‘Relief Is a Right, Not Charity:’ TN NGOs Perplexed With Gov Order

Tamil Nadu government had directed NGOs to not work individually and route their relief through local administration

4 min read

Since Sunday, Vijaya* has been inundated with calls from worried beneficiaries who depend on her non-governmental organisation (NGO) for dry rations and cooked food. The reason: an announcement from the government of Tamil Nadu on Sunday restricting volunteers and NGOs from distributing relief materials to people affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Some people, organisations and political parties are violating the lockdown rules and distributing food and other relief materials directly to the people. This is in violation of the prohibitory orders in force. Actions like these will lead to the spread of the virus,” reads the announcement made by the state government on Sunday.

It adds that those who wish to help can hand over relief materials to the local body in charge in their locations (district collectors, municipal commissioners etc.), who will distribute it to those in need by following physical distancing rules. “If anyone is found violating these directions, they will be considered as offenders who broke the prohibitory order law and legal action will be initiated against them.”


An Announcement That Lacked Thought

Vijaya heads a Chennai NGO which has been working closely with the Greater Chennai Corporation (GCC) for tracking those in need, and distributing relief materials to them like cooked food and dry ration. Sunday’s order has not only left her and many other similar volunteer collectives perplexed, but also brought in uncertainty to the lives of those who depend on such organisations.

Speaking to TNM, Vijaya says that the decision lacked any thought from the government’s side.

“NGOs have been reaching out to people and places where the government cannot reach.”
Vijaya, Head, Chennai NGO

Indeed, in spite of the GCC setting up shelters to house migrant workers who have been stranded across the city, there are people who still live in makeshift tents, in clusters.

Vijaya points out that an announcement which clamps down on the NGOs’ participation should ideally have been accompanied with statistics on how many people are being supported by the government, and how many people are being supported by the social sector.

“The government should have been transparent about the number of people that it would now need to step in and support without the social sector’s help. A blanket ban approach is wrong,” she adds.

Not everybody shares this opinion though. Lakshmi*, who works with an NGO in Nagapattinam district, says that she understands where the government is coming from.

“This is not a situation like the Gaja cyclone. This is a pandemic. In this situation, it is better to not spread across the city in massive groups to offer relief since the virus spreads from person to person when in close contact. Hence I get it why such a restriction has been brought in at this juncture,” she says.

Relief Is a Right, Not Charity

Vijaya says that the government, while designing or planning for relief packets, must keep in mind the needs of all - like women and children. She suggests that some items must be standardised in the relief packets across the state like sanitary napkins, baby food etc.

She also says that attention needs to be given to the cultural habits of those affected.

“Relief is a right, not charity. The government cannot wash its hands off the matter by giving two kilograms of rice and dals. For a man who has eaten wheat flour all his life, it is not fair to give him rice all of a sudden and tell him to be happy.”
Vijaya, Head, Chennai NGO

“I understand that the government is swamped with so many things now. Thus, it becomes more important to rope in NGOs that can take some things off the government’s hands by identifying different groups, understanding what they need, and supporting them appropriately,” she adds.


Government Must Work With NGOs

It is not unusual to see the state government appointing the members of NGOs into select committees for expert inputs and consultation on certain subject matters. However, the sudden decision to restrict the work of volunteer groups has been taken without consulting any of the relevant parties, says Vijaya.

“I am not telling them to let us have a free reign. Please have checks and balances by all means. The state government and local authorities can actually put it all on paper and give us contracts on how to operate, what to give as relief materials etc. If an NGO breaks the rules, it can be punished,” Vijaya says, adding that the need of the moment is coordination between the government and the organisations.

Vijaya says that the government can also assess the credibility of the organisations based on previous experience and give them a go-ahead, based on set guidelines.

“Many volunteers and NGOs have also registered to be volunteers on the COVID-19 portal. The government can take a look at that list and then bring the selected entities under contract,” she adds.

Lakshmi points out that it is important for the local bodies to have a strategy to ensure that those in need are not left without a support system.

“Since there is no money in the system due to lockdown, and no jobs, the only way for a lot of people in the state to put food on the table is to depend on the rations or even cooked food distributed. While the concern is understandable, there has to be a strong plan to ensure that help reaches the last person,” Lakshmi points out.


A Clarification After Outcry

While the original announcement directed all private parties to route their contributions -- cash or kind -- via government offices at the local level, it did not clearly speak about whom contributions will be distributed to. After criticism from political parties and highlighting the gaps in the distribution chain, the government issued a clarification on Monday.

Clearing the air around restrictions on NGOs or volunteers distributing relief materials, the state government said that there was no ban on the relief operations themselves. It also stated that all the items will be distributed to the areas pointed out by the NGOs and social workers. The distribution will be done by district or local administration since it is imperative to abide by the physical distancing norms.

(*Names changed on request)

(This article was originally published in The News Minute and has been reposted with permission.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

Speaking truth to power requires allies like you.
Become a Member
Read More