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The National Policy on the Voluntary Sector is a testament of our commitment to encourage, enable and empower an independent and effective voluntary sector

As Member responsible for Voluntary Action Cell in the Planning Commission of India for seven years now, I have been part of the effort to bring people close to the planning process. Initially, we started a ‘Civil Society Window’ in 2004, in the hope that it would enable people to engage with the Planning Commission and offer the benefit of their field experiences. We managed to take some of the learning from there into the 11th Five Year Plan. This initiative crystallized within a year and is now part of the Planning architecture.
During the 11th Five Year Plan process we organized a regional consultation to get civil society feedback. Participation of Civil Society (CS) had thus already become a strong and robust element in the preparation of the Plan.
It has not always been a straightforward process, though. Before my very eyes I have seen the frictions between CS and bureaucracy build up, but also ease, over the years of my tenure. The disdain with which activists were held within these circles has begun to change and there is the beginning of mutual respect. Community based monitoring, social audit, etc. have been written into the formulation of various schemes. I found myself playing less and less the role of apologist for CS. The amicable relationship peaked when one year before the Approach Paper to the 12th Five Year Plan, the very first group to be invited in April 2010 for an informal brainstorming was a group of thought leaders, women and men, all part of CS.
The challenges and the difficulties being faced by the voluntary sector are many. Highly committed people in this sector have to work with rather limited resources, which makes their task even more difficult. And yet I am proud to say that despite all odds, this sector has always shown tremendous enthusiasm and resilience in fighting for various social and developmental causes. 
India particularly, has a very vibrant voluntary sector and the efforts of CSOs and VOs in India are now increasingly acknowledged all across the world. We know for a fact that in the last few years we have managed to get some very progressive legislation and action, like the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, because of the persistent and untiring efforts of the voluntary sector.
In my travels across the length and breadth of this country, particularly in the last 7 years, I have seen first-hand the work and the potential of the voluntary sector. When I visited Metiabruz in West Bengal a few years ago, I found that people are aware of their problems, also articulate them, but neither they nor voluntary organizations working there are aware of government policies. Many such Metiabruz exist in India today, living out the tragedy of our schemes and policies that people don’t know about or have no access to. After many years of toil, we have got a policy on the voluntary sector. It has been our dream and our need. Having been part of the voluntary sector I realize the importance of the policy, but equally the need for it to be widely disseminated, so that voluntary organizations may make use of it.
For long now I have been a vociferous campaigner for strengthening the social sector. I have always believed that good governance is strengthened through people’s participation. Voluntary organizations facilitate peoples’ participation, which is a fact I have experienced during my sojourns in the field across the country, first as a member of the National Commission for Women and now for the last couple of years, as a member of the planning commission. This policy recognizes this critical contribution of the voluntary sector.
The concept of volunteerism and social action is not new in this country and I will not go into the details of that. But what is important to assimilate is that voluntary organizations have played a pivotal role both during pre-independence and also during the freedom struggle. The voluntary sector has shown tremendous enthusiasm and resilience in raising the banner against social evils, fighting social malpractices, articulating social and developmental concerns and acting as a feedback channel for policy makers. The Right to Information Act 2005 is the testimony of their growing power and positive role in society.
Fact is that there are almost 1.2 million VO’s in India today, assuming various roles and responsibilities, especially of being watchdogs for the government, when it comes to protection of human rights like documenting torture cases, taking up right to work campaigns, creating awareness in fighting social evils, or identifying and articulating social issues, or providing feedback to policy makers. But their role doesn’t end here. Just pointing out problems is not enough, it is important to solve them too. Two years ago, I visited Archana Women’s Centre in Kottayam that provides sources of livelihood and has made a breakthrough in breaking social barriers by training women for jobs like carpentry and masonary. I think it’s a good example of innovative, out-of-the-box thinking that also breaks stereotypes, while providing skills. Voluntary organizations in India have certainly proved their mettle, penetrating the remotest corners of the country, reaching across terrains that had been untouched by government schemes. They have been able to articulate the problems and dilemmas of the grassroots and bring their issues to the mainstream. They have been able to mobilize people for constructive community work. I witnessed this first hand in the closed tea estates of Jalpaiguri. The tea garden workers there had no bijli, no paani, and no health facilities, no schools, no transport and were marred by rampant poverty. Women and men barely survived; their only means of livelihood was breaking stones in the dolomite mines of nearby Bhutan. The 9 percent growth of the GDP held no meaning for the bigha mazdoors who till today earn just Rs 12 a day! I witnessed the absence of the government machinery, yet was comforted by the presence of local groups like the Jan Kalyan Matri Sangh who are engaged in organizing young boys and girls into rescue and rehab groups. These groups were and are still the only hope in the forlorn lives of the tea garden workers.
Everywhere I have gone, from Leh to Trivandrum, from the dhanis of Udaipur where Sewa Mandir is doing commendable work to the tiny islands in Andaman and Nicobar where organizations like SANE are fighting to ensure rights for the PTGs, I have seen the commendable work of the voluntary sector. I was in Kashmir immediately after the earthquake and I have seen how voluntary organizations from across the country had come together and were reaching the remotest villages taking with them aid that was needed. How many lives have been saved and how many empowered by the work of our NGOs and civil society organizations!
Many would argue that a sudden rise of the number of NGO’s indicates inactive government machinery, although this may be true to some measure, for me the proliferation of NGOs, CBOs, SHGs is also indicative of increasing awareness among people. This shows an increasing effort by the people to shape their own lives and destinies- it was the dawn of a new era and the government recognized this. So in March 2000, the Government declared Planning Commission as the nodal agency for GO-NGO interface. The message was clear- government has to and will work with the voluntary sector.
But while engagement and partnership is important, we also needed a policy to articulate this and therein lay a foundation for this partnership. In June 2003, we decided on the need to have a policy for the voluntary sector. Four years of intense discussion with friends from the voluntary sector and in May 2007, the cabinet approved the new policy. It is also now included in the 11th Five Year Plan chapter and is endorsed by the NDC.
The National Policy on the Voluntary Sector is a testament of our commitment to encourage, enable and empower an independent and effective voluntary sector. While officially recognizing the contribution of the voluntary sector and the need for Government-Voluntary Sector partnership, the policy recognizes that project grants are a useful means for both the Government to promote its activities without its direct involvement and a valuable source of support to small and medium Voluntary Organizations. It highlights the need for Government to encourage all Central and State Government agencies to introduce pre-service and in-service training modules on constructive relations with voluntary organizations. It recognizes the difficulties faced by the voluntary sector in accessing government schemes and suggests ways to tackle this. The main objective of the national Policy on the Voluntary Sector is to identify systems by which the Government may work together with the Voluntary Organizations on the basis of the principles of mutual trust, respect and shared responsibility. The National Policy on the Voluntary Sector recognizes the importance of independence of voluntary organizations, which allows them to explore alternative models of development.
The accountability and credibility of the voluntary sector has been questioned time and again. We therefore believe that there is a need for accreditation of voluntary organizations, which will lead to better funding decisions and make the funding processes more transparent. Accreditation may provide incentives for better governance, management and performance of voluntary organizations. At present no reliable accreditation system is in place. The Government will need to encourage the voluntary sector, to develop alternative accreditation methodologies.
The National Policy on the voluntary sector is just the beginning of the process to evolve a new working relationship between the government and the voluntary sector without affecting its autonomy and identity. Already 3 expert groups have been constituted to carry forward the recommendations of the policy. Some state governments are also coming up with drafts for a similar policy for their own states.
There are many areas in which we seek help of the voluntary sector- for social audits, behaviour change, good governance and increasingly even for better service delivery. We want to ensure that no section of the population is deprived of the benefits of our schemes and policies. We believe that this may be done through decentralization, through increased stakeholder participation and through Public Private Partnerships (PPP). PPP is not just with the profit sector, but also with committed civil society organizations. I have seen several excellent examples of this – for example, Char area of Assam where “Akha” (Ship of hope) provides health services in partnership with state government, the NRHM and UNICEF, has taken healthcare to the forgotten people of the river islands of Dibrugarh, Dhemaji and Tinsukia districts in Upper Assam. In Udaipur School Health system the government in partnership with Nandi Foundation is taking quality healthcare to school children.
It takes months and years of painful effort to build trust. This trust between government and CS is by now on a firm foundation. Consultations with citizens on the Approach Paper to the 12th Plan began on many platforms, including the internet. Members of Planning Commission travelled across the country attending Public Meetings called by CS around various sectoral issues to gather inputs for the 12 Five Year Plan. We learnt important lessons. For example in a Tribal Hearing we attended in a place called Tilda near Raipur, Chhatisgarh, our teachers were women and men from 13 states who had gathered to inform us of their concerns. The culmination of this process was a book Approaching Equity; Civil Society Inputs for the Approach Paper- 12 Five year Plan produced collectively by group effort coordinated by Wada Na Todo Abhiyan. We planners use it as reference as we think about the detailing of the 12 Five Year Plan.  
By : Syeda Hameed, The author is Member, Planning Commission, New Delhi.  (E-mail:


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