How should we describe the current mood among Non-Governmental Organisations in India? “Unsettled” or “Disgruntled” would be a good start. Good book-keeping, public image and paper work notwithstanding, the factors contributing to this state of being are both insidious and disturbing.
The NGO movement in India began a few decades ago driven by both a passion for serving the poor and a disenchantment with the ability of the government to provide basic needs for the entire population. Several developmental and health non-governmental organisations (NGOs) were set up, largely in remote rural areas. With time, the number of NGOs grew, and also the agenda diversified. Various new streams of thoughts emerged, including ones on human rights, community building, and environmental protection, with a realisation that it is not the place of NGOs to address all the gaps in service, but to strengthen participation and systems. Needless to say, the work of all these kinds of NGOs is related to health.
NGOs have provided services to the needy, and have raised the voice against oppressive practices. They have demystified information about the rights of people. NGOs have also questioned decisions made at various levels which may affect the most marginalised communities, or the long term well being of the population. They critiqued decisions made in the name of development, but have not been opposed to humane and ecologically sustainable development. Most notably, and historically, it was the Bhopal Gas Tragedy that saw and continues to see several confrontations between the government and civil society. Suspicion about the NGO sector and its perception as a threat has only grown ever since. This feeling was associated with, but was not limited to, a number of health NGOs. Of course, some kinds of health NGOs do not face this problem. For instance, opening up a mission hospital is not seen as a problem, but asking about healthy clean energy is. And so on. Despite this fact, the value of NGOs and the experience of individuals within the NGO sector in the field of development have occasionally been acknowledged and harnessed by some preceding governments in drafting policies and strategies.
I (or most people for that matter) do not to say that NGOs are always right. There are many that are corrupt, many that are incompetent, and some that are even actively working towards the interests of corporate or other powers (at the cost of the vulnerable). But there are many which are seriously concerned with social justice, equity and development. And these NGOs raise valid concerns, and these concerns should be considered transparently in decision-making. Responses to these concerns should be given, and the logic of the decisions made should be discussed. It is a fact that a large part of India’s population has been at the receiving end of piecemeal tokenistic nibbles by government after government for way too long. And during this time, power has systematically been accumulated by a few. Big business has been claimed to be the feeder of the masses and the reliever of oppression. And so those who have questioned this logic are being seen as threats to development itself.
At this uncertain time for NGOs, it is important for solidarity across various institutions. Some of these concerns are not limited to India alone. There is also a need for reflection. Checks and balances are necessary in a democracy, and NGOs contribute to it. It is worth engaging in the debate on democratic spaces in India, for the sake of public health.