The funding for and motivations of NGOs have often been a bone of contention between the government and civil society. So it is a positive move that the Supreme Court (SC) has stepped in and decided to review laws governing NGOs with the aim of looking into the adequacy of the regulatory mechanism to prevent financial irregularities and ensuring that funds are used for the stated goals. This has taken place after it was ascertained that there were about 2.9 million NGOs functioning across the country. Assam and Haryana have a 100,000 NGOs each. There is no doubt that there are many fly-by-night NGOs that serve no public purpose. But any registered NGO has to comply with the law when it comes to being transparent with its balance sheets. In Haryana, it now transpires, only 8% of NGOs have disclosed their financial affairs and in the country as a whole the figure is a dismal 10%.
The regulatory mechanism should serve to separate the wheat from the chaff. Hopefully, this will also lead to more synergy between the government and NGOs for the latter serves a useful complementary role to the former. NGOs often come up with innovative solutions to social issues and can help in areas where the government’s resources are stretched. However, past experience has shown that the government is often unnecessarily adversarial when it comes to NGOs by taking criticism badly. Civil society and NGOs have every right to be critical, as do all citizens, when government schemes do not work or there is suspicion of apathy or fraud. This should be taken in the right spirit.
With a legal framework, many of the grey areas surrounding NGOs and their funding should be removed, enabling them to play a positive role. Many NGOs like the one run by Kailash Satyarthi have highlighted and fought social evils like child labour as also many who work in the field of women, health, environment and legal rights to mention a just a few. Their work can help the government frame more equitable policies and learn from best practices employed by them. That the court has stepped in could mean a more constructive phase in the NGO chapter in India.