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India’s NGO sector vying for urgent attention: Action Agenda for NITI Aayog

The success of initiatives like Swachha Bharat Abhiyaan or GiveItUp LPG subsidy campaign was secured through mindset and behavioural change in people. No amount of government expenditure can alone achieve that without the help and support of grassroots community organizations.

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Ravi Pokharnahttp://www.rmponweb.org/
Ravi Pokharna is the Executive Head (Admin & Projects), Rambhau Mhalgi Prabodhini & Deputy Dean, Indian Institute of Democratic Leadership. He can be reached at ravip@rmponweb.org

There is no denying the fact that the doctors, medical staff, police, CISF personnel, armed forces, energy sector, oil and gas industry professionals and sanitation workers are the ones fighting at the frontline in the battle of Covid19 and are rightly acknowledged as being the ‘Corona Warriors’. At the same time, one must also acknowledge and applaud the role played by the civil society organisations, philanthropists and individual volunteers who worked round the clock and hand-in-hand with local governments, feeding crores of people and ensuring they don’t starve during the lockdown. As the social sector now gears itself up to play its role in the Atmanirbhar Bharat, it seeks urgent intervention of the government on some of its pressing challenges.  

I have already highlighted how problems of funding are now being rightly identified and acted upon by the government in one of my earlier articles. Also, some important work in this direction is already visible. A SEBI committee, which was entrusted to give a structure to the Finance Minister Smt Nirmala Sitharaman’s vision on Social Sector Exchange (SSE), has already released the first draft of its report with elaborate recommendations. But the government’s well thought out and elaborately planned SSE initiative may also turn out to be inadequate or ineffective if few fundamental and urgent social sector issues are not addressed on priority. 

The following four issues along with suggestions can be considered by NITI Ayog to revitalize India’s NGOs Sector:

The Central Government and the NITI Aayog through the Darpan Portal are dealing with and have details of only 3% of the total NGOs present in the country

The first ever exercise conducted by CBI, at the behest of the Supreme Court of India, to assess and compile the number of NGOs working in the country, startled everyone when it came out that the number of NGOs present in the country are 31 Lac. Almost double the number of schools we have. Since the thought of counting the NGOs came in 2015 only, it is obvious and understood that the thought of formalization of the NGO sector never occurred to our lawmakers all these years.

In November 2016, the first step of formalization was taken by the Narendra Modi government by appealing to NGOs to register them on the Darpan portal hosted by NITI Aayog. Darpan registration was made mandatory for NGOs willing to get funds or projects from the government. A year later, the Home Ministry also issued a notification and made Darpan registration mandatory for NGOs willing to receive foreign funding under FCRA. 

While the government may have achieved its objective of a) ending funding duplication and b) tracking organizations receiving foreign funds; a wider objective of formalization was missed. The DARPAN-registration communication by NITI appealed to only those NGOs which wanted government funding.

A number of large grassroots NGOs which were not dependent on government or foreign funding didn’t apply. Many large and well-known NGOs with decades of experience may not be found on the Darpan list for the same reason. Today, four years after the Darpan portal was launched, it has less than 3% of the country’s total NGOs registered on it. In the last 42 months, only 10,000 new NGOs have been added. * 

The SEBI’s sector stock exchange report relies on the presence of ‘Information Repository(ies)’ of NGOs and it cites Darpan as one. A portal with 3% representation would never be able to become a credible base for a successful exchange. 

NITI Aayog (with the help of Ministry of Planning and Statistics) should re-undertake the exercise of collating the NGO numbers by reaching out to the registrar of societies, Trusts and MCA (for Section 8 company records). A campaign focused on this new database should then be launched to register NGOs in Darpan. There is an urgent need to make this Darpan list more inclusive by launching a fresh campaign appealing to NGOs to register while at the same time providing them with the requisite technical handholding and support. 

Financial Inclusion and Capacity Building

No doubt that the Jan Dhan- Aadhar- Mobile i.e. JAM trinity was an immensely successful scheme of the central government. But opening a bank account is only the first step towards financial inclusion. NGOs are often asked to produce the last three years of balance sheet and other documents like annual reports while applying for any project or funding. Due to the lack of proper documentation, not only NGOs fail to get project funding but many times they fail to comply with even the minimum legal and statutory requirements, inadvertently even ending up at the wrong side of the law, at times.

As per the 2015 CBI data, less than 10% of NGOs comply with the mandatory account filing with the Registrar of Societies (RoS) detailing their receipt and spending of funds. 

There is an urgent need to sensitize the NGOs about the importance of documentation, record-keeping and filing of accounts. It would not be possible without a concerted effort towards their capacity building in this space. 

Sensitizing NGOs towards their Localised SDG Goals

After the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) succeeded Millenium Development Goals (MDGs) as the new universal goals in 2015, they were readily adopted by the countries across the globe. These SDGs comprising 17 goals and 169 targets include and integrate economic, social as well as environmental dimensions. 

Out of this, for India, NITI Aayog has identified 16 priority Goals and has mapped them with 63 indicators. While the NITI takes it upon itself to work with the state governments for the localization of goals and to monitor its progress, in case of NGOs it has been left to them to adopt and contribute towards achieving these goals. 

If the NGO data available on Darpan portal is mapped SDG-wise & District-wise followed by a campaign sensitizing them towards their district-level SDG goals & indicators, then only we will be able to give NGOs their due as development partners. It will go a long way in aligning NGO efforts towards the national priorities.

Each country is expected to present its progress report in attaining SDGs annually at the United Nations during the High-Level Political Forum. NITI which does this for the country often doesn’t have collated contribution of NGOs to be able to cite it during HLPF. And hence such a large and thriving sector’s contribution is often left unmentioned. 

Convergence for Atmanirbhar Bharat

Once the NGOs are registered on Darpan, duly trained on documentation, basic accounting and about meeting statutory requirements, sensitized about their district-level SDG goals, they would be ready to work closely with the existing development partners. Several agencies like NABARD, Kisan Vigyan Kendra, Khadi and Village Industry Commission have district level officers who have a mandate to engage with NGOs and partner them in implementing government schemes.

If NITI’s Darpan could provide these officers, a district-level interface wherein they could search NGOs based on their field of work, it will be easier for them to engage them regularly and more closely. While NABARD and KVKs would want to engage with agriculture-based organizations, KVIC would look for NGOs working towards employment generation and entrepreneurship. A number of such government agencies could then structurally engage with the NGOs at the district level.

It would, of course, need developing Darpan further as a technologically robust and secure platform with the user-friendly interface but if that’s done it could pave way for integrating the sector truly as a development partner not just in words and speeches but on the ground, in action.

The success of initiatives like Swachha Bharat Abhiyaan or GiveItUp LPG subsidy campaign was secured through mindset and behavioural change in people. No amount of government expenditure can alone achieve that without the help and support of grassroots community organizations. NGOs have already readied themselves to spread the message of Vocal for Local to realize the dream of Atmanirbhar Bharat. By implementing the above suggestions, NITI could well unleash the first set of long-pending reforms to overhaul the sector. 

*As shared by the Union Minister of State for Planning Shri Rao Inderjit Singh in a written reply to Lok Sabha, as on November 24 2016, a total of 81,353 NGOs had registered on the DARPAN portal. As of today (June 26,2020 12.19 AM) the number of NGOs on the Darpan portal is 93927. 

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Ravi Pokharnahttp://www.rmponweb.org/
Ravi Pokharna is the Executive Head (Admin & Projects), Rambhau Mhalgi Prabodhini & Deputy Dean, Indian Institute of Democratic Leadership. He can be reached at ravip@rmponweb.org

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