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  • The Times of India
    Wednesday 10 March 1999

    India Metropolis World Stocks Business Sport Editorial

    Government and NGOs

    Similar Goals but Contrasting Styles


    WHEN the country became independent, many Indians looked to the government to play a leading and beneficial role in transforming the collective life of the nation. The leaders of the nationalist movement had spoken and written tirelessly about what needed to be done to enable India to take its rightful place in the comity of nations. There had been one insuperable obstacle in the way, and that was the presence of an uncaring and oppressive colonial power. A national government would do everything that the colonial government had been unable or unwilling to do. Professional Laxity

    The conviction that a national government would play a major part in the regeneration of Indian society was very widespread among the Indian intelligentsia. Many of the brightest and the best students in the metropolitan universities aspired to careers in the civil service, not simply in the interest of personal gain, but also because they believed that such a career would enable them to lead fruitful and constructive lives.

    The attitude to the government and to public service through the organs of government began to change, slowly at first and then with increasing rapidity after 1977. The trauma of the Emergency was followed by the disorder of the first non-Congress government in New Delhi. The post-Emergency period brought in a culture of public exposure whereby the misdeeds of the government and its functionaries began to be widely exposed, sometimes in an exaggerated form. This led to a general loss of esteem for the institutions of governance. It also reinforced the turpitude and venality that were already there among civil servants, for it is a truism that men behave badly when they lose their self-esteem when they are deprived of public esteem.

    I was for many years a regular visitor to the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration at Mussoorie where I often discussed the state of the nation with the probationers and the course directors who were mostly members of the various services. From the late seventies onward, I detected a growing disenchantment with the services among the latter. I was told repeatedly that professional laxity and corruption had become endemic in the services. I sometimes found myself in the peculiar position of a university professor having to defend the Indian Administrative Service from trenchant attacks against it by its own members.

    It was in Mussoorie that I first learnt about the good work being done by the NGOs, and the tremendous opportunities being opened up by them for public service in various fields. In the discussions there, a sharp contrast was often made between the dull and confined routine of the bureaucrat working for the government and the freedom and initiative of the social activist serving the NGO. Some civil servants resigned from the government to work for one or another NGO, and others set up their own NGOs on retirement. In this and other ways, the NGO has come to occupy an established place in public life in India.

    Looking back on those discussions of 20 years ago, I am reminded of the dialectic of church and sect that has been a part of many religious traditions. In this dialectic, which has been extensively studied by sociologists of religion, the church has been viewed invariably as conservative and hierarchical, and the sect as radical and egalitarian. The distinction just noted has been especially emphasised by the founders of new sects.

    Sects have had highly varied historical fortunes. Many have died or disappeared without leaving much trace. Some have grown and prospered. Their development from origin to maturity has shown certain common patterns across the different religions. Growth and prosperity have led, with unfailing regularity, to changes in both doctrine and organisation. With success, the sect becomes less doctrinaire and more pragmatic, and less fluid and more organised. This dual process may be described as routinisation. Through it, the successful sect comes in course of time to look more and more like the church, the disenchantment with which was the original cause of its foundation.

    Sources of Fund

    What kind of relationship -- of complementarity or competition, of mutual help or mutual hindrance, of convergence or divergence -- are the NGOs likely to develop with the governmental organisations that work in broadly the same fields into which they are entering? The successful NGO tends to extend its operations, and, in doing so, it has to come to terms with the very problems of funding, management and accounting that bedevil the work of the government.

    The acquisition and management of large funds requires both time and effort. The move from social activist to fund raiser and fund manager has been made with ease by many, but it has also brought about some change in their orientations. In my limited experience, the prime movers of successful NGOs do not like to talk about the sources of their funding, preferring to dwell instead on the work their organisation is doing and the work that remains to be done.

    Then there is the question of organisation, division of labour and remuneration. Not everyone can afford to work without pay. The successful NGO needs to have administrators, accountants, project officers and field staff. Their terms and conditions of work have to be specified in a more or less formal way. Even the most dedicated promoters of social causes have to make some concessions to the demands of bureaucratic routine.

    Health of Democracy

    Modern organisations have certain common characteristics, whether in the public or the private domain, in the governmental or the non-governmental sector. Here, as important as the sector in which the organisation operates is the scale of its operation. It is at this point that the NGO seem to replicate, not just the ways of functioning but also the forms of organisation of agencies of the government. This cannot be an argument against the existence or even the expansion of voluntary activity in the social field outside the government's ambit. Such activity plays a vital part not only in the regeneration of society but also in the health and well-being of democracy. The public will no doubt appreciate the good work that is being done by the NGOs. But they, in their turn, must be ready to submit themselves to the same exacting scrutiny and assessment that they expect the public to exercise over the work of the government.

    The Economic Times




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