top of page

Civil Society in India the role of the NGOs

Updated: Apr 20, 2019


India is the largest democracy in the world. The existence of NGOs is important in this kind of democracy to solve the problems which are still prevailing in the society. Civil society derives its strength mainly from the Gandhian tradition of volunteerism, but today, it expresses itself in many different forms of activism. India has a long tradition of voluntary action. The mainspring of voluntary action was charity of human kindness. Some people in society felt deep concern for suffering of humanity, the poor and deprived and those afflicted by physical disabilities and ailments as well as by discrimination and exploitation by other sections of the society. During the struggle for freedom, the spirit of voluntarism received a great support from the people.It was skilfully used by Gandhiji to involve the masses in the struggle for independence and initiate genuine constructive programmes for the upliftment of the downtrodden.  His whole political, social and moral philosophy was based on the individual performing his duty in the best possible manner individually and also combining with other individuals towards solving the problem of the community, society, and nation.  Gandhiji gave emphasis on voluntary action activated through organisations of constructive workers who would go to the people to establish contact personally and win their confidence.  They would place before the people programmes for mass action.  Gandhiji did not believe in state action for betterment of the social conditions, moreover he felt that for massive change there should be mass action (SinghaRoy Debal K., 2001 Page no.184, 185).

A voluntary organisation is a social service and development institution motivated to meet the needs of the most disadvantaged people in the society. This is done either through direct services to the people or through indirect services to other voluntary organisations or by Government, non profit making organisations. These organisations are funded directly or indirectly by the government or other non-governmental agencies. Voluntary Organisations are non – profit making agencies that are constituted with a vision by a group of like minded people. The aim of this organisation is through the committed for the uplift of the poor, marginalised, unprivileged, underprivileged, impoverished, downtrodden and the needy. These organisations are closer and accessible to the target groups, flexible in administration, quicker in decision making, timely in action and facilitating the people towards self reliance ensuring their fullest participation in the whole process of development. NGO (Non-Governmental Organisation) was a more popular term in 1980’s. In recently held NGOs national network in April 2006 NGOs are again termed as Voluntary Organisations.

Historical Review:

The intellectual tradition of discoursing the nature of the state and civil society is connected to the contract theorists – Hobber, Locke and Rouseau, on one hand and to Hegel, Marx, Gramsci and Engle on the other. The relationship between civil society and the state has always been dialogical subject of insightful discussion. Both Hobbes and Locke considered the state as the creation of civil society for protecting the life and property of citizens. According to Hegel superiority of the state will eventually reduce civil society to the level of an instrument of the state power. Marxs thinks that civil society represented the interest of the bourgeois as revealed through state; as such, both are instruments of oppression. According to Gramsci’s view both state and civil society were created around reciprocal rights and obligation, and that one cannot exist without other (Nayar P.K.B, 2001, Page no. 168,169).

In the West, Civil Society played an important role of dilution of the boundaries of politics and with the restrictions of what are seen as the increasingly bad conditions of party politics, as a means of rejuvenating public life. In the East the term has come more narrowly to mean besides political life and civil liberties, simply private property rights and markets. In the south, the collapse of the theoretical models that dominated post Second World War understandings of politics there has given new idea of civil society. Intellectuals in India and in Latin America, in the Middle East, and China, Africa, and South East Asia, are all infusing new complex life into the category. International agencies and lenders too have turned their attention to this idea of civil society. In an effort to accelerate and increase the efficiency of development tasks, they now seek ways to by pass the central state, and to assist directly what they identify as the constituents of civil society such as private enterprises and organisations, church and denominational associations self employed workers, co-operatives, unions, and the vast field of NGOs, all have attached external interest. They have come to be seen as essential to the construction of what are assumed to be the social preconditions for more accountable, public and representative forms of political power. To all who involve it, civil society incarnates a desire to recover for society powers: economic, social, expressive believed to have been illegitimately taken by state.

Although central to classical western political theory, the concept of civil society was largely moribund during the days when models of state-led modernisation dominated both liberal and Marxist conceptions of social change and development.  In 1970s and 1980s it was recorded as models of disintegrated civil society seemed to promise something better like democracy and prosperity, autonomy.  Also the means emerged from authorian rule or from close political regulation of the economy that is, in regions which seemed to have created which became the preconditions for the emergence of a civil society. The picture has been the appearance of a multiplicity of non-negotiable identities and colliding self-righteous beliefs, not a plural representation of malleable interests.  Civil society remains as distant and precarious an ambition as ever (Kaviraj Sudipta and Khilnani Sunil, 2001, Page no. 12, 13).

Civil Society and Public Sphere:

In the past two or three decades, the conceptual distinction between civil society and state has been replaced in academic discourse by a more accurate set of distinctions. First, the state is distinguished more carefully now from a particular arena of society referred to by the term civil society. Second the term public sphere forces us to explore and if possible to demarcate the private and public segment of society. Finally, the distinction between civil society and political society compels us to notice dimensions of society that are public and political but not directly of state (Bhargava Rajiv, Reifeld Hulmut, 2005 Page no.13).

Civil society has two different approaches in relation to the state. One is that civil society is with the government and other as anti-government. In public sphere civil society can be called as CIVIL SOCIETY – I and CIVIL SOCIETY – II. It means according to CIVIL SOCIETY – I a democratic policy is secured by being embedded in dense networks of civil associations, such as clubs, trade associations, voluntary societies and churches which generate social capital. Active voluntary and informal groups of networks make for more stable democracy and protect against incursion by the state. The bridges envisaged here are based on institutional link along with shared moral and civil values of reciprocity.

In CIVIL SOCIETY – II it is associated particularly with the anti communist movements in 1970’s and 1980’s where the role of civil society is explicitly normative. Rather than embedding political processes in supportive position, this view is totally in contrast with the previous. Thus, civil society is anti political, authentic and based on informal social solidarity. The spaces of civil society and public sphere here were often fused in that the private and autonomous self organizing groups to become a public sphere alternative to state. Civil society describes a new commercial social order, the rise of public opinion, representative government, civil freedoms, plurality and civility. Thus, civil society represents contractual and voluntary relationships independent of state. (Nash Kate, Scott Alan 2004 Page no.223, 227)

Civil Society as the public sphere is normatively important in a very vital sense. Firstly, each citizen has the right to participate in decisions that provide the frame and the context of his own life, but this dimension of democracy cannot exist if citizens enclose themselves in private spaces, or obey the state unthinkingly and reflexively. Secondly, what is private and what is public has to be demarcated by social agreements in civil society. An individual has the right to privacy, but this does not mean that the private can be used as an excuse for being outside the interest of public concerns. Civil society accordingly, emerged as the, ‘theatre where the dialectics between the private and the public are negotiated. Civil society is the site where the state intervenes to shape public opinion and perception, so that it can create consent for its own politics. Civil society as the public space is a domain of politics, but the historical processes which construct such a sphere are themselves political. (Neera Chandhoke 1995, Page no. 167,175,179)

A central theme of civil society in sociology as a whole has been the importance of embedding processes of money and power in supportive but constraining cultural and normative systems. Here civil society is positioned between the economy and polity rather than being absorbed in to either. It is possible to explore the mediating processes that concern institutional sphere to limit the extension of one into other. Social organisation and NGO often strive to generate a culture of civil regulation and public accountability (Nash Kate, Scott Alan 2004 Page no.223, 227).

NGO Networking

Evolution of NGO’s:

After independence the numbers of NGOs present in India have grown up which represent a civil society. A corresponding increase in the volume of activity was also evident during the post independence period. According to one estimate there are 1million NGOs in the country (Jain 1997, 128). However, the causes of proliferation of NGOs in different periods, beginning in the 1950s were different. Till 1950s the causes of the evolution of NGOs had a different base which related to fields like cast discrimination and poverty alleviation etc. In 1960s the focus shifted to the development activities. In the latter part of 1960s and early 1970s the concern of NGO was changing. The NGOs were more concerned in favour of issues associated with ecology, the environment, technology and development. In 1980s the matters concerning human rights were dominant. The degrading environment due to ruthless exploitation or the antipoor policies of the state gave the impetus for the formation of NGOs in the 1990s.Different types of social movements activism are viewed as different political domains. Political movements are recognised by the identities and have been captured by electoral politics. Movement politics that emerged the state are organised around interests of the people that have become institutionalised at some point. Politics organised around interests do not have the benefit of the kind of popular mobilization that electoral and party politics produce (Kohli Atul, 2001 Page no. 251)Today NGOs are found all over the country. The socioeconomic backdrop of the country served as a fertile ground for the genesis and growth of the NGO sector. This is further facilitated by the democratic system prevailing in the country, which granted ample space for its existence. The remarkable growth in the number of organisations registered in the country since independence testifies to this fact. This is evidence not only from the size of the sector, but also from the enlarging area of activities it has been engaged in over the years (Sooryamurthy R., Gangrade K.D. 2001, Page no. 1, 2). In 1980s NGO groups became more specialised, and voluntary movement was fragmented into three major categories which are described below.

Categories of NGO’s:

First, there were those considered the traditional development NGOs. These NGOs went into a village or a group of villages and ran literacy programmes for children, encouraged farmers to experiment with new crops and livestock breeds that would bring more money. Also helped the weavers and other village artisans market their products and so on - in short became almost a part of the community in their chosen area (usually in rural India) and tried to fill all the gaps left in the development process by the government. There are many examples of voluntary organizations of this kind running very successfully in India for the last five decades. The most celebrated example of this kind is the treatment centre for leprosy patients run by Baba Amte in central India.The second group of NGOs were those who researched a particular subject in depth, and then lobbied with the government to file a petition in the courts for improvements in the lives of the citizens. A well-known example of an NGO of this type is the Centre for Science and Environment. CSE picked up that sample of well water and then submitted the results of the chemical analysis to a court to change polluting practices of that industry.In the third group were those volunteers who saw themselves more as activists than other NGOs. All NGOs undertake a certain amount of activism to get their points across. They petitioned the bureaucrats, they alerted the media whenever they found something wrong. This third group of NGOs saw activism as their primary means of reaching their goals, because they did not believe they could get the authorities to move in any other way. One of the best-known examples of an NGO in this category is the Narmada Bachao Andolan (Save Narmada Campaign). This is an organisation that opposed the construction of a series of large dams in a large river valley in Western India. The members of this NGO believe that large dams would worsen water scarcity for the majority of the people in the long run. When the NBA found that it could not convince the planners in India to agree to their point, the NBA members put up pickets, held demonstrations and tried every other way they could think of to oppose the construction of the first of the big dams. Many NBA members went to jail a number of times as a result. Recently, some of them - including celebrated novelist Arundhati Roy - face the prospect of being jailed, because they criticized the Supreme Court of India when the court’s decision on dam construction did not go in their favour.There is no strict boundary between these three groups of NGOs - in fact, Baba Amte is now an important member of the Narmada Bachao Andolan. And whatever be the category a particular NGO falls into, all of them play an important role in modern India - they hold the politicians accountable to the people (Chattergy Patralekha 2001, Page no. 23, 24) The impressive cooperation between coalitions called Narmada Bachao Andolan and INGOs like OXFARM and ENVIRONMENTAL DEFENCE FUND in campaign in support of the right of people not to be displaced by dam construction in western India. Such coalition between international NGOs calls for the concept known as “Global Civil Society.” (Kean John, 2003, Page no. 38, 39)

Global Civil Society:

Today’s trends of globalisation have moved civil society out of the limits of the physical boundaries of the nation. Many countries are coming forward to solve there common problems through collective efforts. Thus the parameters of civil society have changed to global level. The concept of civil society which existed within the boundaries of the nation – state, now has changed through the process of globalisation. State becomes one agent among others operating in sub national, national and international domains. Thus it becomes easy to grasp the intersection between governmental and non – governmental. Global social movements establish new networks, resources, and social capital, providing the infrastructure for global democratization.

What started at small scale level, the movements located in diverse communities and plural settings or had been conceptualised by some Third World intellectuals belonging to the alternative school has now been hijacked by technocrats of the global NGOs. Many of these NGOs got legitimacy by actual participation in and closeness to grassroots struggles are to be co – opted in the global NGO framework.

Structure of an International NGO

Role of NGO in Indian Context:

In independent India, the initial role played by the voluntary organizations started by Gandhi and his disciples was to fill in the gaps left by the government in the development process. The volunteers organized handloom weavers in villages to form cooperatives through which they could market their products directly in the cities, and thus get a better price. Similar cooperatives were later set up in areas like marketing of dairy products and fish. In almost all these cases, the volunteers also helped in other areas of development e.g. running literacy classes for adults at night.Two men visited a small hut in the outskirts of the Nations Capital New Delhi from a non-governmental organization called Bandhua Mukti Morcha (Bonded Labour Liberation Front). The other two were journalists brought by the NGO to prove that bonded labour - a form of slavery - did exist right in the nation’s capital. After the visit, the men from the NGO went to the police station to lodge a complaint, because bonded labour is illegal in India. The complaints, and the articles written by the journalists after the visit, were part of the NGO campaign to make the government implement the law.Every day, different NGOs all over India are doing things like this. Sometime it may be taking a sample of water from a well that has been polluted by a nearby factory, getting the water analysed and then filing a “public interest petition” in a court to force the factory to follow anti-pollution laws. Another time, it may be a heated debate with a bureaucrat on why all citizens should have the right to be informed about all government decisions that affect their lives (Chattergy Patralekha 2001, Page no. 23, 24)Civil society organisations can hold companies responsible for externalities, organisations such as friends of earth, Greenpeace as well as local movements such as Chipko in drawing attention to the environmental costs of production. In 1998, 600 consumer, environmental and development groups lobbied successfully to half the proposed multilayered agreement on investments. In December 1999 a coalition of 1200 NGOs congregated in settle to protest against an unfair global trading system, further trade liberalisation, and a process that lacked transparency and representation. In a less combative mode consumers are increasingly opting to invest in ethically responsible companies (Howell Jude, Pearce Jenny, 2001 Page no. 83).

In a large developing country like India, there are numerous gaps left by the government in the development process - sometimes by intention, sometimes due to lack of funds, sometimes due to lack of awareness. These are the gaps that many NGOs try to fill in modern India. Some of them may work in areas that the government does not want to get into - like fighting discrimination on the basis of caste. Most Indian politicians do not really want to upset the existing caste hierarchy in his or her constituency, because the politician is dependent for votes on the dominant castes of that particular constituency. In the process, laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of caste are often ignored unless there is an NGO working in the area that is willing to take up the cause of those being discriminated against.India is a representative rather than a participatory democracy. Once the elections are over, the politicians who run the federal and state governments do not really need to go back to the electorate for every major decision - there is no tradition of referendums in India, as there is in Switzerland or Denmark. So, in the five years between on election and another, the NGOs - and parts of the media, to some extent - are often the only means available to the citizens to voice their opinions on any decision taken by a government. (Chattergy Patralekha 2001, Page no. 23, 24)In democracies citizens are free to gather disseminate environmental information and lobby their government collectively resulting in their being more environmental NGOs in democratic state than in non democratic state. In democracy NGOs as pressure groups enjoy greater success in democratic societies (David Potter 1996, Page no. 10).

NGO’s Working in Various Sectors:

Then there are many NGOs who work in areas where the government effort proves inadequate. Two well-known examples are the areas of education and healthcare. In the area of education, there are often not enough government-run schools, especially in rural regions. Or there may be schools without adequate facilities, because a particular state government does not have the necessary money. There are many situations where the government runs a co-educational school, but the girls do not go there because their conservative parents (the overwhelming majority) refuse to send their daughters where they may meet boys. Then there are many cases where the government runs a largely-empty school, because most of the boys and girls are out working during school hours. NGOs have played an important role in all these cases - running special classes at night for children whose parents send them out to work, running special classes for girls. By and large, governments have been supportive of such initiatives by NGOs, and the only problem is that there are not enough NGOs to educate all the uneducated people in India. The NGO called Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad is largely credited for the hundred percent literacy programme in that state in the south-western corner of India.

NGO for Children Education

NGO for Children Education:

In the area of healthcare, too, NGOs play an important role in modern India - by supplementing the government effort to provide health care to citizens, and by raising awareness in society about issues like child and maternal malnutrition, which is perhaps more important than adding a few more clinics. Again, in modern India it is the NGOs who have fought social evils in the area of healthcare, like the neglect of the girl child, which can sometimes take the extreme form of female foeticide or infanticide. It is largely through the lobbying by NGOs through the media that many state governments have now passed laws banning sex-determination tests of foetuses; as such tests were often leading to the abortion of female foetuses.In the last 20 years or so, a very large number of NGOs in India have been active in the area of environmental protection. They have been in the forefront of reforestation campaigns; they have lobbied against deforestation or overuse of pesticides in agriculture. Also they have taken polluting industries to task. In this sustained campaign, the NGOs have often been helped by the judiciary whenever the government of the day has proved unresponsive. For this, NGOs in India have almost developed a practice called public interest litigation, by which any citizen can petition a court to intervene where (s) he feels it is in the public interest for the court to intervene.Another field, in which certain Indian NGOs have been active, especially in urban areas, is in trying to turn the right to shelter into a reality. This is an area where constructive work and activism have intermingled most often, as NGOs such as YUVA and SPARC in cities like Mumbai repeatedly oppose the demolition of hutments even as they try to improve the quality of life in the sprawling slum clusters.Apart from this, there are many NGOs in India which represent special interest groups, ranging from the disabled to women to children to the aged to refugees and to people in specific professions. In the course of their work, almost all NGOs come up against an unfeeling or even hostile bureaucracy sometime or the other. It is part of the strength of Indian democracy that the state is by no means the winner in all these confrontations. (Chattergy Patralekha 2001, Page no. 23, 24)

NGO for Women

Critical Evaluation of NGO’s:

The ‘80s were the growing days of activist journalism in India. NGOs became the media’s key allies in exposing injustice and clear violations of rules. Today, human rights reportage has to fight for column space with a myriad other issues and NGOs have to speak louder to be heard by the public but their influence in public affairs is growing. Unfortunately with that, has come corruption. Several NGOs have come under a cloud because of alleged misappropriation of public funds. The jet-set life-style of some NGOs representatives in the country spurred one keen observer of the NGO in Delhi to quip that today there is a new category of NGOs - “airport NGOs” - who flit from one international airport to another, hopping from one cause to another, all in the name of the poor and grassroots activism (Chattergy Patralekha 2001, Page no. 23, 24).It is unfortunately true that 25 to 30 per cent of the so called NGOs are working for there own survival. This category needs to be set right, mended, repaired, modified or severely dealt with so that voluntary sector could be protected from being handled by inferior, selfish and anti – social personalities. People have started thinking that voluntary agencies are the easiest means for making money. Unemployed graduates, retired officials, the businessmen, traders, industrialists, religious leaders, politicians, etc. tend to consider NGOs are the risk free short cut means to become rich overnight hence they register some voluntary organisations.The government departments are increasingly instructed to implement the programmes through NGOs but it is a developmental tragedy and social malady that pseudo NGOs some resource agents have become hand in glow to work out their shares. Hence organisations need to keep the voluntary workers with high motivation and good morale for which the human resource development programmes within the organisations must be given utmost importance. It is the bound and duty of each voluntary worker and organisation to see that more and more NGO persons move upward towards professional and sacrificial voluntarism and there shall be no space for pseudoes (Bhose Joel S.G.R. 2003 Page no. 33,34).


Bhargava Rajiv, Reifeld Hulmut, “Civil Society, Public Sphere and Citizenship Dialogues and Perceptions” (New Delhi, Thousand Oaks, London: Sage Publication, 2005)

Chandhoke Neera, “State and Civil Society Explorations in political Theory” (Thousand Oaks, London, New Delhi: Sage Publication 1995)

Chattergy Patralekha. “Civil Society in India A Necessary Corrective in a Representative Democracy” D+C Development and Cooperation (No. 6, November/December 2001, Page. 23,24)

David Potter (ed.). “NGOs and Environmental Policies asia and Africa” (UK: Routledge Publication, 1996)

Howell Jude, Pearce Jenny, “Civil Society and Development: a critical exploration” (London: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2001)

Kaviraj Sudipta, Khilnani Sunil, “Civil Society: History and Possibilities” (Cambridge, New York, Oakleigh, Madrid, Cape Town: Cambridge University Press, 2001)

Keane John, “Global Civil Society?” (Cambridge, New York, Melbourne, Madrin, Cape Town: Cambridge University press, 2003)Kohli Atul (ed.). “The success of India’s Democracy” (Cambridge, New York, Melbourne, Madrid, Cape Town: Cambridge University Press, 2001)

Nash Kate, Scott Alan, “The blakckwell companion to political sociology” (Malden, Oxford, Carlton: Blackwell publication 2004)

Saberwal Satish, “Democracy and Civil Society in India: Integral or Accidental ?” Sociological Bulletin (Volume 50, Number 2, September 2001)

SinghaRoy Debal K. (ed). “Social Development and the Empoverment of Marginalised Groups Perspective and Strategies”(New Delhi, Thousand Oaks, London: Sage Publication 2001)

Sooryamurthy R., Gangrade K.D. “NGO’s in India a cross – sectional study” (Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2001)

6 views0 comments


bottom of page