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UPA's Tug-of-War With Civil Society

Instead of locking horns with civil society groups, the government should work with them to address issues that plague the country

Published: Nov 16, 2011 06:06:00 AM IST
Updated: Feb 21, 2014 11:45:56 AM IST
Arvind Kejriwal, who helped formulate the RTI Act, was never part of the NAC
Image: Amit Verma
Arvind Kejriwal, who helped formulate the RTI Act, was never part of the NAC

Few would argue that the biggest story of 2011 in India has been the nationwide anti-corruption campaign led by Team Anna. One important element of this story is the ensuing stand-off between the government and the larger civil society of the country.

“After the Anna campaign, it appears that the government is out to fix civil society,” says Biraj Patnaik, a key functionary in the right to food campaign. There are allegations by social workers that not only is the government trying to dilute the efficacy of key legislations like the Right to Information (RTI) Act and the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), it is also trying to tighten the screws on voluntary organisations by hurting them financially.

“The revised Foreign Contribution Regulation Act is a case in point. It gives the Home Ministry a free hand to restrict the flow of funds to voluntary organisations,” says V.K. Madhavan of the Central Himalayan Rural Action Group. For its part, Team Anna is openly asking the people to vote against Congress-led UPA. But it is ironic that the UPA should run into such problems when no other government has given as much space to civil society.

So, when and where did things go wrong between the UPA and civil society?

Jean Dreze, was the main architect of the NREGA and one of the early members of the NAC
Image: Madhu Kapparaath for Forbes India
Jean Dreze, was the main architect of the NREGA and one of the early members of the NAC
Formation of NAC
While addressing a national gathering of social activists campaigning for the right to food in 2009, Annie Raja, head of the National Federation of Indian Women, shared an incident that typified the way government looked at civil society.

She spoke of the problems that she and her fellow activists had while convincing members of the first UPA government in 2005 to legislate an Act guaranteeing minimum employment to Indian citizens.

She said that not only did Pranab Mukherjee, the then defence minister, dismiss the proposal as infeasible, he eventually lashed out at Jean Dreze, the main architect of the Bill, when Dreze persisted with his explanation. “This is not your country, it won’t work here,” said Mukherjee to Dreze.
Mukherjee was wrong on both counts. Dreze had been an Indian for long and the NREGA actually worked on the ground and benefitted the Congress in the next elections.

During the 1970s and 1980s, civil society groups were dependent on government funding and had largely been relegated to helping the government in service delivery, like reaching out to the poor in remote areas for food-for-work programmes. But Dreze, Aruna Roy and Raja were part of something new: The first ever National Advisory Council (NAC), a loose bunch of social workers pulled together under a body headed by Congress chief Sonia Gandhi.

Frankly, the NAC was the best example of the dual leadership that has existed within the UPA and the Congress since Sonia Gandhi declined to take over as the Prime Minister in 2004. The formation of the NAC pitchforked civil society’s views to a whole new level within Indian polity, where it could directly affect policy making. It also pitted key civil society members against many key decision makers in the government who were neither convinced of NAC’s ideas nor willing to take orders.

However, laws like NREGA and RTI, which were legislated at the behest of the NAC, paid rich dividends to the Congress in the 2009 elections and the government functionaries had to give their grudging respect.

But more importantly, the five years of UPA 1 and the electoral successes also emboldened civil society as a whole and raised its stature in the public eye. In the past, neither the mainstream media nor the general public paid much attention to what civil society representatives had to say. But the past 10-15 years, especially since the formation of the NAC, all that has changed.

“Before the liberalisation of the economy in the 1990s, civil society basically functioned as sub-contractors of the government, dependent on government for their grants. But all that changed post liberalisation, with independently funded voluntary organisations taking roots… but at the central government level, the NAC was a milestone,” says Samuel Paul, head of the Bangalore-based Public Affairs Centre, and one of the pioneers in India for increasing public pressure for better governance.

An Idea that Backfired
By the time the UPA returned to power in 2009, the Congress had improved its hold in Parliament and no longer had to contend with the Left parties on a daily basis.

The NAC was not re-constituted immediately, giving an impression to many like Paul and Madhavan that the first NAC was merely a method of co-opting civil society. But the idea seems to have backfired on the UPA. “They picked the wrong people. None of them was a pushover and many came back to rejoin the NAC and continue pushing for reforms,” says Madhavan.

For a while, and some would say even now, the government chose to believe that there was no legitimacy in the demands of civil society. But those doubts have been put to rest by the massive support that the Anna Hazare campaign received over the past six months.

India ranks among the lowest on human development indices, such as health, nutrition, and education. Civil society unrest played a crucial role in dismantling the erstwhile USSR and, irrespective of the economy’s growth rate, the government cannot risk alienating the country’s discontented population.

(This story appears in the 18 November, 2011 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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