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Journey of Civil Society Organisations in India

In Indian history, the culture of daana (giving) and seva (service) has been prevailing for ages. This culture can be aligned with the concept of civil society. The early Medieval era marked the presence of voluntary organisations with a major focus on cultural promotion, natural disaster relief, education, and health. During British rule, these organisations proliferated, working to improve social welfare and literacy, and pursuing relief projects.

In India, the growth of civil society can be traced largely through three main phases identified by Sahoo (2013) which deserve mention: the first one is the period of Nehru (1947-1964) characterised by a civil society that was controlled by the elites; second is the regime of Indira Gandhi (1967-1977) in which a mass-based civil society is said to have emerged; third is the Congress Government and Structural Adjustment Programme (1991-1997) characterised by a drastic rise of NGO activity in India followed by the professionalization of these NGOs.

India is on the cusp of social transformation. From Swadeshi Movement to Digitisation of CSO’s, a look at major milestones of civil society’s evolution.

Milestones of Civil Society's Evolution

© Illustration by Richa Kumari

1. Swadeshi Movement: the Swadeshi Movement, now known as the 'Make in India' campaign was officially proclaimed on August 7, 1905. Mahatma Gandhi’s Swadeshi movement shifted the focus of development activities to economic self-sufficiency and held that the self-reliance of villagers on the local resources will bring the nation to prosperity.

2. Bhoodan Movement: The Bhoodan Movement (Land Gift Movement) also known as the Bloodless Revolution was a voluntary land reform movement in India. This movement was started by Vinoba Bhave in the year 1951. By 1969, the Bhoodan had collected over 4 million acres of land for redistribution to the landless without any compensation.

3. The Central Social Welfare Board: This board was established in 1953 to carry out social welfare activities. This was the first initiative taken by the Govt. of India, to set up the organisation based on the principle of a non-governmental organization.

In 1958, a three-tier Panchayati Raj system was introduced in the rural areas which led to decentralisation. Around this time, networking was very prominent in civil society and many unions and agricultural cooperatives were formed.

4. Growth of Microfinance: The microfinance sector went on to evolve in the 1980s around the concept of SHGs, informal bodies that would provide their clients with much-needed savings and credit services.

5. NABARD: NABARD was established on 12 July 1982 to implement the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development Act 1981. The govt. of India set up NABARD as a Development Bank intending to promote agricultural activities, small-scale industries, and other development work by facilitating credit flow and other facilities in the villages.

6. Self Help Groups: SHGs first emerged in Mysore Resettlement and Development Agency (MYRADA) in 1985. SHGs represent a large group of informal associations which play an important role in poverty mitigation in rural parts of India. This approach benefits the group by enabling collective decisions and implementation of the program for a common cause.

7. Government Entitlements:

  • Mahatma Gandhi Employment Guarantee Act 2005, MGNREGA: The Indian Parliament passed the MGNREGA Act on 23rd August 2005. This Act aims to enhance the livelihood of the villagers through guaranteed 100 days of wage employment to every adult member in the rural part of India.

  • Right to Information: The Right to Information Act 2005 aims to empower citizens by promoting transparency in government activities and keeping them informed about the working of the government.

  • Right to Education: The Right to Education Act (RTE), is an Act of the Parliament of India enacted on 4 August 2009. This act aims to provide free education for all the children between 6-14 years age group.

  • Right to food: The Right to Food Act aims to provide food and nutritional security to the people at subsidized rates. This benefit is availed by approx. two-third of India’s population.

8. E-Governance: The National e-Governance Plan (NeGP) prepared in the year 2006, laid down the foundation for building a technology-enabled knowledge economy. This initiative aims to simplify government services by using electronic media to stimulate good governance.

9. CSR Acts and Roles: In India, the concept of CSR passed in the year 2013. This Act mandates the contribution of 2% of the company’s net profit towards social development every year. Hence, corporations have started involving CSOs in the implementation of CSR projects.

10. Social Enterprises and Innovations: Social enterprises are very important in the local context and have the potential to contribute to individual, local and regional development. Social enterprise and civil society alliance can alleviate social problems through community engagement and innovative solutions.

11. Digitisation of CSOs: The COVID-19 crisis provided an opportunity to digitalize civic spaces much more extensively and it resulted in new ways of doing work. Digitisation in today’s world is a mega-trend and future of the CSOs.

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Gupta, Shagun(Jan 7, 2016): The Role of Civil Society in Shaping India’s Development Partnerships. Retrieved 21/04/2021.

About CSWB: Retrieved 21/04/2021.

Barbara, Adolph (February 2003): NRI Working Paper - The Role of Self-Help Groups in Rural Non-Farm Employment. Retrieved 21/04/2021.

FAQs on MGNREGA Operational Guidelines - 2003: Retrieved 21/04/2021.

About the Author

Richa Kumari has completed her Master's in Ecology and Environment Studies in 2019 and has been working in the social sector since then. She has sound experience in Holistic Rural Development Project. She is employed as a Young Professional at CSA and her thematic priorities include the Community Leadership Programme, Oak Foundation Programme along with the facilitation of training workshops. Richa is a young, innovative, and progressive thinking person who loves to explore new things and is passionate to bring a positive change in the lives of the communities that she serves.

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