NGOs as Intermediaries in the Provision of Public Services

By Santhakumar V and Rema Devi | May 11, 2023

In Gujarat, the line departments remain the nodal agencies for the implementation of almost all development and welfare schemes. This limits the local decision-making process and reiterates the dependence of local bodies on state and central governments for resources and programmes. 

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Many developing countries face different kinds of challenges in the provision of public services including those which are aimed at improving the lives of poor people. There may be an absence of adequate welfare schemes in some countries and where such schemes are available, the kind of support that is provided may be inadequate to meet the needs of people. Even in contexts where such schemes can provide a certain level of support, sections of the poorer people may not be able to access these. This can be due to the inadequate extension of the governmental machinery to reach people at large, for example, when government offices are located at substantial distances from sizeable sections of human settlements. There can be also challenges related to corruption.

Though decentralisation can be the solution for this, and it is attempted in different parts of the world, including India, its effectiveness, especially in reaching poor people is not the same everywhere. In some cases, politicians or elected representatives may serve as intermediaries between the government and the people. There are also non-governmental organisations (NGOs) serving the role of such intermediaries.

Of late, there is a growing digitisation of the delivery of public and welfare services. This is done with the objective of reducing corruption and transaction costs in the provision of these services. However, many of the beneficiaries who these services are meant for may not have the capacity to access online services on their own. This may lead to the mushrooming of private agents required to help these people to access digital services. Commissions collected by these agents can be excessive, which can reduce the overall support that the beneficiaries receive. In order to address this problem, NGOs are helping these people connect with online services so they can avail the benefits they are entitled to.

Setu Abhiyan is one such organisation working in the Kutch district of Gujarat. The focus of its efforts is on strengthening local governance through empowering communities and mediating between people and the state. The organisation which was founded to help post-disaster rehabilitation after the earthquake in Bhuj in 2001, registered as an NGO in 2014 to work towards the objective of improving grassroots governance with informed local participation. It works in five blocks of the Kutch district and is involved in urban and rural governance, livelihood, and need-based interventions in health, to name a few.

This report is based on a short-period visit of the organisation in February 2023. In addition to discussions with the leaders of the organisation, we observed the functioning of two of its Panchayat Resource Centres (PRCs) that are maintained by Setu Abhiyan jointly with the Panchayat Association (an association of the heads of Panchayats – Sarpanches). We had meetings and discussions with the Sarpanches in both these blocks. Through these visits and discussions, we could get an insight into the need for the PRCs, their services, and the challenges that the organisation and Panchayats face in the locality. These are summarised briefly in the following sections.

The context

The Kutch district of Gujarat is geographically one of the largest in the country and also the least developed within the state. It was affected by a major earthquake in 2001. The post-earthquake period saw a spurt in industrialisation in areas, such as the development of ports (facilitated by its long coastline), extraction of coal (lignite), and production of electricity. The extension of irrigation to the area through the Sardar Sarovar Project has brought more land into cultivation and led to an increase in agricultural productivity. There is growth in employment and incomes for a section of people. These new economic activities have also led to an increase in the price of land, which has enabled a set of people to have better homes and motor vehicles.

The benefits of this economic growth have trickled down to some extent to the lives of poor people. Our discussions with the Sarpanches have indicated that there is a certain improvement in the life of poor people. There is an agreement in the community regarding the enhanced well-being and improved quality of life in all the villages over the last decade and the absence of extreme poverty. According to them, most people in these villages are now able to afford at least two meals a day.

However, there is no major improvement in the welfare services provided by the government, especially considering the specific disadvantages of this region. The population settlements are very spread out, which means that there may not be enough number of children to make a secondary school viable in any one village. Therefore, there is a need for a secondary school which caters to a number of such villages. But this would mean that children from some villages would have to travel 15 – 20 kilometres to reach it and public transport is yet to connect many villages adequately. Such a situation leads to the dropping out of children after completing primary education. This can be an important reason for the high rate of dropouts, especially girls, in the district and the state.

The industrial and economic growth in the region, and the Gujarat state as a whole, has not translated into a notable improvement in the provision of welfare transfers of the state. In general, there are not enough employees in government offices. This is the case in government schools, public healthcare systems and the offices of local governments. Many posts of panchayat secretaries have remained vacant since 2018, though there is a huge demand from the communities to fill up these vacancies. This has a negative impact on the provision of public services and affects school-going children, pregnant mothers, and those who seek welfare services from the government. There is a general reluctance by the state government (probably due to concerns about fiscal burden) to appoint an adequate number of government employees. Though there is an increase in the number of infrastructure projects, and the development of new roads, etc., the quality of construction seems poor.

Another notable feature is the status of decentralisation. Though local governments are formed, elections are conducted (though not periodically in all panchayats), and there are reservations for women and Dalits among elected representatives, the extent of decentralisation or the positive impacts of decentralisation are somewhat limited in the state and the district due to a number of reasons. First, there is no major devolution of public resources at the state level to local governments through state finance commissions in Gujarat. Hence, the welfare and development schemes that reach villages are designed and executed by the line departments of the state and central governments. In that sense, decentralisation is minimal in Gujarat and line departments remain the nodal agencies for the implementation of almost all development and welfare schemes. This limits the local decision-making process and reiterates the dependence of local bodies on state and central governments, both for resources and programmes, which is in violation of the spirit of decentralisation that is envisaged in the 73rd Amendment of the Constitution of India.

Though there is a reservation for women and there are women representatives, their participation is limited. There are women sarpanches who are active but a majority of them remain in the clutches of social norms and patriarchy that exist in the villages. The system of panch patis’ exists wherein the decision-making power is taken over by a male in the family. The elected representatives are not in a position to influence government officials and politicians at a higher level. Even those belonging to the ruling party are not in a position to influence the state government to get enough employees appointed at the local level.

So, overall, we see that there is an attempt to digitise the provision of welfare services in Gujarat. The idea of governance is one which combines a certain centralisation (or inadequate use of decentralisation) with digitisation which would enhance access to public services, reduce transaction costs and possibly corruption and favouritism in the delivery of these. There is some indication that if a beneficiary could complete all the formalities in the online service platform, they will get the benefits within the stipulated time and without any notable corruption. Sarpanches and the people whom we met noted that there is not much corruption in the line departments when sanctioning welfare entitlements.

However, this assumption that digitisation would enhance access to welfare services may not be based on ground realities. This is discussed in the following section.

Need for intermediation in the delivery of public services

For various reasons, many people, especially poor or old, who are expected to be the beneficiaries of government schemes, may not have access to welfare services. The digital divide especially in a disadvantaged district of the country where one-fifth or more children drop out of school even currently (and this rate was much higher decades ago) should be obvious. The issue is not merely access to the internet but also the ability to fill up and upload all documents online. As noted earlier, the Kutch district is very spread out, nearly 400 km from one end to another. The distance between two ends within a block can be 70 – 100 km. The distance for some villagers to reach the nearby town where private internet booths are available can be 20 – 40 km.

In states where decentralisation is advanced, there would be panchayat offices not very far away from population settlements. However, that is not the case in Kutch due to the distance between villages and the shortage of government officials at the local level. A panchayat secretary may be in charge of two to three panchayats, and there are no other local government employees. In contexts like Kerala, elected representatives serve as intermediaries between the government and the people. They help people in staying informed about different schemes and eligibility criteria, filling up forms and ensure they receive the benefits.

However, in Gujarat, it seems that the elected representatives are not empowered enough to be such intermediaries. We have talked about the inadequate empowerment of female elected representatives. Others may not have adequate education to help their voters. They may not fully understand the schemes and related formalities and processes. All these factors may necessitate an external agency to serve the role of intermediaries in the provision of governmental services to citizens.

There are private agents operating in small towns for this purpose. Agents may charge a significant amount of money as a commission. The money that is paid to such an agent is an effective drain on welfare recipients. If an older worker is entitled to a pension, the amount to be paid to the agent drastically reduces the welfare of the worker. This can be seen as part of the higher transaction cost due to the longer distance’ between the government and its citizens.

Setu Abhiyan – connecting people with public services

Due to the reasons mentioned above, there is a need for altruistic or not-for-profit intermediaries between the government and citizens in contexts, such as Kutch. Setu Abhiyan is one such organisation, which maintains a PRC in 2 blocks (Lakhpat and Rapar- which are least developed in the district and state) in collaboration with the association of sarpanches. In addition to the support for PRCs, Setu Abhiyan conducts training programmes for elected representatives of local governments in collaboration with governmental and non-governmental organisations. We could see close coordination between Setu Abhiyan and the sarpanches (and their associations) in the two blocks where they work. The organisation also carries out policy advocacy with the government to make rules simpler and make different welfare services more accessible to beneficiaries.

Functioning of PRCs

One of the major barriers to accessing welfare schemes is the lack of awareness about the schemes and the processes to be followed. Getting the certificates and documents which need to be submitted to validate the applications for entitlements is not an easy task for many people, especially poor people. Illiteracy or minimal education, remoteness of the village, other socioeconomic situations, staff shortage in the government system, inadequate accountability etc. add to the problem. The PRCs attempt to address these challenges.

In each PRC, there is an operator whose salary is borne by Setu Abhiyan. In addition, the organisation has a field office with two to three workers in these blocks, whose salaries are also paid by the organisation. The PRC is a substitute for governmental intermediation in the distribution of welfare services in the region and carries out the following tasks: (a) providing information on different schemes; (b) helping applicants to complete the application process; © submitting online applications on behalf of potential beneficiaries; and (d) following up with respective government offices to see that a decision on the application is taken on time.

If the application is accepted, then the money, in most cases, comes directly to the bank account of the beneficiary. Information dissimilation about various schemes and beneficiary identification is accomplished through community workers, need/programme-based camps, sarpanch associations, social justice committees of the panchayats and social media. WhatsApp groups are created with sarpanches, Anganwadi workers, and government officials, and information on different schemes is shared with these groups. Elected representatives may help in identifying beneficiaries under each scheme and connect them to the PRC. Either the beneficiaries themselves visit the PRC if they are from nearby villages or the process is supported by the sarpanch if villages are far away from the block headquarters.

Based on discussions with a few beneficiaries and elected representatives, we learned that this initiative has helped many to get timely information about various schemes and receive entitlements within a reasonable time without paying huge commissions to private agents. In one month, a PRC on average, serves one hundred beneficiaries. The PRC’s services are also used by government employees, such as the Panchayat Secretary. Some instances of flexible decisions by the line departments were also shared during the conversation, such as the acceptance of an affidavit from the sarpanch and elders of the community as a substitute for the husband’s death certificate for widow pension.

The communities and sarpanches acknowledge the role of the PRCs and are considering it as a support system which they can rely upon and without which they may not be able to navigate through the digital system. Many feel that it would be difficult to sustain the PRCs without the support of an external agency like Setu Abhiyan.

Challenges in the intermediation of welfare services

It appeared to us that these PRCs are continuing only due to the financial support provided by the Setu Abhiyan. Hence, the sustainability of these centres depends on the financial resources which are available to this NGO. And because Setu Abhiyan is itself dependent on the funds it receives for its projects, the availability and consistency of this financial support over time are uncertain. Since the PRCs are not charging any fees for the services they provide, the viability of such charges (whether most beneficiaries are in a position to pay a reasonable charge, and whether such a charge is enough to generate adequate finances for running a resource centre) is not clear. Secondly, it is clear that in blocks where such an NGO is not operational, beneficiaries have to depend on one or another commission agent for availing of governmental services. This may enhance the transaction costs for some people but can totally exclude other needy people from the provision of governmental services.

A sustainable improvement in the distribution of welfare services may require the strengthening of decentralisation, illustratively: (a) enough number of employees in local governments; (b) enhanced capacity and willingness on the part of elected representatives to support citizens to access welfare services from the state government; and © enhanced capacity of people to demand and pressurise different tiers of government to make these services accessible to all people. However, these developments are yet to take place adequately in Gujarat.

Challenges in the decentralisation in Kutch district and Gujarat state

As noted earlier, decentralisation is relatively weaker in the state of Gujarat. The digitisation of welfare services has, to some extent, strengthened centralisation. Though Setu Abhiyan is providing a useful service to connect citizens with governmental services, and it is attempting to strengthen local government representatives through training, its impact on enhancing the level of decentralisation is not very significant. The lack of adequate decentralisation is a persisting challenge in Gujarat even with the support provided by organisations like Setu Abhiyan.


Santhakumar V, Professor, Azim Premji University, Bengaluru

Rema Devi, Member, Field Practice Team, Azim Premji University, Bengaluru

Featured Photo by Scott Graham on Unsplash