Weaker and poorer, NGOs still the best bet in delivering Covid-19 relief

Topics Indian NGOs | CSR

Civil defence officials wear protective suits to help a man who was lying on the roadside near Hebbal flyover during a nationwide lockdown imposed in the wake of novel coronavirus pandemic, in Bengaluru. Photo: PTI
Last week, Goonj, an NGO working at grassroots level in rural areas, received an unusual request. It was from a middle-aged IT professional in Kolkata, Rajib Ray (name changed), aged 48, who wanted help to buy medicines for his sick parents.

On March 18, as corporate India slipped into the comfort of work from home due to Covid-19, Ray received a termination letter from his employer.

“I was first asked to resign in January. But then I refused and sought written grounds for my forced resignation. When I pleaded, the company said they can offer help only if I resign on my own. On March 18, I got the termination letter,” says Ray.

Over the last few days, Goonj received more such requests from salaried individuals, who suddenly find themselves trapped in acute poverty.

“We need to ensure that secrecy is maintained in extending help to this class, as they were never dependent on NGOs for relief. People fear social embarrassment about it. Whatever savings people had, are now depleted after a month of lockdown,” says Iftiqar an employee of Goonj.

The experience of other NGOs is no different.

“With the sudden loss of jobs, some people who were earning above-average salaries have approached us asking them to help with house rent and grocery,” according to a spokesperson of GiveIndia, one of the biggest NGOs in India.

In the fight against Covid-19, the outreach of NGOs in the nooks and corners of both urban and rural India, is now much sought after. While donors, including governments are seeking their help to reach out to people, individuals in need find them easily accessible.

Earlier this month, Niti Aayog CEO Amitabh Kant had written to over 92,000 NGOs appealing them to assist the government in identifying Covid-19 hotspots and delivering services to vulnerable groups.

Ironically, since the present government came into power, NGOs have come under tight government scrutiny. Between 2014 and 2019, registrations of more than 16,000 FCRA (Foreign Contribution Regulation Act), registered associations were cancelled, data from MCA (Ministry of Corporate Affairs) shows. As many as 14,500 NGOs were banned in the last five years from receiving funds from abroad for violation of the act, the government recently said in Rajya Sabha.

NGOs in the past have helped weather several crisis situations, including severe floods and earthquakes. However, in the face of the present pandemic, they are facing issues like never before, starting from fund crunch, logistics and increased government scrutiny.

On March 28, government set up its own fund, PM Cares to raise money for Covid-19, providing 100 per cent tax exemption, and attracting big corporate donations. Donations to NGOs entail only 50 per cent tax exemption.

The shrinking coffers of NGOs

While foreign funding for NGOs has shrunk, corporate funding available from CSR (corporate social responsibility) kitty has found multiple claimants, including the government.

In 2014, the government made it mandatory for big companies within certain financial parameters to spend 2 per cent of their average profit of the previous three years on CSR (corporate social responsibility) activities every year.

Contributions to mass government welfare schemes like National Mission for Clean Ganga and Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (government’s cleanliness drive) qualify as part of CSR funding. Corporate entities can now also adopt a heritage site as a part of their mandatory CSR.

While PSUs prefer spending money on government projects, big corporate entities like to spend CSR money through their own trusts. In 2017-18, India’s top CSR contributors were Reliance Industries (RIL), Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) and Tata Consultancy Services.

In 2017-18 of RIL's total CSR spend was Rs 745 crore. Out of this, Rs 304 crore was spent on its own university, Reliance University.

For ONGC, its second highest CSR spend was on Swachh Bharat Abhiyan at Rs 75 crore. Preservation of heritage and religious sites also figured in its CSR list. This included preservation of four reservoirs at Varanasi, promotion of Sanskrit language, cleanliness drive at Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams (TTD) and restoration of Kedarnath temple, among others.

In 2018, demonetisation became a major constraint for CSR funding. Between 2015-16 and 2017-18, the overall CSR spend of companies dropped by nearly Rs 893 crore. In the same time, CSR spent on heritage, art and culture increased from about Rs 119 crore to Rs 212 crore, while the spent under the category of Health, Eradicating Hunger, Poverty And Malnutrition, Safe Drinking Water , Sanitation decreased from Rs 4,608 crore to Rs 1,774 crore, government data shows.

"In earlier disasters we saw much more fund flow than what we see now. Also, over the years’ substantial part of CSR fund is also going to government schemes. There is more money after CSR Act, but it is going in few pre-defined causes in few states where companies are located. Very little money is flowing to villages. Also, CSR was never meant to turn into filling up governemnt money.” says Anshu Gupta, Founder of Goonj.

“After PM announced Rs 500 per month will be deposited in Jan Dhan accounts, both individuals as well as corporates started questioning the need for further funds. When PM Cares was announced, the fund constraints worsened as close to Rs 7,000 crore went it that fund. Some corporate entities are still supporting us. However, some are adding riders like Aadhar details of all the individual beneficiaries, a demand which we turned down,” says Arun Kumar, CEO of Apnalaya, which is working in Mumbai's worst affected slums.

Kumar says, his NGO has ration just enough to support close to 6,000 more families over the next eight to ten days.

In addition, the reporting pressure on NGOs has increased as they are now required to furnish monthly details of foreign funding to the government. For smaller NGOs the problem is more acute.

“The question is with so many funding constraints how do we survive?” asks ElsaMarie DSilva, Founder & CEO of Red Dot Foundation, an NGO working for women safety.

“If the government can allocate some money from PM Cares for NGOs, that would be a good initiative,” said Ingrid Srinath, Director of the Centre for Social Impact & Philanthropy at Ashoka University.

NGOs working in the face of all odds to fight Covid-19

About a week back, in a remote village called Mawlai in Meghalaya, eight families ran out of money to buy ration. Cashrelief, an NGO, acted swiftly to mobilise its field team to send Rs 1,000 to each of the families. Almost a month before people in slums in Mumbai started getting ration from government, Apnalaya, an NGO had already started distributing food. Coro India, an NGO, while distributing aid in rural areas is printing a helpline number for women and children on the packets to help victims of domestic violence. These are only a few instance of how NGOs are leading from the front to fight Covid-19. Interestingly, most of the funds of NGOs are being raised from individuals rather than corporate entities.

Apart from fund crunch, operational problems faced by NGOs include buying food grains and transportation.

“Why should NGOs need to buy food grains from Food Corporation of India (FCI)? Ideally FCI or government should give it. It's a complicated task to raise money from public to fill up these gaps. As we are more needed in the field. NGOs must get more respect and cooperation. NGOs are the best possible last mile connects. And this nationwide disaster has proved the importance and significant role of the sector, ”says Asnhu Gupta of Goonj.

“Procurement of relief material in bulk, especially when there is a paucity of goods available in the market, is a constant hurdle for the NGOs. Also, the cost of transportation is high and the donation is generally for relief materials and seldom covers the transportation costs. One of the most challenging parts of distributing relief material and reaching out to people in distress is how the NGO volunteers are keeping themselves safe. They are at the frontline and at risk of infecting themselves and others with the virus,” according to the spokesperson of GiveIndia.

If the Covid-19 lockdown continues for long, NGOs might also run out of resources soon, and along with that the much needed last mile connectivity might also be lost for good.

Perhaps, a more draconian act for NGOs is still in the making. Recently the government published the Draft Companies (Corporate Social Responsibility Policy) Amendment Rules, 2020. Under this, CSR spend has to be channeled to Section 8 companies. Money spent on trusts and societies would not qualify as CSR spend for companies. More than 90 per cent of NGOs work as trusts or societies. They would not get any CSR fund under the proposed law.

“If the NGOs start shutting, not only will many people be unemployed, we will also be at the risk of destroying the ground level capacity, something which will be difficult to build again,” says Srinath.

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