Special Articles / Shankar Pathak / Social Work and Social Welfare
There has been considerable discussion in recent years regarding the role of voluntary organizations in social welfare in India. An indication of the rethinking that is going on in the field is a recent spurt in the publication of articles in the popular press and the discussion following these publications. The debate seems to centre around the roles of voluntary organizations in the changing social context, and the national goal of the welfare state. There is also a feeling of dissatisfaction about the role played by voluntary organizations since Independence. Disappointment is expressed that inspite of considerable financial support by the government, the performance of voluntary organizations in social welfare has been far from satisfactory.
Before proceeding to discuss the new roles of voluntary organisations in social welfare, it is appropriate to define a voluntary organization. A voluntary organisation is an association of people organized to meet the needs of a section or the whole of that community. In other words, the voluntary organizations originate in the spontaneous, altruistic, humanitarian feelings of a few leaders in the community, who are concerned for the welfare of the disadvantaged among their fellow human beings. A corollary to this definition is the support extended to the voluntary organizations by the local community. The financial resources that are necessary for the existence of voluntary organizations and for the services rendered by them are to be collected from within the local community. The reference to the local community need not exclude large-scale state or national level organizations. Such large-scale organizations may result through a process of federation or affiliation of a number of local level voluntary organizations working in a particular area of welfare. It is also possible that a national or state level voluntary organization may be first established with a clear intention to work for the welfare of a certain group of people, and this may be followed by the opening of branches or local units of these large-scale organizations in different parts of the country.
The voluntary organizations as defined above needs to be distinguished from the non-official organizations. As the Study Team Report has rightly pointed out, a voluntary organization is spontaneous in its origin, while a non-official organization is sponsored by the government.1 A sponsored non-official organization may not have roots in a local community as a voluntary organization would. As a result, the non-official organization may fail to arouse popular support. In other words, the non-official organization is an instance of induced voluntarism by the state which may or may not secure popular support.
Historically, the origin of voluntary organizations in India may be traced to the period when the Indian society started to undergo certain significant changes coincident with the establishment of the rule of the East India Company towards the end of the 18th century. In a feudal society where primary group ties are very strong, such groups predominate in the life of the people. The family, the kinship group, the caste and the village community have been powerful and familiar primary groups in the Indian society. In the past they have generally performed the functions which we now define as social welfare functions. Following the establishment of the East India Company rule, certain changes took place in the political and economic life of the country.
Broadly speaking, there were three major factors which led to a gradual process of change from a feudal-agrarian to an agricultural-commercial society. These include the colonial rule with its concomitant consequences, the introduction of western education first by the missionaries and later by the Company government, and the introduction of the railways leading to commercialization of the economy. Once the society starts changing from traditional to modern, the primary groups tend to lose their earlier strength and functions. This leads to the emergence of secondary groups and associations in the society. We notice the commencement of such a process around the beginning of the 19th century, when the Christian missionaries began to establish institutions for the care of the sick and the disabled, and schools for providing education to the local population. Following the missionary activity which gradually spread from Bengal to south, the west and the north, indigenous organizations came into existence to meet the needs of widows, destitutes and orphans. The earliest indigenous voluntary organizations in social welfare were the various associations set up for the cause of widow remarriage, and the homes for the widows during the latter parts of the 19th century. With the advent of limited industrialization in some parts of the country, like the presidencies of Bengal, Madras and Bombay, voluntary organizations came into existence to meet the needs of the beggars, vagrant children, physically and mentally handicapped etc. The origin of these newer types of voluntary organizations can be traced to the concern for the welfare of a family member, like a handicapped or retarded child or for the handicapped who made a visible impact on sensitive and socially conscious individuals in the larger cities like Bombay and Calcutta. It was thus that the first hospital for the physically handicapped and the first school for the mentally retarded were established in Bombay; a personal or domestic misfortune resulted in a generalized, universal concern for the welfare of people suffering from similar misfortune.
Voluntary organizations have played a major role in the field of social welfare and especially for the welfare of women and, the physically and mentally handicapped. During the colonial rule, following the then prevalent political philosophy of laissez faire, the state took little interest in providing services for the handicapped and needy people in India. The task was left entirely to the voluntary organizations who did a commendable job in this respect. The origin and growth of voluntary organizations, however, were sporadic and uneven. Some cities like Calcutta, Madras and Bombay had a good number of them catering to several handicapped groups. In the smaller cities and towns, and especially in the interior rural areas, there were very few or no voluntary organizations. This uneven spread was noted by several official bodies appointed by the government. The Study Team Report made a reference to it and a report of the Planning Commission has reiterated it.2
The establishment of the Central Social Welfare Board in 1953 was an attempt by the state to promote, sustain and strengthen voluntarism in social welfare through grant-in-aid measures. It was aimed to enable the voluntary organizations already in existence to continue to serve the needy groups, and to increase their coverage as well as improve the quality of their service. The performance of the Central Social Welfare Board during the past quarter of a century does not seem to be in keeping with these objectives and expectations. There have been frequent references to the tendency on the part of the voluntary organizations to depend on the government for financial support and their failure to widen their constituency for mobilizing both financial and other resources from within the community.
Another trend noted in a recent study is the increasing emergence of a group of volunteers with no interest in and no experience of work at the grassroots level, and who specialize in establishing or managing large-scale voluntary organizations.3 This group of volunteers prefer to work at state or national level policy formulation in the field of social welfare. Their only involvement in direct level work is in fund-raising campaigns for voluntary organizations.
A sense of disappointment is expressed in both official and non-official circles over the weakening, if not extinction of the spirit of voluntarism in social welfare. Also, new voluntary organizations of the type which were established by great national leaders like Gokhale, Lajpat Rai, Vivekananda and Gandhi are no longer coming into existence. Even the recruitment of dedicated full-time direct level volunteers to the existing organizations seems to be declining. Serious thought is being given by all concerned in the government and outside as to what can be done to rekindle and revive the earlier volunteer spirit of spontaneous, dedicated, direct service to the people.
The tendency on the part of the voluntary organizations since independence to depend on government support is sometimes attributed to the disappearance of the earlier group of rich, philanthropic donors as a result of the socialistic, egalitarian policies of the government since Independence. In fact, it has been argued that because of these policies it became necessary for the government to establish the Central Social Welfare Board to provide financial support to voluntary organizations in social welfare.4 This is one of the most enduring myths, continuing even today. Considerable evidence has been marshaled in recent years by economists and other social scientists to prove that on the contrary the entire programme of development so far has contributed to making the rich more rich and to further impoverish the poor sections of the society. So, the argument that the voluntary organizations cannot raise financial resources from within the communities, because of the disappearance of the rich philanthropic donor group is untenable. Like many other myths, it is resurrected from time to time by the apologists of voluntary organizations to serve their own ends.
Another fostered myth is the human touch which is said to be an inherent positive feature of voluntary organizations as compared to the bureaucratic, impersonal, governmental institutions and departments. There might have been a grain of truth in this when these organizations were the result of spontaneous, humanitarian motives and catered to a manageable small local community, raising the entire material and human resources from within the community.
What the myth-makers overlook is the fact that the personal element in human relations is essentially a characteristic of primary groups in society, which can persist only in secondary groups of small size. Bureaucracy is a feature of large-scale organizations, irrespective of whether they are governmental or voluntary, though its intensity and rigidity may vary among these two types. Paul Chaudhry in his study has noted this as an emerging trend in some voluntary organizations in India.5
There has been considerable discussion in the field of social welfare concerning the traditional roles performed by the voluntary organizations and the need for new roles in the context of the national goal of the welfare state and social development. In all these discussions, there is an underlying concern for a clear demarcation of the roles of the state and voluntary sector respectively. Also, there is an assumption, not always explicit, that the roles of state and voluntary organizations should be so worked out as to avoid any duplication or conflict between the two. In deciding upon the roles the voluntary organizations are expected to play, the merits of the voluntary organizations as well as their weaknesses should be taken into consideration. Among the frequently mentioned merits of the voluntary organizations in social welfare are the pioneering role, the human touch in providing services to the people, flexibility in decision-making, community representative character, and experimentation. On the other hand, the state is said to be more suited to perform the functions which flow out of statutory provisions for social welfare services, for the provision of services for a large population covering a very wide territory, the definition of minimum standards for social welfare and their enforcement by procedures of licensing, and strengthening of voluntary organizations through financial support by means of grant-in-aid.6 The conducting of research on social problems as an appropriate function for voluntary organizations is mentioned in a recent article.7
The general principles behind the attempts to demarcate the roles of state and voluntary organizations in social welfare are based on the idea of partnership between them. This partnership was advocated, and continues to be advocated, on the basis of a conviction that the voluntary organizations have played a major role in the past in pioneering and providing social welfare services, and they reflect the society's noble concern for the fellow human beings which should be encouraged. On a practical level, it is recognized that the state is unable to assume complete responsibility in the foreseeable future for a comprehensive provision of welfare programmes covering the entire population in need, and the contribution of voluntary organizations in supplementing the efforts of the state is welcomed. The idea of partnership implies a complementary role for the voluntary organizations in relation to the role of the state.
It is interesting to recall that towards the middle of the 19th century, the colonial government explained their decision not to assume complete administrative and financial responsibility for the provision of educational facilities for the native population on the ground that the role of the state in this respect is to pioneer and demonstrate; and that once this was done it was for the people themselves to assume increasingly the responsibility for providing for educational services.8 The state at best accepted the role of supporting voluntary endeavour through limited financial support by grant-in-aid. The limited role of the state in the field of social welfare and its policy of providing financial aid through grant-in-aid continues even now, but the arguments for such a policy are quite different from those that were put forth by the East India Company government. This may be a reflection of the changing times or an attempt to clothe actions based on expediency in arguments which sound rational and appealing. These comments should also highlight the fact that the pioneering role is not exclusive to voluntary organizations and need not be reserved for this sector. While in the past the colonial government argued that it is the role of the state to pioneer and demonstrate, after Independence both the government and voluntary organizations argue that the latter are more suited for it.
A review of the roles performed by the voluntary organizations indicate a variety: They act
A recent study of voluntary organizations in U.K. mentions that the voluntary organizations there have identified their roles as supplements, substitutes and complements to governmental effort.9 By and large they seem to have concentrated on the last mentioned role. The Indian experience during the past twenty five years shows that the voluntary organizations here also seem to be performing mostly a complementary role to state effort. This was the role that was envisaged by the planners, when they stated that the voluntary organizations and the state were partners in social welfare. It was also the role that the leaders of the voluntary organizations had defined and advocated for themselves. A serious problem faced by the voluntary organizations in the west, in defining their role in the context of a welfare state arose out of the declared intention of the governments to work towards the ushering in of welfare state, and a gradual translation of this intent into a comprehensive programme of social welfare, to take care of the citizen from the cradle to the grave. This almost ruled out any significant role for the voluntary organizations except to provide complementary services. Occasionally, a supplementary role was also envisaged, whereby the voluntary organizations strengthened the service provided by the government e.g. sending Big Brother volunteers to children's institutions.
In the U.K., which was the first country to accept the goal of the welfare. state and which has implemented it to a great extent following the assumption of office by the Labour Party in 1945, there is some rethinking on this point. Among those who have expressed serious doubts about the wisdom of complete state dominance in social welfare are two prominent politicians belonging to the two political parties who have generally advocated a greater role for the state in social services viz., the Liberal Party and the Labour Party. One of them is the late Richard Crossman who was not only a leading intellectual of the Labour Party, but also was the Minister for Social Services during the last Labour Government. His observations on the need for voluntarism in a welfare state and especially the role to be played by the volunteers in social welfare need to be seriously considered.
According to Crossman, the different groups in the Labour Party, whatever their ideological disagreement, were agreed that the role of voluntary organizations in British politics should be a protest role, a pioneering role, a propaganda role, and a pressure role. Also, all of them disliked the do-good volunteer and wanted to see him replaced by professionals and trained administrators in the socialized welfare state of their dream. Looking back on the achievement of the Labour government in implementing the concept of welfare state, Crossman observed a number of alarming new features: (I) the alienation of the kind of idealism that had united them, (2) the palpable failure of the availability theory, (3) and the inexplicable decisions under which social services were operating.10 He wondered how such inhuman and stupid decisions would be taken even after the amateurism of philanthropic individuals was abolished and the administration of the welfare state placed in highly professional hands. He concludes: "I maintain that one of the major reasons for these tragic and inhuman stupidities is the dominance of the professionals and the administrators both in policy-making at the top of the welfare state and in dealing with individual problems at the bottom. Now, mind you, I do not challenge for a moment the need for professionalism and the importance of maintaining the highest standards. What I do maintain is that do-good volunteering is as essential to humane social services as highly-trained professionalism and the professional who disregards this need for do-good volunteering is liable to make the most cruel mistakes ... “
It is surely clear that if volunteering is stifled, the altruistic motive which exists in normal people is blocked or perverted with deplorable results on the community including a sharpening of the conflict between the protest groups and the establishment. It should be the aim of the government today to link professional and volunteer in true cooperation; to foster the care element in the cure services and to recruit, train and organize volunteers for all the functions that are better performed by them."11
The other politician who adversely commented on the achievements of the welfare state in U.K. is Jo Grimond who was until recently the influential and highly respected leader of the Liberal Party in Parliament. Grimond's criticism against the welfare state and especially the social services are directed against the tremendous growth of bureaucracy in social services and the sapping the will of the people to follow their own conscience. He refers to the social services as a sort of Godless Church. He complains that the social services in the U.K. have not developed a preventive side even after twenty five years of continuous growth. He then concludes: "clearly, the mere extension of social services is not necessarily a good thing even if we can pay for them. What is much more important is to extend the area for which conscience is effective in political life".12 It is significant that these two prominent thinkers belonging to two different political parties which in the past have advocated a bigger role for the state in social services, now have second thoughts and argue for greater community involvement in social services, which implies reestablishing the pre-eminence of voluntary organizations in social services. In other words, they have warned of the dangers of state bureaucracy in welfare.
In our own country a strong condemnation of the roles of voluntary organizations have been made by two young workers who have considerable experience of volunteer welfare work in rural areas. Bhasin and Malik state that voluntary organizations have been working for the maintenance of status quo in society and frequently acting as the handmaiden of vested interests. Occasionally, when they have provided services for the poor and disadvantaged people, these have been misutilised by the well- to-do, with little appreciable change in the conditions of the people for whom these services were originally meant. They argue for a more radical role for the voluntary organizations and a new legitimacy for them.13 They further argue:
The Government has the resources for maintaining a massive network of educational and public service institutions, all of which perform their functions in the usual conventional manner. There is thus precious little justification for voluntary institutions to duplicate the Government's efforts. If the voluntarism wants to refurnish itself with a new legitimacy, it must move beyond not only to serving the most needy sections of the society, but also towards struggling for the emancipation of the oppressed masses from the vicious process of exploitation. 14
The long historical review of the origin of voluntary organizations in India, and the different functions that were expected of them at different times, and the continuing debate about the relationship of state and voluntary organizations and their respective roles in social welfare, highlight the fact that there cannot be a neat and tidy demarcation of functions between voluntary organizations and the state. Frequently, those who argue for it implicitly assume a homogeneous group within the voluntary sector and advocate uniform performance of roles by all the voluntary organizations. While the striving for harmony and homogeneity has been a universal feature of societies since time immemorial, the reality of day-today life has always presented a picture of considerable heterogeneity, tension and conflicts. This is true of the voluntary organizations in social welfare as well. It is most unrealistic to expect all the voluntary organizations to perform a similar set of roles. Not all of them work for the maintenance of the status quo, nor are all of them capable of overthrowing it. The empirical evidence indicates that a large number of them will continue to work for the maintenance of status quo or at best for its reform. Only a few will dare to venture in a radical restructuring of the society and that will take them very close to the political processes in society. It is not surprising, therefore, that the ideal voluntary organizations in Indian history were founded by persons who were active both in social welfare and the political life of the country, like Gokhale, Lajpat Rai and Gandhi. All that we can hope is that at least there will be a few voluntary organizations in different parts of the country, which will consider as their major role the radical transformation of the society, especially in the area of social welfare.
Whenever there have been discussions about the role of social workers in bringing about social change, one of the practical difficulties pointed out is that most paid social workers, whether of the professional variety or of the other types are employed directly by the government or by voluntary organizations which depend on state financial support. In such a situation, it would be futile to expect social workers to adopt the role of bringing about major social change, which will lead them into serious conflict with the powers that be in the society. While these observations are valid, they also highlight the need, not so much for a new role for voluntary organizations as a category, but for some of them to retain the pure form of voluntarism, by not accepting any financial support from the state and to maintain themselves entirely through community support. It is the existence and functioning of such organizations which will make it possible for that small minority of dedicated and courageous social workers to work for radical social changes in society as part of their function in the field of social welfare. Otherwise, a large majority of voluntary organizations will continue to perform a variety of familiar roles as before. Pioneering, demonstration, experimentation, training and research, which have been advocated as the appropriate and exclusive roles for voluntary organizations will also be performed by the state whether directly or indirectly through the state-supported, autonomous, statutory institutions like universities, and research institutes.
Emergence of NGO’s
What was written above in the main text of the essay on voluntary organisations, by and large is relevant even today. However, some modifications and additions of content as well as details seem necessary to take note of the developments during the last three decades. The era of voluntary organizations and voluntary social workers came to an end some decades ago. The words, “voluntary” as a prefix to the organisations and to the personnel at grass-root and administrative service delivery levels has gone out of usage. We have new terms NGO (Non-governmental organizations) and “activists” replacing the earlier descriptive terms. The word ‘NGO’ was first used by the UN, a diplomatic, non-offending term which seemed well-suited for UN organizations which have to be careful about the sensitivities of a variety of political regimes who are its member nations. NGO is a neutral, very accurate description of a large number of organizations with varying goals, types of service, and diverse interests, free from any ambiguity. It is easy to identify a NGO. Any organization which is not directly part of a government is an NGO. In our country words like ‘public sector’, ‘semi-government’ are in usage. NGO, by definition, will exclude these, because, though not directly under the government, they are dependent and are controlled indirectly by the government in a variety of ways, such as grant of funds, nomination of personnel on the board of management either totally or partially etc.
In the broad field of social development NGOs have come into existence in a variety of ways. But all of them have to register themselves under the Society’s Registration Act, fulfilling the conditions necessary for registration, and have to get their financial statements audited and send the copies of these reports to the appropriate department of the government. In the case of those receiving foreign funds, they have to get the approval of the Ministry of Home Affairs, by furnishing necessary information and documents.
Apart from the familiar service areas of social work like spastic and autistic children, physically and mentally challenged, old age persons in need of shelter and care, new service areas like environment protection and human rights violation have also emerged as major service areas for NGO’s. Most NGO’s may not fit into the definition of voluntary organization mentioned before in the original text. They hardly rely on local community support for funding. Most of them come into existence relying on funding from abroad and in a few cases, nationally, both governmental and non-governmental. Caritas, Oxfam, Christian Children Fund, Action Aid and Plans-International are some of the wellknown international funding organizations supporting a large number of NGO’s in this country. Help-Age India, CRY (funding NGO’s in the child welfare field) and Concern India Foundation are the most prominent Indian funding organizations. An important difference between the old style voluntary organizations and the new NGO’s is the fact that all of them pay salary to the staff for the work they do and the pay packet is quite bulky, comparable to, in some instances even more than, what the salary is for comparable positions in government or business corporations. So, civil servants have resigned from central services like I.A.S, I.R.S etc after ensuring that they get their retirement benefits from the government and joined large NGOs (like Action Aid). Life styles of some of these executives would have shocked the old type of voluntary leaders.
As always there are a few admirable exceptions. Medha Patkar, a professional social worker (alumnus of Tata Institute of Social Sciences), S.R.Hiremath, an engineer who had a lucrative career in U.S.A. left it and came back to India and is active in environment protection, Aruna Roy who left I.A.S and started a social welfare organization near Ajmer, along with her husband Bunker Roy (she has also played a prominent role in getting passed the Right to Information Act) may be mentioned here. A former graduate of Madras School of Social Work, who was selected for I.A.S but chose not to join, has been working through an N.G.O in Tamil Nadu for the right to livelihood of fishermen. Rotary International and India have played a magnificent role of advocacy, planning of strategy and raising financial resources to eradicate polio in India through nation-wide immunization programme*.
At present there may be more than 50,000 NGO’s in the country and out of these about fifteen per cent may be providing social welfare services. This estimate is based on the information compiled about NGO’s in Karnataka. There are about 1500 NGO’s in Karnataka. (Ramesha et.al 2012)
Development professionals-economists, environmental scientists, rural development management personnel, health professionals (Dr.H. Sudarshan working for decades for tribal welfare in Mysore district) have been active through N.G.O’s started by them. The main issues are funding, transparency and accountability. Most N.G.O’s at local level came into existence after locating a funding agency, preparing project proposals to satisfy the requirements for funding, including the target population and the type of service to be provided. Some professionals have evolved as experts/consultants in drafting project proposals, which almost guarantee approval from funding organizations. Reverse process may be followed in some cases, i.e., target population and service area are chosen first, and funding agencies are traced and, proposals drafted and sent to them. In other words, we have a new breed of “organizational entrepreneurs” like entrepreneurs in industry and commerce. Hardly any of these organizations try to raise funds locally or even regionally and nationally.* There is no accountability to the general public, not even to the individual donors, who give donations regularly and of a substantial amount. They don’t even send a printed post-card, acknowledging the receipt of donation and two words of courtesy-“Thank You”. Receipts for donations are not sent promptly, not even after sending reminders. Annual Reports are not publicized and not sent to regular donors. No one knows what has been the role, contribution and impact of the NGO.s on the beneficiary population, because no independent study has ever been conducted. Yet, there is an aura around the NGO’s that they are better than the government and provide valuable service to the people. The media is generally in favour of them and their contribution. No investigating journalism, and no sting operations have been conducted involving any major NGO.*
Here is an anecdote reported by L.C.Jain in an article in the Economic and Political Weekly more than two decades ago. After partition Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya started the Indian Co-operative Union and began construction of houses for the refugees near Faridabad, close to Delhi, with the refugees contributing their labour (shramadan). She approached Gandhiji for his blessings. He said “ you know my blessings are always there for such noble work. But if you take any money from the government, my blessings will be withdrawn”. How many N.G.O’s, including the Gandhian institutions, will pass this test of Gandhiji to qualify for his blessings!!
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