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Civil Society’s Role: REFORMING DEFUNCT SYSTEM, By Dhurjati Mukherjee, 16 Jan, 2013 Print E-mail

Open Forum

New Delhi, 16 January 2013

Civil Society’s Role


By Dhurjati Mukherjee


Times are indeed changing for the better. The civil society’s role in seeking to reform the system has yet again come to the forefront. It has emerged as a countervailing force holding the Government and the powers-that-be to ransom for their alleged inaction, misdeeds and corrupt practices. More importantly, the response has been spontaneous as witnessed recently with the anti-corruption movement and the countrywide demand for stricter laws to check sexual harassment against women. 


While Anna Hazare announced his intention to re-start his agitation again with his new group to highlight corruption and formulate the path for alternative development, Arvind Kejriwal has been ‘unearthing’ cases of corruption, specially in high places, with much gusto. The two have been relentless in their portrayal of politicians as venal, immoral and self-interested going so far as to challenge the very authority of parties to pass legislation.


The Delhi gang-rape case has shaken the youth and the middle class out of their chalta hai attitude (apathy).  The protestors, who one could say were directionless, along with women organisations and other groups were relentless and have nevertheless made themselves heard. The people’s anger has rattled the Government and forced it to act.  


Thus, one cannot deny the fact that at such a crucial juncture, civil society has raised its head in highlighting corruption in public life, specially among politicians-business houses and the sorry state of laws in the country. In an unequal society, patronage and populism have prevailed and there is lack of governance. Moreover, policies and rules favour the rich and the powerful and the poor, the impoverished and women continue to suffer.


The recent movements have undeniably shown that a diverse and pluralistic civil society can be a source of tremendous innovation. The World Bank has in fact aptly adopted a definition of civil society developed by a number of leading research centers: “the term civil society to refer to the wide array of non-governmental and not-for-profit organizations that have a presence in public life, expressing the interests and values of their members or others, based on ethical, cultural, political, scientific, religious or philanthropic considerations. Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) therefore refer to a wide of array of organizations: community groups, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), labor unions, indigenous groups, charitable organizations, faith-based organizations, professional associations, and foundations”.


In India, whether the civil society is eventually successful to control the growing influence of corporate power with support of the masses remains to be seen. Also whether civil society pressures can be translated into political and administrative action is also being keenly watched. Justice Verma Commission to amend laws to provide speedier justice and enhanced punishment in sexual assault cases will be one such pointer. 


But it is generally agreed that civil society actors can give voice to social, economic and cultural concerns that don’t fit into electoral calculations of parties or the bureaucratic logic of the State. In India, as in most democracies, some of the most crucial issues of our time concerning environment, human rights and gender have been effectively handled by civil society organizations.


The non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have been playing a vital role for quite a long time. It is pertinent to recall the movement of Jayaprakash Narayan which was aimed at a total transformation of society that eventually led to the fall of the Congress government. Also corruption at high places was greatly reduced but this has now surfaced again and, in fact, reached great heights.


The politician-bureaucratic nexus has been growing at a fast pace and with it the generation of huge black money while the Government remains a silent spectator. Parliament is filled with millionaires and billionaires, directly or indirectly involved in business, who do not and cannot speak about the concerns and problems of the aam admi, who continue to suffer and languish.


How can one expect that a people-oriented planning be formulated with such politicians who are self-centred and corrupt? The political system has been geared to further the interests of the rich and the powerful and have very little knowledge and concern about the problems affecting the poor and the economically weaker sections at the grass root level.


It is only the civil society and NGOs who have been playing the role of reforming the State machinery. One may cite the examples of Pratham in collecting data on the quality of rural schooling, SEWA’s (Self Employed Women’s Association) success in developing new forms of informal worker organization, Centre for Science & Environment (CSE) in highlighting key environmental concerns and its adverse effects on human health and proliferation of diseases. These and many other organizations have been addressing many practical problems of democratic governance which the State failed to deliver.


Thus organizations of these types are very crucial who work at the grass root level and try to find out the benefits and fallacies of government programmes. It is thus natural that political scientists and sociologists have been advocating the need for strengthening civil society movements to improve governance and regulate the implementation of government schemes so that the benefits reach for those that are actually intended.


In corruption-ridden societies such as China, India and Pakistan, watchdogs such as strong civil society organizations are all the more necessary but NGOs, even in India, are not extended all possible help and support to improve government functioning and unearth unholy nexus and deals.


Whether it is the ‘total revolution’ of Jayaprakash or the alternative development approach of Annaji, all these have erupted for socio-political reasons as people have become disgusted with politicians and their utterly false promises. There is, no doubt, the need for a drastic transformation so that there is a new approach to development – one that is sustainable, balanced and inclusive.


In formulating such an approach, the civil society should be strengthened and given a greater role in implementing social sector programmes in the rural and semi-urban sectors in areas such as health, sanitation, housing, child care, awareness generation etc. which concerns the lowest segments of society.


In fact, the civil society should be asked to work jointly with government agencies in cities and the panchayats in villages to carry out all types of social and developmental work. The recent movements have undeniably put the pressure on an arrogant Government and it is time it pays heed. For the upsurge hopefully is there to stay. ---INFA


(Copyright, India News and Feature Alliance)

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