Never has the importance of collaboration between the government and grassroots Civil Society Organisations (CSO) been more apparent than in the past two years. Soon after the national lockdown was announced in March 2020, to curb the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic, thousands of migrants began to return to their home states as employment opportunities dried up. Finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana — a ₹1.6 lakh crore Covid relief package — and the State and CSOs worked together to help the rural poor, who were reeling under the loss of livelihoods.
CSOs knew that to make communities resilient, community institutions such as women’s Self-Help Groups (SHGs) and Farmer Producer Organisations (FPOs) must be strengthened. But the bigger lesson we learnt at the time was this: Collaboration between CSOs was transformative.
Soon after the lockdown was announced, a national coalition of seven CSOs was formed. Called the Rapid Rural Community Response to Covid-19 (RCRC), its membership soon grew to 65. One of the first things RCRC did was to organise interactions between members of SHGs and FPOs with senior government officials such as the secretary of the Union ministry of rural development (NN Sinha) and the chairman of NABARD (Harsh Bhanwala), among others. This direct interaction with officials resulted in greater engagement with central schemes such as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS), PM Jan Dhan Yojana and PM Kisan Samman Yojana at a time of unprecedented crisis.
As part of RCRC, organisations followed a twin strategy. While they collaborated with district administrations individually, the coalition worked with the central and state governments, helping in advocacy efforts with the state where individual organisations may not have been that effective, such as in matters pertaining to policy action or resource allocation. What’s more, CSOs together had a collective presence in 110 districts of 15 states, reaching 16 million people.
Member-CSOs in four states — Jharkhand, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat —participated in a year-long campaign making telephone calls as nagarik mitras (citizen friends) which resulted in a larger uptake of government schemes such as widow and old-age pensions among the rural population. This was supported by over 10,000 community resource persons, mostly women, acting like a ground-level force to fight Covid-19. At least 50 CSOs in 12 states trained their workers on Covid-appropriate behaviour (mask-wearing, physical distancing, and hand washing) due to which four million people were made aware of protocols.
Even as the pandemic spread uncontrollably through most of 2020, work on the ground did not stop. In Jharkhand, over 5,200 families were able to enrol for pension, gram panchayats issued 20,172 new job cards under MGNREGS, a government scheme that guarantees 100 days employment and earnings, as local CSOs established help desks to correct the information asymmetry and improve villagers’ access to the scheme. In Udaipur, Rajasthan, a CSO helped enhance enrolment in government schemes meant for vulnerable children, like orphans and those living with HIV/AIDS patients; in Bahraich, Uttar Pradesh, another CSO ensured the supply of lentils as a protein supplement to over 3,500 families through the Public Distribution System.
This is a good example of how the government can use the coalition’s nagarik soochna kendras (citizen help centres) and nagarik mitra innovations to scale up awareness and outreach of schemes.
RCRC also ensured that grassroots CSOs’ perspectives became known to the government. The research team of RCRC conducted three household surveys — in May 2020, July-August 2020 and December 2020-January 2021 — sampling rural vulnerable populations from across the country.
The second survey had 17,000 respondents from 80 districts in 11 states and informed policymakers about the ground situation during Covid-19.
The results of the surveys were shared with the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), NITI Aayog, and the ministry of rural development. The results indicated the extent of precarity in rural India: 40% of the households surveyed in July-August said that they had reduced their food intake (in Bihar, the ratio was higher at 53%); 66% reported they were short of cash for food; in states such as Odisha, Madhya Pradesh and Jharkhand, many households reported not receiving any ration.
Recognising the coalition’s work, the National Rural Livelihoods Mission (NRLM) of the rural development ministry, the Central government and the Indian Council of Agriculture Research (ICAR) signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with RCRC in September 2020.
Over 40 members of RCRC have submitted close to 400 livelihood cluster proposals in 10 states that aim to bring about economic transformation; 175 of these proposals have been approved, implying an investment of ₹70 crore in people’s skills and assets. This is an indication of the potential of a collaborative effort between CSOs themselves, and between the CSOs and the State.
The amendments in the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) effected in September 2020 have imposed an increasing compliance burden on NGOs, which has sent mixed signals to CSOs regarding the government’s intent to collaborate with CSOs.
Our experience has taught us that collaboration between the government and CSOs holds huge potential for improving the welfare of poor people, especially for last-mile coverage. Coalitions such as RCRC addressed the challenges thrown up by the pandemic, and the ensuing lockdown, because they pooled expertise, effort and resources. This is a win-win situation.
Ved Arya is the national convenor of RCRC and the founder of SRIJAN, a not-for-profit organisation. He is also the director of The Buddha Institute, which runs a programme to train and mentor young development entrepreneurs. He has been part of Dasra’s journey by participating in collaborative platforms and enabling support for NGOs working at the frontline in India The views expressed are personal