Readers Write In #516: Social work, advocacy and activism

Posted on October 20, 2022


By ​Aravindan Rajaram

As per official data in 2015, India had 31 lakh registered Non-Government Organizations (NGOs). That’s roughly one NGO per 420 people!

What are the roles of NGOs? The work done by NGOs should ideally be done by the government or greatly minimized. If the government does its duty, it will make the job of NGOs redundant or minimal. If the NGOs do their job properly, they will make themselves redundant!

The Majority of NGOs don’t work to make themselves redundant – based on my involvement in improving health and education for the disadvantaged. Why is it?

The nature of NGOs’ work is reflective of the founder’s intent and understanding of social issues. The nature of work is a big spectrum – as mentioned below. At one end of the spectrum, they do easy, shallow, charity-based, short term work, leading to low impact. The other end is about hard, in-depth, rights-based, long term work, making a high impact.



  • Left** end of the spectrum: Donate money to children in government hospitals.
  • MiddleMake healthcare accessible to the disadvantaged people by creating a network of volunteers, who are the bridge between poor patients and empathetic doctors 
  • Right: Pressurize the government to make healthcare policy changes to provide better care and make sure the changes work effectively.


  • Left: Provide lunch to the inmates of the orphanage on special occasions like birthdays.
  • Right: Question the role of orphanages when the number of prospective adoptive parents outweigh the number of orphans in India. Advocate streamlining of the adoption process.


  • Left: Give low-cost water purifiers to slums/villages.
  • Right: Make the government work on restoration of water bodies, zero mixing of industrial waste and afforestation.

My friend once asked a simple question at a volunteer meeting in Bangalore: “If our room is getting filled with water, should we mop the floor or close the tap?”. So, where should the well-meaning individuals start?

Should they straight away go to the right end of the spectrum? Though that is the ideal scenario, it may not be practical for everyone.  It depends on the individual personality and the perspective about the socio-political issues.

Not everyone has the endurance to fight for the rights the hard way – like Medha Patkar who has been fighting for social justice since 1984! It’s indeed a hard grind! 

As the social issues in India are a complex interconnected web, the work done at different stages of the spectrum by various people can complement one another. Individuals may start from the left side; but, must get their perspective wider and move towards the right, as far as they can!

** Right and Left are not to be confused with ideologies. They refer to the ends of the spectrum.