The term ‘Civil Society’ is not something unknown among the Indian Citizenry today. From the cloistered walls of academia, the term has now fully penetrated our everyday discourse. During the time of Covid-19, Civil society has come to the forefront to deal with the unprecedented challenges. NGOs have now become the preferred institutional model of civil society and I would like to articulate my thoughts from the prism of our NGO Samarpan which has worked relentlessly during the lockdown to reach out to migrant workers, daily wagers, and other vulnerable sections of the society. The lockdown has made the NGOs realign their roles and repurpose themselves to fill in the gaps in the public service delivery, spread awareness about the disease and personal hygiene, arrange transport and food for the migrants, provide protective gear to the health workers and essential service providers etc. For eg, Samarpan has been working in the sectors of inclusive education and primary healthcare in the rural India impacting around 10,500 children in the states of Rajasthan, Uttarakhand and Maharashtra. But in the wake of Covid-19, we have reoriented ourselves and remodeled our strategies for COVID relief to provide dry ration, cooked meals, sanitation kits comprising of soaps, sanitizers, face masks and sanitary pads.

During the last 50 days, we have seen that there are numerous organizations working in different areas in silos. Each organization works in a particular area and has all the necessary details of the demographics, requirements in terms of ration, sanitation needs, social-economic indicators etc. But these organizations being small are resource crunched in terms of manpower, finances or technology. These may just fall short of reaching that ‘critical mass’ to bring about a sustainable impact.  On the other hand, there are bigger organizations which are funded by the Government or the corporates but which may or may not be having the detailed information on the ground. The need is to link such ground-level smaller organizations with the bigger and funded organizations so that the funds are channelized to the right beneficiaries. The need is to have an interconnected Civil Society where data, expertise and resources can be pooled and be made accessible. This will amplify the individual efforts, build up the resilience of the communities to face a crisis and translate into more concrete and sustainable outcomes.

The lockdown posed severe challenges in the relief measures carried out by Samarpan owing to the restrictions in movement and transport. The civil administration and the police played a major role to help us in reaching out to the most needy specially in the high population density containment zones of Dharavi, Sion Koilwada, Worli, Andheri West etc. This clearly points to the fact that there has to be an open channel of communication between the civil society and the administration. With the experience of NGOs working at the ground level, the role of the civil society is to work along with the administration in filling up the gaps in service delivery by providing essential services, documenting data and advocating policy change.

When the entire world is reeling under the pressure of a pandemic induced economic crisis, there will also be a question of dwindling funding of the NGOs. As per the Ministry of Corporate Affairs, CSR spending in India has decreased from Rs 14,547 cr in FY 2015-16 to Rs 14,333 in FY 2016-17 and Rs 13,708 cr in FY 2017-18. In the coming times, it is very likely that the CSR and other funding will dry up further, thus jeopardizing the subsistence of the NGOs. The funds which were pumped into the NGOs in the form of an Emergency relief measure have been used to sustain the activities till Lockdown 4.0. This will pose a challenge to the NGOs and calls for a need for immediate rethinking in terms of their operations and prioritizing the areas and nature of their functioning. Reducing the operational capacity would be catastrophic in the current times when the needs have escalated more than ever. The government may think of aiding the NGOs in implementing welfare measures announced as a part of the Covid relief package. The popularity of the crowdfunding platforms is a positive phenomenon and an indicator of the changing landscape of philanthropy in India. It sensitizes and motivates the growing Indian middle class and gives them an opportunity to engage in social change and cultivate the virtue of ‘giving’.

This is the time when the Civil Society can rebuild its legitimacy. Often, the Civil society is looked upon as a hindrance to the government functioning. The CSOs can serve as an excellent feedback mechanism for the Government to see as to how the decisions made in the aftermath of pandemic impacts the citizens on the ground. There is also a need for bottom up accountability to ensure that the allocated funds are used for the intended beneficiaries.

The need of the hour is to build upon the lessons learnt from our experiences and calls for innovation and transformation. As per the Sustainable Development Goal 17, a successful sustainable development agenda requires partnerships between governments, private sector and civil society which are built upon a shared vision and shared goals that place people and the planet at the centre. In this very spirit of collaboration, Samarpan has collaborated with the Government, private sector and other NGOs. Till date, we have reached out to 28,000 families with dry ration and sanitation kits and around 5.5 lakh cooked meals in Mumbai, Bengaluru, Delhi, Anand, Jodhpur and Ujjain. We have also provided sanitary kits to 10,000 women and around 9000 face masks and hand sanitizers to the essential service providers.

It is being said that the post covid-19 world will be different from that of yesterday. Let that new world be laid on the foundations of justice and equality and a humane perspective towards solving the problems of those whose voices have been unheard till now.

Dr. Megha Bhargava (IRS) Deputy Commissioner Income Tax, Mumbai

Views are personal

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