Poonam Abbi

This paper discusses the need and conditions for the creation and strengthening of civil society institutions. An attempt is made to look at the context of the rural poor and the constraints that they face in achieving well-being. This will enable us to examine present efforts by various actors to mitigate these constraints. In particular, the role of the civil society will be studied, and the role of establishments such as the state and donors in ­facilitating its empowerment will be explored. The context is that of rural people living in the hilly tracts of the southern Aravali range. These tracts are located in the hinterland of Udaipur city in the north-west Indian state of Rajasthan. Wherever appropriate, Seva Mandir’s experience as an organization with a legacy of 25 years of rural development work in this area will be drawn upon. Mrs. Poonam Abbi is the Coordinator of the People’s Management School, Seva Mandir, India.

Empowering a Civil Society

Introduction

The essay attempts, first, to sketch a profile of the socio-economic context of the rural areas of Udaipur district. Secondly, it briefly traces the evolution of the state vis-à-vis its role in development. A brief perspective is presented on the impact on poverty of recently introduced progressive state policies centred around participatory development. This is explained using Joint Forest Management (a policy attempt to formalize the entitlements of forest dwellers) and Panchayati Raj (the constitutionalization of local self-government). Thirdly, a case for civil society and its role in development is made, and related links are explored. This raises issues related to the empowerment of civil society. It also leads to a discussion of the role of external1 agents like the state and the donor community in the process of its empowerment.

Civil Society: A Definition
Spaces for ordinary citizens to contribute to and take respon­sibility for their development. These spaces could be occupied by formal and/or informal
institutions.

Context

Profile of the People

A description of Talai, a village which typifies the economic, social, and political conditions prevalent in villages of Udaipur district, will be useful in setting the context.

In Talai, the people’s livelihoods are primarily agriculture-based. The agricultural landholding size ranges from around 2 bighas2 to over 10 bighas, individual wasteland size from 2 bighas to over 15 bighas, and livestock size from 4 to 10 animals. 75% of the people in Talai village, practise rain-fed agriculture. Irrigation facilities are limited, as indicated by the small proportion of farmers growing water-intensive crops such as sugarcane and rajka (a fodder crop). Most households cannot meet their annual requirements of food grains from agriculture and therefore need to purchase food grains. However, this dependence on the market varies considerably between households, some being self-sufficient in food for up to 11 months and others for only 6 months. On an average, 25–30% of households have sufficient food for only 5 to 6 months and are heavily dependent on migratory wage-labor as a source of income. They work in Udaipur or in the mining belt of Kelva (in the neighbouring district of Rajsamand) as casual labour, where they earn Rs.50/ – to Rs.150/ –3 per day (depending on their skills), and stay away from the village for at least two weeks in a month. In addition to this segment there are some households that depend to a lesser extent on wage labour to supplement agricultural income. People from this segment tend to go for labour within the village or in neighbouring villages; if they go as far as Udaipur, they do not stay away from the village for very long.

Seva Mandir’s work reveals a high degree of encroachments/privatization of common property resources in Talai. This includes revenue lands4, charnot lands5, and forest lands6. These attempts at privatization have led the people to enter into compromises with the Patwari7 and Forester to get their encroachments recorded and thereby legalized. For this the Patwari takes a bribe of Rs.2000–3000. Even after recording, he may still take bribes of Rs.200–300 from time to time to speed up the official process of “regularizing” an encroachment. If an encroachment is not recorded, besides the uncertainty of getting ownership rights over the property, the encroacher also faces the threat of police action or other harassment from the Patwari, who might have the encroached land allotted to someone else. Dealings with the Forester are “informal arrangements”, as recording is not normally possible on forest lands. This is usually manifested in the payment of a “penalty” – in effect, a bribe, often a share of the produce – for using agricultural land. A penalty is also taken for extracting wood and other produce from forest lands, of which 50% is usually retained by the Forester.

People comply because they are very dependent on the forest; forests are still the main source for meeting individual needs for fuel, fodder, timber, and grazing. However, due to the growth of the population and deforestation, the forests are unable to meet these needs completely. A need for additional sources is apparent, and is mirrored in the stake the village community has in the maintenance of the pasture-land, despite the fact that the grass obtained is not quantitatively significant (it lasts from 15 days to a month for each household, annually). Work on the pasture-land was completed in association with Seva Mandir after the conditions to work on commons were created in the course of a ten-year association with the village.

Migration of people for labour, both through their physical absence and through the influence of related factors, has lowered the social control exercised by Jati Panchayats (the traditional caste-based village institutions). The interests of existing Jati Panchayats are tilted in favour of the powerful. The social capital that they embody does not transfer ­into the maintenance of community assets on which the poor are dependent.

The census statistics for Jhadol block, of which Talai is a part, indicate poor health figures and literacy rates (male literacy rate: 13%, female literacy rate: 2.8% of the population of the block). The recent diagnostic health camps held by Seva Mandir also support these statistics. Health and educational attainments are very low overall, but this is particularly so in the case of women. This is only one manifestation of the general lack of access to resources and institutions for women, both within and outside the community. The lack of access inevitably leads to lower capabilities and automatically shifts the locus of decision-making to the men-folk, who have experienced greater access owing to ­traditional role divisions.

Profile of the State

The presence of the state in the social sector has historically been very prominent in India. The Indian state believed in centrally planned economic development as a catalyst for social justice. However, this did not take root because development resulted in limiting power and resources to the country’s elite. The state in independent India attempted to create some infrastructure, but statistics after 50 years reveal that not much has been achieved in terms of poverty alleviation. In the ­process, a lot of distortions have been created.

The state took custody of natural resources such as forests, streams, rivers, and the produce derived from these resources. Timber and other produce were extracted by the state for revenue purposes. Thus, access to, and use of, these resources by the community became restricted. As a result the villagers lost their sense of ownership of these ­resources. Furthermore, given their dependency on these natural ­resources (owing to the growing population and the declining productivity of their resource base), they were forced to exploit the resources that remained. In the process, they did not accord protection to the resources under state control. Privatization of land on an ad hoc basis became more pronounced because in the given context there was ­value in owning private lands (the commons being degraded and/or under state control). This process is still continuing and is skewed ­because it is highly individualized and competitive. The people who benefit most (by encroaching on more and better land) are those who are more aware, politically astute, and powerful. These beneficiaries have to form alliances with state officials such as the Patwari, and the Forester, based on compromises. Given the constraints of insufficient land and low productivity, the rest of the people need to supplement their income by migrating as casual labour. Their dependency on and stake in employment in government schemes – such as forestry activities and construction of dams and roads – is high. Such dependency on the state for development, and the “exploitation” of resources by the people, is encouraged by the agents of the state. The state agents use the fact that these activities are “illicit”’ to generate power and bribes for themselves.

Such debilitating benefit-sharing arrangements seem very attractive to the people in the short-term. As a consequence, they ignore the damage being done to their common and sustainable interests. The compromising nature of such relationships renders people powerless and they are willing to settle for meagre benefits. Further, the majority of the poor have restricted access to such patrons and are excluded from the benefits of development interventions. Such communities cannot come together and acquire a stake in their development process. The practice of seeking benefits from powerbrokers and powerful patrons rather than their own associations and political formations, has severely undermined the power of the poor as a class to make the system responsive to their needs and to promote their own interests through cooperative action. The people’s faith largely rests in the vertical ties created or reinforced between the “patron” (in this case, the state) and the “client” (in this case, the village communities).

The 1990s saw a number of very significant changes with respect to development and governance. It is puzzling that the state should introduce so many significant changes in policies that affect the poor. One possible reason for these changes is the adverse public reaction against the inefficient functioning of the state and the institutions of local self-government. As there is an increasing tendency for incumbent governments to be voted out of power at election time, political expediency has become an important factor for those in positions of authority and policy-making. Thus the commitment to implement new policies is singularly ambivalent and erratic. The willingness to expand people’s participation and access to resources co-exists with the desire to retain control and authority over people. As a result, the actual outcomes of progressive legislation and policy are contingent on the balance of power between those who want real changes on the one hand, and the state and social structure on the other. Much depends on the institutional capacity of people at the grassroots to take advantage of the new opportunities provided by the changes in policy. Given the understanding that there is a lack of cohesion within the village community, the changes introduced could well result in the state increasing social control over the people; in the name of participation the state collaborates with associations ­beholden to the dominant elements of rural society.

State Institutions

A look at state-initiated policies and institutions and their functioning ­reflects the various dynamics discussed above.

Panchayati Raj Institutions – Local self-government bodies were accorded constitutional protection through the 73rd and 74th amendments to the Indian Constitution. The Constitution requires that elections be held at intervals of 5 years. The amendment has also reserved a third of the elected positions for women, besides requiring affirmative action in favour of Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs)8 in proportion to their population in the community. The amendments require state governments to formulate guidelines for locating a broad range of developmental activities within the ambit of the Panchayats. They also provide financial resources to enable the Panchayats to effectively discharge the functions assigned to them. The key thrust of the new legislation is to strengthen institutions of self-government.

Panchayati Raj institutions are in close proximity to voters. By this fact, these institutions offer the potential of becoming more responsive to the electorate, i.e. the members of the village community. At another level, depending on the nature of the commitment of the state to decentralisation and the nature of land and power relations, additional ­power for the Panchayats could also strengthen state control over the people through institutions of local self-government.

It would seem that neither is the state serious about decentralization, nor does it want Panchayats to be accountable to the people and play a significant and independent role in the formation and implementation of developmental activities. One indicator to this effect is that Panchayats presently provide only “presence without empowerment” of those who are marginalised. Another indicator is the fact that Panchayats are subservient to the state and powerful socio-economic groups.

The socio-economic conditions at the grass-root level also make it difficult for village communities to hold their elected leaders responsible and to take advantage of the opportunities provided through such initiatives.

The Joint Forest Management (JFM) Programme – This is a progressive policy, aiming to recognize the rights of forest dwellers over forests. JFM marks a paradigm shift in management of, and the sharing of benefits from, forest lands. The approach of the Forest Department (FD) was earlier hostile to the interests of local communities and custodial in nature.

JFM guidelines create an incentive for villagers to regenerate defunct village solidarity and rehabilitate highly degraded lands. However, because the rules that allow village communities access are complex and socially demanding in terms of the responsibilities to be shouldered by the community, it is difficult for a JFM movement to develop spontaneously. People at the grass roots will need external support in both technical terms and social terms to prepare the social base for partici­patory forestry. The policy guidelines also mention the role of the NGO community in this programme as one of its salient features. Seva Mandir’s experience reveals that in more than four years of relentless effort the organization has received only four approvals from the forest department indicating the resistance put forth by the FD to the efforts of an NGO, in this case Seva Mandir.

The potential of these initiatives is not realised to the optimum. This is because at one level, rural society is constrained by its socio-economic conditions, and at the other level the state’s recognition of problems is faulty. The state also does not look at conditions that make them meaningful.

Critical Constraints

From the profiles delineated above, some criticalconstraints, which ­impede the development of the poor, can be identified. The following section attempts to classify these critical constraints.

Structural Constraints: Broadly speaking, these constraints include poor and inequitable access to land and natural resources and the low productivity of these resources, leading to livelihood insecurity. These constraints also include the issue of entitlements.

Capability Constraints: This set of constraints is related to the people – the poor status of their capabilities (in terms of nutrition, health, and education) influences their well-being and severely restrains the acquisition and spread of the skills necessary to gain entry into the ­organized sector.

Gender Constraints: Other than women faring poorly on well-being indicators such as health and literacy, gender constraints also result in women being denied access to and control over assets and resources. The emphasis on gender constraints does not, however, deny the ­effect of the nature of role divisions on men.

Social/Institutional Constraints: Attenuation of social capital inhibits people from effectively accessing and actualizing development interventions which would serve their interests on a sustainable basis, and from demanding genuine accountability from village leaders and institutions. Therefore, building of institutional capabilities becomes critical.

Why Civil Society?

Given this scenario, I would argue for space, along with a legitimate role, for civil society in development. Why civil society?

  1. As explained above, the idea of the welfare state, responsible for alleviating poverty, has not been very successful in reality. This, then, leads to the questions “Is it possible for the government to deliver? Are these demands from the state realistic – and to what extent?” Seva Mandir believes that if the state wants to be effective, and if society desires value-based development and sustainability, then the state will need to share control with NGOs and other associations of the people.
  2. For the last 50 years, the state has been the only entity the people could seek support from. Hence they had to compromise and establish relationships convenient to the state and its agents. Civil society will be able to act as an additional window for people to service their development needs. This inherent plurality brings with it decentralization of resources, power and values such as transparency and accountability.
  3. From the point of view of the people it is important that they experience an alternative approach to development. Civil society, with its advantage of continuous relationships with the village community, with the principles that drive it, and with localized efforts, can help people build capabilities to manage their development affairs. Civil society, by its very nature, qualifies for space that allows it the freedom to decide upon a particular value framework. The state lacks the freedom to occupy such spaces and decide upon a framework because of the constraints it operates under. Seva Mandir, as an example of civil society, exemplifies this alternative paradigm of development.

Case of Seva Mandir

Seva Mandir attempts to involve the community in strengthening its livelihood base (through work on individual and community resources), by building capabilities at the village level, and by creating village ­institutions to take responsibility for development.

In about 30–40 villages, in varying degrees, people have slowly built relationships between themselves, both social and economic, around issues meaningful to them. In some villages, issues of land have brought them together. Starting from individual plantation work, to work on pooled private wastelands, a foundation of social cohesion has been laid. Building on this, with time, people have organized around common village lands and watersheds, removed encroachments in these areas, and regenerated the land. This has increased the productivity and returns from their livelihood base and increased agriculture vis-à-vis migration. Grass production, growth of saplings, increased water level in wells, increased production from land and soil depth are some indications of increased productivity. In some villages, there has been diversification of crops due to better irrigation facilities as well as greater moisture retention in the soil. This work has positively affected the reconstitution of social and land relations in the village. By retreating from illegal encroachments on pasture-lands, people have moved out to some extent from compromised vertical relationships with the Patwari. And gender concerns have been addressed by forming women’s groups and initiating economic activities as a tool for empowerment. By setting up transparent, equitable systems for managing these resources, a culture that is extremely important for vibrant village-level institutions has been introduced.

In such villages, we find that leaders who embody knowledge of various developmental activities (associated with Seva Mandir) are more accountable to the communities they serve. This is because the village groups, being strong and united, can demand accountability from them. Further, since such people derive their leadership from work and being sensitive to village needs, the basis of leadership is no longer confined to patron-client ties, but is more work and value based. This leadership thus upholds the social cohesion in the community and does not divide it.

Seva Mandir’s experience also suggests that the association of village people with civil society, (its interventions and style of functioning) also helps them bargain with the state and its allies from a position of relative strength. By experiencing and having faith in alternatives, people make decisions knowing that they have options, which makes for rational decision-making.

In Nayakheda village, people rejected the offer to work with the World Bank and instead sought support from Seva Mandir, even though the remuneration offered by the former was greater. This was because they perceived Seva Mandir to be more accountable and accessible on a continuing basis.

How to Empower Civil Society?

Civil society, as described in this paper, is an entity that is increasingly being recognized as an actor in development. The state and the donor community have mirrored this, by accommodating roles for these institutions in their policy documents.

Civil society formations are characterized by an uncertain resource base – human and financial. This aspect needs to be looked into closely in order to understand how civil society and its role are defined or ­understood.

The state at best looks upon this sector as being cheap and efficient implementers of government programmes. As indicated in the Joint Forest Management programme, NGOs in most programmes are sought as collaborating partners more on paper than on the ground. The donors look upon these institutions as transient entities which will empower the people and withdraw: deliver and disappear. Hence, project-based associations (essentially short-term) are encouraged between donors and civil society institutions. This skirts the issue of institutional investment in the latter.

Institutional investment is critical if this sector is to create space in the society, to attract people to have faith in civil society formations (so as to be able to experiment with ideas and allow them to grow), and to enable them to give long, stable commitments in return for economic security. However, lack of institutional funding along with the paradigm of development that focuses on development as an end treats civil society institutions as transmitters. They, then, do not recognize the contributors to the development process. The people who “do” development remain invisible from an external point of view. The development discourse therefore ignores the civil society institutions that significantly affect the outcomes of development.

Further, the argument which stresses the limited role for civil society formations makes simplistic assumptions about rural life, such as the existence of solidarity which would facilitate group formation, or people’s readiness to take on and manage development interventions. In fact, a more realistic picture would take into account the fragmentation of societies, the internal dynamics, and the limited capacity of the ­rural poor.

Also of significance is the fact that short-term, programmatic, result-oriented funding is being prioritized in the present. This often produces a negative impact. Consequently, concepts such as sustainability, empowerment and participation – which inherently require a long-term perspective – get by-passed or limited to symbolic gestures. This poses a paradox because the current rhetoric emphasises these concepts, yet conditions to operationalise them are either not recognized ad­equately or are not created.

Strategies

Keeping as a backdrop these features which describe the nature of ­civil society, an attempt is made to suggest how the players – viz. the state, the civil society and the donor community – can empower civil society institutions. The need for such institutions was established in the previous section.

Civil society itself has a significant role to play in the process of its own empowerment. If the sector is to grow and stay healthy the challenge is to look inwards and state its own reality. This process will also reveal the shortcomings and constraints of civil society.

The current phenomenon of mushrooming NGOs has led to some changes in the nature of NGO leadership. Earlier, the setting up of an NGO was associated with exceptional individuals; however, in recent years people who are “normal” in our society are starting NGOs and providing leadership. What is particularly impressive is the fact that these people, from ordinary middle class backgrounds, who may not have had opportunities to get a good education, have through experience gained competence and understanding of how to engender participatory development. However, the other side of the coin as regards NGO proliferation is that the practices, norms, and culture associated with the growth of the sector are not wholly consistent with the idea of NGOs being more accountable to the poor, and to society at large. NGO leaders, advocacy networks, international donors, and government ­bureaucrats in search of quick solutions, are prone to overlook the ­negative aspects caused by the rapid expansion of the sector.

The problems caused by this quick proliferation constitute only one set of challenges facing the NGO sector. While identities are never fixed and are constantly changing, and are therefore constantly the source of some tension, this is today the most important set of issues facing the sector. The last couple of decades have seen a lot of changes – within the NGO sector and within the larger context. And in all this, the old definitions of roles/identities are no longer adequate. Importantly, there has been a sea change in the kind of people who now constitute the majority within the sector. Society, however, continues to look at them with perceptions which were more appropriate to the early pioneers of the sector. A lot of the mismatch between expectations and outcomes from this sector (as experienced by the government, donors and the public at large) is largely because of this.

In the context of the larger society it is of critical importance to look at the people involved in taking development to the poor. The outcome-orientation of development makes efficiency the sole criterion to assess who would best deliver the benefits of development. This creates a dichotomy between “professionals” and “non-professionals”. The professionals are a privileged class trained in “elite” educational institutions, aware, and confident of the models and tools of development. The non-professionals constitute workers from the emerging middle class who have no basic grounding in such models or techniques but often have strong fieldwork skills and a continuing presence. Modernization, with its premium on expertise, exacerbates this segmentation and centralizes leadership with the professionals.

The non-professionals come to the sector with a baggage of insecurity and inadequacy endemic to their socio-economic situation, and their entry is more out of necessity than choice. The limited definitions of leadership and efficiency further alienate them and corrode their motivation and sense of self-worth. Much social instability and potential social crisis stems from such frustration or dissatisfaction. This is an issue of primary significance for any institution of civil society. If civil society in its most basic form means “responsible citizenship”, then this citizenship should not be made exclusive. If only “exceptional” and “efficient” people are engaged in development, then the replicability and sustainability of models is also in question. There are not many professionals who gravitate towards this sector, and among those who join, the rate of turnover is high.

Additionally, those who do join this sector usually have to face lower pay-scales when compared to their market rate. They are also faced with the reduced societal status associated with such jobs. Their career goals usually do not include commitment to one organization (especially a grass-root organization) because they aspire to a wider range of experiences and more responsible positions which are accompanied by greater status, remuneration and knowledge. This is of great value as professionals usually derive their identity from their “work”. A sense of purpose/contribution is essential for them to carry on, and efficiency in its basic meaning could be an important ­factor in this.

Seva Mandir takes cognizance of the fact that these tensions pose a long-term challenge. Within our own sphere of work we have tried to integrate these diverse groups of personnel and engender an environment of mutual respect and co-operation. We focus on bridging these gaps through collaborative ties, acknowledging complementarity in skills. To us this is a more inclusive way of engaging in ­develop­mental activity. However, Seva Mandir cannot claim to have succeeded entirely, as deeper changes involving a redefinition of leadership require a long-term horizon. The dilemma is also between ­efficiency vis-à-vis a forum for all citizens – though both of these have value in themselves. The difficult part is to draw a balance to accommodate these two features. The fact that these two sets of people ­derive their motivation from different sources (for non-professionals, social association is an important factor; for professionals, visible and recognizable work output is an important factor) makes it a tough challenge for an organization to have an integrated policy which takes cognizance of these factors. Another issue that is constantly debated in development today is related to “success stories” that the involvement of institutions of Civil Society in development has produced. The need for indicators to access civil society cannot be negated. However, assuming that the larger aim of these formations is to build and reinforce social capital at the village level, what needs rethinking is how to define success stories. This is important in the light of the fact that cohesion is a fragile entity and a lot of external forces would prefer the scale of co-operation to be lower, i.e. would prefer vertical ties of dependency to horizontal ties of solidarity.

The evaluation of success of development interventions is often subjective, and depends on the way indicators are defined. For example, in Talai, in comparison to other villages, development interventions, specifically those related to pasture-land development, are rated as being successful. In most other villages, the village pasture-lands are completely privatized. In Talai, the breakdown of traditional protection systems, the free-rider problem with respect to contributions to the village development fund, and the limited participation of the community in maintenance of boundary walls illustrate the limits of the social cohesion displayed. Consequently, whether Talai represents a “success” or not would depend on the indicators used.

Competition between NGOs, which often results in one NGO piggy-riding on the base created by another NGO, is not uncommonly seen or heard of in our area of work. This is particularly the case given the demand to produce outcomes in time-specific projects. This issue has significant bearing when we talk of establishing systems that ensure the accountability of civil society formations. There also needs to be a consensus on the larger objective towards which NGOs can direct their various agendas and approaches.

As for the state, the need for collaboration with civil society institutions as drafted in its policy documents should be accompanied by real/meaningful creation of opportunities for civil society to contribute and define its agenda and pace. Additionally, for collaboration to be a meaningful exercise, the collaborating partners need to be on “equal” platforms. Civil society is dependent on the state for funding purposes and hence may not be in a position to question it beyond a certain point. This signifies that if the underpinnings of an autonomous civil society do not exist, it will only end up providing some additional welfare rather than becoming a countervailing agent to the state. Therefore there is a case for a civil society with its own resources.

In this discussion we are assuming a certain willingness on the part of the state to share its power. We realize this is a difficult task, but it is possible, if both parties stand to gain. Our premise is that the state, by decentralizing its control, will provide spaces for citizens to contribute. In the long run, empowering the citizens will bring more stability to the state as a political formation, as people will realise the benefits of such empowerment.

The role of funding organizations in the process of development and change is critical. Since these agencies channel the much-needed ­resources into this sector, they are strategically positioned to effect changes and set new agendas. Often these agendas are not reflective of the complex ground-level realities. Thus programmes typically focus on bringing about gender equity within 5 years. Such an approach takes no account of the context, of the width and depth of the problem, of the attitudinal changes involved and the time horizon these changes demand. Further, the funding practices and dealings with NGOs and other people’s organisations ignore the need for sustained institutional funding. In this nature of funding (project-based and short-term), the commitment to a particular activity will wane when the funding preferences change. These preferences change independently of local needs and considerations. This establishes a need for comprehensive funding for civil society institutions.

The conditions at the grass-root level indicate thatpeople’s faith largely rests in the vertical, patronage ties which pay dividends, however insignificant. Civil society, in its attempt to alleviate poverty, needs to shift this value base of the village community, to help it take “risks”. This means investment of human resources, time and finances, within their ­areas of engagement.

Comprehensive, long-term, process-oriented funding which “invests” in the people can be a very enabling factor. Seva Mandir has certainly found this to be the case – comprehensive funding has allowed the organization:

  • to strike mutually beneficial relationships with village communities and to ensure adequate investment in building capacity to manage its interventions
  • to make long-term commitments to the people. This is not the case with typical project funds. Such long-term investments also allow the organization to give security to its personnel, which is a significant ­motivating factor for them to stay and perform
  • to be more flexible and responsive to changes at the field level by taking newer initiatives

With a sense of security, there is a danger that people in civil society institutions will become complacent and that the institutions will adopt the ­patronage approach, becoming the new “patrons”. Thus, civil society institutions, like other formations, are not the best custodians of poor people’s welfare. However, by creating strong village-level institutions, checks and balances to counteract such tendencies can be engendered.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the poor are not in a position to question their leaders, representatives or the state. The state, too, is not willing to let go of its patronage approach to development and is unwilling to devolve power, despite affirmative policies that are created (but rarely put into practice). There is, therefore, a need to look at an alternative development paradigm in which civil society plays a critical role. Civil society, too, has problems which it needs to resolve within itself. However, it is, at this point in time, dependent on donors and the state for its very survival.

A long-term support strategy which provides these civil society institutions with uncontested space and a fair chance to change conditions on the ground needs to be put in place.

 

1 This paper has been prepared by Poonam Abbi. It draws heavily upon the experiences of, and documentation at, Seva Mandir. The author gratefully acknowledges contributions made by Mr. Ajay Mehta, Ms. Neelima Khetan, Ms. Anuradha Vishwanath, Ms. Shruti Chopra and colleagues and friends.

2 Bigha is a traditional measure of land area and is equal to 1/5th of a hectare.

3 1US$=appx Rs 40. (Minimum Daily wage = Rs48.)

4 Revenue Land: owned by the Revenue Department of the State

5 Charnot Land: community pasture-land legally belonging to the village Panchayat (councils) – all villagers have rights over it.

6 Forest Land: Owned by the Forest Department. People have limited, defined rights.

7 Revenue Official

8 Together, the SCs and STs form the most disadvantaged sections in the Indian traditional social structure.

Poonam Abbi

This paper discusses the need and conditions for the creation and strengthening of civil society institutions. An attempt is made to look at the context of the rural poor and the constraints that they face in achieving well-being. This will enable us to examine present efforts by various actors to mitigate these constraints. In particular, the role of the civil society will be studied, and the role of establishments such as the state and donors in ­facilitating its empowerment will be explored. The context is that of rural people living in the hilly tracts of the southern Aravali range. These tracts are located in the hinterland of Udaipur city in the north-west Indian state of Rajasthan. Wherever appropriate, Seva Mandir’s experience as an organization with a legacy of 25 years of rural development work in this area will be drawn upon. Mrs. Poonam Abbi is the Coordinator of the People’s Management School, Seva Mandir, India.

Empowering a Civil Society

Introduction

The essay attempts, first, to sketch a profile of the socio-economic context of the rural areas of Udaipur district. Secondly, it briefly traces the evolution of the state vis-à-vis its role in development. A brief perspective is presented on the impact on poverty of recently introduced progressive state policies centred around participatory development. This is explained using Joint Forest Management (a policy attempt to formalize the entitlements of forest dwellers) and Panchayati Raj (the constitutionalization of local self-government). Thirdly, a case for civil society and its role in development is made, and related links are explored. This raises issues related to the empowerment of civil society. It also leads to a discussion of the role of external1 agents like the state and the donor community in the process of its empowerment.

Civil Society: A Definition
Spaces for ordinary citizens to contribute to and take respon­sibility for their development. These spaces could be occupied by formal and/or informal
institutions.

Context

Profile of the People

A description of Talai, a village which typifies the economic, social, and political conditions prevalent in villages of Udaipur district, will be useful in setting the context.

In Talai, the people’s livelihoods are primarily agriculture-based. The agricultural landholding size ranges from around 2 bighas2 to over 10 bighas, individual wasteland size from 2 bighas to over 15 bighas, and livestock size from 4 to 10 animals. 75% of the people in Talai village, practise rain-fed agriculture. Irrigation facilities are limited, as indicated by the small proportion of farmers growing water-intensive crops such as sugarcane and rajka (a fodder crop). Most households cannot meet their annual requirements of food grains from agriculture and therefore need to purchase food grains. However, this dependence on the market varies considerably between households, some being self-sufficient in food for up to 11 months and others for only 6 months. On an average, 25–30% of households have sufficient food for only 5 to 6 months and are heavily dependent on migratory wage-labor as a source of income. They work in Udaipur or in the mining belt of Kelva (in the neighbouring district of Rajsamand) as casual labour, where they earn Rs.50/ – to Rs.150/ –3 per day (depending on their skills), and stay away from the village for at least two weeks in a month. In addition to this segment there are some households that depend to a lesser extent on wage labour to supplement agricultural income. People from this segment tend to go for labour within the village or in neighbouring villages; if they go as far as Udaipur, they do not stay away from the village for very long.

Seva Mandir’s work reveals a high degree of encroachments/privatization of common property resources in Talai. This includes revenue lands4, charnot lands5, and forest lands6. These attempts at privatization have led the people to enter into compromises with the Patwari7 and Forester to get their encroachments recorded and thereby legalized. For this the Patwari takes a bribe of Rs.2000–3000. Even after recording, he may still take bribes of Rs.200–300 from time to time to speed up the official process of “regularizing” an encroachment. If an encroachment is not recorded, besides the uncertainty of getting ownership rights over the property, the encroacher also faces the threat of police action or other harassment from the Patwari, who might have the encroached land allotted to someone else. Dealings with the Forester are “informal arrangements”, as recording is not normally possible on forest lands. This is usually manifested in the payment of a “penalty” – in effect, a bribe, often a share of the produce – for using agricultural land. A penalty is also taken for extracting wood and other produce from forest lands, of which 50% is usually retained by the Forester.

People comply because they are very dependent on the forest; forests are still the main source for meeting individual needs for fuel, fodder, timber, and grazing. However, due to the growth of the population and deforestation, the forests are unable to meet these needs completely. A need for additional sources is apparent, and is mirrored in the stake the village community has in the maintenance of the pasture-land, despite the fact that the grass obtained is not quantitatively significant (it lasts from 15 days to a month for each household, annually). Work on the pasture-land was completed in association with Seva Mandir after the conditions to work on commons were created in the course of a ten-year association with the village.

Migration of people for labour, both through their physical absence and through the influence of related factors, has lowered the social control exercised by Jati Panchayats (the traditional caste-based village institutions). The interests of existing Jati Panchayats are tilted in favour of the powerful. The social capital that they embody does not transfer ­into the maintenance of community assets on which the poor are dependent.

The census statistics for Jhadol block, of which Talai is a part, indicate poor health figures and literacy rates (male literacy rate: 13%, female literacy rate: 2.8% of the population of the block). The recent diagnostic health camps held by Seva Mandir also support these statistics. Health and educational attainments are very low overall, but this is particularly so in the case of women. This is only one manifestation of the general lack of access to resources and institutions for women, both within and outside the community. The lack of access inevitably leads to lower capabilities and automatically shifts the locus of decision-making to the men-folk, who have experienced greater access owing to ­traditional role divisions.

Profile of the State

The presence of the state in the social sector has historically been very prominent in India. The Indian state believed in centrally planned economic development as a catalyst for social justice. However, this did not take root because development resulted in limiting power and resources to the country’s elite. The state in independent India attempted to create some infrastructure, but statistics after 50 years reveal that not much has been achieved in terms of poverty alleviation. In the ­process, a lot of distortions have been created.

The state took custody of natural resources such as forests, streams, rivers, and the produce derived from these resources. Timber and other produce were extracted by the state for revenue purposes. Thus, access to, and use of, these resources by the community became restricted. As a result the villagers lost their sense of ownership of these ­resources. Furthermore, given their dependency on these natural ­resources (owing to the growing population and the declining productivity of their resource base), they were forced to exploit the resources that remained. In the process, they did not accord protection to the resources under state control. Privatization of land on an ad hoc basis became more pronounced because in the given context there was ­value in owning private lands (the commons being degraded and/or under state control). This process is still continuing and is skewed ­because it is highly individualized and competitive. The people who benefit most (by encroaching on more and better land) are those who are more aware, politically astute, and powerful. These beneficiaries have to form alliances with state officials such as the Patwari, and the Forester, based on compromises. Given the constraints of insufficient land and low productivity, the rest of the people need to supplement their income by migrating as casual labour. Their dependency on and stake in employment in government schemes – such as forestry activities and construction of dams and roads – is high. Such dependency on the state for development, and the “exploitation” of resources by the people, is encouraged by the agents of the state. The state agents use the fact that these activities are “illicit”’ to generate power and bribes for themselves.

Such debilitating benefit-sharing arrangements seem very attractive to the people in the short-term. As a consequence, they ignore the damage being done to their common and sustainable interests. The compromising nature of such relationships renders people powerless and they are willing to settle for meagre benefits. Further, the majority of the poor have restricted access to such patrons and are excluded from the benefits of development interventions. Such communities cannot come together and acquire a stake in their development process. The practice of seeking benefits from powerbrokers and powerful patrons rather than their own associations and political formations, has severely undermined the power of the poor as a class to make the system responsive to their needs and to promote their own interests through cooperative action. The people’s faith largely rests in the vertical ties created or reinforced between the “patron” (in this case, the state) and the “client” (in this case, the village communities).

The 1990s saw a number of very significant changes with respect to development and governance. It is puzzling that the state should introduce so many significant changes in policies that affect the poor. One possible reason for these changes is the adverse public reaction against the inefficient functioning of the state and the institutions of local self-government. As there is an increasing tendency for incumbent governments to be voted out of power at election time, political expediency has become an important factor for those in positions of authority and policy-making. Thus the commitment to implement new policies is singularly ambivalent and erratic. The willingness to expand people’s participation and access to resources co-exists with the desire to retain control and authority over people. As a result, the actual outcomes of progressive legislation and policy are contingent on the balance of power between those who want real changes on the one hand, and the state and social structure on the other. Much depends on the institutional capacity of people at the grassroots to take advantage of the new opportunities provided by the changes in policy. Given the understanding that there is a lack of cohesion within the village community, the changes introduced could well result in the state increasing social control over the people; in the name of participation the state collaborates with associations ­beholden to the dominant elements of rural society.

State Institutions

A look at state-initiated policies and institutions and their functioning ­reflects the various dynamics discussed above.

Panchayati Raj Institutions – Local self-government bodies were accorded constitutional protection through the 73rd and 74th amendments to the Indian Constitution. The Constitution requires that elections be held at intervals of 5 years. The amendment has also reserved a third of the elected positions for women, besides requiring affirmative action in favour of Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs)8 in proportion to their population in the community. The amendments require state governments to formulate guidelines for locating a broad range of developmental activities within the ambit of the Panchayats. They also provide financial resources to enable the Panchayats to effectively discharge the functions assigned to them. The key thrust of the new legislation is to strengthen institutions of self-government.

Panchayati Raj institutions are in close proximity to voters. By this fact, these institutions offer the potential of becoming more responsive to the electorate, i.e. the members of the village community. At another level, depending on the nature of the commitment of the state to decentralisation and the nature of land and power relations, additional ­power for the Panchayats could also strengthen state control over the people through institutions of local self-government.

It would seem that neither is the state serious about decentralization, nor does it want Panchayats to be accountable to the people and play a significant and independent role in the formation and implementation of developmental activities. One indicator to this effect is that Panchayats presently provide only “presence without empowerment” of those who are marginalised. Another indicator is the fact that Panchayats are subservient to the state and powerful socio-economic groups.

The socio-economic conditions at the grass-root level also make it difficult for village communities to hold their elected leaders responsible and to take advantage of the opportunities provided through such initiatives.

The Joint Forest Management (JFM) Programme – This is a progressive policy, aiming to recognize the rights of forest dwellers over forests. JFM marks a paradigm shift in management of, and the sharing of benefits from, forest lands. The approach of the Forest Department (FD) was earlier hostile to the interests of local communities and custodial in nature.

JFM guidelines create an incentive for villagers to regenerate defunct village solidarity and rehabilitate highly degraded lands. However, because the rules that allow village communities access are complex and socially demanding in terms of the responsibilities to be shouldered by the community, it is difficult for a JFM movement to develop spontaneously. People at the grass roots will need external support in both technical terms and social terms to prepare the social base for partici­patory forestry. The policy guidelines also mention the role of the NGO community in this programme as one of its salient features. Seva Mandir’s experience reveals that in more than four years of relentless effort the organization has received only four approvals from the forest department indicating the resistance put forth by the FD to the efforts of an NGO, in this case Seva Mandir.

The potential of these initiatives is not realised to the optimum. This is because at one level, rural society is constrained by its socio-economic conditions, and at the other level the state’s recognition of problems is faulty. The state also does not look at conditions that make them meaningful.

Critical Constraints

From the profiles delineated above, some criticalconstraints, which ­impede the development of the poor, can be identified. The following section attempts to classify these critical constraints.

Structural Constraints: Broadly speaking, these constraints include poor and inequitable access to land and natural resources and the low productivity of these resources, leading to livelihood insecurity. These constraints also include the issue of entitlements.

Capability Constraints: This set of constraints is related to the people – the poor status of their capabilities (in terms of nutrition, health, and education) influences their well-being and severely restrains the acquisition and spread of the skills necessary to gain entry into the ­organized sector.

Gender Constraints: Other than women faring poorly on well-being indicators such as health and literacy, gender constraints also result in women being denied access to and control over assets and resources. The emphasis on gender constraints does not, however, deny the ­effect of the nature of role divisions on men.

Social/Institutional Constraints: Attenuation of social capital inhibits people from effectively accessing and actualizing development interventions which would serve their interests on a sustainable basis, and from demanding genuine accountability from village leaders and institutions. Therefore, building of institutional capabilities becomes critical.

Why Civil Society?

Given this scenario, I would argue for space, along with a legitimate role, for civil society in development. Why civil society?

  1. As explained above, the idea of the welfare state, responsible for alleviating poverty, has not been very successful in reality. This, then, leads to the questions “Is it possible for the government to deliver? Are these demands from the state realistic – and to what extent?” Seva Mandir believes that if the state wants to be effective, and if society desires value-based development and sustainability, then the state will need to share control with NGOs and other associations of the people.
  2. For the last 50 years, the state has been the only entity the people could seek support from. Hence they had to compromise and establish relationships convenient to the state and its agents. Civil society will be able to act as an additional window for people to service their development needs. This inherent plurality brings with it decentralization of resources, power and values such as transparency and accountability.
  3. From the point of view of the people it is important that they experience an alternative approach to development. Civil society, with its advantage of continuous relationships with the village community, with the principles that drive it, and with localized efforts, can help people build capabilities to manage their development affairs. Civil society, by its very nature, qualifies for space that allows it the freedom to decide upon a particular value framework. The state lacks the freedom to occupy such spaces and decide upon a framework because of the constraints it operates under. Seva Mandir, as an example of civil society, exemplifies this alternative paradigm of development.

Case of Seva Mandir

Seva Mandir attempts to involve the community in strengthening its livelihood base (through work on individual and community resources), by building capabilities at the village level, and by creating village ­institutions to take responsibility for development.

In about 30–40 villages, in varying degrees, people have slowly built relationships between themselves, both social and economic, around issues meaningful to them. In some villages, issues of land have brought them together. Starting from individual plantation work, to work on pooled private wastelands, a foundation of social cohesion has been laid. Building on this, with time, people have organized around common village lands and watersheds, removed encroachments in these areas, and regenerated the land. This has increased the productivity and returns from their livelihood base and increased agriculture vis-à-vis migration. Grass production, growth of saplings, increased water level in wells, increased production from land and soil depth are some indications of increased productivity. In some villages, there has been diversification of crops due to better irrigation facilities as well as greater moisture retention in the soil. This work has positively affected the reconstitution of social and land relations in the village. By retreating from illegal encroachments on pasture-lands, people have moved out to some extent from compromised vertical relationships with the Patwari. And gender concerns have been addressed by forming women’s groups and initiating economic activities as a tool for empowerment. By setting up transparent, equitable systems for managing these resources, a culture that is extremely important for vibrant village-level institutions has been introduced.

In such villages, we find that leaders who embody knowledge of various developmental activities (associated with Seva Mandir) are more accountable to the communities they serve. This is because the village groups, being strong and united, can demand accountability from them. Further, since such people derive their leadership from work and being sensitive to village needs, the basis of leadership is no longer confined to patron-client ties, but is more work and value based. This leadership thus upholds the social cohesion in the community and does not divide it.

Seva Mandir’s experience also suggests that the association of village people with civil society, (its interventions and style of functioning) also helps them bargain with the state and its allies from a position of relative strength. By experiencing and having faith in alternatives, people make decisions knowing that they have options, which makes for rational decision-making.

In Nayakheda village, people rejected the offer to work with the World Bank and instead sought support from Seva Mandir, even though the remuneration offered by the former was greater. This was because they perceived Seva Mandir to be more accountable and accessible on a continuing basis.

How to Empower Civil Society?

Civil society, as described in this paper, is an entity that is increasingly being recognized as an actor in development. The state and the donor community have mirrored this, by accommodating roles for these institutions in their policy documents.

Civil society formations are characterized by an uncertain resource base – human and financial. This aspect needs to be looked into closely in order to understand how civil society and its role are defined or ­understood.

The state at best looks upon this sector as being cheap and efficient implementers of government programmes. As indicated in the Joint Forest Management programme, NGOs in most programmes are sought as collaborating partners more on paper than on the ground. The donors look upon these institutions as transient entities which will empower the people and withdraw: deliver and disappear. Hence, project-based associations (essentially short-term) are encouraged between donors and civil society institutions. This skirts the issue of institutional investment in the latter.

Institutional investment is critical if this sector is to create space in the society, to attract people to have faith in civil society formations (so as to be able to experiment with ideas and allow them to grow), and to enable them to give long, stable commitments in return for economic security. However, lack of institutional funding along with the paradigm of development that focuses on development as an end treats civil society institutions as transmitters. They, then, do not recognize the contributors to the development process. The people who “do” development remain invisible from an external point of view. The development discourse therefore ignores the civil society institutions that significantly affect the outcomes of development.

Further, the argument which stresses the limited role for civil society formations makes simplistic assumptions about rural life, such as the existence of solidarity which would facilitate group formation, or people’s readiness to take on and manage development interventions. In fact, a more realistic picture would take into account the fragmentation of societies, the internal dynamics, and the limited capacity of the ­rural poor.

Also of significance is the fact that short-term, programmatic, result-oriented funding is being prioritized in the present. This often produces a negative impact. Consequently, concepts such as sustainability, empowerment and participation – which inherently require a long-term perspective – get by-passed or limited to symbolic gestures. This poses a paradox because the current rhetoric emphasises these concepts, yet conditions to operationalise them are either not recognized ad­equately or are not created.

Strategies

Keeping as a backdrop these features which describe the nature of ­civil society, an attempt is made to suggest how the players – viz. the state, the civil society and the donor community – can empower civil society institutions. The need for such institutions was established in the previous section.

Civil society itself has a significant role to play in the process of its own empowerment. If the sector is to grow and stay healthy the challenge is to look inwards and state its own reality. This process will also reveal the shortcomings and constraints of civil society.

The current phenomenon of mushrooming NGOs has led to some changes in the nature of NGO leadership. Earlier, the setting up of an NGO was associated with exceptional individuals; however, in recent years people who are “normal” in our society are starting NGOs and providing leadership. What is particularly impressive is the fact that these people, from ordinary middle class backgrounds, who may not have had opportunities to get a good education, have through experience gained competence and understanding of how to engender participatory development. However, the other side of the coin as regards NGO proliferation is that the practices, norms, and culture associated with the growth of the sector are not wholly consistent with the idea of NGOs being more accountable to the poor, and to society at large. NGO leaders, advocacy networks, international donors, and government ­bureaucrats in search of quick solutions, are prone to overlook the ­negative aspects caused by the rapid expansion of the sector.

The problems caused by this quick proliferation constitute only one set of challenges facing the NGO sector. While identities are never fixed and are constantly changing, and are therefore constantly the source of some tension, this is today the most important set of issues facing the sector. The last couple of decades have seen a lot of changes – within the NGO sector and within the larger context. And in all this, the old definitions of roles/identities are no longer adequate. Importantly, there has been a sea change in the kind of people who now constitute the majority within the sector. Society, however, continues to look at them with perceptions which were more appropriate to the early pioneers of the sector. A lot of the mismatch between expectations and outcomes from this sector (as experienced by the government, donors and the public at large) is largely because of this.

In the context of the larger society it is of critical importance to look at the people involved in taking development to the poor. The outcome-orientation of development makes efficiency the sole criterion to assess who would best deliver the benefits of development. This creates a dichotomy between “professionals” and “non-professionals”. The professionals are a privileged class trained in “elite” educational institutions, aware, and confident of the models and tools of development. The non-professionals constitute workers from the emerging middle class who have no basic grounding in such models or techniques but often have strong fieldwork skills and a continuing presence. Modernization, with its premium on expertise, exacerbates this segmentation and centralizes leadership with the professionals.

The non-professionals come to the sector with a baggage of insecurity and inadequacy endemic to their socio-economic situation, and their entry is more out of necessity than choice. The limited definitions of leadership and efficiency further alienate them and corrode their motivation and sense of self-worth. Much social instability and potential social crisis stems from such frustration or dissatisfaction. This is an issue of primary significance for any institution of civil society. If civil society in its most basic form means “responsible citizenship”, then this citizenship should not be made exclusive. If only “exceptional” and “efficient” people are engaged in development, then the replicability and sustainability of models is also in question. There are not many professionals who gravitate towards this sector, and among those who join, the rate of turnover is high.

Additionally, those who do join this sector usually have to face lower pay-scales when compared to their market rate. They are also faced with the reduced societal status associated with such jobs. Their career goals usually do not include commitment to one organization (especially a grass-root organization) because they aspire to a wider range of experiences and more responsible positions which are accompanied by greater status, remuneration and knowledge. This is of great value as professionals usually derive their identity from their “work”. A sense of purpose/contribution is essential for them to carry on, and efficiency in its basic meaning could be an important ­factor in this.

Seva Mandir takes cognizance of the fact that these tensions pose a long-term challenge. Within our own sphere of work we have tried to integrate these diverse groups of personnel and engender an environment of mutual respect and co-operation. We focus on bridging these gaps through collaborative ties, acknowledging complementarity in skills. To us this is a more inclusive way of engaging in ­develop­mental activity. However, Seva Mandir cannot claim to have succeeded entirely, as deeper changes involving a redefinition of leadership require a long-term horizon. The dilemma is also between ­efficiency vis-à-vis a forum for all citizens – though both of these have value in themselves. The difficult part is to draw a balance to accommodate these two features. The fact that these two sets of people ­derive their motivation from different sources (for non-professionals, social association is an important factor; for professionals, visible and recognizable work output is an important factor) makes it a tough challenge for an organization to have an integrated policy which takes cognizance of these factors. Another issue that is constantly debated in development today is related to “success stories” that the involvement of institutions of Civil Society in development has produced. The need for indicators to access civil society cannot be negated. However, assuming that the larger aim of these formations is to build and reinforce social capital at the village level, what needs rethinking is how to define success stories. This is important in the light of the fact that cohesion is a fragile entity and a lot of external forces would prefer the scale of co-operation to be lower, i.e. would prefer vertical ties of dependency to horizontal ties of solidarity.

The evaluation of success of development interventions is often subjective, and depends on the way indicators are defined. For example, in Talai, in comparison to other villages, development interventions, specifically those related to pasture-land development, are rated as being successful. In most other villages, the village pasture-lands are completely privatized. In Talai, the breakdown of traditional protection systems, the free-rider problem with respect to contributions to the village development fund, and the limited participation of the community in maintenance of boundary walls illustrate the limits of the social cohesion displayed. Consequently, whether Talai represents a “success” or not would depend on the indicators used.

Competition between NGOs, which often results in one NGO piggy-riding on the base created by another NGO, is not uncommonly seen or heard of in our area of work. This is particularly the case given the demand to produce outcomes in time-specific projects. This issue has significant bearing when we talk of establishing systems that ensure the accountability of civil society formations. There also needs to be a consensus on the larger objective towards which NGOs can direct their various agendas and approaches.

As for the state, the need for collaboration with civil society institutions as drafted in its policy documents should be accompanied by real/meaningful creation of opportunities for civil society to contribute and define its agenda and pace. Additionally, for collaboration to be a meaningful exercise, the collaborating partners need to be on “equal” platforms. Civil society is dependent on the state for funding purposes and hence may not be in a position to question it beyond a certain point. This signifies that if the underpinnings of an autonomous civil society do not exist, it will only end up providing some additional welfare rather than becoming a countervailing agent to the state. Therefore there is a case for a civil society with its own resources.

In this discussion we are assuming a certain willingness on the part of the state to share its power. We realize this is a difficult task, but it is possible, if both parties stand to gain. Our premise is that the state, by decentralizing its control, will provide spaces for citizens to contribute. In the long run, empowering the citizens will bring more stability to the state as a political formation, as people will realise the benefits of such empowerment.

The role of funding organizations in the process of development and change is critical. Since these agencies channel the much-needed ­resources into this sector, they are strategically positioned to effect changes and set new agendas. Often these agendas are not reflective of the complex ground-level realities. Thus programmes typically focus on bringing about gender equity within 5 years. Such an approach takes no account of the context, of the width and depth of the problem, of the attitudinal changes involved and the time horizon these changes demand. Further, the funding practices and dealings with NGOs and other people’s organisations ignore the need for sustained institutional funding. In this nature of funding (project-based and short-term), the commitment to a particular activity will wane when the funding preferences change. These preferences change independently of local needs and considerations. This establishes a need for comprehensive funding for civil society institutions.

The conditions at the grass-root level indicate thatpeople’s faith largely rests in the vertical, patronage ties which pay dividends, however insignificant. Civil society, in its attempt to alleviate poverty, needs to shift this value base of the village community, to help it take “risks”. This means investment of human resources, time and finances, within their ­areas of engagement.

Comprehensive, long-term, process-oriented funding which “invests” in the people can be a very enabling factor. Seva Mandir has certainly found this to be the case – comprehensive funding has allowed the organization:

  • to strike mutually beneficial relationships with village communities and to ensure adequate investment in building capacity to manage its interventions
  • to make long-term commitments to the people. This is not the case with typical project funds. Such long-term investments also allow the organization to give security to its personnel, which is a significant ­motivating factor for them to stay and perform
  • to be more flexible and responsive to changes at the field level by taking newer initiatives

With a sense of security, there is a danger that people in civil society institutions will become complacent and that the institutions will adopt the ­patronage approach, becoming the new “patrons”. Thus, civil society institutions, like other formations, are not the best custodians of poor people’s welfare. However, by creating strong village-level institutions, checks and balances to counteract such tendencies can be engendered.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the poor are not in a position to question their leaders, representatives or the state. The state, too, is not willing to let go of its patronage approach to development and is unwilling to devolve power, despite affirmative policies that are created (but rarely put into practice). There is, therefore, a need to look at an alternative development paradigm in which civil society plays a critical role. Civil society, too, has problems which it needs to resolve within itself. However, it is, at this point in time, dependent on donors and the state for its very survival.

A long-term support strategy which provides these civil society institutions with uncontested space and a fair chance to change conditions on the ground needs to be put in place.

 

1 This paper has been prepared by Poonam Abbi. It draws heavily upon the experiences of, and documentation at, Seva Mandir. The author gratefully acknowledges contributions made by Mr. Ajay Mehta, Ms. Neelima Khetan, Ms. Anuradha Vishwanath, Ms. Shruti Chopra and colleagues and friends.

2 Bigha is a traditional measure of land area and is equal to 1/5th of a hectare.

3 1US$=appx Rs 40. (Minimum Daily wage = Rs48.)

4 Revenue Land: owned by the Revenue Department of the State

5 Charnot Land: community pasture-land legally belonging to the village Panchayat (councils) – all villagers have rights over it.

6 Forest Land: Owned by the Forest Department. People have limited, defined rights.

7 Revenue Official

8 Together, the SCs and STs form the most disadvantaged sections in the Indian traditional social structure.