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Why Civil Society Action Is Indispensable For The Success of Democracy In India

25/07/2016 1:53 PM IST | Updated 26/07/2016 8:54 AM IST
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The deepening conflict between the government of India and civil society is really a battle for primacy between the "rule" of representative democracy and the imagination of a participatory democracy.

The tragic irony is that civil society has been reduced to a collection of obsequious seekers of mercy, asking for crumbs at the doorstep of the Indian State and its rulers. While profit-seekers have the ears of the highest officials, non-profits are made to wait, and are chastised and diminished.

Earlier this month, while the UN Human Rights Council stated that giving "space to civil society is not optional", the Government of India warned that "civil society must operate within the framework of domestic laws." Renowned economist Joseph Stiglitz went so far as to say that "India is looking bad" for its crackdown on civil society voices.

How is representative democracy different from participatory democracy?

In a representative democracy, once elected, our representatives are vested with the power to decide on our behalf without needing to go back to voters to seek their views. In this sense, even though elected, governments can be easily beset by a colonial, or feudal, mindset.

Civil society voices seek to minimize the distance between the mai-baap government and the last person in the queue.

In sharp contrast, civil society voices seek to intervene to create space for citizen participation in decision-making and to minimize the distance between the mai-baap government and the last person in the queue. In doing so, civil society forces the vote-seeking neta to seek the views of citizens, helping turn a near feudal representative democracy into a participatory democracy. (And yes, social media has the potential to further participatory democracy -- which is why it comes under threat every so often.)

The stereotypical image of the pesky, argumentative "jholawala" aside, civil society is not a homogenous "sector" or group. It is diverse, with significant variations in ideologies, governance processes, intent and integrity. The concept and roles of civil society are still evolving. So is its relationship with elected governments -- swinging from the collaborative to the adversarial to the contractual, and with each trying to influence the other's motives and methods.

The 1950s was a time of silent and supportive civil society action. Soon after independence, the Gandhian view of doing "constructive" work led many towards rural development and community mobilization. The focus was on welfare and relief, with priority areas being family planning, adult literacy, khadi and village industries and training of extension workers.

India needs more civil society action, not less. Civil society is not just "nice to have". It is in fact indispensible...

The 1960s and 70s saw a shift -- civil society was now asking itself and governments tougher questions on the root causes of persistent poverty, exploitation and redistributive justice. The 1970s saw a revival of the socialist movement led by Jai Prakash Narayan. Some sections of civil society moved away from merely providing welfare support. SEWA was the first women's trade union to be set up, bringing together the cooperative movement, the women's rights movement and the labour movement.

In the 1980s civil society action became synonymous with NGOs, creating a fertile ground for the germination of the processes of participatory democracy in India. The disability and the Dalit movements gained ground. Self-help groups, spearheaded by NGOs across rural India, became the buzz word. NGOs started getting contracted and received government funds to ensure last mile delivery of services, a practice common even today.

Post cold-war 1990s was marked by important departures. With economic liberalization in 1991, the sector started receiving more funds both from within and outside India. The 1992 Rio Earth Summit and the 1995 Beijing Women's Conference and the 1995 Copenhagen Summit for Social Development galvanized civil society action into two key strands -- women's rights within the larger framework of human rights, as well as economic, social and environmental justice. Meanwhile, the 1992 demolition of the Babri Masjid ensured that civil society became deeply engaged on issues of communalism in electoral politics.

It is the turn of the State to prove that it isn't a vestige of our colonial past and isn't inhabited by feudal babus.

The 1990s, therefore, witnessed large sections of civil society fully own the processes and goals of participatory democracy in India, assisted in part by the proliferation of the media. The Narmada Bachao Andolan grew in this decade, reviving methods of Gandhian protestation. Democracy, accountability, and development were being debated in the farms, riverbeds and forests of India. Public contestations on caste and communal politics and the impact of globalization and liberalization policies became common. The 1990s saw the immense mobilization of community-led organizations on HIV prevention. After a near failed family planning campaign, the government had almost no expertise to respond to the epidemic. Had it not been for civil society, the response to HIV would have failed miserably. The campaign to repeal Section 377 to decriminalize same sex behaviour and the openness on sexual health and rights in general owes everything to this movement.

The turn of the century saw a shift in the State-NGO relationship. In 2002, the Vajpayee government held a national conference to better understand the evolving role of civil society. This led to the formulation of a national policy on the voluntary sector which, as expected, is still waiting to be implemented. In 2003, the Government ruled that NGOs could only receive bilateral aid from six donor countries instead of the earlier 22. The Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA), first passed in 1976, was revised in 2010, making access to NGO funding harder. This was also the decade when the internal civil society debate on NGOs vs. people's movements started taking shape.

The government of India must act in enlightened self-interest and redefine its relationship with civil society, moving from suspicion and antagonism to collaboration.

Meanwhile, the State's failure to provide basic services to its citizens had civil society stepping in once again to draft transformative legislations such as the Biodiversity Act (2002), Domestic Violence Act (2005), RTI (2005), NREGA (2005), Forest Rights Act (2006), Unorganized Workers Social Security Act (2008), Right to Education (2009), harsher punishments in the anti-rape laws (2013), Right to food (2013) and the Land acquisition Act (2013).

Interventions on roti-kapda-makaan issues aside, civil society has sweated it out to improve social cohesion in India by improving citizen access to classical arts, theatre, regional language literature and poetry, crafts and textiles and folk arts.

Once content to work hard behind the scenes, civil society has been pushed to the wall and has no choice but to assert that its actions and struggles for a more participatory democracy are responsible for almost every lasting transformative change in Indian society. This was bound to happen. In the absence of administrative reforms, and a dying Panchayat system, the 185 lakh strong workforce of the Indian government spread across central, state and local governments is only a tool of representative democracy, designed to enforce policies, laws and rules -- not to listen to and collaborate with its citizens in the spirit of participatory democracy.

India needs more civil society action, not less. Civil society is not just "nice to have". It is in fact indispensible to the success of democracy in India. This is 2016, and India can no longer demand that civil society prove its legitimate contribution to society. It is the turn of the State to prove that it isn't a vestige of our colonial past and isn't inhabited by feudal babus.

A balance between industrial modernity and a life of dignity for all -- this is the call of people's movements and civil society action from across India. Only a mature democracy can stomach this call. The government of India must act in enlightened self-interest and redefine its relationship with civil society, moving from suspicion and antagonism to collaboration (if not friendship). We need to give participatory democracy a chance before we chase the dream of becoming a super-power.

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