Harsh Jaitli

1 November, 2016

Civic Space and Voluntary Development Sector in India: The Challenges

India is known for its vibrant voluntary sector, which has contributed not only in the development and growth of India, but also to global discourse.

The existence of the voluntary sector is as old as the recorded history of the country, where it has shared responsibility with the state to provide decent life with dignity to marginalised people. The more structured form of civil society originations (CSOs) came into existence with the formation of Societies Registration Act of 1860, but the contribution of the sector has reached far beyond it. After independence, India faced the herculean task of providing basic services to the remotest corners of the country that were trying to recover from devastating draught and pains of partition. During this transitional period, Mahatma Gandhi became the inspiration for many grass-roots organisations popularly known as Gandhian Organisations. Mahatma Gandhi established that India had only achieved political freedom, and freedom from hunger and disease, and that overcoming deprivation and marginaliation was still to be achieved. He advised the freedom fighters that those who wanted to achieve this through political means could join the electoral politics, while the others should join the social service sector.

The space in which CSOs in India operate is influenced primarily by three factors: regulatory environment, availability of resources, and internal mechanisms. These elements can be targeted by the government to make the functioning of CSOs difficult.

Still in existence 150 years later, the Societies Registration Act is modified to suit the governments of each province as per their convenience. Furthermore, a steady stream of laws that restrict the actions of CSOs have been introduced: the Income Tax Act ensures that organisations’ resources are heavily scruitinised; and most recently, the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act of India which has been heavily reported in the media, has driven organisations such as Greenpeace to exit India. It is a restrictive security law managed by the home ministry. Moreover, after the Financial Action Task Force came into existance in 2010, the law has become stricter, wherein organisations are under much higher scrutiny.

One can conclude that the regulatory environment is more aimed towards controlling the sector rather than enabling or strengthening it. Moreover, there is no single format under which the civil society sector in India is registered or accounted for. Hence, no one knows how many CSOs or voluntary organisations exists in India. For example, in 2013 the Indian Companies Act was reformed, and one can now register a non-profit company under it. However, most of the non-profit development organisations are registered under outdated Societies Registration Act, where the section on charitable activities has also outlived its utility.

Availability of resources has also seen an unpresented transformation in last two decades. In the sphere of foreign funding, there is a deliberate attempt by the government to reduce foreign investment, and make resources more restrictive. Almost 15 years back India told most of the bilateral organisations to leave if there funding is less than USD 25 million. This resulted in majority of them packing their bags and leaving whoever is left to support government projects through government-to-government aid.

Another influencing factor in the transformation of Indian civil society has been the projection of India as the emerging economy, showcased by its flamboyant rich on the global stage. This made some international donors believe that Indians are wealthy, and can therefore take care of their poor. This reduced the foreign funding to many International CSOs operating in India.

The time has come for the sector to work on visible signs of its good governance, and communicate directly with the public about its work and challenges. To date, civil society has mostly communicated with its primary stakeholders about the thematic issues, but now we need to talk about the projection, challenges, accountability, and efficiency of the sector. We must build the public image of the sector, to secure important partners for safeguarding the future of civic space in India.

This blog is the sixth in our series on the future of civic space. Do you want to help secure the rights of citizens across the globe? Sign the Civic Charter today!

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