What’s going on with civil society and philanthropy in India? Interview + transcript with Ingrid Srinath

October 9, 2019

     By Duncan Green     

Ingrid Srinath runs the Centre for Social Impact and Philanthropy at Ashoka University in Delhi. She recently talked me through the current situation in India. She asked me to clarify that these are her personal views, not those of the university.

The work of the Centre: as the first academic centre in South Asia to study issues of civil society and philanthropy, we find ourselves with a huge backlog of lack of knowledge and data. How much money is there in philanthropy? Where does it come from? How is it used? What do they do with it? How many NGOs? How are they distributed by size or theme. Literally terra nullis. So one part of what we do is starting to fill those gaps.

The other is to look at the ecosystem for civil society and philanthropy, and start to build the institutions that in the West you take for granted: national associations of NGOs; multiple philanthropy networks.

Because we haven’t had networks and platforms, the third piece is to develop norms on things like financial management, adequate compensation for CEOs, transparency. None of those exist. All we have is what the government requires you to report.

Centre for Social Impact and Philanthropy

Finally there’s an element of capacity building, for NGO leaders looking to build institutions at scale, and others at the very beginning of their careers – how to encourage young students looking to specialize in the sector.

All this is underpinned by the need to build the credibility of the sector.

The best estimate we have right now for the size of the sector is about $10bn in philanthropy. It’s big, but not on the scale of India’s need.

What about religious giving? There are go and no go zones on this. In India, religion is such a divisive topic, more than ever before. The numbers I gave are for secular giving – we know even less about religious channels, although it’s probably much greater. Where does one even begin? Religious giving is the only part of philanthropy that can continue to be anonymous, there are almost no reporting requirements.

The current situation in India: it is open season on civil society right now – it is fearful and fragmented. Civil society is so distrusted, marginal, irrelevant that anyone can take pot shots at it or persecute it with impunity. It enjoys no state protection any more. There’s a cloud over the sector as a whole, a narrative that goes like this: NGOs are ineffective and inefficient (an attack from the private sector), they’re corrupt (from everywhere) and potentially anti-national (from the government). So you’re suddenly having to almost prove you are none of those, and the absence of any networks means there isn’t a coherent counter-narrative.

To be fair, the demonization began under the Congress government, i.e. before the current government came to power. Things started to nose dive around 2012 when protest movements across the country started to get labelled as evidence of the foreign hand. People were being charged with sedition for the anti-nuclear protests in Kerala.

What about broader civil society? The crackdown goes wider than formal CSOs – it really is targeting all forms of dissent. Any criticism of the government is now anti-national, and it’s not just the government that will crack down on you – bank accounts suspended, functionaries in jail without charge. Now we also have thugs, trolls that are going to attack you online and offline, destroy your reputation and in some cases physically attack you. There have been murders. Even when they are random attacks, they’re quickly followed by protection from the state or from politicians. People posting a video of a lynching on youtube, getting arrested after local protests and then when they’re released on bail, being garlanded by politicians.

Paper: Philanthropy in India

International NGOs: it varies. If you are doing service delivery, humanitarian relief, vaccination programmes, then you’re OK. But as soon as you get into any kind of policy advocacy, you will get your feathers trimmed one way or another. Amnesty, Greenpeace were among the first to be shut down – I understand there are some negotiations to allow them to operate. A lot of INGOs are responding with self-censorship – colouring well within the lines.

What does the government see as a threat?: One of the problems is that it’s not clear what is considered a threat, and what’s not. One university was singled out for a report that said the national employment guarantee scheme was underfunded. That was enough to qualify as anti-national. That’s the reason for the effectiveness of the self censorship, the chilling effect. Wherever there’s been a challenge in the courts, for example to bank accounts being frozen, the NGO has won, but it’s a pyrrhic victory because now you are seen as anti-national.

The good news is that Indian domestic philanthropy is booming. Azim Premji, an IT billionaire, is the 5th largest giver in the world now. They come from IT, financial services – the liberalization of the economy in the 1990s created the wealth that is fuelling the new boom, but as prosperity levels have risen, there’s a more general increase in giving. I think there may also be some shift from religious to secular giving, but we have no data.

There’s a lot of crowd funding for individual causes – the child that needs treatment. Education is to philanthropy in India as cricket is to sport. It consumes most of the resources – it is seen as the ticket out of poverty for everyone. Lots of ed tech – a device in every classroom, but some other really interesting stuff – strengthening parents’ committees, for example. Health is big, also sanitation because of the PM’s focus on the issue. Skills and enterprise development. And the government has put a huge focus on what we used to call the most backward districts, which we now call ‘aspirational districts’ – as Orwellian as you can get!

Sources of philanthropy by year
1 crore rupees = US$140,000. No I’m not doing the maths.

What role for INGOs in post-aid India? Two things: making available all of knowledge that you have gleaned over the years. When DFID left India it was not the loss of its funding that hurt, but that they left with this huge treasure trove of experience of running programmes in India. Secondly, looking at upstream interventions – not responding at the grassroots, more ‘how do we build networks, narrative, norms and knowledge’ – build the ecosystem – be the platform not the app!