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COVID crisis: What is holding back easing of norms stifling high-impact NGOs?

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covid pandemic in india, contribution of high impact NGOs, C-17 Globemaster , Easing norms of NGOs, aid from Indian corporates, procuringa and supplying oxygen concentrators, cylinders, ventilators, Rapid Rural Community Response, sewa Mandir, CDDEPcovid pandemic in india, contribution of high impact NGOs, C-17 Globemaster , Easing norms of NGOs, aid from Indian corporates, procuringa and supplying oxygen concentrators, cylinders, ventilators, Rapid Rural Community Response, sewa Mandir, CDDEPIndia witnessing rising caseload of Covid-19 cases daily. (PTI Image)

The big news from India has been the rising viral caseload staying sticky now worryingly at around 4 lakh new cases a day but running parallel now are also reports on the global outpouring of aid, supplies of medicines and equipment – apparently around 40 countries have already reached out to India.

Images of C-17 Globemaster carrying aid and precious supplies have travelled faster on cyberspace and are beginning to crowd the social media. But while India has made a policy shift of sorts in accepting foreign aid, what is baffling some social impact experts is what is still holding back easing of norms for well established non governmental organisations (NGOs) that are keen to step up and bridge the gaps in India’s fight against covid-19.

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The civil society is already stepping in at all levels – from conscientious individuals donating personal wealth, gurudwaras coming to the rescue of patients in dire need of oxygen to NGOs that are procuring and supplying oxygen concentrators, setting up isolation rooms and covid-care centres.

However, those that operate at scale but seeing the CSR (corporate social responsibility) aid from Indian corporates drifting more to PM-cares, are now feeling the need to rely on foreign aid too.

These quite rightly attract provisions under the Foreign Contributions (Regulation) Act (FCRA). But it is the amendments to these regulations passed in September last year, even as India was still reeling under the impact of COVID, are beginning to hurt as combating the second wave makes demands for much higher and a more widespread impact and therefore the need for higher resource-backing.

The restrictions brought in September last require all NGOs to open an FCRA account in Delhi on the Parliament Street branch of the State Bank of India, the funds received from abroad cannot be sub-granted to other smaller organisations that work in remote locations and that the administrative expenses should not exceed 20 per cent.

Restrictions Ill-timed

But then, in the light of the second wave of Covid, these restrictions are seeming ill-timed and are hurting reach out efforts for some leading NGOs. Take for instance, RCRC which stands for Rapid Rural Community Response to Covid founded last year on March 18 th when India was coping with the first wave, is a coalition of over 60 NGOs reaching out to people across 110 districts across 15 states of India. It is focused largely on rural livelihoods.

Ved Arya, the convenor of RCRC, who gave up a cushy career in the corporate world to pursue his interests on social impact issues, feels it would be ideal if these new restrictions imposed in last September could be either reversed, postponed or put on hold. He has good reasons: “The current situation requires partnering with smaller and more local organisations, who are closely involved with a remote location and therefore sub-granting of funds to them will become necessary. Similarly, with the rising caseload of Covid, staff travelling to these regions will need added protection and administration expenses are bound to go up.” He says, while leading domestic philanthropic entities like

Arghyam. Azim Premji Philanthropic Initiatives, Tatas have been helping, the CSR funds from most domestic corporates is going to PM-Cares, there is need to also depend on foreign contributions and wherever local innovations are tried out, leading global philanthropic institutions like Bill & Melinda, Ford Foundation and others could be reached out to. This is apart from putting in place rural isolation rooms, Covid care centres, all equipped with the right equipments.

Complex Challenges

Dealing with NGOs has always been a complex issue and all political parties have had a difficult relationship with NGOs. However, there could be efforts made to lift the policy road blocks for those that are reputed and have a long history in social impact.

Take for instance, 53 year old NGO Sewa Mandir, which operates in South Rajasthan, in 1500 villages around Udaipur and one that shot into fame for having partnered with Nobel Laureates. Professor Abhijit Banerjee, Ester Duflo and Michael Kremer. Who were awarded the 2019

Nobel Prize in Economic Science for their experimental approach to alleviating global poverty using ‘Randomised Control Trial’ methodology. They conducted their first trials partnering with Sewa Mandir in 1996. Sewa Mandir, in tune with the new norms opened an FCRA account in the Parliament Street branch of the State Bank of India before the end of March deadline but has still to get the approval to operate the account and receive funds.

According to its chief executive Ronak Shah, there are funds held up with donor members from the ‘Friends of Sewa Mandir’ in the UK, US and Australia and amounting to around Rs 1.5 crore. He says: “We are currently focused on creating awareness but if these funds come in we will be able to channelize them to provide for support to rural folks with home isolation, medicines, equip them all with pulse oximeters, thermometers, nutritional food support and financial support where breadwinners are infected.”

Back The Local

Janat Shah, Sewa Mandir’s president, who also happens to be the director of IIM (Indian Institute of Management), Udaipur, says: “Right now the task is enormous and given the rickety rural health infrastructure and the dangers of the virus now spreading to regions beyond the major cities in the news, people who have a feel of the local requirements and the customized solutions these regions require could be strengthened with appropriate regulatory support that help remove the policy impediments and instead become enablers for bigger impact.”

Check hotspots from multiplying: Expert

Experts are already concerned. Professor Ramanan Laxminarayan, director at the Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics & Policy (CDDEP), Washington, D.C. and New Delhi and a senior researcher at the Princeton University, who in March last year had said India could well be the next coronavirus hotspot. He tells Financial Express Online that “what is important now is for the states that are not hit badly to seize the opportunity to ramp up their operations because what is happening in Delhi. Mumbai and few other hotspots should not get repeated in any other place in the country or on the planet.”

He cautions that “we should be ready for high levels of cases in places which are not getting prepared and are not respecting mass gathering.” Professor Laxminarayan who has always maintained the need for large-scale testing, says, “the biggest mistake today will be not testing and in fact many places are actively restricting testing and those that restrict testing will pay heavily because they will have no visibility on where the virus is.”

In the backdrop of a rising Covid caseload with new cases hovering around four lakh in 24 hours and with mathematical modelling experts projecting a grim picture, there is serious need to check the moderately ill from slipping into serious illness and to safeguard the rest.

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