The Pioneer, Feb 10, 2008
Viewers of English-language TV news channels will have noticed the frequency with which a mysterious community called "activists" has begun popping up. On subjects as diverse as education, health, industrialisation and religion, the utterances of politicians, officials, corporates and the man in the street are invariably countered with views of "activists" presumed to have profound expertise on all subjects. There is also an implicit suggestion that the "activists" are detached, selfless and not burdened by the baggage of interest groups. In short, they are a superior and pious voice in the rabble.
It may be unfair to lump "activists" into the umbrella category of NGOs. There are many non-profit organisations that perceive themselves as philanthropic bodies, charities, religious trusts and even social organisations which occasionally dabble in "social work". They raise their own resources, have nothing to do with the Government but hate being clubbed with "activist" NGOs. What distinguishes normal NGOs from "activist" groups is funding, political involvement and what the Americans call attitude. The "activists" tend to be globally funded, politically Left-liberal or worse, and blessed with the conviction that they know best and everyone else is garbage.
At the 1999 Seattle summit of the World Trade Organisation, The Economist estimated some two million NGOs in the world; of these, about a million were in India. The numbers have increased over the past nine years, more so because a growing number of entrepreneurs have discovered business potential in NGOs. To be fair, most activists are not racketeers, though they have an insatiable appetite for publicity, business class travel and endless conferences in exotic places. Activists from the so-called Third World which, tragically, still includes India, have also developed considerable skills in guilt-tripping angst-ridden Western liberals and UN-sponsored bodies into doling out lavish grants. The grants are ostensibly aimed at facilitating "people's empowerment", a euphemism for good salaries, many conferences, media lollipops and sponsorship of agitations that impede national progress.
The activists ostensibly want to "help people help themselves". Some genuinely try to help the informal sector get legal protection and end up getting thrashed by goons. Others, rope in starry-eyed TV reporters from privileged backgrounds and gap-year radical tourists to give legitimacy to movements that seek to prevent steel plants in Orissa and dams in Gujarat
"Activists" have different priorities but what binds them together is a passionate desire to keep alive the problems that justify their existence. In recent years, for example, activist bodies have been accused of grossly exaggerating the incidence of AIDS in India. The unstated reason: The massive availability of international funds to fight AIDS. In Gujarat, the "activists" have also been accused of keeping riot victims in a state of permanent dislocation because it helps score political points
In the old days, the "activists" were derided as harmless but over-zealous jholawalas and relegated to the margins of civil society -- despite their bogus claims of actually representing civil society. In recent times, thanks to lavish global patronage, some deft "advocacy" and strategic political interventions against the former NDA regime, the activists have inveigled themselves into the decision-making making process. The inclusion of "activist" icons in the once all-powerful National Advisory Council chaired by Sonia Gandhi was a signal to the UPA Government to accommodate seemingly radical concerns in the development process. The results have been catastrophic.
Take the case of urban planning in Delhi. The sudden collapse of all systems of traffic management in areas outside Lutyens' Delhi is widely blamed on the construction of the High Speed Bus Corridor. Billed as a system favouring cyclists and bus commuters and flaunted as the success story of Bogota (Columbia), it is likely to be a major factor behind the Congress' near-certain electoral defeat in Delhi later this year. Yet, as is now apparent, this hare-brained, regressive scheme was sold as a progressive pro-poor measure by activists who have no stake in the future of India.
The National Rural Employment Guarantee Act was the greatest triumph of the "activists". Now operational in 330 districts at a cost of Rs 12,000 crore, it was supposed to do for the Congress what Operation Barga did for the CPM in rural Bengal: Make it electorally invincible. The interim results point to a monumental disaster and CAG's draft report speaks of a 97% under-performance.
In normal parlance this means unmitigated disaster but "activists", egged on by a mindless section of the political class, now want Rs 30,000 crore from this year's Budget to make this profligate, corrupt and unproductive scheme national. They want a dedicated bureaucracy and membership of a so-called Employment Guarantee Council to run NREGA as a form of parallel Government. They want to turn disaster into calamity. A distraught Government, afraid of admitting its Italian blunder, may well oblige.
Finally, "activists" have poured into sensitive bodies like the Minorities Commission. Established as a well-meaning talking shop for those who couldn't be accommodated in Parliament, it has become a malignant influence on society. From giving predictable template reports on "attacks on minorities" by a despicable majority, it has moved into tampering with national security. The interference of Minorities Commission activists in the arrest and interrogation of terror suspects in Andhra Pradesh is a warning. If you give them an inch, they will take a mile.
Democratic societies operate on the principle of indulgence. However, when minuscule unaccountable "activists" start holding the nation to ransom on the strength of misplaced certitudes, it is time for correctives. An urgent rehabilitation programme for "activists" is overdue.