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Importance of the role of civil society in a democracy cannot be understated: Patna HC

In the case of Parul Prasad v. State of Bihar & Ors., (Civil Writ Jurisdiction Case No.5609 of 2020), the Patna HC had held that the role of Civil society in a democracy cannot be understated to address the miseries brought about by the pandemic, but however a coordinated effort of all functionaries is paramount.

The two issues, in this case, can be narrowed down to :

  1. Whether guidelines of the NITI Aayog to the Chief Secretaries of the State governments are in nature of advisory communication or did it make it mandatory on the State government to engage CSOs/NGOs/voluntary organizations into the realm of relief operations?
  2. Whether the civil society organizations have a right to be involved in relief operations during the times of crisis and disaster management, for ensuring the reach of relief to each needy person, especially in light of the Covid-19 response strategies issued by the international organizations, including the WHO and endorsed by the United Nations?

The facts of the case were on April 22, 2020, Learned advocate Ms. Parul Prasad, by way of the present Public Interest Litigation, brought to the Court’s notice, the issue of the rights of Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) and Non-Government Organizations (NGOs) which were trying to aid and supplement the efforts of the State in providing relief to the needy during the pandemic.  The petitioner had submitted that due to the abrupt size and population of the State of Bihar, even with the State government’s continued efforts, the NGOs and The CSOs were unable to reach each and every person who was in need. Therefore it was initiated in the interest of the rights of the persons in need that a large number of voluntary organizations, CSOs, and NGOs who were genuinely interested in helping the needy and were in a privileged position to do so.

The petitioner submitted that the NGOs and CSOs were working under Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) or foreign funding, and hence were bound by the mandatory requirement of transparency and accountability on where are how the funds are being utilized. Thus this required the presence of the volunteers to understand where the goods and foods were distributed and money was utilized. However, the district administration of Bihar refused lockdown travel passes to organizations and had requested them to deposit the relief goods at allotted stores, which would then be distributed by the State authorities.

Reference was given to the case of “In the case of Poonam Verma v. Delhi Development Authority, (2007) 13 SCC 154, (Para 27), the Hon’ble Apex Court held that guidelines by their very nature did not fall into the category of legislation, direct, subordinate or ancillary and therefore were advisory in nature.”

The court in this case had held that, “In the light of the above, we direct for the State to consider, enforcing, to the extent possible:

(i)  Actively interact and coordinate with NITI Ayog ensuring implementation of principles of good governance, which, in turn, would  enable citizens, achieve and fulfil the Constitutional goal of social justice.

(ii)  Allow CSOs and NGOs to conduct relief operations, including in the form of distribution of food and other materials, in the State. The civil Society forms the fourth institution in a democracy. They cannot be indefinitely excluded from relief operations in times of crisis. Where concerted efforts by the State are necessary, CSOs and NGOs be included within the folds of the State operations.

(iii)  Integrate the participation of CSOs and NGOs as part of the policy framework formulated by the State.

(iv)  Strive to form policies which allow CSOs and NGOs to work in direct partnership with the State, especially socioeconomic welfare policies, such as those directed towards child education and nutrition, juvenile justice, women rights, transgender rights etc.

(v)  Formulate SOPs, guidelines and codes of conduct to be adopted by the State as well as CSOs and NGOs in their performance of welfare and relief operations. Accountability of all institutions is essential. This will also ensure meaningful participative governance.

(vi) Leverage the information and knowledge-bases of CSOs and NGOs. These organizations are a source of valuable knowledge and expertise on social issues, that can enhance the quality of decision making and relief operations conducted by the State. Their expertise would help identify the most vulnerable groups and areas that need immediate attention.

(vii) Create publicly accessible repositories of recognized CSOs and NGOs, maybe even organized in terms of their area of efforts (childcare, environment, education, health, women rights, transgender rights, etc) and involve them in relevant projects.

(viii) Conduct regular consultations at every stage of relief work, with relevant CSOs and NGOs working at the ground level and are versed with the needs of the people. These consultations could be used as a forum for feedback and opinions to ensure the welfare of the people best.

(ix) Create a website/other online platforms for interaction with non-state actors, and as a forum for data and information sharing with the various stakeholders.

(x)  Have a regular dialogue, collaboration and coordination with CSOs and NGOs at all stages- of policy/ scheme formation, implementation and monitoring results.

(xi) Further we do suggest, hope and expect, that the State itself makes optimum use of all the aid and assistance being extended by all organizations, and by engaging them, to ensure that relief reaches to the maximum number of persons, including in the farthest corners of the State of Bihar.

We highly appreciate the assistance rendered by the petitioner, Ms. Parul Prasad, a practising advocate of this Court, in highlighting a contemporary issue of vital importance and significance.  Accordingly, the present petition is disposed of. Interlocutory Application, if any, shall stand disposed of.”

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