NGOs To No Go’s
- NGOs have mushroomed; so have instances of misappropriation of funds
- Not disclosing expenditure and receipts; nor revealing who funds them
- Not setting up NGO for the task it was funded for
- Flocking to 'hot' topics, inviting accusations of singing to industrialists’ tunes
- For every NGO supporting a cause, another springs up against that cause
- 3.3 million Number of NGOs in India
- 2.5% Contribution to GDP
- Rs 18,000 crore Annual revenue (2000)
- 50% NGOs with revenue under Rs 15 lakh a year
The more the voices that speak up, the more the chances of them being heard. Except, in India’s NGO space, there’s increasing cacophony. For every NGO working against child labour, there is another clamouring to let children work, calling it an economic ‘necessity’. For every NGO against Vedanta mining in Niyamgiri, there’s a Ramjibhai Mawani willing to file PILs on behalf of a business group (Reliance Industries, as the Radia tapes reveal). Even hard-won rights, like the law against domestic violence, have resulted in ‘counter-NGOs’. Like the one fighting for men’s rights: the Save Indian Family Foundation (SIFF).
It’s NG VS NGO, and the unintended result is a spurt in NGOs, voluntary organisations and other non-profit institutions. From the early 1990s, coinciding with liberalisation, there has been a threefold jump in voluntary organisations. Many of them have congregated around “hot” issues. Take Bhopal, which has 165 of Madhya Pradesh’s 650-odd NGOs. Moreover, though all registered NGOs function under a handful of regulations that extend tax exemptions and other benefits, their causes are often at loggerheads.
“It is here that the problems began,” notes Mohd Haleem Khan, who heads CAPART, an autonomous body under the Union ministry of rural development, which funds NGOs and tracks their progress. For over a year, Khan’s organisation hasn’t funded new projects, and won’t, until new norms for the voluntary sector are finalised. The issue clearly is a blind desire for funding, says Dunu Roy, who runs the Hazards Centre in Delhi, which focuses on environment and media concerns. “What NGOs don’t do enough of is impart skills to analyse problems, select solutions and implement them,” he says.Plagued by issues ranging from lack of transparency within CAPART and fly-by-night NGOs making off with its grants—883 were blacklisted last December—the watchdog is searching for the right balance between hands-off monitoring and absolute accountability. “We want Indian NGOs to follow some international norms of accounting,” says Khan. An online registration process, involving NGOs, the Planning Commission and the rural development ministry, is being developed.
One reason why CAPART froze funding is the mushrooming of NGOs. Non-profit body Karmayog listed over 1,300 NGOs in Mumbai alone, another 4,300 in Tamil Nadu (of which 1,100 are in Chennai, and 227 in Dindigul—a district of roughly 3 lakh people—a density of one NGO per 1,321 persons). The farther from Delhi or state capitals you get, the more NGOs you seem to find. Writer-activist Patricia Mary Mukhim says that after attending scores of NGO-sponsored events in the Northeast, she found little accountability. “If I am asked to evaluate my own work, how objective can I be?” she says.
Mukhim says she found the NGOs exaggerating the need for intervention. “One NGO said that 70,000 child labourers were employed in a coal mining district of Meghalaya’s Jaintia hills. Not even one-hundredth of this ‘70,000’ were actually surveyed. The same NGO said 40,000 girls were shipped to the Commonwealth Games as sex workers. This too was pure assumption and extrapolation,” she says, without naming the NGO.
For the government, NGOs are a tool to achieve what it can’t do, such as provide free or subsidised healthcare all around. But they are also a public finance hazard. The government funds development projects such as NREGA or NRHM not just directly but also via NGOs. Over 2008-09, CAPART channelled Rs 26 crore to 125 projects of NGOs it approved. Khan could not say what the overall grants have been since CAPART’s inception in 1986.
Within the NGO fraternity, however, the view is that to maintain independence, oversight must come from within. This view was sharpened by recent cases, such as during the protests against Korean steel major Posco in Orissa. One NGO, the National Forum of Forest People and Forest Workers, for instance, claimed that Posco defrauded the government in getting environment clearances; other NGOs partnered with the steel company itself, enabling donations. Almost all large industrial projects, including British mining company Vedanta, now witness protests and counter-protests. In 2009, as protests against their plans in Orissa peaked, other NGOs were used by the state and the company to launch pro-project PR. This, in turn, was opposed by at least 20 NGOs.
Still, NGOs warn, self-regulation is the best option, though the government must do better monitoring. “Some NGOs are philanthropic, rights-based, wanting to do good, uplift. Others channel money, turn black into white,” warns Anjali Gopalan, who runs the Naz Foundation in Delhi. Noted advocate Colin Gonsalves says, “NGOs have become a place for the children of government servants, police officials and politicians to find jobs. They set up NGOs as they’re better equipped to deal with clearances and permissions required on a daily basis. This is what leads to their mushrooming”.
The norms are starting to trickle in, but it’s the voluntary sector that’s moving first. Non-profit body Credibility Alliance has proposed an accreditation and verification model. “The norms are more in the nature of helping NGOs get better rather than exclude others from accreditation,” says Robert Dequadros of Credibility Alliance. He says 200 NGOs agreed in an early survey that they needed to improve governance and make proper financial disclosures. It’s a complaint that the government often has—that NGOs questioning the governance deficit are often reluctant to extend the favour within. Dequadros promises an NGO verification model that’s “free of biases and fairly implemented”. To begin with, it will only require them to keep track of how much money they receive and how much they spend—as basic as possible.
Venkat Krishnan, who started GiveIndia, an online donation service that connects donors with NGOs, says he’s “deeply disappointed” with individual donors in India. “An ultra-premium car costs Rs 20-30 lakh; thousands are buying those. My total ‘collections’ are Rs 25 crore a year: a drop in the ocean. Bulk of the money for NGOs is coming from government or foreign sources. It’s like the case with voting: you get back a country depending on how much you give,” says Venkat. A pity. It lends strength to those who say that more the NGOs increase, more the problems seem to keep adding up.
Forget yourself for others, and others will never forget you.