The role of NGOs and the electoral politics

Participatory development with NGOs contributing will bring change in Bihar

avanish-kumar

Avanish Kumar | October 16, 2015


#NGOs   #electoral politics   #Bihar election   #NGO   #Bihar Poll  

India is witnessing a relay race at the sub-national electoral process to form government through representative democracy. Bihar election is an ongoing testimony of this battle between the political parties to win at any cost and for political leaders to establish supremacy within their party.  Instead of representing people or problems of their constituency, representative form of democracy has created caste and religion as political constituency. Votes at local level do not really support the need to thrust selection or rejection based on development performance, though governance and development pitch remains an overt political slogan during the election. Once a seat is won, ruling parties or government as an agency of the State need not go back to the electorate for a review of development performance as there is hardly a tangible transformation in the lives of the poor. 

Repeated election and politics of caste and religion has unturned approximately 600 million people in India living in conditions that vary from the sub-human to the abysmal. Around 300 million do not have proper homes or safe drinking water. This situation is more visible in poor states like Bihar.

Bihar is the most densely populated state (Census, 2011) with approximately 83 million population, which accounts for one-seventh of the below poverty line (BPL) population of India. With 9 out of every 10 person in Bihar living in villages, poverty in Bihar is significantly a rural phenomenon. According to the World Bank report  titled - Bihar Towards a Development Strategy, the challenge of development in Bihar  are persistent poverty, rigid social stratification, poor infrastructure and weak governance. The crux of the problem is identified as service delivery, particularly those affecting the poor and where the role of the government is crucial (World Bank, 2005).

To win elections, the political mathematics of caste and religion remains the primary agenda of the parties. The election will be fought on the poverty and marginalisation of caste and religious minorities. The chemistry of poverty and politics remains unaltered despite an estimated 250 government schemes under operation. Poverty alleviation, upliftment and welfare of the marginalised with limited livelihood options including the women, children, scheduled castes, scheduled tribes, backward classes, landless labourers, artisans, small farmers etc are the major concerns.

Among the greatest challenge before the state today is the rise of young population without skills and jobs. Government or business alone cannot meet the aspirations of this class. The development initiatives need to be efficient and effective through participatory accountability. 

In large states like Bihar, there are gaps left by the government in the developmental process, some intentional, some due to lack of funds but mostly due to lack of transparency and accountability. Civil society organisations or NGOs, media  and the judiciary are often the means available to the citizens to voice their opinions and enforce accountability.

NGOs bridge the information gap between the government and the society. Few NGOs are engaged in the process of negotiation and debating about the character of the rules, policies, programmes – in the process of expressing the voice of the marginalised.

An apt example is the success of government of Bihar initiative on rural livelihoods programme. The programme, JEEViKA is implemented by Bihar Rural Livelihoods Promotion Society (BRLP) registered under the Society Act and by adopting management strategy of NGO. The BRLP model reinforces the idea that the NGOs are required as a part of governance by government institutions suggesting a need for change in structure and function of the government. The model of change is to widen its reach, remain closer to ground realities and approach target groups directly and emphatically, thereby creating ability to contextualise local problems and create possible solutions.
 
Overall in India rough estimate of registered NGOs estimates over 2 million. The number may double with unregistered NGOs. This size of the voluntary sector can play a vital role in the shaping and implementation of government policies. NGOs have failed to change the discourse of power and politics despite their strength and wider reach.

The political powers manage to develop confidence and forge contacts with the marginalised on the hope to exploit their vulnerability for electoral gain. Often rallying of unemployed youth behind politicians in elections  is achieved by showing them a glimmer of hope for their future.  A critical factor that hampers their progress in achieving their goals is a lack of coordination and networking amongst NGOs to achieve a common goal.

There is a rise of unregulated flyby NGOs, often act as a termite to the trust of the community.  NGOs are often born out of an individual’s commitment and motivation leading to the development of individual centric institutions that lack accountability to the government or to the community they work for. A sizeable number of NGOs remain unaudited. Baring few, most of the businessmen and politicians formed NGOs are to get grants from the government, tax exceptions and make grey profits.

The problem lies in the lack of comprehensive regulatory framework and prevailing draconian laws. Though the political economy of India has changed drastically, the societies, associations, organisations or trusts are still being registered by the societies’ registration Act of 1860, the Indian Trust Act of 1882, and the Charitable & Religious Trust Act of 1920. The laws and regulations related to NGOs vary across states. Another critical policy limitation in this sphere is due to the FCRA. The foreign contribution regulation act prohibits any political and religious activities for the NGOs. Religious and political activities are considered anti-national activities.

Government’s inability to design regulatory framework affects millions of people who are born and who die without access to entitlements. Lack of credible NGOs impede the objective of participatory democracy by not promoting scrutiny of candidate in election.  Otherwise, electoral politics will continue to encourage of caste and religious divide even after elections without making politicians and public servants accountable of their action. In order to create a constructive space to bridge the gap between the government and society for reduction of social and economic exclusion based on caste and religion, the government must create a comprehensive regulatory framework and ensure consistency of NGOs regulations across States.

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