An innovative space for a meeting between civil society and government, CAPART will need firm resolve and purposeful action by the Rural Development Ministry to bring it back from the brink.

The Council for Advancement of People's Action and Rural Technology (CAPART) is perhaps a unique example of an institutional meeting space for government and civil society. The Union Minister for Rural Development is the Chairperson of CAPART, which is registered as an autonomous Society. It has eminent and distinguished people from civil society on its General Body (GB) and Executive Committee (EC). Compared to the parent Ministry, the CAPART budget is minuscule. However, the raison d'etre of CAPART is to facilitate and support voluntary action so that people-led models of excellence can be created in backward and remote villages which would, in turn, show the way forward for all social sector initiatives of the government. CAPART was also visualised as an autonomous space for the voluntary sector, which would foster and encourage grass-roots action even if this sometimes went against the grain of the local vested interests. What makes CAPART unique is that its funds belong to the people and can be used well for the empowerment of the poorest in the country.

In all fairness to the Council, in its life of three decades, it has contributed to some very good and innovative grass-roots work done in India. A feature of this work has been its regional spread and its encouragement of small voluntary organisations. For many of them, CAPART's support in their formative years was a critical factor. It has also been the first and perhaps only funding agency to have attempted institutional reform by inviting independent experts and civil society luminaries to be part of its National Standing Committees (NSCs), empowered to sanction and review CAPART support to voluntary organisations. Being associated with the government, it is periodically reviewed by Parliament, the highest decision-making body in the country. How many funding agencies in the voluntary sector can claim similar scrutiny?

Despite all this, the institution has shown a remarkable commitment to keep its self-destruct button firmly pressed. In its 30-odd years, it has been dogged by controversies over corruption, lack of accountability, lack of understanding of voluntary action and its context, and an inability to move fast enough to innovate. Indeed, the best in the voluntary sector sooner rather than later began to see it as something they would like to keep a safe distance from. And CAPART began to reflect some of the most serious accountability issues facing the voluntary sector.

While CAPART has tried to learn from experience, the process has been sluggish and partial and the will to give expression to the lessons on the ground, indifferent at best. One such attempt to learn (and the most significant to date) was the drive to reinvent itself launched last year. This was fresh on the heels of the United Progressive Alliance winning the Parliament elections on the “Bharat” plank, and the sinking in of the realisation in government that civil society action could be potentially helpful in re-connecting with the people. The drive was launched by reconstituting the EC and the GB, and inviting some of the best in the voluntary sector to participate in giving direction to both bodies. At the first meeting of this reconstituted EC and GB, the Chairperson strongly signalled his intention of overhauling CAPART and clearing the way for it to be led by the voluntary sector itself, creating a powerful groundswell of support in the sector. To back his intentions with action, he announced the setting up of four sub-groups of the EC led by the Member, Planning Commission, in-charge of Rural Development. These sub-groups were to look at new and innovative ways of CAPART facilitation in the areas of capacity building, social mobilisation and people's institutions (with a focus on the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, the Right to Food, the Forest Rights Act and the Right to Information). They were to devise innovative programmes for promoting nature based livelihoods and appropriate technology, micro-credit, rural industrialisation and marketing, and suggest measures for the structural reform of CAPART.

After several rounds of intense deliberations, the sub-groups submitted their reports, which reflected the vast experience and rich insight of the EC members. New and detailed programmes for voluntary action were worked out for each of the flagship areas. Perhaps the most crucial recommendations came from the sub-group on structural reforms. The sub-groups took serious note of the high turnover at the top with 24 Directors-General appointed in the space of 25 years at last count. This clearly meant that the top post (reserved for an IAS officer, normally in the rank of Additional Secretary to the Government of India) was not one where selections were made on the principle of best fit for the post, but was a waiting ground for senior bureaucrats before they got better postings.

Among the most radical of the group's recommendations, and perhaps one which has ruffled the maximum feathers, was opening up the top post and institutionalising a search-and-screen process to get the best people available in the country to head CAPART. These people could be sitting officers of the government or people from outside with an impeccable track record of public service, in-sourced by CAPART. In order to infuse the functioning of CAPART with greater quality, the group similarly recommended that programme heads be in-sourced after a due search-and-screen process. The sub-group worked out a detailed blueprint for fostering voluntary sector participation through a consortium model, which would bring in a healthy culture of mutual accountability, peer review and partnership with CAPART based on mutual respect and trust. To ensure proper performance of staff and to disincentivise non-performance, the sub-group went on to suggest performance-based evaluation of personnel. The group took note of the tendency of foot-dragging when it came to swift action on vigilance issues and suggested a tighter control of the EC over the vigilance and monitoring functions.

Alas, however, all this labour of love met with stiff resistance within CAPART from those who predictably saw this as an invasion of their turf. The first meeting of the EC, after the reports were submitted, did not see any discussion on the reports. At the subsequent meeting three months after, the reports were relegated to the last five minutes or so with the “insiders” winning the day when the Chairperson announced that the reports of the sub-groups should be referred to a third-party external review. EC members from the voluntary sector then wrote to the Chairperson, pointing out that the decision was an attempt at subversion of his own clear vision spelt out at the first meeting of the new EC. They also said that since CAPART had put on hold its programmes until after the review by EC was over, it would be in the best interests of the organisation to start action on the schemes even as external review was being carried out. As a result, another meeting of the EC was convened in August this year and it was decided that detailed programme guidelines would be drawn up on the themes for action based on the recommendations of the sub-groups. Simultaneously, NSCs would be constituted for each of the thematic areas and a process of dialogue with the voluntary sector to seed these new ideas would be kicked off.

However, this is still to be implemented. In sum, the entire effort initiated last year, heralding a new era of a different kind of “public-private partnership,” has somehow morphed into a process which has brought the institution to a complete standstill. It has also clearly pointed to the roadblocks to reform of governance, without which inclusive development will remain an empty slogan. For if change in an organisation with such a small budget and scope is so obdurately resisted by a fiercely recalcitrant executive leadership, what hope can there be of larger governance reforms for the poorest in the country? It is clear that the Chairperson needs to step in with a clear resolve to reclaim his own vision for CAPART so that the institution is brought back from the brink.

(The author is member of the Executive Committee, CAPART.)

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