A study reveals challenges faced by the Indian voluntary sector and tries to clear common misconceptions

To reinstate the identity of the voluntary sector in the wake of the changing scenario in India, and as an attempt at portraying and highlighting the developmental activities it has been engaged in, Voluntary Action Network India (Vani), an apex body of voluntary organisations in India, and Action Aid India brought out the study report 'Status of the Voluntary Sector in India’ this year.

The 90-page report covers several aspects of the voluntary sector for better understanding of its history and context, voluntary organisations (VOs) as seen in the last 20 years, defining VOs, identity and issues of representation. The team succeeded in evolving a strategy to show the sector’s contribution using three lenses — research and advocacy, service delivery and rights and entitlements. The report covers the challenges of voluntary sector and their effect on its work. Contribution of the voluntary sector to the nation through several sectors (water and sanitation, health and nutrition, education, environment, empowerment and livelihood) has been integrated into the report by picking up several case studies and examples.

The growth of non-governmental organisations in India has been phenomenal. However, the same growth reportedly has led to inadequate understanding about the nature, scope and functioning of the sector. The crux of the problem arose from the use of multiple names such as Non-Government Organisation (NGO), Non-Profit Organisation, Voluntary Organisation (VO), Third Sector, Non-State Actors, Civil Society Organisation and others. These names are being interchangeably used leading to the confusion in the minds of common people.

The problem is further compounded by other players in the sector in the form of individuals --volunteers, activists, professionals, catalysts, and social workers. In general, both (organisations and individuals) are seen as trouble makers, impediment to growth, as saviours, supporters of human rights and facilitators for organising communities to raise voices against the government for entitlements. Confusion also continues to prevail regarding the role of voluntary sector and civil society at large. As a combined effect, the image of the voluntary sector is reported to be turning negative.

The number of VOs in India keeps moving forward virtually every day, new organisations get registered all over the country. According to the Union Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation, there were 3.1 million societies registered under multiple Acts of the government in 2008. However, according to another study jointly undertaken by Participatory Research in Asia (Pria) and John Hopkins University (2005), there were 1.2 million voluntary organisations in India. The current study noted that the wide gap between these two figures was due to different ways of calculations as the government considered the big private institutions, rich trusts and religious bodies as NGOs/NPOs/VOs, while Pria-JHU considered the voluntary organisations working genuinely for not-for-profit purposes, including the non-registered grassroots level organisations.

Defining ‘voluntary organisation’ seemed to have posed a major challenge to the study team. In view of many definitions floating in development parlour, the team interestingly embarked by listing “what voluntary organisations are not”. Three features emerged: VOs are not for profit; not stemmed from the big business houses to fulfil corporate social responsibility; do not have any political agenda even though they fight for rights of people. Once it was made clear on what VOs are not, then the question crops up - what are they? Pria defined a Not for Profit Organisation (NPO) as an entity that should meet with five criteria simultaneously: it has an institutional identity; it is separate from the government; it is not-profit distributing; it is self-governing; and it has been set up voluntarily.

Like any sector, voluntary sector also suffers from many challenges. The government is said to be coming out constantly with new instruments that are proving detrimental to the growth of voluntary work in the country. The study also highlighted the contradicting nature between the previous policies stipulated in the past (2007) which was primarily aimed to work closely with the voluntary sector and the recent instruments (for example, Foreign Contribution Regulation Act , 2010 and Direct Taxes Code Bill, 2010) introduced are not compatible in spirit of working together and collaboratively.

Seven recommendations have emerged from the study and need to be followed up effectively to maintain the momentum. One of the recommendations has been to expand this pilot study and develop a more in-depth research programme.

(The writer has been working for the development sector for more than three decades)

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