External Affairs

International Meet Skips India for Freer Bangkok Due to NGO Crackdown

The Prime Minister is embracing the world on the one hand, while on the other, thanks to his NGO crackdown, civil society internationally feels India is unwelcoming, say Indian social sector workers

I've Got the Whole World in My Hands: File photo of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. PTI

I’ve Got the Whole World in My Hands: File photo of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. PTI

New Delhi: Reacting to the Narendra Modi government’s crackdown on civil society organisations and its continued stand-off with the environmental NGO Greenpeace, the International Civil Society Centre – a global platform for large International Civil Society Organisations, or ICSOs – has decided to shift the venue for a major ‘Global Perspectives’ conference from India to Thailand.

Though the ICSC, which is ‘owned’ by 13 of the best known ICSOs, including WWF, Transparency International, Amnesty International, Islamic Relief and World Vision, had even secured a venue in New Delhi, it decided against holding the meet here in view of the recent developments.

Talking to The Wire, Burkhard Gnärig, Executive Director of the International Civil Society Centre, said: “The reason for changing the venue was our fear that leaders from some of our key stakeholders such as Greenpeace and others would not be allowed into the country and that we would fail to achieve our main objective of bringing together all key players  irrespective of their political, religious or other approaches and affiliations.”

Denial of visas an issue

Clarifying that “no Indian authority was putting up specific obstacles”, he said that “in a situation where representatives of some of our key stakeholders are denied visas to India or a colleague with a valid visa is being turned away at India’s borders, we could not accept the considerable risk of having to conduct our conference in the absence of some of the sector’s key leaders.”

The ICSC’s vote of no confidence in India’s openness comes within days of Greenpeace activist for Australia being denied entry to India at Bangalore airport. It also comes at a time when there has been an increase in action by the Union Home Ministry against CSOs and other organisations under Foreign Contribution Regulation Act.

On why the global meet was important for a country like India, Gnärig said, “Our Global Perspectives conference is our largest and most prestigious annual event in which we convene leaders of the wider sector. In addition to the ICSOs we invite CSO networks like CIVICUS, GCAP and others as well as national networks like VANI from India. We also invite selected national CSOs, academics, business and government representatives. We gather between 100 and 120 of the sector’s top leaders in this conference.”

He said the 2014 Global Perspectives conference took place at the OECD headquarters in Paris. The conference this year will focus on “the consistent implementation of the 2015 agreements on climate and sustainable development; managing disruption, global power shifts and the emergence of new donor countries; and establishing an organisational culture in CSOs that embraces change to efficiently tackle the above challenges.”

Perception India is unwelcoming

Reflecting on why the international CSOs are anxious and worried, Maja Daruwala, Director of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative – one of the invitees for the meet that will be  now held in Bangkok from November 4-6 – said: “It’s a great pity that on the one hand the Prime Minister is embracing the world and on the other, civil society internationally feels India is unwelcoming. The world over, Indian CSOs are signifiers of our democracy. Nothing should be done that indicates otherwise.”

Well known social development expert Jayant Kumar, who is also chairman of the Voluntary Action Network of India (VANI), said that in 35 years of work in the social sector he has seen Indian civil society take leadership roles at different levels nationally and globally. The engagement has also involved meetings, conferences, etc., both nationally and globally. “But over a period of time, organising such interactions has become nearly impossible in India due to significant changes in the visa regime. This frequently leads to either cancellation or shifting of venues outside the country. Of course, things started getting difficult during the UPA government’s time about 8-9 years ago. But under the current regime, it has become much more challenging.”

“I am associated with an initiative – Local Capacities for Peace in South Asia. Earlier we would even get participants from Bangladesh and other countries without much difficulty, but now getting a visa on time is very difficult,” he lamented.

Threat to NGOs critical of official policies

Kumar also spoke about how certain civil society organisations are now being observed very closely. “The space for the organisations is getting dwindled. Certain type of organisations and related individuals are continuously followed.”

He said these developments are not lost on the global funding agencies. “They too are getting a sense that they are unwelcome here. The dangerous aspect is that it has started impacting the fund flow and the worst impacted are the civil society organisations working at the grassroots with the marginalised or for the cause of those who need support to protect their livelihood. Some organisations also face different kinds of intimidation and harassment at various levels.”

“These organisations are generally working on issues of transparency and accountability of different stakeholders. Thus gradually, a large number of organisations is on the verge of extinction due to the steady decline in their resource support base.” At present, he said, there are thousands of such organisations throughout the country which are on the verge of shutting down.

With global funding slowing, he said the corporate sector is stepping in. “Under [the framework of mandatory] corporate social responsibility they are coming in with big money. But it is primarily for things like health, education and other charity work. Also this money comes in with a different kind of approach. It is like government funding, which is for soft work, and not for work which questions policy issues.”