New Draft Rules Tighten the Noose around Foreign-Funded NGOs in India

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

New Delhi: In a move that marks an escalation of the ongoing crackdown against NGOs questioning or challenging the government’s economic and environmental policies, the Home Ministry has drawn up new draft guidelines which stipulate that NGOs must not use foreign funds for activities “detrimental to national interest, likely to affect public interest, or likely to prejudicially affect the security, scientific, strategic or economic interest of the state.”

However, no definition of ‘national interest’, ‘public interest’ or ‘security, scientific, strategic or economic interest’ has been provided, opening the door, NGOs say, to official action against a whole range of activities that are otherwise legal under Indian law.

The draft Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Amendment Rules, 2015 – posted on the MHA website for comment – also require any  NGOs receiving foreign funds to register themselves and to report the receipt of such funds on its website or a government prescribed website within 7 days, making the task of running an NGO in India even more difficult than it already was. The rule replaces the older rule under which only foreign donations in excess of Rs. 1 crore were to be notified at the end of the year.

Another rule requires banks to disclose information regarding the entry of foreign funds for NGOs in India within 48 hours. Earlier, banks were only mandated to disclose details of contributions in excess of Rs. 1 crore, within 30 days. The draft rules also provide for new forms for registration, renewal of registration and disclosure of receipt of foreign funds, which need to filled and uploaded on government portals.

Hidden under some of these forms is the vaguely-worded declaration NGOs must make that foreign funds received will not be used for activities detrimental to national interest or prejudicial to the state’s “security, scientific, strategic or economic interest.”

Problem of timing    

The proposed new rules come at a time when the government has already been acting against NGOs that receive foreign funds. By two recent orders, the government had cancelled the license to receive foreign aid of almost 15,000 NGOs, citing anomalies in their adherence to FCRA rules. Earlier this year, the government offloaded a Greenpeace activist from a London-bound flight and put large and reputed NGOs such as Amnesty International and Greenpeace on a ‘prior permission list’ under the FCRA. The offloaded activist, Priya Pillai, took her case to the Delhi High Court, where the government argued her planned visit to London would have shown India in a bad light and undermined the country’s economic interest. The court rejected this claim, saying that citizens had the right to dissent against government policy.

Reacting to the new draft guidelines, the head of a major NGO told  The Wire on Friday, “The government does not have to bind NGOs around in iron chains of restrictive compliance. This is especially galling given the open license other sectors like corporates receive. Here there is a presumption that all that the corporate sector does is ‘beneficial’ while everything an NGO does is seen at the outset as a possible threat.” The NGO representative, who requested she not be identified, said, “Social good and noble intent is not the preserve of government alone. Governments are trustees of the people and people are beneficiaries. NGOs, civil society organisations and  trades unions are all a part of ‘the people’ and have voice and agency.” 

Profiling requirements too

The new rules have not only increased the frequency with which NGOs are required to file information with the government, they also have provisions that require the disclosure of additional information. NGOs will now have to reveal the details of their social media accounts, and disclose whether their office bearers are part of other NGOs, to help in profiling them.

As for the ‘nothing against the economic interest of the state’ declaration that the government wants NGOs to make, the NGO source added, “Putting such vague assertions into declarations opens the floodgates to government discretion to challenge any activity it does not like by claiming it goes against national interest. This is the aim of putting such things into declarations; so that there is a perpetual sword hanging over one’s head that can come into play whenever there is dissent or disagreement with the government.”

Prioritising economic interests

The present crackdown on foreign-funded NGOs in India began after the Intelligence Bureau submitted a report on NGOs last year restricting India’s developmental projects. The report, which was leaked to the press, claimed that the work of ‘anti-national, foreign funded NGOs’ working on issues related to nuclear projects, genetically modified organisms, mining and other big projects, had led to a decline of 2-3 per cent in the country’s GDP growth rate. While no methods for arriving at that number were mentioned, it was after this report that the government moved swiftly to rein in the NGOs that it now considers detrimental to the economic interest of the country.

The report, titled “Concerted efforts by select foreign-funded NGOs to ‘take down’ Indian development projects,” stated:

“A significant number of Indian NGOs (funded by some donors based in the U.S., the U.K., Germany, the Netherlands and Scandinavian countries) have been noticed to be using people-centric issues to create an environment which lends itself to stalling development projects. These include agitations against nuclear power plants, uranium mines, coal-fired power plants (CFPPs), genetically modified organisms (GMOs), mega industrial projects (Posco and Vedanta), hydel projects (at Narmada Sagar and in Arunachal Pradesh) and extractive industries (oil, limestone) in the north-east.”

The NGOs concerned ask whose national, security, and economic interests the new rules are talking about. Says Vinuta Gopal of Greenpeace India, “Historically the FCRA came into being due to political insecurities and not out of national security needs. Currently the FCRA provisions are already being used to tighten the screws on civil society groups. Especially those working on issues of environment, human rights and communal violence. The amendments appear to make the act even more draconian and open to misuse. Civil Society needs to debate [these changes] as [they take] us back to the days of the Emergency.”

Clifton D’ Rozario, a Bangalore-based lawyer, questions why it was only contributions to NGOs that were being targeted. “Both the BJP and the Congress have backed corporate donations for political entities even as various other parties have supported a ban on the same. An Election Commission draft ‘outcome paper’ on political financing and the Law Commission’s recommendations on electoral reforms have said there is a “general agreement on the ban on corporate donations to political parties, candidates and electoral trusts (excepting dissent on this issue by two national parties)”. It is worth noting that the Delhi High Court in Association For Democratic Reforms And Anr Vs Union Of India And Ors, found that both the BJP and the Congress had received funds in violation of the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act (FCRA),” he said.

Asking whose interest the new rules sought to protect, the NGO source said, “These kinds of notifications and the general atmosphere of intolerance and exclusion which sees NGOs and others rushing to court for protection are actions against democratic principles. That in itself is against the ‘national interest’.”

The ministry has asked for comments on the draft rules to be sent in by the 1st of July.