The 5th Pillar of Democracy: Civil Society

The 5th Pillar of Democracy: Civil Society

India is a country that has a historic past, an eventful present, and an aspiring future. The futuristic idea of new India is being marketed by the present government with a hope for better living standards, prosperous economy, powerful defence establishment, and harmonious society in the years to come. The budget has been allocated, schemes have been launched and advertisements, awareness campaigns started to achieve the objective of new India. However, this seems to be inadequate as far as creating a newer version of India is concerned without the active participation of civil society. It is because in a large developing country like India, there are numerous gaps left by the government in the developing process. These are the gaps that civil societies try to fill in modern times. It supplements the government’s efforts to provide health care and education to citizens and by raising awareness in society about various issues.
If anyone needs a crash course in the critical role played by civil society organisations, COVID-19 is providing it—from increased need for the services they provide to those less fortunate, to the strain they are experiencing from lack of supplies and the need to “social distance,” to government having to act too quickly without civil society input. Civil society means the entire range of organised groups and institutions that are independent of the state, voluntary, and at least to some extent self sustaining and self reliant. This includes NGOs, think tanks, social and religious groups. Civil society forms the backbone of democracy and derives its strength from the Gandhian tradition of volunteerism, but today it expresses in many different forms of activism. Democracy does not just revolve around what happens once in five years (elections) but how rights of the citizens are protected and in the manner they are allowed to hold those in power accountable.
India is a representative rather than a participatory democracy. Once the elections are over, the politicians who run the federal and state governments do not really need to go back to the electorate for every major decision – there is no tradition of referendum in India, as in Switzerland or Denmark. So, in the five years between one election and another, civil society is often the only means available to citizens to voice their opinion on any decision taken by the government. A strong and vigilant civil society can be a check on corruption.
A well-functioning civil society is a boon for today’s multi-stakeholder-led paradigm of good governance. Good governance refers to inclusive, consensus-oriented, rule-bound administration that is responsive to citizens’ pressing needs. By virtue of its expertise and goodwill, civil society can help the government improve the quality of governance. Civil society groups perform advocacy by highlighting specific demands of the interest groups they represent. Lobbying with government and legislators on such issues increases the chances of their concerns finding place in upcoming laws and executive decisions

Safapora, which has a block and Niabat status, is a beautiful place situated on the bank of Manasbal Lake, at a junction between the twin districts of Bandipora & Ganderbal. In Safapora people from all walks and interests, such as traders, activists, academicians, writers, environmentalists, lawyers and doctors, etc, have come together on a single platform and have created a vibrant organisation with the name ‘Civil Society Safapora’, which has become an arena for expression of diverse interests and which is supplementing government efforts and contributing to governance by being a watchdog – against corruption and governance deficit, an advocate – of weaker sections’ point of view, an Agitator – on behalf of aggrieved citizens of Safapora, an Educator – of citizens of Safapora on their rights, entitlements and responsibilities, a Service provider – to areas and people not reached by official efforts, and also a Mobiliser – of public opinion.
Civil Society Safapora has also been meeting various ministers and government officials from time to time to lobby for the interests and concerns of their area. This development is bringing a tangible change in the socio-economic and educational spheres of Safapora and is leading it to become a model village

Civil society organisations play multiple roles. They are an important source of information for both citizens and government. They monitor government policies and actions and hold government accountable. They engage in advocacy and offer alternative policies for government, the private sector, and other institutions. They deliver services, especially to the poor and underserved. They defend citizens’ rights and work to change and uphold social norms and behaviours.
India needs the effective role of civil society in the making of new India. All the new initiatives of the government require the participation and awareness of people and there is no better organisation than civil society to achieve this objective. The dream of new India cannot be fulfilled without a vibrant civil society and hence all of us should try to protect civil society for a brighter future tomorrow.

The writer is associated with J&K RTI movement and is also a member of JKIFTS

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