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Home > News > Columnists > T C A Srinivasa-Raghavan

India: Of, by, and for NGOs

September 26, 2005

Rejoice, all ye! India has scored another first.

The government has become a non-government, and non-government organisations (NGOs) have become the government.

The Mother of all NGOs in India, of course, is the National Advisory Council. It devotes itself to what Victorian parish priests used to call the 'good works.'

Its writ begins and ends in charity -- but with a crucial difference. Whereas the cost of real charity is private and the beneficiary is the public, the cost of NAC charity is public and the beneficiaries are private (e.g. the Rural Employment Guarantee Act).

That, too, must be another first.

The latest attempt at good works comes in the form of a Bill that may get passed in the winter session of Parliament. It is called the Older Person's (Maintenance, Care and Protection) Bill.

The purpose is to ensure that children don't treat their parents badly when the latter grow old and infirm and vulnerable. The law says that they must provide for financial and other kinds of support, including companionship.

If they don't, parents can sue in tribunals. If they win, any transfer of property from parents to children will be declared void.

Deserving retribution for undeserving progeny, I am sure. But how much will the fellow who heads the tribunal charge to give a ruling? And if the property is already with the son (daughters are excluded, I must presume) who can bribe better, the parents or the sons?

Heaven knows what else is brewing but one thing is proven: it is not the ministers and political parties that are setting the national social agenda. It is the NGOs acting through their Mother, the NAC. We mean well, ergo, we will do well.

That's what Lenin and Trotsky also thought, talking of whom one cannot help observe that while the social agenda is being set by the NGOs, the economic agenda is being set by the Communists. Not being in government, they are a different kind of NGO. Just as the RSS was when the NDA was in power.

These cheering thoughts in such depressing times led me to do some research on NGOs. It was a rich harvest that I reaped.

The phrase non-governmental organisation came into use in 1945, when the UN was established (Article 71 of Chapter 10 of its Charter), because everyone said there was a need for consultations that went beyond governments.

According to the UN, NGOs are independent of governments, in that they are not supposed to receive any funding from them.

But most Indian NGO, like their European counterparts, receive a very high proportion of their money, sometimes as much as 90 per cent, from governments. This, when you come to think of it, is rather clever of the governments.

Originally, the funding was supposed to be from membership dues, but it now comes from grants from international institutions as well, some of them quite dodgy. And even the ones that are clean have their own agendas, which are promoted by some NGOs. Money is never given for nothing.

How interesting, I thought. A non-governmental organisation funded by your own government -- or if the poor dear is broke, foreign ones.

Indian NGOs are not alone in this respect, though. But they are different, in that more of them are dependent on governments than NGOs elsewhere.

There is another irritating vanity that NGOs affect, even though they depend so much on government funding. They call themselves 'civil society', usually defined as 'the space between the government and the people.'

Civil society is one of those nice-sounding terms that make everyone feel virtuous. But, in my experience, these 'civil society' NGOs are pure dictatorships: ein NGO, ein fuhrer, and so on. In that sense, they are as bad as newspapers, where the editor can be a complete dictator.

It was Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, two grumpy British philosophers from the 17th century, when the Brits had a lot to be grumpy about, who used it first.

Hobbes said that people's lives were nasty, brutish, and short and that only fear drove them. But Locke said they were actually quite nice chaps, really, ready to co-operate with each other, and so on.

Nevertheless, they needed a well-established law, not to mention judges and an executive to enforce things.

It was, he said, the duty of the state to provide for these. It was never to forget that it existed for the people, and not the other way around.

Our NGOs have, quite rightly, adopted this last bit. But alas Locke also said that the state had to be 'liberal, tolerant and limited.' Strange, then, is it not, that our NGOs are bent on making it as intrusive as possible?

I also found that there are different acronyms to describe various types of NGOs. Thus, according to Wikipedia, you have:

  • INGO, for international NGO;
  • BINGO, for business-oriented international NGO;
  • RINGO, for religious international NGO;
  • ENGO, for environmental NGO;
  • QUANGO, which is quasi-government NGO; and the most irresistible of all,
  • GONGO, the government-operated NGO!

To which may I add SONGO?

Guess why?

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Number of User Comments: 13

Sub: A personal blog of a 10 yr old...

Ha ha ha.... it was funny... I am getting nostalgic. My thoughts flied past to those of my early child-hood days when we discussed things ...

Posted by Gaurav Sarangi

Sub: What is wrong with big government?

It has become fashionable for the rightist elite now to talk about "Big" government disparagingly, styling themselves after the Libertarians and Republicans in the USA. ...

Posted by Ramiah Ariya

Sub: Helloooooo!! U there

Are you on the board of any NGO, or itself a one.

Posted by fuehrer

Sub: NGOs in India

Like Government authorities, NGO's too need a sponsor or god father without whose blessing no matter is taken by NGOs. The need of the hour ...

Posted by T.P. Viswanathan

Sub: NGO

If I have guessed it correcct,it is "SONGO"--Society oriented NGO.Makes sense as this was indeed the original intention.

Posted by kgprem



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