Policy Advocacy: A collaborative and democratic approach to solving societal issues in India

Policies are clear plans about how a social, political, or economic vision will be achieved and how ideas will be implemented as actions. Policy advocacy can be defined as efforts taken by organizations or groups of individuals to promote a governmental policy and champion it with the help of resources such as groundwork, detailed research, social media marketing, public education, lobbying, and litigation. Policy advocacy can be symbolic and a representation of true democracy being practiced in a free nation. Policy advocacy is initiated by citizens, acting individually or as a collective (Reid, 2001) often represented by nonprofit organizations (Reed, 2006). To elaborate on the tools for policy advocacy, organizations can resort to building public favor by addressing the policy and whether it needs to be implemented, improved, or prevented. In a country like India where a myriad of marginalized groups exist, steering government policies towards the right direction becomes an important job for the Non-Governmental Organisations/Civil Society Organisations and various other organizations who work with the people on a grassroots level. The first step would be to detect the loopholes in a particular policy- this can be achieved by doing subsequent research and collecting data. The research would just not be limited to finding faults but it would also help generate solutions to bridge the gaps. The next and the most important step is to involve stakeholders of the society who are directly affected by the policy decisions and also the ones who would actively contribute to correct the policy to achieve its goals (for the betterment of the society). The final step lies in execution which requires lobbying and providing the decision makers with solutions through findings accompanied by the voices of the concerned citizens who were mobilized by the organizations. 

The ultimate goal of policy advocacy is to benefit society as a whole. The following examples of policy advocacy give us an insight into how various tools can be effectively used to build strong policy recommendations which entail aspirations of the local citizens and probable solutions. 

  • SPARC organization along with NSDF and Mahila Milan used policy advocacy tools to address problems in the livelihood domain. SPARC based in Mumbai chose to focus on the marginalized group of pavement dwellers which constituted a huge population of the city. Pavement Dwellers in Mumbai were not entitled to basic facilities (that of a citizen) such as electricity, drinking water, ration, and banking because of their lack of shelter or shelters that were not legally recognized. The State did not recognize them as part of the city’s population and treated their helplessness as an encroachment on government land. The Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centres (SPARC) was set up in 1984 to support women pavement dwellers in their empowerment. This initiative gave rise to the Mahila Milan which was a self-help group that promoted saving and access to credit for women on the pavements. SPARC was working with the National Slum Dwellers Federation (NSDF), an association that represented the aspirations and interests of slum dwellers in different parts of the country. After the continuous efforts of the above organizations, which included extensive research, protests/dharnas, and lobbying, the State Government paid heed to the concerns of the pavement dwellers. In this slow process, SPARC has successfully acquired government land and begun the construction of houses to rehabilitate 7,000 families. Their success lay in the strength and agenda of civil society actors to foster sustainable changes in policy decisions. The primary method adopted by SPARC was to involve grassroots organizations in their initiatives. SPARC and its partners called it ‘precedent-setting’. This was to make sure that the main recipients of any policy regarding housing, electricity, and water supply of pavement dwellers, were not at the periphery but were right at the center of the process. The NSDF and the Mahila Milan consisted of pavement dwellers who needed the right tools to convey their problems to the government. SPARC was successful in effectively collaborating the various aspirations of the grassroots organizations to the government.
  • Nudging governments to come up with effective policies is essential in a democratic society. The Indian Orthopaedic Association (IOA) decided to undertake policy advocacy based on the correlation between lack of road safety policies and increasing road accidents. Road safety has been an issue in India with 1,80,000 deaths on an average per year and more than 7,50,000 road accidents occuring every year. The lack of a proper road safety policy due to the negligence of the government along with the lack of education among the citizens has contributed to the discouraging numbers. To bring the subject to the notice of the Government, the then President of IOA, Dr. S. Rajasekaran decided to file a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in the Supreme Court of India in the year 2012. The petitioner estimated that about 90% of the road accidents occurred due to the lack of enforcement of strict road safety rules by the Central and State Governments. The PIL proved to be beneficial, with the Supreme Court setting up a Committee that would look into the matters of road safety from all aspects. The Committee went on to create ‘Road Safety Committees’ for each District led by a ‘Head of Administration’. Uniformity in the Road Safety Policy was brought about by forming a nodal agency at a national level which would deal with the allocation of funds to each of the States. The Committee went on to give other beneficial Judgments such as the cancellation of driving licenses in case of more than 5 road violations, an increase in fines, and so on.
  • Another example of effective policy advocacy can be seen in the research efforts and subsequent policy recommendations given by the M.S Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSRFF) to the Odisha Government for the benefit of farming tribal communities. In Odisha, tribal communities were engaged in millet farming but profitable prospects were marred by the usage of low productivity techniques accompanied by irregular climate conditions and lack of irrigation facilities. The MSRFF decided to bring this to the attention of the Odisha Government via policy recommendations to promote agriculture sustainability that would improve the farming techniques of the tribals. The first and foremost thing done was to involve 243 farming households in the research process and getting to know the ground issues via surveys. This research was augmented with expert opinions and collective research by agriculture and social scientists. The outcome of the research was policy recommendations that were presented to the State Government. The policies included a minimum support price (MSP) for the millet cultivators who were at the mercy of uncertain climatic conditions. The MSP would guarantee them an assured income and would encourage them to continue their cultivation. Agricultural subsidies were also put forth as a recommendation to facilitate millet farming. Other recommendations included the official procurement of millets by the Government and their integration into various food security programs. The MSSRF’s recommendations were conveyed to the government through various policy meets, publication of research papers, oral presentations, and so on.

The above case studies give an insight into what Civil Society Organizations or Individuals did to initiate policies or changes in policies. In our first case study, we can observe that the organizations were already working with individuals for several years. This led them to know the issues at hand as they were directly in contact with the affected individuals by interacting with them through member-based committees and clubs. Civil society can influence public policy only to the extent that it has the experience and present presence and activity at the ground level. Policy advocacy succeeds only if they can show their evidence of the results on the issue at hand, based on their work at the grassroots level. What organisations can try to do is advocate what is known as ‘evidence-based policy’ (A.Kumar, 2012). The case study for pavement dwellers in Mumbai shows that a systematic and precise approach to research can make your claims stronger and can in some cases act as a catalyst in formulating policies. The SPARC, Mahila Milan, and the NSDF had already proved themselves as helpers to the community with their previous work, and so were able to take up a bigger issue with probable solutions to the government. 

In our second case study, we see the efficient use of Public Interest Litigation (PIL) which is the primary tool of policy advocacy available to the common public and can lead to policy changes. PIL filed by a particularly renowned group of experts, such as the Indian Orthopaedic Association in our case study, helps the advocacy considerably. This is because a panel of experts who have studied the problem are more capable of being the mediator between the common people and the government. A strong legal framework that makes it easier for concerned citizens to approach the Courts fearlessly to put their point forward can greatly help the cause of policy advocacy in India. 

In our third case study, policy recommendations are based on the primary survey which was done by including the farmers to understand the core issues concerning millet farming. The policy recommendations gained more acknowledgment with the involvement of the right team of agriculture and social scientists. To make the recommendations a reality, policy advocacy was carried out by conducting national and international seminars with the Government and self-governance bodies. Print and electronic media were other tools that were effectively put to use to disseminate information to various stakeholders in society.

It can thus be observed that policy advocacy is not just limited to litigations and extensive research, it also involves sensitizing, organizing, and mobilizing people at local community levels (and various other levels). Collective efforts of the citizens along with extensive research and lobbying by organizations is the key to effective policy advocacy- advocacy which would bring about an actual change in how policies are made and implemented.

By Navaneeta Shetty, Attendee, Research Methodology Course, LQF