Civil society: A nursery of creative & compassionate impulses
In any democratic society, there are limitations within which the market and the state work. There are social questions which neither the market nor the state is able to resolve completely. Recently, during the lockdown due to Covid-19, a massive migration of workers took place. In the initial stages, the markets were closed more or less, and the state transport services were also not functional. A large number of voluntary groups and individuals provided food, shelter, medicines and other support to the migrants. Subsequently, when the state intervention began and charges for private transport increased, many good Samaritans supplemented their efforts for the state. No matter what kind of social crisis was, be it a disaster in UttarKashi or other problems, the spirit of service to others before self, manifest in different forms and in various degrees. It is not just shock-absorbing role that civil society plays but also the civil society helps in preventing major crisis by giving vent to the problems, drawing attention of the administers to the issues and at times, widening the space for social debate. Even when solutions are missing, civil society initiatives had led to many social innovations that have changed the institutional landscape of the country forever. It is true that along with positive and constructive role, civil society can also play a critical and sometime confrontational role. Democracy thrives when such roles are pursed in a non-violent, peaceful and decorous ways.
The challenge is to expand the innovative role of civil society and increase tolerance for critical and sometime disruptive role of civil society. For example, Right to Information, requirement of declaration of all the cases against the candidates contesting an election, hawkers and street vendors to use public roads, micro finance and micro insurance, micro venture innovation fund and the entire grassroots innovation movement in the world have emerged through civil society initiatives. It is natural that if there are unmet needs and the current social policy and public and private institutions don’t cater to those needs, then some resistance will be felt when new policy and the arrangement are advocated. By widening the space for public dissent, the diversity of opinions will increase, and the receptive polity and bureaucracy can benefit from the emerging options to improve the effectiveness of public policy and institutions.
Incremental improvements are important if radical transitions are to be avoided. So long as democratic norms and value are upheld, the state should have nothing to fear from an assertive civil society. Healthy criticism helps in fertilizing the nursery of ideas. One has to accept that not all good ideas will come from any one source, institution or a section of society. Wisdom of common people sustains the life of an ant, squirrel, stray dog and a lot of homeless people besides numerous other market mediated causes as well. One can imagine if a country of India’s size, there are only a few thousands shelters for homeless people. So much more remains to be done so that no one person has to sleep hungry or on the pavements. A lot of social innovations, platforms and institutional initiative shave emerged through civil society initiatives which have nurtured social, inclusive imagination. We need more, not less of such innovations. Young people joining these platforms/organizations should feel emboldened to often take less paying but perhaps more fulfilling opportunities in civil society institutions. The state should encourage civil society initiatives in mobilizing popular will for solving large scale social problems. Given the Covid19 induced job losses in our country, civil society should be encouraged to run employment bureaus and service organizations to reskill and redeploy the people. There is a huge crisis in the small business sector because of continuing Covid-19 precautions. And these precautions are important and necessary. Under such circumstances, the state needs active support from civil society organizations to mitigate the distress and if necessary, provide food/job/skills to the jobless where needed and for whatever period needed.
There will be cases where methods or strategies of protest by civil society will not be to the liking of the state. In such cases, without violating the basic norms of peace and order, the state will have to show maximum tolerance and help sustain as it has done in the case of three months old farmers’ protest. Barring one very unfortunate incident, which was the unacceptable violence on the Republic Day, that protest remained more or less peaceful. One of the tragedies of the recent times is that distributed and decentralized protest do not get sufficient attention and response. The result is that every major social movement tries to assert its power in the national capital. The centralization of the arena of protest begun decades ago is one of the greatest weaknesses of our democratic institutions. We have to increase the sensitivity of local administration at all levels to pay attention to the protest, respond to the genuine grievances and state the key difference as transparently as possible. It is nobody’s argument that every interest group based on various sectarian identities should get their demands met through social protest. A democratic society with robust judicial institutions and legislative bodies will have to deal with such protests within the constitutional umbrella. The disagreement should not become a reason for disrespect. So long as democratic functioning allows disagreements to be negotiated peacefully and non-violently, the future of democracy is safe. After all there are periodic elections and people get a chance to elect a government of their choice. No matter, which government and where, the disagreement will remain. Civil society organizations can help in channelizing social disagreements in a peaceful and orderly manner. By constraining this space, we are actually reducing the middle ground. We have seen the extremists’ movements in the past and some of these are still prevalent in certain pockets at present. Our society at large does not support extremism of any kind. Buddha’s middle path is deeply ingrained in our culture, society and polity. Let us sustain it.