How NGOs play an important role in India’s development

In a country having more per capita NGOs than hospital beds — around four NGOs for every 1,000 people in urban areas and 2.3 NGOs for every 1,000 population in rural areas — nonprofits admittedly have an important role to play in India’s development activities.

While the U.S. has 3.1 hospital beds per 1,000 people, India has a mere 0.9 hospital beds per 1,000 people. In other areas like primary education, sanitation, child rights and women’s empowerment, the score of India is less than impressive, although there have been improvements from the past. And this is where NGOs come to play a vital role.

Although generating development has been the responsibility primarily of the government, since the scope of development now includes not just economic progress but also promoting social justice, gender equity, education and the quality of life issues, nonprofits both within India and abroad, especially those directing their voluntary work and funds towards India, are generally seen as partners in the country’s development in some, if not in all cases.

“The problems in India are huge and although the government is doing a lot of work in many areas, our villages have still many unresolved problems from poverty to illiteracy, and I think the government efforts are alone not sufficient to cope up with problems,” S.V. Acharya, president emeritus of Sankara Nethralaya OM Trust Inc. USA, told this correspondent.

The 76-year-old senior finance professional with the federal government said the NGOs have always been supplementing the government efforts in various fields and thus helping development.

In recent years, the government has been somewhat circumspect about the activities of some of the NGOs and a little hesitant in accepting philanthropic help from foreign nonprofits, thanks to a growing sense of national pride in its own power and ability to solve problems, but nonprofits, including those from the U.S. who operate in various sectors in India, have by and large been able to continue their work.

There have been restrictions in recent years on the activities of some nonprofits receiving funds from abroad due to their alleged violation of foreign exchange regulation. The government has even been reluctant to accept foreign government assistance to tackle issues like natural calamities.

Acharya said he does not know the reason why the government refused foreign assistance which could be due to political considerations but personally believes that India still needs help of NGOs, working in the remote parts of the country in health and other areas to improve quality of life.

“It’s an extremely emotional issue in India these days,” the Indian American philanthropist says, alluding to the country’s growing national pride in its own capability.

However, most experts India Abroad spoke to believe Indian diaspora philanthropy and nonprofits’ work that it supports, remains a critical tool for spurring India’s development, especially in social sectors. Although India is projecting itself as the third largest economy in the world and is confident of tackling most of the issues on its own, they say it is early to conclude that the country no longer needs nonprofits and their work supported by philanthropic contributions.

“In our perception India still needs a lot of help and we are doing things in good faith. It is not like that we are feeling sad for India or any such thing, but we want to see India grow up even more,” M.R. Rangaswamy, founder and chairman of Indiaspora, told this correspondent.

For example, Sankara Nethralaya OM Trust, which for the past few years has been raising $1 million a year from individual philanthropic donations and organizing fund-raisers, gives the entire fund to support Sankara Nethralaya (SN), Chennai, a comprehensive eye care center for providing free eye care to indigent patients in its main campus in Chennai, and other hospitals in Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal.

How NGOs play an important role in India’s development

Indian Americans do philanthropic work by either raising money on their own and giving it to an NGO in India of their choice, or directly contribute to a philanthropic organization in the U.S. which in turn passes on that money for a cause in India.

The Indian American community now gives more than in the past by way of volunteering time and giving philanthropic donations to support a variety of causes for transformative social changes in India, including in areas like education, health and hunger and malnutrition.

In an article in Stanford Social Innovation Review last year Ingrid Srinath, director of the Centre for Social Impact & Philanthropy at Ashoka University, noted that as international aid agencies have withdrawn from India and international donors come under greater scrutiny and constraints, India’s social sector finds itself increasingly dependent on business and donor wealth generated through business. This, she said, “heightens the preference for short-term, easily measured, photogenic forms of charity over complex, community-led movements for change” that seek to address the root causes of injustice, exclusion, and exploitation.

“While a new appetite among nonprofits for cross-sector collaboration — in pursuit of impact at scale — is heartening, a social sector almost wholly dependent on business and government for its existence will doubtless be wary of expressing criticism of either,” she wrote in the April 2018 article.

A Dalberg and Indiaspora report published in July 2018 said that people of Indian origin in the U.S. volunteer at double the rate of the U.S. population but donate roughly one-third as much money per capita as typical Americans do.

The giving gap thus continues because Indian Americans, one of the most economically affluent communities in the U.S. who have the highest median annual household income at $100,000, give far below their potential and capability.

“In 2018, charitable giving by individuals in the U.S. totaled an estimated $292 billion. If we apply these giving trends to the 1 percent Indian American diaspora and assume that 40 percent of that giving is directed to India, that results in a giving of $1.2 billion,” Ashish Shah, an Indiaspora official said in a recent interview in Global Giving.

Despite giving less than their potential, diaspora philanthropy, which is motivated largely by feelings of cultural or religious identity as also the work by nonprofits through such philanthropic support, has not been totally discouraged by the government despite nationalistic pride in its own capability, and it is believed to be growing.

“I think India is very open now to private public partnership and the attitude towards that has changed for the better,” Rangaswamy said. He said that the public private partnership concept is taking hold in India is evident from the work that Indiaspora does with various nonprofits like Akshaya Patra, Pratham and others who have partnerships with local governments in various states and are making a palpable impact. “These efforts make eminent sense.”

In February this year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi praised the efforts of nonprofit Akshaya Patra towards eradicating hunger from the country. “I will be in Vrindavan today for a unique program to mark the serving of the 3rd billionth meal by the Akshaya Patra Foundation. Congratulations to all those associated with this mission. Their efforts towards eradicating hunger are exemplary,” Modi tweeted.

Akshaya Patra kitchen that supplies mid-day meals to over 1,500 government schools, is funded by International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON). Akshaya Patra USA (APUSA) was incorporated shortly after the founding of the Akshaya Patra Foundation in India to galvanize support and raise funds for the Akshaya Patra mid-day meals from U.S. donors.

Still, experts say India’s social sector requires a significant funding ramp-up, if it is to achieve the 2030 U.N.Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

According to the India Philanthropy report 2019 released by consulting firm Bain & Company and prepared in association with Dasra, while private philanthropic capital is growing and room exists for further acceleration, it might remain limited when compared with India’s overall funding needed to attain the SDGs. That is why continued philanthropic giving and work both by Indian and Indian American nonprofits assume a vital role. The report finds that funding by individual philanthropists grew the most — by 21 percent between 2014 and 2018.

Most Indian Americans seemingly chose a cause dear to their heart and donate money for that particular nonprofit espousing the cause.

Bala Reddy Indurti, president of Sankara Nethralaya OM Trust Inc. USA, said the organization has been raising $1 million annually for the last few years that has been spent on ophthalmic care and eye surgeries for indigent people in India which has the world’s third largest blind population.

“We have done roughly about 50,000 cataract surgeries in Andhra Pradesh and other states in the last four years for this noble cause of giving vision back to the poor and hapless people for which Indian Americans have consistently opened their wallets and hearts,” Indurti said.

Rangaswamy and others agree that it is up to the donor to decide where he or she wants the money to be put, whether for a specific cause or multiple causes. Some people prefer to do smaller charitable donations to multiple nonprofits working for various causes.

Indiaspora launched its inaugural ChaloGive online giving campaign to encourage higher levels of giving by the Indian diaspora during its second annual Indiaspora Philanthropy Summit at the Copley Hall of Georgetown University from Oct. 2 to Oct. 8.

The grassroots initiative seeks to focus on individual giving by the Indian diaspora to nonprofits that are making an impact through its online platform ChaloGive.org.

The campaign was inspired in part by the success of Giving Tuesday in the U.S.as well as the week-long Daan Utsav campaign in India, which also has gained considerable traction.

ChaloGive means ‘Let’s Give. “The idea is simple: to allow the diaspora to learn about different organizations doing meaningful work, streamline the process for them to donate, and help cultivate the spirit of giving,” says Sanjeev Joshipura, executive director of Indiaspora in.

To help India meet its SDG commitments, the organizations that are part of the India Philanthropy Alliance (IPA) announced at its Indiaspora summit last month, that they will work more closely together in their constituency-building efforts in the United States and in their work in India.

The India Philanthropy report 2019 says private philanthropy should collaborate with the largest funder and scale partner in the landscape: the government.

And that is what many of the U.S.-based nonprofits like Pratham, and Ekal Vidyalaya, the largest literacy movement undertaken by the Indians and expatriate Indians in a dozen countries and backed by philanthropy, seems to be doing.

In 2017, Prime Minister Modi gave Ekal a target of establishing 100,000 schools in India by the year 2022 which is the 75th anniversary of India’s Independence. Ekal, which has been working assiduously since then, is almost near to fulfilling the target. Ekal Vidyalaya Foundation raised over $ 3 million at its Nov. 9 ‘Future of India’ gala at the Gotham Hall in New York.

Ekal had set up 99,200 schools till Nov. 9, 2019, and with a $1 million spot contribution made by Mohan Wanchoo, founder and CEO of EC-Infosystem at the gala, the foundation was close to bridging the gap of 800 schools and reaching the target of 100,000 schools well before time.

A Stanford Social Innovation Review report has earlier noted that younger donors, particularly high net-worth individuals, are contributing to philanthropic causes at earlier ages, thus increasing the ultimate amount of philanthropy over time.

Although philanthropic donations by Indian-Americans started rather late in the U.S., which has a long history of diaspora groups giving back to their countries of origin, giving by Indian-Americans has been growing substantially.

Sumir Chadha, co-founder and managing director of WestBridge Capital — a large private equity fund with massive investments in India — who has emerged as one of the leading philanthropists among the Indian American Generation X’ers, says he was inspired to give by his American friends who have a far more generous giving spirit, compared to members of his own community who were relatively thrifty despite their wealth.

Acharya agrees, noting that the first generation of Indian Americans who had come to this country from a relatively less affluent family backgrounds, had been a little wary of parting with their acquired money in the U.S. for fear of losing security in a foreign land, as compared to their American counterparts who come from affluent and prosperous family background. “Personally, I think the first generation of the community had always the fear of losing maybe at the back of their mind at least in the initial years ,” Acharya, who by his own admission comes from a not-well off family background, said.

The attitude of Indian Americans in terms of giving, however, is said to be changing.

Murali Krishnamurthy, executive chairman of Sankara Eye Foundation USA, believes that there is a confidence now in the community, especially among the younger generation who now want to give back. “From a have-not society, we are confident now in our ability to give back,” Krishnamurthy said in an earlier interview with this correspondent.

Despite such confidence, giving back to India is not without problems as the Indian government has sought to regulate the flow of funds from abroad through the Foreign Contributions Regulation Act that requires all organizations in India getting funding from foreign sources to register with the government in order to receive such funds. Without FCRA clearance, nonprofits cannot transfer funds to India even if it is for a worthwhile cause. “That’s the first criterion to comply before a nonprofit can even think of transferring funds,” Rangaswamy points out.

There are limitations now on dispersing funds directly to individuals, and specific requirements for the reporting the receipt of funds over a certain amount. And that has created resentment among some who allege there has been a “politicization of funding” in recent years, especially after the coming of Modi to power. What they imply at is that the government welcomes only those nonprofits, who do not disagree with the policies of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party government.

After Modi’s election in 2015, the Ford Foundation joined a list of charities and advocacy groups on an official Indian “watch list” as the Modi government sought to tighten oversight of foreign-funded NGOs. The move reflected long-standing tension between the state and civil society in India that observers say has been intensifying under Modi.

The putting of New York-based Ford Foundation on “watch list” was allegedly due to its funding of a trust led by human rights activist Teesta Setalvad, who had championed the cause of riot victims in Gujarat.

On Nov. 15, India’s federal investigation agency, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), raided the local offices of human rights group Amnesty International in an investigation into alleged violations of foreign funding rules.

Nonprofit Quarterly noted in an article in 2017 quoting Meenakshi Ganguly of Human Rights Watch that “most activists see the crackdown on NGOs as part of a global wave of conservative governments acting to decrease the scope for civil society.”

NGOs or nonprofits are popularly believed to enjoy nonpartisan status,although they can take positions on political issues and become right or left leaning, depending on their persuasion. Historically, however, nonprofits in India have faced crackdown on their organizations, irrespective of the government of the day.

In 2012, the government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh cracked down on NGOs protesting against the Kudankulum Nuclear power project in Tamil Nadu. At the time, Singh reportedly criticized NGOs, saying, “There are NGOs, often funded from the U.S. and the Scandinavian countries, which are not fully appreciative of the development challenges that our country faces.” As a result, three NGOs lost their licenses.

In late 2018, the Modi government had reportedly cancelled the licenses of nearly 20,000 NGOs receiving foreign funds under the FCRA. According to a report by the consultancy firm Bain & Company, there was around a 40 percent decline in foreign funding between 2015 and 2018.

Some people believe that India has been a difficult environment for a number of organizations — particularly those working to empower people against unjust government policies, question structural discrimination and advocate for the rights of Dalits, tribal people, and other deprived groups.

A May 2019 QZ.com report noted that in 2018 in India, a number of rights NGO activists were arrested and accused of being Maoists working against the state. This included Sudha Bhardwaj, general secretary of the Chhattisgarh People’s Union for Civil Liberties, who had worked for decades to empower disadvantaged, voiceless groups in the tribal areas of Chhattisgarh.

Commenting generally on the restrictions, people like Rangaswamy, however,said he believes that there needs to be some checks and balances like FCRA.

“I don’t know about the ground situation in India in terms of who is allowed and who is not, but I believe there must be some checks and balances even when it is an NGO giving for a good cause in India,” he said. He parried response when asked if the Modi government is seeking to restrict entry of NGOs critical of him. “I am only focused on our group and the work they are doing in India,” he said.”

Similar sentiment was expressed by Acharya who said he is in favor of such restriction, so the system is not abused, and government can make sure that the recipient organizations getting funds from abroad have credibility and legitimacy.

Among the many NGOs that comprise the IPA include Akanksha Fund, American India Foundation (AIF), Arogya World, CRY America, Dasra, Ekal USA, Foundation for Excellence (FFE), Indiaspora, Magic Bus USA, Pratham USA, and VisionSpring, formerly Scojo Foundation.

Besides, there are many other nonprofits working for causes in India like The Association for India’s Development (AID), Indian American Education Foundation, Namaskar with Love Foundation, Indian American Heritage Foundation, Asha for Education, BAPS Charities and many more, including those who have no rating on Charity Navigator, the major charity assessment organization that evaluates charitable organizations in the U.S.

“We’re excited about this effort to join forces today as a new alliance committed to the ideal of making a collective impact. Working together, using our combined philanthropic reach and innovative ideas, we can help India in far greater ways than each of us could accomplish working on our own,” Deepak Raj, a New Jersey-based entrepreneur and investor, and the chairman of the alliance, said, at the launch of the organization earlier this year, referring to the nonprofits comprising the IPA.

The alliance seeks to enhance collaboration among organizations working to advance the development agenda in India and to foster together a more robust and better-recognized culture of giving among Indian Americans over time.

Still, according to the latest India Philanthropy report, India has significant distance to cover on almost all development fronts. Its ranking on global development indicators like the Human Development Index (HDI) and the SDG index has not improved substantially in recent years.

The country ranked 130 on the HDI in 2018, the same ranking as in 2014, and 112 on the SDG index in 2018, a two-point drop since the index was first published in 2016. The importance of the issue is evident from the fact that India accounts for more than 20 percent of the absolute world performance gap in 10 of the 17 SDGs and more than 10 percent of the gap in another 6 of 17 SDGs. Given India’s high contribution to the world performance gap, the country will play a critical role in the world’s ability to deliver on the SDGs by 2030, it said.

With the idea of public-private partnership that seeks to increase the availability of services with greater efficiency than through the traditional public sector approach gaining ground in India, the importance of nonprofits and philanthropic activities cannot be overemphasized, experts say.

Srinath notes that while students, farmers, and marginalized communities across India are mobilizing against unjust or failing policies, the most rapidly growing philanthropic activities lean away from, rather than into, these causes or the entrenched effects of patriarchy, caste, and feudalism more generally. Education —especially top-down, technocratic interventions — and direct service delivery in nutrition, health, and sanitation still account for the bulk of philanthropic spending.

The 2019 India Philanthropy report says individual philanthropists must embrace their critical role in India’s development needs and respond like competitive players. Barring a few exceptions, individual philanthropists are contributing two to three times below their giving ability and they need to do more.

“I believe going forward at least in the near future the public-private partnership that has become a model to emulate as also the nonprofits and their role in India’s all-round development will continue vigorously.

The only thing that might change is the focus areas of the nonprofits because in 50 years from now some of the problems that we face today may not be as severe in future as they are today and may not warrant intervention by the voluntary organizations,” Acharya said.

Srinath notes that India needs more independent media, more civil society voices, more platforms for civil discourse, and more education in citizenship. The country sorely lacks the kinds of philanthropic and civil society networks and platforms needed to mitigate the political risks individual organizations believe they are unable to bear.

“One point of light is the vast phenomenon of grassroots giving that sustains thriving movements that guard the frontlines of Indian democracy — far beyond crowd-funding platforms and corporate social responsibility summits. The formal nonprofit sector could learn a lot from largely self-funded movements such as the Right to Information, right to food and work, or net neutrality, for instance,” she wrote in the Stanford article.

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