Women’s empowerment programmes, human rights, education initiatives and social welfare outreach targeted at the underprivileged have been adversely impacted due to the Narendra Modi government’s decision to cancel the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) licences of a large number of NGOs.
Nearly 100 days after the Ministry of Home Affairs began clamping down on foreign funding for NGOs, a follow up on its impact has revealed that while the organisations may have reduced the scale of events, the real impact has been on the poor in villages who have been denied access to a number of facilities or programmes that were being financed through foreign funding.
As Henri Tiphagne, executive director of People’s Watch, told The Wire, “Ever since our FCRA was refused on October 29, 2016, our entire programme of human rights education in schools in ten states which covered 5,000 schools and about 3.5 lakh students has come to a standstill. The staff cannot be paid and no programmes can be conducted. From outside, we are ensuring that the schools continue teaching but the programme from our side has come to a standstill.”
Tiphagne, who in January 2015 was awarded the eighth Human Rights Award by Amnesty International Germany for “tirelessly and bravely standing up for human rights” and for “campaigning against discrimination and the use of torture in India”, said the stoppage of funds has also impacted the work the organisation was doing with state human rights organisations in the country. “We were doing capacitation programme for them, because no one bothers about them, and that too has come to a complete standstill.”
The human rights activist said his organisation has already moved the Delhi high court and the National Human Rights Commission against the Centre’s decision. “For all practical purposes our bank accounts are closed and so 60 staff are on the streets,” he said.
Tiphagne said his organisation was also working towards protecting human rights defenders across the country. “We had taken up Bela Bhatia’s case and all the earlier attacks in Jagdalpur etc. All those cases are done for human rights defenders which is part of our programme. All that too has come to a halt.”
People’s Watch is now negotiating with prospective donors for its human rights education programme so that its work in schools does not get impacted. “But we have not yet received any funds. We are also not looking for too many resources and are selective in going to corporate houses. We go to those who are committed to the cause of human rights and are not eyeing a larger canvas. In all we were raising around Rs one crore annually through which we were supporting these initiatives,” he said, hoping to find some financial support soon.
Another organisation that has been hit hard is Navsarjan Trust. However, the Gujarat-based NGO has adapted well to the situation and is roping in people in villages and townships to carry forward its flagship programmes.
As its founding member Martin Macwan, a known Dalit human rights activist in Gujarat, said, “All the programmes we do now are being taken care of by the community. So that is a big load off Navsarjan now but its work is continuing. But the people have been telling Navsarjan to not stop and continue with its work. So long as caste and discrimination will remain in this country, Navsarjan will also continue to function.”
However, he added that the cancellation of FCRA licence had impacted the organisation. “We are receiving only a small fraction of our foreign funding through donations by locals. Somebody has donated Rs 25,000, somebody Rs 30,000 and someone from Ahmedabad has even given a cheque of Rs 5 lakh. So, slowly we are getting donations from a lot of people now.”
“But now the pattern of work has also changed. In all the programmes we need not pay and the community has started paying for a lot of events, as was the case with the January 25 protest we organised in Surendranagar. Not a single penny was spent on it by the organisation. The community organised the event on its own by paying for various components.”
At Act Now for Harmony and Democracy (Anhad), the founders had prepared for a change in scenario when the central government changed. Founder Shabnam Hashmi said, “In our case the funding had stopped when Modi came, the FCRA has nothing to do with it. The funding agencies immediately stopped funding us because they knew funding Anhad had its repercussions. So, we did not use FCRA after March 2016. Although it was renewed, it was just lying idle.”
She said though the FCRA licence of Anhad was cancelled on December 15, the organisation has not sent out appeals for funds yet. “We knew this was going to happen. We never had huge staff and our offices are run by two people and everyone worked on small honorarium ranging between Rs 15,000 to Rs 20,000, which basically covers our travel cost.”
In Anhad, she said it was never a question of how it would sustain people. “In fact, people who left Anhad are now working on better salaries. They were just working in Anhad for a cause and we had themselves told them to look out for jobs after this government came.”
But, Hashmi lamented that “what has really been affected is the community work as we were working in ten villages in Bihar, ten villages in Mewat area of southern Haryana and about 35 villages in Jammu and Kashmir, primarily on the issues of women empowerment through centres. So all that work unfortunately has collapsed.”
Stating that this was not income generating work because of the level of poverty, Hashmi said there has been little local support for this social work. In fact, she charged that the whole gamut of corporate social responsibility was a “big myth”. “They are only building toilets, donating money to Prime Minister’s National Relief Fund or they have started their own NGOs and they do not want to touch Anhad, because they feel it is anti-Modi.”
Due to the changed scenario, she said, Anhad has stopped organising big events and is focusing on smaller ones and discussions. “Earlier we used to do one big programme in one month, now we do eight smaller discussions in a month. So our work has changed but our community programme has collapsed and that was being done among the most marginalised sections.”
Yet, she said Anhad would continue its “work on advocacy and secularism – that no one can strangle.”
Incidentally, after the MHA released the FCRA cancellation data, there was widespread apprehension that it would lead to unemployment, and a reduction in aid for poor and marginalised communities.
Subsequently, several NGOs had taken to social media and termed the move “vindictive” and one that disregards all explanations.
They had also charge that FCRA was being used as a tool of repression by the Centre.
RTI activists also argued that the crackdown was aimed at those questioning the government’s developmental paradigm.