Overview of the voluntary sector in 2012
2012 was a year full of challenges and also new opportunities for the voluntary sector in India. A country that has a very long tradition of volunteerism faced numerous domestic challenges, which demanded that Indian voluntary organisations adjust. The year saw its share of mass movements when thousands of people gathered in the political capital to demand a corruption free system. A Gandhian leader, P V Rajgopal, mobilised thousands of tribal peoples and forest dwellers to claim their land and forest rights, while the end of the year saw a very effective spontaneous movement against sexual harassment and for the dignity of women. There were also manifestations by a strong anti-nuclear movement in the Southern state of Tamil Nadu.
The Indian government responded by not only promising to change policies and the ways the system works, but also by increasing controls and threats on voluntary organisations. Numerous public debates took place on the harassment of the voluntary sector during this year. In addition, the voluntary sector looked within itself to implement internal reforms. In 2012, the voluntary sector also experienced new challenges due to the changing nature of the financial and partnership opportunities available. On the one hand, India has emerged as strong global player in global fora on economic policies and development, but on the other, domestic challenges of widespread poverty and deprivation have become more obvious.
A long and deep history of volunteerism
It is our belief that the existence of the voluntary sector in India is as old as the history of humanity in any civilisation. In the recorded history of India, the responsibility to provide for a decent human life with dignity had been always shared between the state and informal groupings of people. Religious institutions played an important role through their charities to provide education, health and other basic services alongside the state, the primary role of which was to provide security.
More structured voluntary organisations came into existence with the creation of the Societies Registration Act of 1860, but the contribution of voluntary sector has gone much beyond those formally registered organisatons. After the independence of India, the father of nation, Mahatma Gandhi, became the inspiration for many grass roots organisations, popularly known as ‘Gandhian organisations’. After independence, Gandhi reminded people that India had only achieved political freedom, and freedom from hunger, disease, deprivation and marginalisation was still to be achieved. He advised many freedom fighters to join the electoral and political process to achieve these social goals or alternatively to join the voluntary social service sector. In the years following independence, India faced the herculean task of providing basic services to the remotest corners of the country, while at the same time trying to recover from a devastating drought and the pains of partition between India and Pakistan. These challenges were further complicated by the lack of financial and human resources within the state.
Acting to meet the needs of the hour, voluntary organisations not only worked in the deepest and most remote areas of India, but also became engaged in innovative methods and models for the delivery of services to marginalised peoples. The contribution of the voluntary sector ranged from developing new technologies that were cheap and easily accessible to the masses, to carrying out creative models for extensive outreach to remote and marginalised peoples. The sector has also been globally recognised for its analysis of the current development context and for its advocacy with local, national and international development players. As the situation changed on the ground, the nature, scope and functions of voluntary organisations also transformed. From the perspective of today’s realities, voluntary organisations not only have new opportunities, but also face very serious existential challenges.
Recent trends and measures affecting the voluntary sector
As advisors and advocates for the cause of the marginalised
There are some voluntary organisations that play an active role as advocacy groups. They conduct research on the key issues affecting the country and engage with the government in policy dialogues. Often they also conduct reviews and consultations on the efficacy of developmental projects carried out by the state and national government. These reviews help influence mid-course corrections and sometimes redefine the targets of such projects. In this work the government reaps the benefit from voluntary organisations’ capacities for outreach combined with their technical expertise.
Beyond projects, voluntary organisations are also engaged in the political process for the formulation of five-year plans by the Planning Commission. A review of the 11th five-year plan in 2012was conducted by a consortium of voluntary organisations after a series of consultations at state and thematic levels. Various sub-groups were then created by the Planning Commission to help craft the next five-year plan. The voluntary sector and even the Indian government consider this role as important for enriching policy formation. In the last three years selected voluntary organisations have also been invited by the Finance Ministry for a pre-budget annual consultation, while many consultative committees have been formed by various ministries to seek structured input from the voluntary sector.
The voluntary sector provides critical input for policy-makers within government through regular status reports on topics such as climate change, agriculture, industry and fiscal reforms, which are submitted to the government. These reports gather important information and perspectives for members of parliament and state legislatures. However, since these reports are not requested by the government, they are often not accepted. In such cases, organisations run advocacy campaigns through the media and popular publications to generate awareness and solicit public support.
Promoting rights versus service delivery
Today India is progressing very fast along the path towards self-reliance. A stable democracy and continuous economic growth have contributed much to this goal. Unfortunately, the fruits of economic growth have not properly reached the majority of the population, many of whom still suffer from the conditions of poverty. Those living in poverty include the urban and rural poor, and many tribal people, dalits, children and women. For the benefit of these sections of society, the Indian government has established various flagship schemes.
Many of the government’s schemes are based on innovations carried out by voluntary organisations, such as the National Rural Health Mission or the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. A number of voluntary organisations in India are engaged in implementing these schemes. Since many voluntary organisations have the capacity for outreach to the remotest locations, and most can count on acceptance by the community, they can be very effective partners of government at national, state and district levels. This role is primarily known as facilitating service delivery.