The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Seer stamp on code for straying NGOs

Kancheepuram, Dec. 31: The Sankaracharya of the Kanchi Kamakoti Mutt recently released a book that contains guidelines for NGOs, many of which have faced flak for indirectly inciting religious conversions through their development initiatives.

Government Schemes and the Role and Responsibilities of Non-Government Organisations, published by a new NGO in the state called Aravind Foundation, subtly conveyed the message that development NGOs should reassess their roles.

Sri Jayendra Saraswathi’s “blessings” for the book comes after his praise for Tamil Nadu’s law to ban forcible religious conversions. The Sankaracharya released the book at a simple function at the mutt premises. Among others, Union minister S. Thirunavukkarasar of the BJP attended the release of the book, written by state BJP worker V. Aravind.

The Sankaracharya said 55 years after Independence, the country’s development work in villages continued to be a challenge. The poor awareness of the NGOs regarding various central and state schemes for development and guidelines for NGOs compounded the problem, he said.

The Sankaracharya said he released the book in an effort to help hasten rural economic development. Eradicating poverty was the best way to ensure honesty, he said.

The Kanchi seer’s remarks are significant, coming as they do when many NGOs are facing charges of packaging their development initiatives with an eye on religious conversions.

The “goodies” the NGOs give out have been alleged to be indirect incentives for conversion. The Tamil Nadu Anti-Conversion Law seeks to end such “fraudulent inducements exploiting the poor”.

The book, claimed by the foundation to be the country’s first of its kind, has catalogued some 293 central development and assistance schemes and packs a set of prescriptions for NGOs.

The book, quoting the Centre’s figures, says of 12,136 NGOs in the country, 5,721 are based in the south. Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh have most of these. More than half the overseas funds for NGOs flow to the south.

During 2000-01, foreign funds for Indian NGOs hit a peak of Rs 4,500 crore. According to the book, five NGOs — including two from the US called Foster Parents Plan International and Christian Children Fund — contribute Rs 40 crore every year.

The book classifies the various types of NGOs working in development and lists institutions that give them aid annually.

The NGOs’ grassroots proximity, high motivation and commitment, lack of red tape and lean structure could help them cut government costs in delivering essential services such as education and healthcare, the book says. NGOs speed up programme implementation, too.

The NGOs, however, suffer from disadvantages such as allegations of “misuse and diversion of funds” and being at cross-purposes with important government policies, the book says. In the long-run, NGOs face a “credibility problem”.

Aravind’s book has come up with an elaborate set of “dos and don’ts for NGOs. It urges NGOs to adopt transparent procedures, and regularly audit funds. A “social audit” by the people who are supposed to benefit from NGOs’ activities is also necessary, the book says.

The book has urged NGOs to inculcate a greater sense of responsibility and shun a “narrow approach”. They should “refrain from doing anything” that makes vulnerable sections “pawns” and thus hurt cultural traditions and people’s faiths.

This last advice is an indirect reminder to NGOs that their development work should not be a conduit for religious conversions.

Thirunavukkarasar expressed concern at cultural traditions taking a beating in urban areas. The Sankaracharya’s junior, Sri Sankara Vijayendra Saraswathy, too, was present at the function, attended by several AIADMK ministers.

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