The idea behind NGOs has lost sheen over the years; most have become synonymous with corruption. There is a need to restore their credibility
Brajesh Thakur and Girija Tripathi are rapacious vultures. Disgraced managers of two shelter homes for girls in Bihar’s Muzaffarpur and Uttar Pradesh’s Deoria respectively, they represent a rapidly degenerating section of Indians who could go to any length to earn fortune. Their greed knows no limits and their souls are sold to corruption. They do not hesitate to choose any medium to satiate their greed, even if it means an otherwise sacrosanct medium like non-governmental organisations (NGO).
NGOs have existed in India in varied forms for many decades. Even though the term NGO found its place in common usage through a United Nations Charter at the end of World War II, the idea of voluntarism has been centuries old. Historians have noted existence of humanitarian associations along Chinese rivers since 13th century. They flourished in the 19th Century and there are records of how independent humane groups such as Royal Jennerian Society came up in 1803 to ensure that “Smallpox may be speedily exterminated… ultimately from the whole earth,” through newly-discovered methods of vaccination. Swiss philanthropist Henri Dunant found Red Cross in 1863 to provide assistance to the wounded in conflicts.
In India also, charity work is old and large number of big corporates and individual philanthropists have contributed to numbers of social and humanitarian causes. For instance, Sir Ratan Tata, who died at 48 in 1918, had written in his will, “If I have no children, I give the rest of the residue of my property … for the advancement of education, learning and industry in all its branches including education in economy, sanitary science and art or for other works of public utility…” Much before him, Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata, who established Empress Mill in 1874, had set very high standards of worker benefits and welfare with facilities such as sanitary hutments and filtered water for them. Such humanitarian concern for workers at that time was unheard of, even in the West. The legacy continues in form of Tata Trusts, which support over 450 partners with its work spread over 17 States and 170 districts across the country.
The relevance of charity or social work by non-state actors was never lost even in the 21st Century though its forms and connotations changed. Burton Weisbrod in ‘The Nonprofit Economy’ had postulated that NGOs are a result of Government failure and market failure. According to both theories, individuals or group of people form self-help or social policy associations when they feel that either the Government or the profit-making market, or both, cannot adequately address their concerns, such as poverty, poor education, environmental degradation, affordable housing, and a host of other issues. In India, given her vastness and diversity and multitude of social challenges, the Governments have traditionally supported NGOs through funding, anticipating that it serves the unserved.
However, sooner than the Government would have anticipated, the system developed cancer and NGOs soon became synonymous with corruption. The advent of globalisation and its associated challenges including widening disparities between the rich and poor magnified the role of the voluntary sector, which flourished in this backdrop. And to be fair to the sector, lot of good work did happen such as the one supported by the Tata Trusts.
However, in predominantly agrarian societies with poor or no records of industries such as Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, idea of NGOs lost its sheen and became synonymous with a short-cut to earn quick money for millions of jobless youth and elderly people. The more enterprising among them lured the bureaucracy and political system and shared the booty. For the more privileged in the society, NGOs became a fashion statement besides opening a world of opportunities. Spouses and siblings of bureaucrats and politicians ran NGOs of all hues. Thanks to globalisation, liberalisation and rise of the mainstream media’s obsession with magnifying disparities, social work soon turned into a soft enterprise for both the crooked and the privileged. The social spirit gave way to a new kind of social greed. The poor became guinea pigs and the crooked and the privileged brutally exploited the systemic flaws. Thakur and Tripathi are zenith of such degeneration.
The systemic flaws ensured that the Government either remained oblivious or looked the other way. It is only when obvious distortions like these from Muzaffarpur and Deoria come to the fore that Governments get into a knee-jerk crisis management mode, ordering enquiries and audits, which should have happened religiously. Much to its horror, the Central Bureau of Investigation in an affidavit to the Supreme Court had submitted that in 2015 there were a total of 31 lakh NGOs in India, which is more than double the number of schools, and 250 times the number of Government hospitals. It is anyone’s guess, had all these NGOs genuinely worked, India would have been a far more humane society than it is today. Sadly, we allowed this monster to grow disproportionately. One hopes, this is killed soon to contain our society from slipping into further depravity.
(The writer is a strategic communications professional)