• Angad Chowdhry

Impact of COVID-19 on India's Social Sector

Photo by Evgeni Tcherkasski on Unsplash

We are a team of cultural researchers, anthropologists, data scientists, engineers, semioticians, and content creators based out of 6 countries (on last count). We love the diversity in our team, but we also love the diversity of our work. For those who don’t know much about us: 50% of our work is commercial, 25% of our work is with large philanthropic foundations, and the other 25% is moon-shot projects on issues we care about.

We are also big fans of constant learning and up-skilling, irrespective of our role and function in the organization. As a part of this endeavor, we recently started a monthly speaker series where we host leaders from different sectors to share more about their work and experiences. Ingrid Srinath, the Director of the Centre for Social Impact and Philanthropy (CSIP), Ashoka University, was our first guest speaker from the social sector.

Given the widespread, unprecedented, and ongoing impact of COVID19, we asked her to speak to us about the impact of the pandemic on the social sector in India. How has development work been affected? How are non-profit organizations coping? What can other sectors learn from the experience? Here are some key highlights from the discussion:

Civil Society Is a Necessity

The term ‘civil society’ has its roots in Aristotle’s Politics where it is referred to as a ‘political community’, commensurate with the Greek polis or ‘city-state’ — characterized by free citizens with a shared set of norms and ethos, and governed by the ‘rule of law’. In modern society, civil society is considered as the ‘third sector’ of society (the first two being government and business), comprising of non-government organizations, charities, community organizations, trade unions, social movements, faith-based organizations, and advocacy groups. Their role is to influence social and political change and hold the state and the market accountable for their actions.

Historically regarded as the “non-profit” sector, in recent times, civil society organizations in India have seen an inflow of a lot more capital than before. This has not just been due to traditional philanthropy, but also the emergence of venture philanthropy, social enterprises, ESG funds, and so on. There are also talks about a Social Stock Exchange that will provide a whole new set of financial instruments to these institutions.

And yet, in spite of these positive developments, civil society hasn’t been less welcome- not just in India, but around the world. The space for expression, assembly, and association — both offline and online- is shrinking. While the Internet and technology have made it easier for people to mobilize for a cause beyond geographical boundaries (such as #BlackLivesMatter), it has also become easier for States to monitor and control civic action.

India is marked as ‘Repressed’ on CIVICUS’ Monitor Dashboard

The Regulatory Minefield

A complex legal framework makes it all the more difficult for nonprofits to be sustainable. From ambiguity and chaos with regard to registration and tax exemptions to FCRA regulations, laws pertaining to charity, and GST- navigating through the regulatory minefield leaves most organizations in a perpetual state of flux.

Add to that unstructured, unreliable government data pertaining to nonprofits, making it hard to even assess the footprint of civil society, forge a sector identity, create a network with standardized norms, and fashion a coherent narrative of what this ‘sector’ does.

COVID19: A Triple Crisis

It is in this context that we assess the real impact of COVID19. The pandemic presents a triple crisis in India- health, economic, and social.

On one hand, we see thousands of people rendered unemployed, homeless, cut-off from their families, starving, and struggling to get back to their hometowns in the case of migrants due to the sudden national lockdown. On the other hand, we see civil society organizations and individuals stepping up and providing monetary assistance, food and essential supplies, and relief material to those in need, over and above the support for COVID patients, healthcare workers, doctors, sanitation workers, etc.

While the whole world is dealing with the economic impact of the pandemic, it has been particularly hard for the unorganized sector that constitutes 94% of India’s workforce. This further led to a social crisis, aggravating existing inequalities present in society.

The social sector, which predominantly works on these issues, was caught off-guard. Funding for programs got redirected towards COVID19 healthcare, cutting into salaries, operation costs, and program budgets of civil society organizations. Institutions and programs that weren’t ready to make operations digital had to be paused or shut down- including education projects, cancer programs, etc.

Further, a rapid research study done by CSIP found that one-third of Indian NGOs don’t have adequate funds to survive the next 6 months. While the financial situation of organizations largely depends on the kind of donors they have (international and independent funding being the most reliable), in the immediate future, there’s a high chance that this too may get diverted to support domestic needs (in the case of international funding).

Break-up of non-profit funding from CSIP’s survey

One of the few positive consequences of this crisis is that solutions traditionally advocated by civil society are no longer deemed politically unfeasible. This presents an opportunity to reimagine the priorities and relationship between civil society organizations, businesses, and government. It is the time for relief, repair, and reform.

The easiest way to initiate this is to amplify individual and corporate philanthropy by giving more and giving regularly. Some tech companies are even innovating on integrating artificial intelligence into online giving platforms to enhance and expand philanthropic giving by all types of donors (more in this report).

While not all of us are in the same boat, we are all in the same storm, and we need to sail through it together.

You can support individuals, community programs, and non-profit organizations that have been adversely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic by donating through GiveIndia and Giving.sg.

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