Role of civil society in its confrontation-engagement with the government has ushered in transparency and accountability in governance

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QuestionThe role of civil society in its confrontation-engagement with the government has ushered in transparency and accountability in governance. Discuss with examples. 20 January 2021

AnswerIn recent years the term ‘civil society’ has become very popular in the political, administrative and intellectual fields but its history is very old. Traditionally the terms ‘state’ and ‘civil society’ were both used interchangeably and were considered synonymous.

Civil society refers to groups or organizations operating in an environment for collective action around shared interests, objectives, and common values, generally separate from government and commercial for-profit activists. This includes philanthropic, developmental non-governmental organizations (NGOs), community groups, women’s organizations, faith-based organizations, professional organizations, trade unions, social movements, coalitions and advocacy groups.

  • To a large extent, confronting the government is seen as the core task of many civil society organizations (CSOs), which began in the 1970s with the need to protect fundamental rights against attack by the state. It is only in recent years that the question of government involvement has become part of their agenda.
  • The following examples illustrate the role played by civil society interventions in introducing transparency and accountability in governance in India:
  • In Rajasthan’s Rajsamand district, under the umbrella of Mazdoor Kisan Sangharsh Sangathan (MKSS), citizens simultaneously demanded access to attendance rolls, on the basis of which wages were paid to workers. The denial of such access by the state resulted in protests first and then for the Right to Information movement, culminating in the passage of the Right to Information Act, 2005 by the Parliament.
  • The NGO, Naaz Foundation, was a pioneer in its opposition to Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which discriminated against individuals on the basis of sexual orientation. As a result, the judiciary struck down the controversial provisions.
  • PRS Legislative Research is an independent body which oversees the functioning of Parliament. Similarly, the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) provides research support for political reforms and works towards transparency in the electoral process.
  • The Center for Budget and Policy Studies (CBPS) has worked with the municipal budgets of small towns in Karnataka, and put the results of the budget analysis on the web to make it accessible. The CBPS followed it up with workshops and debates with elected representatives to give a broader meaning to the notion of representation.
  • In Koraput, Odisha, where the majority of citizens are tribals, the Council for Analytical Table Studies documents the day-to-day conditions of poor tribals and provides information to local administration in an effort to make it more efficient.
  • An organization in Mumbai, the Center for Inquiry in Health and Allied Themes (CEHAT), has documented the state’s investment in health over a period of twenty years and this database is now a reference point for healthcare workers and researchers.
  • In Kerala, Thanal, an organization dealing with environmental issues and food security, contributes to policy debate through its field-based studies, and has been effective in advocating for several policy changes, for example, a ban on the use of endosulfan. .
  • The Civil Society Organization (CSO’s) Do Not Break Campaign is a campaign by the government to make it accountable to national and international commitments. It reviews governance and monitors progress in the Sustainable Development Goals.

As a prerequisite for timely access to reliable and relevant information and accountability in governance, civil society organizations have called for transparency. At the same time they have also started demanding that their inputs should be taken into account in the formulation and implementation of policies and programs and during social audit, especially in those programs which are meant for weaker sections of the society.

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