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Civil society under siege

 GS Paper 2

 Syllabus: Governance – The role of NGOs, SHGs, various groups and associations, donors, charities, institutions and other stakeholders.


Source: TH


Context: The article highlights the threat to India’s civic space, emphasizing the impact on progressive organizations.


What are CSOs?

These are non-state, not-for-profit, voluntary entities formed by people in the social sphere that are separate from the State and the market. They represent a wide range of interests and ties and can include community-based organisations as well as non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

Today, about 1.5 million NGOs work in India (i.e., nonprofit, voluntary citizens’ groups organized on a local, national, or international level).



Significance of CSO:

Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) play a pivotal role in democratic societies, fostering active, diverse, and critical civic engagement. In India, CSOs, including non-governmental organisations (NGOs), have been instrumental in shaping policy, public discourse, and community development.


Role of Civil Society Organisations in India

Advocacy for Social JusticeThe National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights (NCDHR) -Eliminates caste-based discrimination and promotes Dalit rights.
Community Empowerment and DevelopmentPratham – Focuses on grassroots education, enhancing literacy levels among underprivileged children.
Monitoring Government AccountabilityAssociation for Democratic Reforms (ADR) – Promotes electoral and political reforms, advocating for transparency in political funding.
Environmental SustainabilityGreenpeace India – Campaigns for ecological sustainability.
Promotion of Civic Education and AwarenessAssociation for Democratic Reforms” (ADR): Raises awareness about democratic values, electoral processes, and citizen rights.
Response to Humanitarian CrisesGoonj – Works on disaster relief.
Promotion of Freedom of ExpressionReporters Without Borders – Advocates for freedom of expression and protects journalists and activists.
InclusivityNaz Foundation – Works towards LGBTQIA+ rights, including anti-discrimination and HIV awareness.
Grassroots Democracy and Participatory GovernanceMazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) – Advocates for the RTI act, encouraging community participation in decision-making processes.


Status of CSOs in India (in terms of restrictions)

Degree of regulationsExamples of Organizations
Highly RegulatedCitizens for Justice and Peace (CJP), Amnesty India, Oxfam, Centre for Equity Studies, Lawyers Collective
Moderately RegulatedCentre for Policy Research (CPR), ANHAD (Act Now for Harmony and Democracy)
Low-Level RegulatedNavsarjan, Save The Children


Instruments being used to restrict civil society:

Instruments UsedLaws and ActsExamples
Legal ChargesPrevention of Money Laundering Act, 2002Charges of money laundering, ED attacks NGOs
Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act, 2010FCRA made stringent in 2010 and 2020
Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI)Empowered to investigate NGOs with lethal impact
Restrictions on Domestic FundingIncome-Tax Act, 2020 amendmentsMandatory renewals of 12A and 80G certificates
Income-Tax SurveysCollecting data for filing more cases


Various instruments, including legal charges, specific laws and acts, and restrictions on domestic funding, are being used to regulate civil society organizations in India. These regulations include charges of money laundering, amendments to laws governing foreign funding, and mandatory renewals impacting tax exemptions.


Impact of these restrictions on CSOs:

  1. Existential threats are faced by civil society actors as their constitutional and civic freedoms are curtailed.
  2. Migrate to safer avenues/ limit the scope of their work/ re-align with the govt.
    1. This is a grave threat to the system’s integrity because civil society is an indispensable safety valve (fixing accountability) for tensions in a polity.
  3. Unable to speak truth/amplify the voicesof the most vulnerable, enrich policies/legislation through constructive feedback.
  4. Unable to further the collective good– not in the national interest.
  5. Young activists could be inducted into political parties → could create an institutionalised moral force within the parties → balance electoral compulsions with ethical/human rights considerations.


Way forward for progressive civil society in India: 

  1. For Government: The government should recognize the importance of a strong civil society for the effectiveness of key laws such as the Right to Information Act, Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, and National Food Security Act.
  2. For NGOs:
    1. Alternate Funding: NGOs are exploring local resource mobilization (LRM) and corporate funding through CSR post-new FCRA laws.
    2. Charitable Funding: Encouraging collective giving can pool resources for a more significant impact.
    3. Technology Utilization: Increased use of data and digital technology can enhance the effectiveness of charitable organizations.
  3. For Young Activists: There is a potential for young activists to join political parties, providing an institutionalized moral force to balance electoral and ethical considerations within party organizations.
  4. The National Policy on Voluntary Sector 2007 aims to encourage, enable, and empower an independent and effective voluntary sector in India. It recognizes the sector’s significant contributions to addressing issues like poverty, discrimination, and exclusion through various means such as awareness, mobilization, service delivery, training, research, and advocacy.
  5. Learning from the Gandhian constructive movement, which complemented the Congress system – an electoral and governance machine.
  6. CSOs will need to urgently collaboratewith other progressive stakeholders.
  7. Private philanthropies and companiesneed to realise that they are the only lifeline for progressive CSOs today.



The inaction today will directly contribute to the extinction of civil society – the fifth pillar of Indian democracy. Therefore, by devising new methods of principled coalition we can safeguard and eventually further the constitutional idea of India.


Insta Links:


Mains Links:

  1. Can civil society and non-governmental organisations present an alternative model of public service delivery to benefit the common citizen? Discuss the challenges of this alternative method. (UPSC 2021)