Citizen voices need to be heard in a democracy

By Ingrid Srinath

Participatory governance mechanisms be institutionalised at all levels of government and across human rights bodies

In India, as in too many other countries, civil society space and freedoms are under grave pressure. While courageous campaigners face the brunt of the threats, what, one must ask, would it take to create an environment in which civil society can play all the roles that it must in a healthy democracy? From enabling citizens to be more responsible for their communities to making public services more responsive; from empowering communities to access their rights to holding institutions to account; and ensuring that the rights of future generations and the global commons are protected. And, beyond these, enlarging the spaces where diverse citizens find collective purpose and learn and practice tolerance, co-operation, mutual understanding and respect.

Recognising the constraints that hamstring civil society action is necessary if we are to ensure the sector can thrive. We don’t all care equally about every cause. Protecting civil society space, however, underpins every right we have as citizens and supports all social causes. Consultations with civil society leaders and a review of previous recommendations by experts threw up the following agenda.

Many of the limitations of, and lack of cohesion in, the sector stem from its fragmented, regulatory context. We’ve all heard that India has 3.1 million NGOs, for instance, without any clarity on how many of these are defunct, how many represent schools, colleges, hospitals etc. We don’t even know how many are what we more commonly understand as NGOs. Unlike other sectors that have seen waves of regulatory reform, civil society in India is still governed by a hodgepodge of laws, many dating back to colonial times. Rationalising and streamlining registration, and clearly differentiating between types of organisations would be a great place to start this process. Creating an independent, non-ministerial department accountable to Parliament to serve as registrar, regulator, monitor and facilitator to the sector should follow if non-profits are not to continually be subjected to the arbitrary regime of the regulatory authorities that presently control, rather than facilitate, their existence. A Civil Society Development Fund, contributed to, and transparently governed by, such a body together with civil society representatives, could support research, capacity building and convening, and be responsible for investments to address gaps in knowledge, networks, norms and narratives that inhibit the sector. A comprehensive self-regulatory mechanism as envisaged by the Task Force for a Central Law to Register Voluntary Organisations should be the first initiative the fund supports.

Restoring tax exemptions for charitable contributions that have been whittled away in recent years, revising the definition of tax-exempt charitable purposes, including redefining “activities of a political nature”, are urgently necessary. The 85% rule for taxability of non-profit income and the 5% corporate social responsibility (CSR) norm on overheads must both be revisited. Civil society access to international resources ought clearly to be at least equivalent to the access afforded to business and political parties, requiring thorough overhaul of the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act that has been used by successive governments to silence dissenting voices.

A review of laws and policies that place unreasonable constraints on communication and protest, offline and online, is long overdue. A commission of eminent jurists and civil society representatives could co-create norms on protection of data, due process, proportionality and right to redress. Laws that muzzle free expression, assembly and association must urgently be repealed.

Beyond these basic protections, a vibrant democracy requires citizen voices to also be heard and heeded between elections. It’s critical, therefore, that participatory governance mechanisms be institutionalised at all levels of government and across human rights bodies. Active involvement of civil society in India’s international partnerships for development, creation of a functional South Asian human rights mechanism and facilitating participation by Indian civil society organisations in international forums must form a part of this agenda.

Only then can civil society fulfil its highest purpose — to be the glue that binds public and private activity together so as to strengthen the common good and, to hold all stakeholders, including itself, to the highest levels of accountability. Failure to take on this challenge carries unconscionable costs. We would each do well to remind ourselves of the words of the Portuguese writer, Fernando Pessoa: “I bear the wounds of all the battles I avoided.”

Source: Hindustan Times

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