vol-XCI : December 4, 2011

Dear Colleagues

This is the last reflection for the year 2011 for your perusal.

1. Indian civil society is in the news for a wide variety of reasons, including ‘crazy’ things its more visible protagonists are doing. A saffron-clad ‘activist’ decided to enter a realty TV show called ‘Big Boss’; to show-off what? A former police-woman-cum-activist organizes a ‘ramp-walk’ by poor kids in a fancy Delhi mall; to mainstream fashion shows? And, some tribal activists in eastern region of the country make fuss that one well-known activist (who is not a tribal himself) was named to receive an award for doing excellent work towards tribal empowerment; you may ask why I was given an award for gender justice, since I am not a woman? These ‘high profile’ actions by certain sections of civil society may distract attention from the deeper, more important work that civil society is doing in India today.

2. The incidence of disability in many traditional societies remains under-reported and under-recognised; stigma keeps public acknowledgement of disability under cover. In Lucknow, capital of India’s largest state UP, a recent workshop highlighted this plight. Professional services for the well-being of the disabled are lacking in this state; some civil society actors have begun to professionalise the same. Resourcing such professional services to enable the disabled to be active and productive in mainstream society is the biggest challenge. Government schemes are designed to under-fund professional quality inputs required; families with limited means can not afford to pay for such services; the well-off hesitate to include their family members (specially kids) in programmes and institutions where the poor also participate, thereby reducing the potential for cross-subsidisation. Yet, yesterday’s newspapers carried much propaganda from governments on the occasion of World Disability Day?

3. Several civil society actors from Middle-east and North Africa region were sharing their analysis in a recent workshop in Stockholm; they came from Egypt, Bahrain, Palestine, as well as from Sudan, Iran, Jordan. It is very interesting to hear multiple interpretations of what’s going on in these societies these past several months. Different perspectives and issues of mobilization, roles of youth, social media, women’s leadership and response of the regimes are being expressed. Most have been hopeful of positive changes emerging form these assertions of citizens. It reminds me of the similar situation post-apartheid in South Africa; in the mid 1990s, we used to hear several interpretations of those events, yet mostly hopeful. Where is South Africa now? Are there some lessons for civil society from these ‘revolutions’?

4. The Infosys campus in Mysore has been built to create a large educational institution where thousands of young boys and girls receive professional education prior to starting work in Infosys. It is a beautiful campus; large, green, well-maintained, highly regimented and orderly. It appears that all the top IT companies of India have several such campuses around the country, and nearly 100,000 students are receiving professional education as interns prior to joining the companies as employees. The need for internal provision of basic engineering knowledge was felt by these IT companies since the ‘product’ from existing engineering colleges was ‘sub-standard’. This is a private solution for what is essentially a public goods problem—supply of high quality engineering education from public and private institutions in India. These IT companies could have instead influenced public policy and institutions to reform such educational provisions—to ensure that such public goods are available to broader society. The ‘funny’ thing is that these wonderful campuses and their educational programmes, in effect, get subsidized by Indian tax-payers since these famous IT companies have enjoyed tax holidays for nearly 15 years.

5. Civil society in middle income countries is facing a severe challenge of funding. International NGOs working in these middle income countries are also experiencing the ‘donor fatigue’ for supporting their work in such middle income countries. Several of them have been trying to raise funds from within such countries, including setting up local entities, etc. One such INGO has been aggressively advertising for raising fundsfrom Indian public through a series of newspapers ads. It raises questions about the disadvantage faced by local, indigenous NGOs who lack funds and capacities for such high-profile advertising? Should this situation not be used to build such capacities for local, indigenous NGOs?

Thanking you

Rajesh Tandon