Why the civil society must shun grand ambition, think small

Whatever happened to the mighty civil society? A year-and-a-half ago, at the height of the anti-corruption movement, it provided us the rare glimpse of the power of the ordinary people. The powerful political class was running for cover, dodging the insults hurled at them from every public platform. There was hope in the air. It seemed the common man, always the bystander in the democratic process, could change his own destiny if it got organised. It was unreal, but immensely satisfying.

Many months down the line, the civil society movement is in ruins. The reasons are many but the end result is saddening. It gave the 'insignificant' India a sense of power and the leaders of the movement could have built on the collective popular frustration with the establishment to create something meaningful for the democracy. Imagine the public esteem Anna Hazare and Arvind Kejriwal would be enjoying at this stage had they been wee bit flexible in their approach to the Lokpal Bill! Matters look worse now that the rift between both is widening. There is little chance that the civil society movement will regain the old vigour.

Social activist Anna Hazare. PTI

But let’s not dwell in the past. The fact is, the civil society in its many avatars is still relevant to the country. There are several disconnects between the many Indias and the civil society can play an effective role in bridging the gap. To be effective, they need not go into mass movements of the Lokpal agitation kind, they can play a catalytic role in changing lives in much more smaller and subtler ways. Many NGOs are already doing that, some with the government’s active support and some without it.

In the malnutrition-hit areas of Maharashtra, the government has adopted the model of barefoot doctors (health volunteers) popularised by the doctor couple Abhay and Rani Bang through their NGO. Ela Bhatt’s organisation has been changing lives of thousands of women by making them self-reliant. Anna Hazare has changed lives in many villages in the state through his innovative watershed projects and Aruna Roy and her one-time associate Kejriwal were instrumental in giving the game-changing Right to Information Act the decisive push forward. None of this involved high decibel campaigns and unnecessary confrontation.

India at present is a country with many disconnects between the system and the people it is supposed to serve. There are multiple breakdowns bottlenecks in the delivery mechanism in all sectors, be it education, agriculture and health sectors. The process of economic liberalisation has created several layers of distrust between the government and people in different forms. The bureaucracy has proved to be ill-equipped to dealing with the challenges. As the growing people’s movements across the country reveal, the channels of dialogue between the government and the people have collapsed. These could only be repaired by a neutral agency. The civil society with its grassroots reach fits in here.

Imagine the lack of confidence of the ordinary citizen while approaching the police or his apprehension of the legal system or his fears while dealing with an official or authority of any kind. What does he do when the police refuse to accept his complaint against someone more influential than him? What does he do when the authorities at the school refuse to heed his demand for better education for his kids? What does he do when the builder of the apartment he proposes to buy delays the project indefinitely? What does he do when his complaint about potholes on the roads go unheard? He has the option to go to the court. But how easy is that process?

Life would be much simpler for him if someone with sufficient knowledge in a particular field took up the case. The civil society could be useful here. They are already present in several fields but their activities need to be more citizen-centric. Encouragement from the government for reach out operations will help. Of course, NGOs cannot be blemishless but regulations may come in later. They could be used to spread health and other messages.

There are limitless ways the civil society can make itself useful to the society. That is the reason it should not be allowed to lose relevance.