Close up image of dome of largest legislative building in India - Vidhan Soudha, Bangalore
Close up image of dome of largest legislative building in India - Vidhan Soudha, Bangalore

Changing political landscape in India – what does it mean for local grassroots civil society?

Historically, grassroots civil societies have long been crucial in India, shaping its journey from independence to post-independence governance and pushing towards 21st-century progress.

While they wield influence in advancing civic rights and welfare, and in holding the government to account their operating space faces threats and power imbalances, endangering their contributions.

It’s crucial to recognise that India’s civic space primarily comprises of local grassroots organisations, activists, and movements, many of which rely on larger Pan-India CSOs and INGOs for funding. Therefore, crackdowns on civic space, whether through stringent regulatory laws or brute force, disproportionately affect these grassroots entities.

The current government’s promotion of neoliberal policies and its employment of colonial-era laws, such as sedition, leads to activists and CSOs being labelled as “anti-nationals,” thus stifling freedom of expression and local civic engagement. India has recorded the highest number of attacks on environmental activists in Asia since 2015. Prominent organisations like Population Fund of India, Oxfam India, Greenpeace, and Centre for Civil Society frequently make headlines for facing harassment and shutdowns. However, thousands of unnamed grassroots NGOs cease to exist every month due to these pressures.

At its disposal, the Foreign Contributions Regulation Act (FCRA) is perhaps the biggest instrument directly threatening the existence of India’s local grassroots civic space.

What is FCRA?

It’s a rigid foreign funding policy that straitjackets civil societies of all shapes and sizes, making it difficult for them to operate whilst putting them under constant surveillance. The FCRA mandates rigorous registration and reporting requirements for organisations receiving foreign contributions, all aimed at enhancing transparency and accountability increasing burdensome administrative tasks.

Now, for an established domestic CSO or a national chapter of an INGO with resources and capacity at its disposal, these constraints can be managed, or, at best, well-sustained. However, consider local grassroots CSOs operating on a shoestring budget and with meagre resources. The majority of grassroots local CSOs do not have an FCRA license, to begin with; they depend upon sub-granting from INGOs and large domestic CSOs.

When such restrictions are imposed, studies suggest that it could lead to job losses, downsizing of operations, and indirect impacts on achieving Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). All these disproportionately impact local grassroots CSOs.

Shrinking of the funding pot

Indian CSOs face a plethora of challenges, such as concerns regarding transparency, sustainability, and legitimacy. Their overreliance on external (foreign and domestic) grants and donations is often restricted to specific projects, raising concerns about long-term viability and organisational focus.

Moreover, increased competition within civil society, driven by the emergence of management consulting firms and CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) foundations, further limits available resources, particularly affecting grassroots organisations. The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted an uneven playing field where grassroots organisations fall short compared to their more resourceful counterparts, such as large-scale domestic NGOs and INGOs.

While the latter managed the severe financial strain and program cuts resulting from the pandemic-initiated economic downturn, owing to their corpus funds set aside for such emergencies, grassroots organisations lacked such luxury. Given their network and knowledge, large-scale domestic NGOs and INGOs primarily depend on them for the final delivery of work. Therefore, when there’s a program cut, it essentially halts the work with the grassroots organisations involved.

A very insightful article by Dylan Mathews (CEO, Peace Direct) emphasises the unequal distribution of funding, where most countries in the Majority World look like a giant flat pyramid. Very few domestic organisations compete with INGOs, while thousands of local ones function on limited budgets. Similarly, India’s civic space is fraught with power imbalances and the status quo. We are perpetuating the same old colonial traits; it is indeed a giant flat pyramid.

Yes, the present government made life harder with its extreme measures, but they are further accentuated by this giant flat pyramid. There is no cohesion in resistance and no synergy in vision. It becomes easy for any government, irrespective of their ideologies, to play on these fault lines. It’s an age-old divide-and-rule tactic, used by colonisers in the past and readapted by their successors at present.

What now?

This may all seem like bad news, but there are multiple examples that provide hope as well.

It is now imperative to coordinate a collaborative effort in checking and holding the government accountable for its actions. India has a rich history of civic movements, as current as the ongoing Farmer’s protest and as ancient as Nangeli’s resistance (still debated on its historical accuracy) to regressive tax policy from the colonial era.

We need increased resistance, either triggered by an individual act of commitment or through collaborative efforts. In recent times, multiple coalitions have started to form, with an objective to galvanize the sector, such as Voluntary Action Network India (VANI) and Local Organisations’ Coalition for Advancing Localisation (LOCAL). Some coalitions have been around for some time, such as Ekta Parishad and the National Alliance of People’s Movement (NAPM).

These are just a few examples among many others, all aimed at collaborative grassroots efforts. They need more support, resources, and space to sustain and overcome the current challenges thrown at them, by the current government as well as internally by the sector. We also need to factor in the presence of power structure in these coalitions. It is essential to keep a conscious check.

Some of them are led by more established and resourceful large domestic CSOs, and while their intents might be true to the purpose, they are only human after all. We do not need coalitions to take the shape of a flat pyramid; it must be a circle, where decisions, agency, space, and resources are shared equitably amongst its members.

With the ongoing culture war, an increasingly fractured societal unity, and a polarised mindset, we can take an educated guess about the outcome of the general election in a couple of months. This inevitability calls for a unified grassroots civil society, working in coalition, purposeful and driven, holding the government accountable and working together towards progress.

Somewhere above, I mentioned the importance of grassroots for achieving SDGs. India, new or ancient, needs, and has always needed, a thriving grassroots civic society. I want to leave with a question; with the increasing threat to civic space in general, if there is no grassroots, we can forget achieving SDGs, and the very fabric of India as we know it will cease to exist. Is that what we want?