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A PIL filed protesting the Bihar Government's refusal to allow Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) and Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) to extend aid in relief efforts amid the COVID-19 pandemic recently prompted the Patna High Court to urge the State to reconsider its stance.
The Bench comprising of Chief Justice Sanjay Karol and Justice S Kumar emphasised on Friday,
"They (CSOs and NGOs) 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."
In the course of the hearing, the Bench admitted that letters issued by NITI Aayog recommending that State Governments involve CSOs and NGOs in relief operations were only advisory in nature. As such, the Court observed that States are free to formulate their own policy with respect to the engagement of CSOs and NGOs.
All the same, the High Court emphasised that the State cannot insist on acting in isolation. In this regard, its order notes,
On the other hand, in the instant case the district administration of Bihar was stated to have refused lockdown travel passes to CSOs and NGOs, instead requesting them to deposit the relief goods at allotted stores, which would then be distributed by the State authorities.
The Bench also noted that during the PIL's pendency, the State of Bihar suffered from flooding of the Kosi river, causing devastation in ten districts of the State. However, in relief operations, the State again disallowed direct aid by CSOs and NGOs in the flood-hit areas.
In this backdrop, the High Court Court has now directed the State Government to implement the following directions to the extent possible.
Actively interact and coordinate with NITI Ayog and ensure the implementation of the principles of good governance, which, in turn, would enable citizens, achieve and fulfill the Constitutional goal of social justice.
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, the Court added.
Integrate the participation of CSOs and NGOs as part of the policy framework formulated by the State. Strive to form policies which allow CSOs and NGOs to work in direct partnership with the State, especially socio-economic welfare policies, such as those directed towards child education and nutrition, juvenile justice, women rights, transgender rights etc.
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.
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.
Create publicly accessible repositories of recognized CSOs and NGOs, maybe even organized in terms of their area of efforts and involve them in relevant projects.
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.
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.
Have a regular dialogue, collaboration and coordination with CSOs and NGOs at all stages- of policy/ scheme formation, implementation and monitoring results.
In parting, the Court said,
"...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."
Read the Judgment: