India’s COVID Crisis: Why Govt Should’ve Worked With Civil Society

For a more comprehensive COVID-19 plan, civil society and the govt must join hands and collaborate.

Published
Opinion
4 min read
A policeman wearing a coronavirus-themed outfit walks at a market to raise awareness about social distancing, during a government-imposed nationwide lockdown as a preventive measure against COVID-19 in Chennai. Image used for representation.
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By April 2020, GiveIndia raised 75 crores for Covid relief through its online fundraiser and impacted lives of 1 million people by partnering with more than 100 verified NGOs in its network. Evidenced in this example is the universally acknowledged truth that civil society has been at the forefront of the response to the COVID-19 pandemic in India. Its vital role in immediate and ongoing relief efforts has been recognised by the government itself, including NITI Aayog’s outreach and collaboration with more than 92,000 NGOs since March.

This sits rather oddly, however, with the ever-tightening regulatory regime for social sector organisations, depleting funds, and lack of systematic communication with government authorities.

What If We Had Always Trusted Civil Society?

Has civil society historically been marginalised in India, compared to the louder voices of government and business? And if so, when we reflect back on the COVID-19 crisis, will this be remembered as the time when this “third sector” finally seized the day and reclaimed its seat at the table?

In contrast to the narrative of weak regulatory compliance and ‘fraudulent’ actors, India’s social impact organisations have been committed to strengthening civil society all along. From disaster relief (2004 tsunami, 2013 Uttarakhand floods) to rights-based advocacy, they are consistently the first responders and a vital source of information about what is happening on the ground.

Yet, India continues to demonstrate a paradoxical mistrust of their efforts, as evidenced by the complex and often counterproductive regulatory frameworks imposed upon NGOs at every level.

Two research studies released earlier this year by the Centre of Social Impact and Philanthropy (CSIP) at Ashoka University have made this clear: what could be an enabling, synergistic rule of the game, to make regulation effective and compliance widespread, is now a confusing regime which short-changes all participants and the public at large.

But what if government regulators had approached civil society organisations as ‘partners’ rather than as ‘defaulters’? What if we had always trusted civil society?

COVID Impact: NGOs Bracing For Significant CSR Shortfalls

Imagine if we had a simplified and integrated registration system across all legal forms of social impact organisations — that is, Society, Trust, and Section 8 company — with clear differentiations between foundations and charities (which focus on public challenges) and other types of nonprofits such as schools, colleges, hospitals, and religious organisations.

What if prospective donors and partners could easily search a public database of any social impact organisation that opted into such a system, to learn more about their missions, geographic scopes, and thematic areas?

With more accurate information about the sector, perhaps the government would now be better positioned to fast-track updates, reforms, and simplifications to the current patchwork of regulations at regional and national levels. In turn, this would cultivate greater social impact efforts at the grassroots, where most NGOs have an annual operating budget of less than Rs 5 lakhs and have struggled to navigate the complexities of our existing regulatory landscape.

Government grants, a key source of funding for the social sector, would have a dedicated component for long-term organisation-building activities such as tax and compliance, fundraising, and monitoring and evaluation. Instead, as NGOs brace for significant CSR shortfalls and a new (‘optional’) tax regime that has removed tax incentives for philanthropic giving, only the fraction of organisations with diverse portfolios and dedicated fundraising teams have the capacity to withstand such significant challenges over a long-term period.

COVID Crisis: Establishing Clear Channels Of Communication

If we had always trusted civil society, there would be clear channels of communication today between government agencies and social sector umbrella groups, which could be swiftly activated in response to specific challenges such as the migrant crisis.

Official messages about hygiene and social distancing norms, lockdown do’s and don’ts, and relief measures could also be co-created and disseminated quickly and widely.

We have recently seen a glimpse of what might have been and could yet still be, in the form of the Empowered Group (EG6) set up by the NITI Aayog in late March to coordinate between NGOs, private sector, and international organisations. On the group’s recommendation, state and district level nodal officers were appointed to coordinate with NGOs.

This is a step in the right direction, which needs to be matched with mammoth strides for more comprehensive COVID-19 management strategies and establishing greater collaboration and trust for future challenges.

Reenvisioning the legal and regulatory regime as one of a partnership between the government and the civil society would not abandon regulation or dilute compliance, but rather channel it to build more effective social impact organisations with greater transparency and accountability. The ultimate result would be a more vibrant, inclusive India.

(Priyadarshini Singh, Ph.D., is a Senior Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Social Impact and Philanthropy (CSIP) at Ashoka University and a Research Fellow with the Centre for Policy Research. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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