Mumbai: About 50% of the children in the 11 tribal residential schools in the seven blocks of Thane district in Maharashtra were found to be undernourished in 2005. Not surprisingly, their daily diet consisted of lentils and rice. Lack of vegetables in the diet resulted in low body mass index (BMI) and anaemia was a common ailment among adolescent girls.

Mumbai-based Impact India Foundation had a simple solution for this—a kitchen garden to grow drumsticks, brinjals, and green vegetables, maintained by students in the school premises.

This intervention helped improve the students’ BMI after one year of the programme. In 2011, Impact India Foundation approached Jayant Kumar Banthia, then additional chief secretary of the public health department in Maharashtra, to help scale up the project.

“Impact Foundation showcased the results in tribal of improved health; so I gave the order for zilla parishad CEOs in the state to implement it state-wide in tribal schools, the scheme," Banthia said.

He retired in 2013 and went on to join the Impact India Foundation board in 2014.

This is one example of how when the government and civil society organizations (CSOs) work in tandem, society can benefit.

She said it is disconcerting to see the attitude and actions of the present government towards CSOs. It is unfortunate that the government is targeting NGOs and creating an atmosphere of hostility between two agencies that can be partners, she added.

The gaps in the abilities of the government and CSOs is what makes them effective partners to drive development together, said Kaustuv Bandyopadhyay, director, Participatory Research in Asia, a centre for promoting citizen participation and democratic governance. “Governments don’t have the necessary ecosystem or bandwidth to try out new things as they cannot afford to risk failure," said Bandyopadhyay. NGOs can drive innovation through community mobilization, advocacy and reaching the unreached. But what they lack is scale.

Emphasizing the need for partnership between NGOs and the government, T.V. Mohandas Pai, trustee of NGO Akshaya Patra Foundation, which provides mid-day meals to schoolchildren, said: “India has millions of problems and millions of problem solvers. And it appears that the government (alone) is small to tackle the scale of India’s challenges."

Scaling up

Kitchen Garden in Wada District, Maharashtra. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

To address this Bengaluru-based Akshara Foundation signed a memorandum of understanding with the Karnataka education department to roll out a programme called Ganitha Kalika Andolana. The programme, which rolled out this month, will require the state to spend 5.64 crore to improve numeracy skills and facilitate better classroom teaching among students in Classes IV and V of government primary schools.

“We want to convert mathematics into an interesting, child-friendly subject," said Ashok Kamath, chairman of Akshara Foundation, that focuses on education.

Over the past four years, it has implemented the project in 575 government schools in the blocks of Hoskote, Kushtagi and Mundargi, where 841 teachers have been trained to use specially developed material and 50,000 children have been taught math using this method.

“When we approached the state government with our project in 2013, we were armed with results," said Kamath. The math scores showed an average improvement of 9.8 percentage points for Class IV students and 17.85 percentage points for Class V after three years.

For an NGO like Akshara, working with the government gives it immense scale—in the first phase of the project, which ends in 2017, its programme will be implemented in 7,549 schools, reaching out to 300,000 children and 41,994 teachers.

“NGOs have the pulse of the people, and can be a catalyst to drive systemic change. We have the resources while NGOs have an ear to the ground," said Adoni Syed Saleem, project director, Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, Karnataka. Salim added that for a government, adopting a project depends on the impact it can have.

Of mutual benefit

NGOs’ involvement has traditionally been high in health and education, said Bandyopadhyay. While government brings the resources and scale, it has not been able to drive last-mile connectivity and capacity-building at various levels.

Sometimes, NGOs have met crucial needs of the government.

By signing the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1992, India agreed to a list of child rights, which includes access to a helpline. But it was not until 1998 that India began to comply with the requirement. It discovered the work of CHILDLINE India Foundation, which set up a helpline for children where it attended to calls for help and undertook direct intervention though partner NGOs.

From being partially funded by the government in 1998, it became a nodal agency of the ministry of women and child development, fully funded by the government, in 2006.

“Government encourages innovative ideas from NGOs. We have over 500 NGOs associated with us as partners for carrying out various schemes. They play a critical role in developing the know-how, identifying the right target audience and in training last-mile delivery workers like anganwadi or ASHA workers," said Sarada Ali Khan, joint secretary at the ministry in New Delhi.

“The government’s presence helped us get access to other government-run institutions like hospitals, railways, police which helped rehabilitate the children eventually," said Nishit Kumar, head of communication and strategic initiatives at CHILDLINE India Foundation .

While working with the government leads to many doors opening, there are challenges too—for instance, when a project is taken up by the government, there is no assurance it will be carried out continuously.

Akshara Foundation had pioneered a reading programme in 2006-07, which was adopted state-wide in 2008-09 in 46,000 schools. “After we handed it over to the state, it was not carried out in a persistent manner," said Kamath. “We failed in putting in place a system where someone will watch over the process."

To make sure it does not happen with the math programme, Akshara is involving parents to monitor their children, besides involving the local governments by sharing reports with them.

“Even if one stakeholder is missing, it won’t work," said Kamath.

While the challenges of working with the government may be many, NGOs agree that it is a small price to pay for the kind of scale an initiative can achieve and the impact it can have.

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