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[Indian Journal of Federal Studies]









Indian Journal of Federal Studies

Book Reviews


I - Ajay K.Mehra, Anil K. Singh and Gert W. Kueck, eds., Society, Politics & the Voluntary Sector (New Delhi: Voluntary Action Network India, Konrad Adenauer Foundation and Centre for Public Affairs, 2003), pp.359, Price: 300.

Since the historic age of the ancient Greek philosophers, the political role of the individual and organized group has remained an area of prime interest among the academic fraternity the world over. Over the centuries, the factor of morality, tradition and religious values have been replaced by the ideas like terms of secularity propounded by modern liberal thinkers. Away from the Hellenic world, Central and Western Europe became the axis of the two major trends created by the Renaissance and the Reformation periods which in fact provided the solid rim of organizing polity and civil society. It is, however, a different matter that both the concepts (which are also functional units) have been interpreted in most impossible ways depending on the level of the understanding and perception of the discussants. What distinguishes most the Afro-Asian and Latin American countries from the West is the functioning, interplay and legitimacy of state and civil society in individual and collaborative mode.

Discourse on issues like development, people's participation and good governance in India necessarily requires not only an analysis of the role of the State but also of the voluntary associations. Both the institutions have grown over decades and expanded their horizon to include as many roles as possible on the pretext of contributing to the well-being of the people. Most of their charter of rights and responsibilities carry over colonial legacies which continue to result in sometimes great incompatibilities. As result of the tremendous pressure of political culture, the Indian State is capable of serving, in general, the interests of the few at the cost of many. There are many who have a number of grievances against the negligence of governmental agencies in many sectors. In fact, with the expansion of political delivering agencies like the participatory institutions of the local self-governments from village to the municipal levels, the graph of discontentment has not declined. On the contrary, so-called democratization has exposed the weaknesses of the people involved in the welfare. New disputes have surfaced between the locally elected leaders and the development officials on the allocation of funds and expenditure. Some leaders of the Panchayat (representing villages) and the counselor (representing zones of small towns) are disturbed over their inabilities to seek their legitimate rights. On the other hand, the local voters have not witnessed any remarkable transformations with revolutionary 73th and 74th Constitutional Amendments. In other words, the dilemma of development remains intact in the minds of people who need, at the minimalist level, at least good education, water, housing, sanitation, transportation, law and order and health care.

On the other hand, voluntary social institutions popularly known as non-governmental organizations have mushroomed in India without much desired results. These institutions which emerged as the part of Catholic humanism in larger parts of Europe are now operating as donor agencies in India. They are likely to be in a position to influence the policy and decisions of foreign governments more than what they could do to themselves. In fact, most of the NGOs in the West are somehow associated with state political parties which are either in power or in opposition. So they are not completely neutral in terms of their orientation and objectives. Some NGOs which are funded by religious or charity organizations have their own goals. Similarly, the voluntary associations supported by global capitalists and the Hegemon have their own agenda. In one way or the other, these voluntary associations seem to be obliged to endorse their own objectives in direct or indirect ways.

Therefore, the operational aspect of the foreign funded agencies or of foreign agencies in India need to be studied closely in the context of its implications over a long time. Their projects are based on their own guided principles and area of interests. What has emerged after some time of their presence in the country is the emerging 'super-positivism' of donor agencies particularly in terms of their exercise. What also seems to strike is the fact that these bodies have maintained the policy of 'benign neglect' particularly in the field of constructive criticism. As a result, the performance of the NGOs aided by the foreign countries and the Indian State has created more 'coffee shops' than hospitalizing the needs of the people. They can be said to be successful in employing highly educated youths and intelligent minds but again they have work under their auspices. Therefore, the whole exercise seems to be 'goal oriented' than 'need oriented'. Whereas indigenous voluntary organizations are at least closer to 'need oriented' factor. This can be understood by observing the victory of a transnational cold drink company over the rightful objection of an indigenous NGO and later silence maintained by many high-class foreign aided NGOs and Indian brands (working in the field of health sector) over this issue.

In correspondence with the above perceptions, it seems reasonable to mention that the political task of a society or collectivity, i.e., development, inclusion and people's participation remain unaccomplished due to the incompetence and irregularities shown by both the governmental agencies and also by large number of NGOs. As a result, there are greater need for both pursuing 'constitutionalism' by the State and 'volunteerism' by the NGOs in compliance with the need and expectation of the people in larger human interests.

How can this tendency be described with reasonable text? What can be done in the case of inefficient State or in case of limited its role? Who has taken up challenging assignments in the zone of people's management? In other words, Some answers to such questions and inquiries have been academically attempted by the book edited by Ajay K. Mehra, Anil K. Singh and Gert W. Kueck. This collection of articles is focused on many important aspects to situate NGOs in between society and politics. Forwarding remarks of Gert W. Kueck in fact underline the purpose of the contents of the book in 'need oriented' framework. To him 'peace and justice in human society can only be ensured through the general well being of al its members, participation and self-help have to be considered as two elements that are close to the heart of democracy'. He rightly argues that people have to be enabled to take part in both the decision making and benefits of a given activity. He has also cautioned that the process of social mobilization and empowerment harbours also the seeds of potential conflicts.

First paper of the book begins with the thought provoking writings of Mohit Bhattacharya who conceptualizes the debate on the voluntary sector in the context of India. He picks up the beautiful quote of S. C. Dubey: "Not everything in tradition is evil. Compassion, concern for collective good and selfless action are not values that were useful only in the past. It appears that they will be meaningful values for the future also. As such there should be no unnecessary haste to reject them to adopt a path of gross materialism that emphasizes personal consumption at the cost of social justice. Nor should we underplay structural features that highlight social harmony, community-ness, mutual help and cooperation, and the quality of interpersonal relations. It is essential to rethink, therefore, many of the key traditional values and institutional patterns and to assign them the place, which they richly deserve in the scheme of the alternative future that we visualize". Mohit has come out with a constructive approach to view the rise of civil society (pp.24-30). To him, civil society groups can be effective in shaping state policy if the state itself has coherent powers for setting and enforcing policy. Good non-governmental advocacy work will actually tend to strengthen, not weaken state capacity. He has suggested for restructuring of state power and checks and balances for NGOs in the domain of socio-economic reconstruction. Balveer Arora traces debate on voluntary organizations as part of the 'new institutionalism' doctrine of James G. March and J. P. Olsen which is based on the premise that political democracy depends not only on economic and social conditions but also on the design of the political institutions. Balveer Arora has used a better term 'voluntariat' and its place in civil society. Voluntary sector belongs to the umbrella of civil society institutions. He has wisely looked into the interdependence and mutual support between state and voluntary sector institutions. He gives an example of France where socialist governments under Mitterand advanced welfare state services through voluntary sector. He refers to 'federalism' which encourages federal structuring for being effective in interest articulation, organization and performance. Balveer Aroralooks at post-1980s Federal India more under the pressure of open economy which led it to decentralize further. This gave rise to an additional tier of self-government institutions. He finds a close nexus between voluntary sector institutions and the local governing institutions. To him, voluntary sector institutions have found the higher judiciary a most valuable and powerful ally. Ever since the Supreme Court relaxed the rules for locus standi and opened the door to public interest litigation, the voluntary sector has vastly encouraged and has learnt to use this institutional device to good effect. The increasingly large number of judicial interventions, notably in areas concerning executive corruption and non-performance, environmental protection, public health and safety have seen voluntary sector institutions play major roles (p.46).

John Samuel endorses positivism of voluntary associations by legitimizing them through Gandhian legacy of voluntary action. He has discussed four phases of social action after 1977 when the Janata coalition had come to power at the Centre after defeating the Congress in 1977 general elections. What has not been mentioned by the writer in dealing with these phases is the phenomenon of the submission of constitutionalism to party politics. One of the reasons of the rejection of the Congress policy was also the 'majoritarian rejection' of revolutionary measures suggested in the Indian Constitution. There were of course many instances of personalization of Indian politics during the emergency period. But it is also a reality that the then federal government had shown commitment to the policy of nationalization and a strong federal executive. Later, the same revolutionary leaders withdrew from their commitment to constitutionalism. It is after the federal executive became politicized and punctured by communitarian rhetoric, many non-state agencies sprang up afterwards. It would be too early to add (p. 78) that '(I)n the last twenty years the impact of social action has been more visible in four sets of roles such as supplementary, advocacy, legitimizing and philanthropic'. Papers of D. Rajasekhar and Neelima Khetan deal with the categories, structures and regulatory framework of NGOs (p.87-128). The paper of Bidyut Chakrabarty occupies most important place in discourse of state and non-state agencies. He has looked into the wisdom of planning in India which has time and again endorsed the greater need of voluntary agencies in the field of development. He traces the articulation of the 1978 Ashok Mehta Committee which accorded the role to voluntary agencies in the developmental activities of rural areas. Bidyut has shown useful concerns of the Planning Commission and Five Year Plans particularly in the legitimizing the role of the voluntary agencies. To him, '(T)he Sixth Plan is probably the beginning of a process in which the voluntary agencies became an integral part of the development agenda of the Indian state. He has also provided useful information and analyses on the expansive aspect of the voluntary agencies underlined by the Sixth, Seventh and Eighth Five Year Plans. He quotes Adrian Leftwich's significant view-- what counts for specific type of development is not the system of government but the type of state, regardless of whether it is democratic or not.

Vasanthi Raman's paper is focused on the legitimacy of the inclusion of women in the fields of devolvement. She has pointed out four areas of concern in the context of the welfare of women: (a) the sex ratio and the question of the girl child in its totality, (b) women's work, (c) women, family and the right to property and (d) women and the political process. O. P. Sharma has looked into the role of the voluntary sectors in health and family welfare in India. Ajay K. Mehra has viewed both voluntary associations and political parties as originating from the urge for freedom of association in democratic culture. He has looked into the common values and tradition shared by both the institutions. He justifies the rationale of the emergence of voluntary agencies in a situation characterized by the lack of the success of the centralized planning, weakening of the party system and resultant paralysis in the political process. D. Rajasekhar and P. Shobana have made the case-study of Tamil Nadu to examine NGO economic programmes in poverty alleviation. They have identified four dimensions of poverty: assets, resources, knowledge and rights. They have rightly said that poverty alleviation covers providing material possessions and opportunities to obtain income to meet the basic needs. Poverty reduction implies sustainable alleviation of poverty covering all the four dimensions. While the preconditions required for poverty reduction are providing infrastructure covering irrigation, extension services, marketing facilities, education, health and rule of law. They also identify micro-finance strategy for providing the rural and urban poor, especially women, with savings and credit facilities. Both the government and non-state agencies have adopted this strategy. They have found some unavoidable constraints in the empowerment and good income of women in their study on the impact of the craft activity on the poor. But the craft activity certainly gave them better confidence and awareness on developmental programmes of the government.

PRIA has over-estimated the conceptual validity of NGOs as civil society in the given context. In fact, the violation of the code of being civil society unfortunately begins from many 'takers'. People in general come at the end. However, the paper is very rich in crucial information on the local governing bodies. Vijay Pratap and Thomas Wallgren broadly discuss dynamics of the civic community in crating human fraternity in broader context. What can be the criticized openly is the aspect of proof-reading. The book is an important initiative in the emerging discourse on interfacing voluntary agencies with governmental responsibilities.

Arshi Khan

II - T.K. Oommen, Nation, Civil Society and Social Movements: Essays in Political Sociology, New Delhi: Sage Publications, 2004, pp.266, Price Rs.495.

Assertion of ethno-religious identities has emerged as a dominant global reality during the last two decades. This has, in turn, questioned the basic premises of the nation-state, which was conceived as the most authentic expression of group life and all encompassing political community. The strong faith reposed in the idea of nation-state and citizenship as means of striking equality, protecting liberty and enhancing fraternity among the people of diverse social-economic locations stands shattered. The neutrality of the state and disjunction between ethnicity and state is under question. The unproblematised assumptions of the hyphenated concept of nation-state are contested by the emergent global reality of ethno-national movements, assertion of minorities for their identity and rights, and a strong politics of identity and politics of representation. Now minority and disadvantaged groups are demanding their space in the structure of governance. Autonomy and self-governing rights are major agenda of the new social movement across the world. This has resulted into compounding ethnic conflicts in different parts of the world, which in turn, has provided terrain of contestation to many of the received ideas and notion. In the process the very idea of the nation-state has been seen as homogenising and hegemonic entity. The experiences show that nation-state is Euro-centric construct, and in many situations and conditions state has been conflated with nation in their conceptualization, which has particularly been highlighted by the author. The conflation of state and nation has given rise to many wrong policies of the state towards its ethnic groups and minorities. The occurrences of ethnic violence are, thus, not unconnected with the approach of the state towards different ethnic groups, and the very conceptualization of the state as nation-state. This is not confined only to the case of the developing world which have attempted to emulate the model of the West for building their own structure of state and society but also in the developed world of the West which have been regarded as the citadels of the idea of nation-state. In the given situation, the politics of identity and ethnicity has emerged very forceful. Why have these emerged in such a proportion and what have been the nature of such assertion, how have they been expressed in different parts of the world, are some of the problematic questions which have invited the attention of the scholars across the world and across the disciplines. The problematics have steered research both empirical and theoretical in different parts of the world. The present book also falls in this line which not only analyses the emerging trends, but also ponders over the conceptual categories and their empirical grounding. Terminological exactitude and clarity of concepts are basic pre-requisites of social sciences, the deficit of which can not only abound confusion but also lead to unhealthy state society relationships. Clarity of concepts and logical conformity of arguments are specific strength of the author's writings. The present work also takes care of this dimension. The book organized into 12 chapters addresses to three interrelated themes: (a) nation and nationalism; (b) civil society and governance; (c) policy and social movements. Though the basic reference points of the book relate to Indian specificity in its south Asian context, the underlying currents serve as the basis of grand theorization. In a sense theory and empirical facts are inextricably interwoven in all the chapters.

The concept of nation and state has been the part of the grand narratives of modernity. As a consequence, the project of nation and state building in third world countries has not been congruent with the European experience, for the societies in these countries have been traditional and diverse. Multiple allegiances have not been co-terminus with the terminal loyalties to the nation-state of the western construct. In South Asia nation has been used in multiple senses. Sometimes, a dichotomy between one's village and urban centre (outside one's village) exists, wherein the former is referred as 'Desh' and latter as 'Pardesh'. This gets reflected in the folk-lore, folk-songs and localised form of one's identity in the Indian rural side. A certain amount of confusion and dichotomy exists between a region and grand construction of nation. Moreover, civilisation, religion, region, culture are used as exclusive and autonomous basis of the concept of nation in South Asia. This aspect has been very exhaustively undertaken by the author. He comprehensively lists out seven ways in which nation has been defined in South Asia. These are: (i) ancient civilisational entity (ii) composite culture, (iii) political entity (iv) religious entity, (v) geographical/territorial entity, (vi) a collection of linguistic entities, and (vii) unit of great and little nations. He convincingly argues that none of these provides a sufficient basis of conceptualization of nation in the Indian sub-continent in its entirety.

He forcefully argues that language and territory are main basis of nation formation, which proves more appropriate and near to the empirical cases. But ironically there are strong tendencies to conflate state to nation and state building as the nation building. This conflation has given rise to multiple and compounded problem of programmes and policies of the state towards the ethnic groups. He further argues that religion cannot provide authentic basis of nation formation and national identity. Therefore, any effort to espouse nationalism by invoking religious exclusivity is not only alienating but also exclusionary. On the basis of the available experiences he advances the argument that any such project in the past has not succeeded and it is bound to fail in the future also.

Moreover, he recapitulates variety of forms and mode in which nationalism may be expressed and articulated. The tabular presentation of the types of new nationalisms and their main features provides insights into the understanding of the mode and basis of nationalist construction across the culture.

Good governance and cultural renewal are two important emerging concerns in contemporary India. But what should be the basis of cultural renewal and as to how to ensure good governance, are major terrain of contestation. The author critically examines the issues and provides a perspective which could serve as the basis of cultural renewal and good governance in accommodative mould. He argues that there are at least four prevailing perspectives of cultural renewal in India: i. Traditionalist, ii. Nationalist, iii. Modernist and iv. Pluralist. The first three perspectives have inherent limitations in the multicultural situation of India, for each of the perspectives appears alienating/exclusionary. The only viable option, he proposes, for the sustainable renewal of India is the unambiguous acceptance of pluralism. Any serious student of society and politics would not deny the proposition, if mode of renewal is not directed towards assimilation and exclusion but accommodation, wherein each and every segment of the society gets its due and legitimate recognition. He rightly points out the limitation of religion as the basis of cultural renewal in a multi-religious society and democratic polity like the Indian. In given situation, therefore, he proposes, language as the most viable and pertinent basis for authentic renewal of the Indian polity, both for the reasons of its secular potential and its capacity of minimising inter-communal conflicts.

Once pluralism and secularism are accepted as the basis of cultural renewal of India, they should also inform the agenda of good governance, and this proposition runs throughout the book. The four prerequisites of good governance outlined in the book are: (a) informing the process of recruiting the ruling elite with legitimacy, (b) facilitating proportionate representation of all segments of population in governance, (c) ensuring respect for dominated by the dominant, (d) instituting a reward punishment mechanism. Though all the requisites are important and there is hardly any scope for differential priority, one cannot undermine the aspect of representation of all segments of society in the process of good governance. This has been highlighted by the author. This dimension not only comes closer to the multicultural imperatives of governance but also facilitates the values of citizenship, both in essence and appearance. The arguments advanced in chapters validate this fact. Integral to this dimension is the need of balancing the three domains of state, market and society. The author traces out this act of balancing and its deficit in India since independence.

Taken as a whole the book is an important contribution in the literature on ethnicity, identity and accommodation. It not only rigorously examines the many concepts implied in the understanding of state-society relationship in diverse society but also provides perspectives on patterning the relationship between state and society. It has specific relevance in formulating public policy which aims at social inclusion and political accommodation in democratic mode. It would prove to be worthy collection, as other works by the same author, for libraries, social scientists and researchers, people involved in policy making, and students of society and polity in India at large.

Kumar Suresh


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