of the State Bank of India. The NGO may be located in a village in Arunachal Pradesh, but the account has to be opened in New Delhi!

Even though technology allows the income tax department to verify every transaction made by a taxpayer using his bank account linked to the department, this compulsion of opening an account was totally uncalled for.

Again, technology allows the government to take quick action, but in the case of FCRA, the government prefers to keep NGOs on tenterhooks. Even NGOs that practice all norms of good conduct and transparency were kept in the dark for months and years.

Many Christian organisations have told me that they lost their FCRA accounts. Some of them have been able to get them back but only after using the services of influence-peddlers, both within and outside the government. 

Any NGO whose name included words like "mission," "Christian," "fellowship," and similar terminology was considered suspect. All the rules framed so far for FCRA were thrown to the winds when the Home Ministry specially allowed the Shri Ram Janmabhoomi Teerth Kshetra Trust to receive funds from abroad for the construction of the Ram temple. It is a different matter that the Trust has been flush with funds. 

Will the government allow a Christian or Muslim or Sikh organisation to receive funds from abroad to construct a church or a mosque or a gurudwara? Here, I would like to narrate an anecdote. 

Once on a visit to the US, I was invited to address the Mar Thoma Church there. They have the practice of paying $100 to anyone who delivers the sermon. Since I had gone there on behalf of the NGO, I asked the church to issue the cheque in the name of the organisation. On my return, I deposited the amount in the organisation's account.

A fortnight later, the cheque was returned to us. I went to the bank to find out the reason. I was told that a corporate body like a church in the US could not give a gift to an NGO. In sharp contrast, anyone can send any amount of money to the Trust building a "magnificent temple" on the spot where the Babri Masjid stood for over 500 years.

Time and again, the government has indicated that India is now a wealthy country and does not need funds from outside. It is a different matter that the government itself receives funds from foreign governments like that of Japan. 

The Delhi Metro would not have been possible without support from Japan, which gave enormous funds on negligible interest. Modi's high-speed train project is entirely foreign-funded. If you visit the electric crematorium at Lodhi Road in New Delhi, you will find a signboard that says that it was set up with foreign support. Their objective was to reduce the dependence on wood for cremation. The point is that NGOs are not the only ones that need foreign support.

The Mint report also mentions that there have been increasing restrictions on the receipt of foreign money. Unfortunately, the NGOs are not getting sufficient funds from domestic funding agencies. 

True, companies like Wipro have been funding NGOs, but they are few and far between. They have not been able to replace foreign funding agencies like Save the Children. Even such agencies face problems in raising funds for Indian NGOs. There are advertisements inserted by the government of India in newspapers like the New York Times that make bombastic claims about the country's economic growth. Billboards are put up at Times Square in New York.

As a result, an impression has gained ground in the West that India has become rich. They prefer to support NGOs in Africa and other countries in Asia. A great philanthropist and ophthalmologist in Switzerland told me that he was more interested in running an eye hospital in Africa than in supporting more NGOs in India.

Instead of supporting the NGOs, the government has been competing with them in raising resources. For instance, Modi set up an organisation called PM Cares Fund. It has been collecting CSR funds from companies. They find it easier to donate funds to the PM entity as they will be freed from the bother of subjecting themselves to due diligence.

The companies were expected to use the CSR funds to alleviate the sufferings of the people. It is a different matter that many companies have set up NGOs headed by the relatives of the company owners to spend the CSR money in the manner they like. After donating to the PM Cares Fund and meeting their own needs, they are left with little money to be shared among the NGOs.

The utility of the NGOs became clear to me when I attended several conferences the Haryana Government organised to review the situation in Nuh district in the wake of Corona. It gave figures of lakhs of food packets distributed during that period. Most of the food packets were distributed by the NGOs, not the government.

In fact, Niti Ayog complimented the NGO sector for the work it did when the government virtually left the people to fend for themselves after announcing the lockdown. The NGOs serve the common people. The government cannot do what the NGOs do. 

For instance, it costs the Defence Ministry hundreds of rupees to provide a chapati to a jawan posted in the hills of the Siachen sector. That includes the cost of transportation. NGOs can do such jobs in a far more efficient and cost-effective manner. I agree that the simile that I used is not exactly appropriate as Siachen is out of bounds for the non-defence sector.

When an NGO providing life skills to the people in a village is starved of funds, it will be forced to end its services. Who will replace the NGO? Only another NGO. The government will not be able to do that kind of work. In the interest of the poor, it is imperative that the NGOs should not be throttled. 

It is not my claim that all the NGOs are driven by philanthropy or service. There are many which exist only on paper. They need to be tackled, but the solution is not in holding all the NGOs by their neck. 

Take the case of the Childline India Foundation (CIF), which was started to provide a free telephone helpline to the deprived street children of Mumbai. It persuaded the government that it could provide services that the government should have been supplying — and ended up getting the ministry’s backing for a bold expansion plan to cover dozens of Indian cities. 

The last I heard is that this government is not favourably inclined towards the CIF, which has been facing many roadblocks. This is true about many NGOs, some of which have been forced to leave the country. No less a person than Nelson Mandela had said that "NGOs are the conscience of the world." Only those who have no conscience can deride them for the splendid work they do. 

 ajphilip@gmail.com

 

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