Far from being recognised as the government’s guiding agents in developmental activities, a large section of NGOs and voluntary organisations in India are today being branded as enemies of the State. Is the crackdown on NGOs legitimate or is the government scared of dissent?
Stating that Greenpeace India had “continued to violate FCRA (Foreign Contribution Regulation Act) norms”, the ministry of home affairs (MHA) cancelled the registration of the (Non-Government organisation NGO) under the FCRA on September 3 this year. In April, the MHA suspended the NGO’s registration saying it had violated norms by opening five accounts to use foreign donations without informing the authorities concerned. The bank accounts were later frozen on the directions of the MHA.
On September 10, in fresh crackdown on Sabrang Trust, an NGO run by social activist and journalist Teesta Setalvad, the home ministry suspended its registration for six months accusing the organisation of violating FCRA norms that invites termination of its license. Another NGO run by Teesta and her spouse, Citizens for Justice and Peace, has already been put under prior permission category,thus making it mandatory for the organisation to take permission from the home ministry before accepting or utilising any foreign contribution. The NGO pursued the cases of post- Godhra riots victims in Gujarat when Prime Minister Narendra Modi was chief minister of the state.
In April, the home ministry put the USD12.5 billion Ford Foundation on a watch list over funding it gave to Sabrang Communications and Publishing run by Teesta. The foundation has had its funding frozen after the government announced a probe into a USD250,000 grant it had given to Teesta’s trust. The head of the Indian operations of the US based Foundation, one of the world’s largest charitable funds, announced that she is moving roles.
The elephant in the room
In June 2014, a 23-page report by India’s Intelligence Bureau (IB) on foreign-funded NGOs and their “concerted efforts to take down Indian development projects” was leaked to the media. The previous government, led by the Indian National Congress, had supposedly commissioned the report. The report, marked “secret”, warns that these NGOs are stalling new mines, power plants, genetically modified food and “mega industrial projects”. Foreign donors, the report alleges, disguise their funds cleverly as donations for issues ranging from human rights, violence against women, caste discrimination and religious freedom.
Collectively, the report without offering any basis for the calculation, says such NGOs drag down India’s GDP growth by 2-3 pc annually. Since then, a total of 13,700 NGOs, both Indian and foreign, have had their FCRA licences revoked. Within the civil society, there is a growing feeling that the political class views being anti-government as anti-national. “One of the defining characteristics of a democracy is that governments are bound to change,” says Jagdeesh Chhokar, co-founder of the Association of Democratic Reforms that works in the areas of political and electoral reforms and based in Gujarat. “If governments can change, then people should have the liberty to campaign against the government. Clampdown cannot be absolutely arbitrary,” he says.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, there were many global conferences beginning with Rio, Habitat, Istanbul and Beijing that gave visibility and voice to the Indian NGOs. By the end of the 1990s, the number of NGOs increased – multilateral institutions like the World Bank, Asian Development Bank (ADB), Department for International Development (DFID), worked with the government. “There was healthy coordination on various social sectors,” observes Dr Rajesh Tandon, co-founder and president of Participatory Research in Asia, an NGO that works for governance, occupational health, global networking and other related areas in India. “In the new century, there were two phenomenon – positive and negative,” he explains further. On one hand, NGOs started engaging the governments and international agencies on policy advocacy and programme implementation based on their experience and became stakeholders in policy dialogues. On the other, there was a mushrooming of NGOs by contractors, politicians and bureaucrats. “This was a negative development,” adds Dr Tandon.
In many ways, the genesis of the problem that the NGOs are facing today lies in the regime that was set up for the registration of voluntary organisations in India, the Societies Registration Act, 1860. According to this law, any group of seven people can register an NGO. Every such organisation operating as a ‘nonprofit’ can be termed as NGO. Today, the list includes rich sports clubs, resident welfare organisations, five star corporate hospitals or posh educational institutions. Numerous NGOs promoted and run by government are also in the list. “It is this old and outdated law that has facilitated the entry of all fly-by-night operators in the field. Most of the scandals are done by such NGOs,” asserts Harsh Jaitli, chief executive officer of Voluntary Action Network India that promotes voluntarism. “However, it is the problem of such negative generalisation that the whole sector suffers. Such scandalous behaviour also gives enough fodder to prosecute genuine ones,” he adds.
Another law that defines and differentiates the sector is the Income Tax Act. According to Digital Empowerment Foundation founder Osama Manzar, less than 10 pc of the NGOs file income tax returns every year, i.e., merely 290,000 of the 3.1 million NGOs in the country. “Even if any organisation has been filling due returns and following the law in its true spirits, they can never be assured of their status with ministry. There is no system of acknowledgment of receipt,” contends Jaitli, calling for regulatory reforms in the sector.
Activists also believe that the IT Act fails to define the sector as per its operational realities. It has six arms, and most of the development organisations come under its last arm. All other categories are allowed to generate resources and use them for achieving their charitable goals, but it is only last category wherein a limit of INR 2.5 million is imposed. Furthermore, they believe that the number floated in the media regarding the total number of NGOs in India is severely bloated and that it is a mere projection and not based on any scientific calculation.
India’s history has seen numerous developments that have had an equal bearing on the evolution of NGOs as well. On one hand there are a huge number of NGOs devoted to constructive nation building. Many important laws such as the Right To Information, Right to Food, Right to Land are products of the NGO movement and have compelled the government to deliver programmes and policies. However, there is another section that believes in confrontation to extract desired results. For instance, the Intelligence Bureau report to the Prime Minister’s Office cited above said that funds to certain NGOs were mostly used to fuel protests against developmental projects relating to coal, bauxite mining, oil exploration, nuclear plants and linking of rivers, resulting in stalling or slowing down of these projects. The report named two anti-nuclear organisations – National Alliance of Anti Nuclear Movements and People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy – spearheaded by US-educated S P Udayakumar who allegedly received “unsolicited contract” from a US university.
“Clampdown on NGOs is normal and has always been there,” observes Binoy Acharya, founder director of Unnati – Organisation for Development of Education. There is also a view that the government goes after big NGOs and not the entire voluntary sector is part of a new design. A clampdown on bigger organisations can also starve the NGOs dependent on it.
Disagreements between the government and NGOs have existed for a long time and, in many ways, define the nature of activism in India today. However, there is a growing feeling that the civil society is under attack by the current government and things are only going to get worse here onward. “The clampdown on civil society is similar but far more amplified today,” believes Amitabh Behar, executive director of the National Foundation for India, arguing that it is all about how politics is organised in this country.
“The Congress-led UPA government worked just as a political party and did not have social organisations. However, when it comes to the BJP-led NDA government, the Sangh Parivar has a very Civil Society BIZ@INDIA TIPS Special 2015 65 strong social base. That social base wants to expand and NGOs occupying this space is clashing with them. So, there is a fundamental battle underway,” he says.
The government on its part denies any clampdown and says it is only following the rule of law. While these laws that govern the functioning of the NGOs and voluntary organisations, especially the FCRA, need to be more transparent, the government could do well without an abject display of high-handedness and slapping of the “national interest” clause against some foreign funded NGOs. The need for reforms in laws governing this sector is also crucial to check the growth of fraudulent activities.
When the government expects dissenting voices to follow every rule of the book, it also builds a case for the political class to show some accountability. For long now, the government has been contesting the inclusion of political parties under the Right to Information Act. “We can’t make 1800 political parties transparent. How can we make more than a million NGOs transparent?” Chhokar sums up.