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The Role Of Civil Society in Pakistan and India

Session 1
Session 2
Session 3
Session 4
Closing & Thanks
Notes on Speakers


Civil Society in India and Pakistan, 2

Based on the procedings of the seminar "The Role Of Civil Society in Pakistan and India:
Peace, Conflict Resolution, Democracy" by Jang Group of Newspapers (Pakistan) & Friedrich/Naumann Foundation (Germany), September 12-13, 1997 at Pearl Continental Hotel, Karachi.

Text edited by Khurram Ali Shafique and Farida Z. Hemani

Session 2

Civil society and political/institutional change

with special emphasis on the impact of civil society on politics; evolution and prospects of NGO-Government relationship

I. A. Rehman (Pakistan)
Nitai Mehta(India)
Sadiqa Salahuddin(Pakistan)
Dr. Sri Ram Khanna(India)
Dr. Akhtar Hameed Khan(Pakistan)

I. A. Rehman (Pakistan)

Quotes from the speaker

I do not include the religious obscurantist groups as a part of the civil society because the civil society by definition accepts discourse, accepts possibility of changing your views, accepts the principle of dynamism of growth and evolution whereas religious groups begin by denying evolution, by denying change, by forcing rigid formulas whether they are applicable or not.

I am afraid I have not been able to give you any examples of the civil society’s impact on politics because I feel that the task before us is not the measurement of the impact of the civil society but first to ponder how to form the institution of civil society and secondly how to establish them in a manner that they do not function as associations but perform the essential task of a social movement.

We are fond of describing Pakistan as a land of contrast, and one of the greatest contrasts is in the area we will be describing in a moment.

It is not possible to apply civil society term to a mass of people who occasionally set themselves a single-point agenda. They may come together to secure freedom from colonial rule, to replace dictatorship with a representative government, or even to overthrow an oppressive socio-economic order, but anti-colonial movements, struggles for restoration of democracy or even revolutions are in the nature of short-term popular fronts. They may succeed or fail or they may partly achieve their objective [but] their impact is transitional.

You can have a non-military regime that raises slogans to uphold the civilian rule against military dictatorship and yet be in confrontation with the civil society.

The civil society’s role presupposes a degree of permanence and dynamism. It is only those movements which have the capacity to monitor their own objectives that qualify as civil societies.

When Ayub Khan passed university ordinances or when he created national press trusts or Writers’ Guild he was close to Mussolini’s tactics of turning the civil society into an appendage of state system.

Political parties should also interact with the civil society because if they do not then the state will not.

Mr. I. A. Rehman focused on the impact of civil society on politics in Pakistan, "or the lack of it".

Democracy did not evolve in the case of Pakistan through change in the relationship between the people and the government as this was a state created by the people in full consciousness of their democratic rights. "And we started under this compact to form a federal state governed in accordance with the parliamentary principles in accordance with the constitution."

Mr. Rehman pointed out the basic problem as "a Constitution which does not represent the will of the people" but rather a political design imposed upon the people by a single individual who had no sanction except of brute force. Even though the constitution at present may represent certain principles reached upon through consensus it nevertheless "casts the state and the people in adversarial roles."

Another peculiarity which needs to be taken into account is that the people have attempted on several occasions to correct the political codes of the state.

Mr. Rehman summarises this aspect through the history of Pakistan in the following points:

    1. In the early years, the mandate of the people was not respected but the facade was maintained. The people did not get what they had been promised and what they had fought for.
    2. Then a military adventurer came and imposed his own ideas about a controlled democracy. His system was tested and suffered for a decade and then rejected by the people. But did the people get what they had fought for?
    3. Another praetorian regime took over, it conceded some of the points the people were asking for, but on some other issues it was so obdurate that the resultant conflict was resolved only with the dismemberment of the state.
    4. Then a new beginning was made but again, in terms of slogans that were derived from the people. And again it didn’t work.
    5. Another military adventurer came and he imposed his will on the people.
    6. Since his death the people have elected representatives four times but the constitution framed by Gen. Zia-ul-Haque is still in force and the essential features of an authoritarian state persist despite many changes over the last ten years.

Mr. Rehman raised several questions out of his overview of the fifty years of Pakistan:

    1. Can the popular movements for restoration of parliamentary democracy be described as attempts of the civil society’s attempts to secure its role in the political affairs?
    2. Does the present dispensation accord with a civil society’s political ideals of a parliamentary federation?
    3. If not, is it possible for the civil society to secure its due from the custodians of state power?

Mr. Rehman suggested that the term civil society has been used in Pakistan rather quite carelessly. The apparent reason for this seems to be that the military rule has been so frequent in this country that everything that is non-military gets the description of "civil." While it is true that certain elements of the civil society contributed in the movements against Ayub and Zia but this does not give a picture of a civil society that should not only wake up "to its fire brigade role in the moments of distress but should also be active in all seasons and is able to discharge its functions more or less on the basis of a social movement."

In mature democracies civil societies and democratic systems develop side by side, in fact in some cases the civil societies emerged first and actually exerted pressure for the birth of democracy. Not so in Pakistan, where the institutions of the civil societies have been usurped by the state directly or indirectly. Our authoritarian rulers have tried to … hegemonic interests in two ways. First, by making laws that restricted the functioning of the various groups of professionals and concerned citizens in the civil society and second, by imposing state nominees on their associations. (The one group that has escaped their attention is that of landlords, and that for the obvious reason of their hold over the state power.) "When governments change the head of the bar councils, media organisations and literary academies change… One can give several examples of how the state has encroached upon the institutions of the civil society."

There have been signs to show that the civil society in Pakistan is conscious of its rights and position. But the state has steadfastly refused to negotiate, for instance in the examples of Hudood Ordinance, Anti-terrorist Law or the situation in Karachi.

Mr. Rehman noticed that it is quite difficult at the moment for the civil societies in Pakistan to function as social movements – "where university teachers are forbidden to express views on political issues and where NGOs are required to eschew politics, and the state tells whether a Muslim woman can marry of her own will or whether she cannot"

Mr. Rehman also cautioned that their is a limit to the role of the civil society: the main vehicle for the expression of the people’s wishes will always be political parties.

Nitai Mehta(India)

Quotes from the speaker

The government has become the enemy of people.

The inefficiency of the governments has led to the rise of NGOs.

The role played by the NGOs is directly related to the type of government you have in a society.

Mr. Nitai Mehta pointed out that the civil society had always existed in these regions even though it was developed on modern lines primarily through the British education in the last century.

Before independence, India contributed 2% to world economy which has now been reduced to 0.5%. The founding fathers of India were aware of the role of the civil society but the governments that followed them were inefficient and devised wrong policies. Instead of learning any lessons from their own mistakes they vested their interest in pursuance of such wrong policies so that eventually the state assumed the role of a super-employer, and nothing more.

Today, we can see the governments enacting laws that they do not have the power to implement, such as the laws against caste prejudice. In fact such matters require much more than enacting laws but the governments are incapable of doing all those things. As a result a huge number of NGOs (around 80,000) has come up to provide people what the governments cannot.

In a developed country the role of the NGO is to aid the government and not to replace it. Whereas in our societies NGOs are taking over to do jobs that should actually the governments should have been doing. For instance, in Bombay, the failure of the judicial system to provide justice has led to cases where people have taken help from the so-called NGOs to get back their money through extortion. Another example is the caste-armies in Bihar formed to save people of certain caste – a job that should have best been done by the government.

Mr. Mehta observed that it is imperative for the NGOs to add one extra item on their agendas: to develop a stable civil society. In such a society the NGOs would be left only with the role they should actually be doing in a developed country: to be the watch-dogs for the society.

Sadiqa Salahuddin(Pakistan)

Quotes from the speaker

Collaboration between NGOs and government is possible.

The contribution of the NGOs is not as visible as the number tells us.

NGOs have always been there in this part of the world but there role was restricted to running desirable institutions of community- service.

Information is power and that power is well-guarded by the government.

What we have seen closely, and we were pleasantly surprised, is that the government of Pakistan has very progressive policies … their implementation is the real issue.

The linkages of the civil society have a great potential to be strengthened because the people are the same, the issues are the same, there is a lot to learn from each other.

If we are serious about collaboration between the government and the NGOs then the NGOs will also have to do something to become more transparent and accountable because they are talking about the accountability of the government all the time.

Ms. Sadiqa Salahuddin, Director NGO Resource Centre, Karachi, presented an evolution of the NGO/ Government relationship and offered her views on the prospects for future.

Ms. Salahuddin pointed out that just as Pakistan is a land of contrast, the NGOs working in this country also present a contrast within their profiles: there are thousands of NGOs -- all types, all sizes, all kind of motivations, all kinds of alienations.

A study recently conducted by the NGORC estimated the total number of NGOs registered under the Social Welfare Act of Voluntary Agencies Ministry in Sindh as around 5000. It is estimated that the number of NGOs registered with the Social Welfare Ministries in all four provinces is around 17,000 while many more are registered under other laws.

Just as there are all types of NGOs, so are there all types of governments. It is very important in a country like Pakistan to know who is sitting where in the government and whether you know the right person – simply because there are all types of people in the government departments.

The role of dialogue between NGOs and Government is being felt and consultative meetings being held due to the international pressure for some kind of good governance imposed conditionalities by major funders like the World Bank: the government should be involved in providing environment for the civil society to play its role and the rest should be left up to the civil society itself.

There is a tendency of the market economy becoming exploitative and coercive just as there is a tendency for the government to become coercive and exploitative. "Who will play the watchdog? …And here comes the role of the civil society." That is why it is being said that the civil society should be made stronger and stronger so that it could ensure a permanent – and not a one-time – institution of public accountability.

Unfortunately, the need for dialogue has not been felt by the government itself but is mostly a result of external pressures. A case in point is the Social Action Programme carried out a couple of years back. The government eulogised its achievement but it turned out that the only part of the Programme that did meet success was the one covered by the NGOs whereas the part run by the government could not be successful due to lack of good governance. That all the Social Action Boards comprised of politicians was seen as one of the major reasons for this.

Most of the dialogue is on one-to-one contact basis but there is no institutional mechanism for continuing this dialogue on an institutional basis.

When the government and the NGOs work together they use phrases that they have picked up together but mean different things to different people, e.g. participatory development. By this particular phrase many government officials mean that the community should pick up some of the expenses for the facilities being offered rather than the community’s involvement in the whole process and in the decision-making. "Here, again, the dialogue suffers."

Another problem that needs address is that "there is a feeling among the NGOs that the government still thinks that the NGOs are their implementing arms." There is hardly any seminar where Orangi Pilot Project or Aga Khan Rural Development Programme is not mentioned but on the whole they are merely seen as sub-contractors to implement the plans made by the government and not as institutions who should be involved in decision making. NGOs always object to this saying that if they are equal partners then they should be involved in the entire process rather than seen as only the implementing arm for doing the dirty work.

As far as NGOs’ traditional role is concerned they were always present in this part of the world but they were usually doing community service and confined to running charity organisations. The government has no problem recognising this role of the NGOs but problems arise when the NGOs go beyond this traditional roles, for instance, "to explore the real causes of the poverty, … or when they move into advocacy, lobbying, or when they start talking about problems and collecting data, analysing it, coming up with alternate actions, alternate proposals, having dialogue, putting pressure, then the atmosphere in which the dialogues (between the government and the NGOs happen) is not very conducive."

Hence, on one hand the government is recognising the good work done by the NGOs and on the other hand the government is also coming up with legislative actions that are control-oriented, which are quite disabling to the NGOs to function.

Quite contrary to the common perception, the government of Pakistan has quite progressive policies. But what happens is that the policy documents are kept secret and that makes their implementation difficult. In some instances, even the district officers of the same ministry do not know about those policies and are unaware of the procedures. The reason for this secrecy about the policies is that "when you give information to the communities about those policies them that information empowers them and they can go and talk about their rights. And when they talk about there rights then they also raise all kind of questions and they even talk about the selection of their contractor." For instance, it was pointed out in one of the seminars on the Social Action Programme that the only group that has really benefited from the Programme is that of the contractors. "Now where have these contractors come from?" Obviously, the politicians and the bureaucrats do not wish to answer that because they have a very strong tripartite with the contractors – mostly the friends or relatives of the politicians – in which they all have a share.

Thanks to the NGO Bill, which is just one of the legislative actions desired by the government to increase its control, the NGOs that had so far been working in isolation have recently started coming together: now there are fora on all levels; at provincial levels as well as the national level. These fora are now recognised as bodies for dialogues."

Ms. Salahuddin pointed out that the problem was not the quality of work being done by the NGOs but the real issue was isolation – NGOs of various professionals and social workers need to come together so that their efforts are consolidated towards achieving common goals. In the international context also efforts in this direction also been made with the Asia-Pacific Movement in which Bangladesh is taking a lead role for solving issues like power, corruption, militarisation of the government, child labour, women rights, human rights – issues that are not confined to any geographical or administrative boundary but are common to all.

Capacity constraints and the organisational culture of the NGOs were pointed out as two important issue for the NGOs: sometimes the credit given to an NGO is more than their actual participation and therefore they have fallen victims to their own performance – hence the need for capacity-building among the NGOs. On the other hand, the perceptions that the government and the NGOs have about each other is related to the issue of organisational culture: the government thinks of the NGOs as extravagant in Pakistan (unlike their counterparts in India and Bangladesh), and to some extent they are right. Some NGOs have a culture that is closer to the corporate sector than the people whom they are claiming to serve. On the other hand the NGOs think the government is corrupt, and they are also partly right. An effort needs to be made to change these strong perceptions of each partner about the other.

Dr. Sri Ram Khanna(India)

Quotes from the speaker

In a democracy such as ours the government is of the people and by the people but is it for the people?

The way government works it is not for the people – it is for those who have connections, who have power and who can wangle things in some funny way.

Governments too have their customers who pay the taxes.

If we could influence the bureaucracy it will be more effective than influencing the government. Thanks to the British, we have a system of bureaucracy that would keep things running at a particular speed even if there are no ministers at a given time.

Dr. Sri Ram Khanna presented a case study of the Citizens’ Charter Movement, a campaign launched by a coalition of about 40 NGOs who have joined together to ensure consumer rights from the government. The campaign is aimed at influencing bureaucrats and politicians to secure a consumer rights charter for the citizens that could govern all public services offered by the government – these services are, after all, provided in lieu f taxes and public money.

Some of the guiding principles for such a charter would be:

    1. Performance of government services should be appraised against minimum standards of performance. In a recent seminar on user services the government servants were shocked to learn what average citizens think of their performance. Such questions have never been allowed to be asked in the past but we are now setting up mechanisms to ask them.
    2. Freedom of information is very important and the Indian government is now on its way to passing a freedom of information law that would help NGOs and individuals to learn about the working of different government departments.
    3. Complaints should be acknowledged and answered.
    4. No person working in a government department should be anonymous. They should all wear badges so that the customer may be able to identify them if they ask for bribes.
    5. There should be transparency. If people do not know what is going inside the government departments then they cannot monitor them – they are forced to accept whatever services may be offered them.
    6. There should be accountability.
    7. There should be autonomy for managers, so that somebody is held accountable. At present, each government employee passes the buck to the other when s/he is held responsible for negligence.

There is a feeling now amongst the civil servants that they have to improve otherwise things are not going to work well for the governments. This is an indicator of success for the Citizens Charter Movement.

The legitimacy of such NGOs is their non-political face. "But a consumer movement such as ours still does not have popular support," Mr. Khanna observes. That is primarily because the idea of demanding accountability from the government is quiet alien in countries like India. There is hope for more popular support as the citizens become aware of their rights and powers in moulding the civil society.

Dr. Akhtar Hameed Khan(Pakistan)

Quote from the speaker

It is not the government that is failing in Pakistan. It is also the people who are failing.

Dr. Akhtar Hameed Khan’s brief note of conclusion consisted of a reminder that "We get the government we deserve. We get the institutions we deserve."


Overlapping is not an issue in a country like Pakistan – if a woman is educated twice, so what?

Sadiqa Salahuddin

Q. Now there are some groups in this country who in their own interests forget what they have been telling the people for the past fifty years. For instance, if I am an industrialist and I can get cheap raw material from India I will swallow my own ideology and carry out the trade.

Mr. Khorakiwala (India): On these NGOs for peace: after the incident of the Babri Mosque we set up one such NGO in Bombay and the purpose was to promote peace in the neighbourhoods. This NGO has been working for the last four years now.

Q. Could there be a data bank of NGOs so that work is not overlapped?

Q. Could NGOs play a role in checking the way government funds are spent?

Sadiqa Salahuddin: Some efforts are being made in the way of building a data bank of the NGOs, but I feel that overlapping of efforts is not an issue in a country like Pakistan where the magnitude of misery is very big – if a woman is educated twice, so then what?

There are NGOs that are looking into the privatisation of the public facilities such as water supply and they are taking various type of actions. As far as health and education is concerned NGOs can only carry out experiments, document them and share them. But the ultimate responsibility of providing health and education to all will have to be shouldered by the government.

Q. A question for Dr. Khanna: looking into five years from today do you think this work of yours [consumer groups movement] could gain ground? Could you get the politicians to hear to you?

Mr. Khatib Ahmed

Dr. Khanna: I was a political activist once and when I quitted that I was committed to one objective: you can bring change from outside the political parties. And when I look at the consumer movements in the other countries I am convinced that we, in India, can address the issues and bring change in the domains that have been addressed by the political leaders in the past.

But at the same time we see this movement as an attempt to grab social space and a bargaining position to influence the agendas of all political parties – irrespective to their colours and stands. So, five years from now (I have a feeling) that we will be having a afar more sophisticated dialogue with the political parties.

Q: When Pakistan came into being – or even before – there was a lot of voluntarism, which we called social work and not NGO. My question is: how much voluntarism do you still expect from the citizens, or do you have to make your work entirely professional and career oriented?

Begum Mumtaz Rashidi

Dr. Khanna: My group was started by volunteers but we have learnt that while volunteers can start a programme it can only be sustained through professionals: a few full-time workers can bring out a lot more output than a lot of people working on a programme as volunteers. Still, the guiding role has to be played by the volunteers who have a vision and commitment.

Q: There is so much disparity between the rich and the poor in India and Pakistan. Yet the governments of the two countries have been blaming each other for everything, and doing little to eradicate poverty. As the saying goes: Kashmir nay humein aur hum nay Kashmir ko mil ker tabah ker diya…

Dr. Khanna: I feel the same way but I didn’t know we are so similar.

Next Session

Source: The Role Of Civil Society in Pakistan and India:
Peace, Conflict Resolution, Democracy: Procedings of the seminar
by Jang Group of Newspapers (Pakistan) & Friedrich/Naumann Foundation (Germany).
Edited by Khurram Ali Shafique and Farida Z. Hemani

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