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Development Goals (MDGs) and the NGO Movement in India

"The major task before Indian NGOs at this point of time is to work closely with communities and develop some indigenous modules for realisation of the Goals."

Basudev Mahapatra : May 2, 2008

More than 60 years have passed since India won freedom from the British rule. This 60 years journey is marked by lots of developments in the areas of industrialization, infrastructure, urbanization and visible changes in society leading to a lifestyle driven by modern consumerism.

When we talk about development world wide, it is more the economic development; growth of individual productivity and income; economic empowerment of individual that enables a man or woman to spend as per choice; making services and facilities accessible and affordable to individual. Even most of the Asian countries believe in this broad definition of Development. But when one talks of development in India the definition goes beyond these economic parameters.

India is a nation of multiple nationalities. People identify themselves, or the others, on the basis of the socio-cultural orders, languages and regional affiliation. This way, India is unique to other countries for clubbing communities with lots of diversities into one country, one nation.

The common features across the rural India are poverty, illiteracy and the struggle for survival. The urban India is a bit different in this regard where poverty is not that prominent. Literacy graph is a bit better in compare to the rural India where as a group struggling day and night for survival against the other that is affluent enough to live a life with all ease of the western urban lifestyle. Half of children getting comparatively quality education and a part of the other half going to government run schools as per their convenience and rest seen on the streets and garbage points as rag pickers. This is the picture of India that looks ugly as well as beautiful from different point of view.

If one remembers, the current millennium came with lots of promises and declarations. The development organizations and forums set many goals for a quick realization and termed them Millennium Development Goals – MDGs. NGOs – the modern term used for societies and development organizations – were expected to play the major role for realization of MDGs.

The term NGO became popular in India only in the 1980s. But the tradition of voluntary organizations and services is quite old in India. Charitable and voluntary organizations were working before independence though most of them were Christian missionary and hindu religious organizations. However, both the groups were working for the development of target communities although there was a religious bias. The Christian missionaries working in the remote and backward places were working for a change in social life of tribal and unprivileged people of India by starting schools and hospitals run by a clergy or church groups. There were Brahmo samaj, DAV Society and many other hindu associations also who worked for social change in India.

The Voluntary sector drew more energy during the freedom movement in India under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhiji’s propagation of Khadi concept inspired many to start voluntary organizations to take the mission of Bapu towards realization of its objective and spread the message of Swadeshi and nationalism in the communities and the society at large. This spirit influenced the activities of NGOs even after independence. As most of India was backward during the post independent days, need of voluntary organizations was truly felt in Indian society and volunteers were quite respected by others.

Gradually, the voluntary service organisations diversified their interests from simply helping people and development in terms of basic infrastructure to economic development and political empowerment of communities and individual. So voluntary organizations worked to fill in the gaps left by the government in the development process and organized rural people and communities to form cooperatives and market the products through a community forum apart from other activities like running classes for adult members of the village or community at night to promote literacy etc.

Jaiprakash Narayan's movement of the '70s lifted voluntary action to new heights, with NGOs finding a political perspective of social activism and roped in to carry out government programmes. This was initially taken as a negative development. But later its necessity was realized with the government initiation for Panchayati Raj movement meant for delegation of power to the grass root political entities.

However, the Gandhian legacy of volunteerism ruled for quite a long period and even it has a strong presence among many NGOs operating in rural India. After the heydays of the Maoist uprisings in the early seventies, Gandhian legacy became a strong area of practice among rural NGOs. Even, many city professionals migrated to rural India to work directly with people in areas like education, health, rural development, water and sanitation etc through these voluntary agencies.

In the beginning there were little funds available to these agencies for their work, and they worked truly in the spirit of volunteerism, close to the communities. But during early eighties, the central government recognized their importance as delivery agencies for rural development and began to set aside funds for them. Combined with funding available from agencies abroad, the voluntary sector quickly mushroomed into the more familiar NGO sector, particularly in numbers.

As per the estimates made by various organisations including World Bank, there are about 2 millions of NGOs working in India. So the eighties of last century marked an era of transition in the social service sector by changing the voluntary culture into a more professional NGO culture and volunteerism turned into development monitoring and management. In the process of transition, the NGOs became more specialized, and the voluntary movement took shape of a social change and development movement with a professional touch.

Most of the NGOs claim to work for poverty eradication, as poverty is still the major problem of India. The rural India that is the home to more than 80% of its total population has been the home to poverty, misery and starvation in many parts. A part of urban population who work as daily wage labourers are again the victims of poverty. As per a survey, India has about 340 million people as its labour force, of which only about 30 million are organized. Which leaves over 300 million in the unorganized sector, the bulk of which is agricultural labour. A large number of the unorganized labour is composed of dalits, women and adivasis. Consequently, most of them find their expression through the social movements they are allied to; which may be of the environmental, adivasi, peasant or dalit kind. And increasingly, these movements have had to deal with issues related to globalization in the last fifteen years.

Since the eighties of the last century, NGOs have taken a great role in changing Indian society, Indian people and the nation as a whole. Their area of activism has gone much beyond the traditional limits. With newer issues came up with the change process, NGOs with specialized objectives have come up. Lots of foundations, trusts and societies sprouted up across the country. But the poverty situation in the country has only a little improvement.

As India is basically agrarian country, development of agriculture has been given utmost importance for the development of rural India. This has led to a movement across the country to motivate the government for extending effective irrigation facilities to the farmers. Soon after independence, electrical power generation was also one of the thrust areas for the government to deal seriously. So combining both the issues, government of India pursued many minor and major dam projects that gave birth to the serious problem like displacement.

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Displacement due to major dam projects was hardy considered an issue till a local movement against Rengali Dam project in Orissa and the powerful Narmada Bachao Andolan (Save Narmada Movement) started against the dam project pursued in central India. Beginning with the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA, Save the Narmada Movement), the anti-dam movements converted themselves into movements against displacement and, durinmg these years, have spearheaded the environmental movements to the center stage.

Industrialisation of India in the name of economic development gave birth to many problems and again brought the issue of displacement. It's due to the strong intervention of NGOs like NBA and many other activist NGOs of eastern India that government of India is now compelled to declare a comprehensive rehabilitation policy before pursuing an industrial projects in any part of India.

But, except a few, most NGOs lack the will and motivation for studying the socio-economic problems of communities affected by different industrial projects and present them before the public and government in order to build pressure for deriving a pro-people rehabilitation policy and ensuring sustainable development of the communities. Here, the boom in media and communication technology can be utilized for advocacy and lobby.

The other but most important issue of contemporary world is conservation of nature and environment that are now in danger because of rapid industrialization and urbanization. Although there are lots of NGOs with similar kind of aims and objectives in India, there is hardly any collective action for realization of the goals set by them. NGOs like Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), Green Peace and few others are working in these areas with strong commitment. The exposition of presence of hazardous pesticide in soft drinks and availability of contaminated water in the form of drinking water by CSE, lobby for conservation of nature and wildlife by Green Peace and Worldwide Wildlife Foundation (WWF), are few examples of it. But unfortunately these lobbies fail to impact on general public. At times, they are focused to only one aspect keeping their eyes closed to many other important aspects. Many a time, as it seems, the NGOs are dealing with the issues as per their own choice without taking into consideration the livelihood issues of the area of the issue. For example, Green peace is advocating for safety of olive ridley sea turtles visiting Orissan coasts for mating and nesting without serious consideration of the basic livelihood patterns, issues and problems of people who live in the coastal Orissa and depend on fishing.

India that is still undergoing the process of change is in a transition from old age society into a western urbanized consumer society. Even the rural India is experiencing the impact of transition and making itself to be a part of the change process. It has seen lots of economic growth and opportunities to grow further. The lifestyle in the rural India has changed a lot. The level of socio-political awareness has gone up and illiteracy gone down though not upto expectation. Although the NGOs have taken an important role for the social change and development in India, there is a lot to be done as the socio-economic statistics of India are still shocking in view of the industrial revolution and the GDP growth we are presenting before the world.

According to a study by Charities Aid Foundation (India) and Voluntary Action Network of India, Rs 2571 crore of foreign funding entered India in 1997-98, for distribution to 6,700 organisations. In 2000, this went up to Rs 4000 crores, besides Rs 200 crore from government agencies and another Rs 200 crore from corporate sources. In 2000-2001, NGOs in India received a foreign grant of Rs. 4535.23 crores of rupees of which most are given for Rural development, Health Care and Family Welfare and Disaster mitigation and relief. But if you look for a proportionate visibility, it is not there.

A span of 60 years is not a small time gap for any nation. We can imagine the importance of such a time period by comparing our progress with that of Japan, Singapore, China, and South Korea.

There are lot of reasons one can site for it. Many of the well-funded professionally staffed NGOs now lack the social commitment and emotional involvement of its workers with people and the target community. In fact, most Indian NGOs are dancing to the tune of western funding agencies for a free flow of funds into their accounts. Flow of funds has made NGOs more a career platform than a social development organisation.

The other but major factor of invisibility is the development planning. Indian NGOs are more following the western model of social development when the social system in India is completely different. When we are talking about development we are talking about individual development. Sustainable community development modules are yet to be devised and followed in India. Micro-finance activities are more pursued in rural India where as agriculture – the backbone of rural economy and overall Indian economy is still neglected. The inter-linked rural economic system is broken into individual economic practice that leads to more economic disparity than collective economic growth. A rural artisan now doesn't think the village farmer a part of his economic activities.

Lots of political factors like caste and communal politics that work towards breaking the social harmony are some aspects yet to be dealt by the NGOs taking the role of social change agents in its true meaning. So the major task before Indian NGOs at this point of time is to work closely with the target communities to understand their problems and derive some indigenous community based development modules that gel well with Indian communities and social system. And the major challenge is implementing the programmes in a way that doesn’t disturb the usual community life and culture to get the best result in terms of collective development.



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