#ActiveCitizenship | Lage Raho — Building on Civil Engagement after the Second Wave

Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies
5 min readSep 27, 2021


credit: The WellBeing Project

In the session ‘Lage Raho — Building on Civil Engagement after the Second Wave,’ we brought together different stakeholders to discuss their experiences and roles during the COVID-19 pandemic. The discussion explored the importance of active citizenship in this crisis and unpacked different views on what enabled this wave of co-creation from the citizenry.

Gayatri Divecha, CSR Head at the Godrej Group; Gayatri Nair Lobo, COO at ATE Chandra Foundation; and Ved Arya, Founder of SRIJAN and the force behind Rapid Rural Community Response (RCRC), were in discussion with Smarinita Shetty, Co-founder and CEO of India Development Review.

The Scale of the Task

The pandemic has resulted in an unbridled, unprecedented rise in civic action, says Ved Arya; however, the scale of the overall task and the challenges in collaboration mean that there’s a lot more work to be done. Pew study says 32 million people slipped into poverty during the pandemic, not to mention the other fault lines in our democracy based on caste, class, gender, geography and the ongoing climate crisis. In the face of the challenges that civil society faces, he argues that we have very limited mechanisms to collaborate. There is a trust deficit between people in the markets and people in the civil sector. We need to create new network ecosystems, develop knowledge through in-depth research, and share resources and learnings.

“During a crisis, people step up, but how do you maintain that momentum beyond the crisis?” Smarinita Shetty

Responding to the Crisis

The past 18 months have been a learning experience, says Gayatri Divecha, with incredible collaboration across value chains, increased communication between organisations and funders, and speedy responses to the crisis. The pandemic forced people to come together, learn from one another, and respond to issues with an urgency that had been otherwise lacking. Many needs such as accessing government schemes or finance to scale micro-enterprises were brought to light, so this served as a way to reflect on and reassess how to create impact, she says. For funders, it’s now clear how crucial NGOs are and has made a case for supporting NGOs beyond programmatic funding much stronger. Ved agrees, saying that it was community resource people on the ground, women in the SHGs, who were on the frontlines, distributing aid in villages. Their reach was a result of 30 years of work by grassroots organisations, he says. Gayatri Lobo describes how funders, NGOs, civil society, and the state served communities during this crisis. However, one major issue was that with COVID, NGO partners who weren’t doing relief work struggled to carry out their regular programs.

The Need for Communication and Trust

Many NGOs that were not focused on relief work were struggling financially. When Gayatri Lobo realised this, they immediately let their NGO partners know that their funding wouldn’t stop and encouraged them to openly communicate with their other funders to understand where the cash flow was being halted. They also created a program to help people who lost their jobs get training on fundraising. Gayatri Divecha notes that flexibility from funders in how partner NGOs utilised the funds helped them cover costs and ensure their teams were protected while doing fieldwork. Apart from their CSR commitment to COVID response, they could keep their commitments to NGOs even if the programs couldn’t be carried out or were scaled down. Open communication and building a relationship of trust with partners was vital, she says.

“I think the key for us was building this relationship of trust and honesty with our partners and explaining to them where we were struggling with, what decisions we need to make with regards to our funds, and hear from them as well, where they were, where they were struggling with getting more funds.” Gayatri Divecha

Structural Weakness of the Sector

The pandemic has shown certain weaknesses in the development sector, with many NGOs unable to run with limited reserves. We need to consider how to make NGOs more resilient, says Gayatri Lobo, pointing to funding capacity building and leadership development programs as possible ways to do so. Ved also mentions the need for effective cross-learning platforms and increased collaboration so that smaller organisations can learn and adapt better. He says we also need to communicate better so that grassroots organisations can effectively present their work. Although certain funding agencies were sensitive to what was happening, Ved argues that more money is now available for running vaccination campaigns or procuring oxygen than for livelihoods. With the recent FCRA restrictions and the lack of attention from funders, many small organisations are shutting down. He says we also need to create capacity-building programs for NGOs because many are not sure how to cope with this crisis in the future or how to raise funds.

“Our laws don’t allow for reserves beyond a certain amount of time. So what can NGOs do at their end?” Smarinita Shetty

How to Keep the Momentum Going

Gayatri Divecha notes the wave of volunteers offering to help during this time; however, she points out that as corporate citizens, businesses also need to consider their role in social impact, which should extend beyond CSR. She asks what it means to be a responsible company, and how can they play a catalytic role in changing how companies view their responsibilities? There are also the everyday citizens, says Gayatri Lobo, whose engagement we should continue to encourage. In a crisis, it’s easier to contribute when there’s a concrete result of that donation versus donating money for something more intangible like climate change. She suggests simplifying messaging and increasing transparency for these issues to maintain this momentum of civic engagement. Ved notes that most volunteers were young Indians, so we should encourage more participation through college programs and use social media to communicate with young people.

Our Takeaways:

  • How can corporate citizens and businesses rethink their responsibility towards the ecosystems they interact with beyond CSR?
  • What are some of the ways the development sector can more effectively communicate with civil society and present personable and persuasive stories?
  • What can be done to help enable NGOs to become more resilient?
  • How can the development sector keep the momentum going and encourage more civic engagement, collaboration between organisations, and commitment from communities to create lasting change?