The return of civil society is imperative


    In Context

    • Need is to re-emphasise the crucial, critical and life-giving nature of civil society.

    About the Civil Society Organizations in India

    • About:
      • India has a long history of civil society based on the concepts of daana (giving) and seva (service). 
      • Civil society Organization (CSO) or non-governmental organization (NGO) are organizations that are voluntary in spirit and without profit-making objectives—have been active in cultural promotion, education, health, and natural disaster relief. 
    • Data on NGOs:
      • Today, about 1.5 million NGOs work in India (i.e., nonprofit, voluntary citizens’ groups organized on a local, national, or international level). 
        • According to a survey conducted by Society for Participatory Research in Asia (PRIA)
          • 26.5% of NGOs are engaged in religious activities
          • while 21.3% work in the area of community and/or social service
          • About one in five NGOs works in education
          • while 17.9% are active in the fields of sports and culture
          • Only 6.6% work in the health sector.

    Role of civil society

    • The values of civil society are those of political participation and state accountability. 
      • Thus, it provides the necessary basis for participation in formal political institutions. 
    • The institutions of civil society are associational. It advocates pluralism and is opposed to totalitarianism. 
    • When state becomes an authoritarian political institution, its authority is to be challenged by the civil society.
    • Within the civil society, individuals enjoy enforceable rights of free expression, freedom to form associations, formulation of opinions and freedom to dissent. Civil society is a vital pre-condition for the existence of democracy.


    • All over the world, the influence of civil society organisations is increasing, however, their credibility seems to be going down.
    • One of the independent reports of 2018 stressed on some key observations and the most important among them were:
      • That civil society organisations are self-appointed rather than elected, and thus do not represent the popular will.
      • That civil society organisations receiving foreign funding are accountable to external rather than domestic constituencies and advance foreign rather than local agendas.
      • That civil society groups are elite actors who are not representative of the people they claim to represent. 
        • Critics point to the foreign education backgrounds, high salaries, and frequent foreign travels of civic activists to portray them as out of touch with the concerns of ordinary citizens and only working to perpetuate their own privileged lifestyle.

    Issues faced by the civil society

    • Shrinking voice of CSOs:
      • It is widely claimed that the ability of civil society to shape policy and public discourse has shrunk drastically. Because civil society is seen to be the new frontier for war and foreign interference
    • Financial crunch:
      • Because of the financial and structural constraints imposed on them, CSOs/movements are lacking conscientious youngsters, who naturally need some financial sustenance. 
      • Thousands working in the social sector, particularly in grassroots organisations, have already been rendered jobless as the ban on sub-granting has caused resource starvation for these organisations.
    • No possibility of tangible contribution:
      • Without sustained support, CSOs cannot positively mould public discourse or make a tangible impact on the nation at large. 
      • With governments consciously avoiding CSOs/movements, their ability to shape policy is diminished (which adversely impacts organisational morale).
    • The net result:
      • Faced with a drastically reduced spectrum of options, some progressives will migrate to safer avenues; others may limit the scope of their work
      • The net result is that civil society will be unable to speak truth to power, amplify the voices of the most vulnerable, enrich policies/legislation through constructive feedback, or further the collective good. 


    • For government:
      • The governments should also realise that some of its prominent acts or laws, such as the Right to Information Act, The Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act and the National Food Security Act, among others, will remain relevant if the foundations of civil society are strong.
        • Any attempt to disturb civil society will be tantamount to diluting these laws
      • Any stringent measures would also adversely impact the monitoring of the implementation of various government schemes, such as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana and the Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana, etc.
    • For NGOs:
      • Alternate ways of funding:
        • Post new FCRA laws, many organisations have already started looking up to local resource mobilisation (LRM) and are largely focused on corporate funding through corporate social responsibility (CSR).
      • Charitable funding:
        • Civil society should explore how to encourage more collective giving, a form of charitable giving where groups pool their donations to create larger funds to tackle problems.
      • Utilizing technology:
        • There is increasing awareness that increased use of data and digital technology can make charities stronger and even better at what they do. 
    • For young activists:
      • The one possibility that could emerge is that young activists could be inducted into political parties, either within the party organisation or in an aligned body. 
      • This could create an institutionalised moral force within the parties (which could balance electoral compulsions with ethical/human rights considerations). 
        • This would afford parties a layered systemic approach to thorny issues.

    Way ahead

    • It is civil society that makes India pluralistic, providing for alternatives beyond the ritualistic game of electoralism. It provides a compost heap of ideas that makes democracy a continuous drama of experiments.
    • Civil society has to create a new sense of the commons, rework the rights of nature and create a new mode of constitutional thinking.
    • Civil society has to think more internationally to function more creatively in local terms. 


    Daily Mains Question

    [Q] What is the role of civil societies in democracy? What are the general criticisms faced by civil society organizations? Suggest ways for CSOs to effectively deal with its challenges.