New Delhi: The International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) has released a briefing paper raising serious concerns about India’s Foreign Contributions (Regulation) Act (FCRA), arguing that the law is “unlawfully obstructing the critical work of non-governmental organisations”.
Under the Narendra Modi regime, the FCRA law has been tightened several times, making it harder for NGOs who receive foreign funding to function. “The ICJ considers that the implementation of the FCRA is severely shrinking the terrain of civil space in India and is posing unnecessary obstacles to human rights defenders and other civil society organisations in carrying out their critical work,” the briefing paper says.
The law, the ICJ says, uses imprecise and broad language, “which has left it open to abusive and arbitrary application by the Indian authorities”.
“By restricting NGO access to foreign funds meant for the NGO sector, the Indian Government is using the FCRA selectively to silence critical voices,” said ICJ’s legal and policy director Ian Seiderman. “As recognised by the UN Charter, international cooperation, including through financial assistance, is fundamental to the protection of human rights, and CSOs should be encouraged rather than prevented from engaging in such cooperation to facilitate their critical work.”
The FCRA, adopted in 2010, regulates the acceptance and utilisation of foreign contribution by individuals, associations and companies. Its amendment by the Union government in September prompted criticism from NGOs and activists who claimed that the move would affect the livelihoods of workers associated with small NGOs and impact the entire voluntary sector as organisations receiving foreign funds would no longer be able to transfer them to NGOs working at the grassroots level.
A number of renowned NGOs, including Amnesty International, Lawyers Collective, Greenpeace India, People’s Watch, Compassion International and Public Health Foundation of India, have faced trouble and government scrutiny because of the FCRA law, which critics insist is a tool to crack down on dissenting voices. Amnesty International said it was forced to close its India operations because government agencies were not allowing it to function. Since 2014, when the Narendra Modi regime came to power, the FCRA licenses of about 19,000 NGOs have been cancelled.
In a press statement, the ICJ has said that India’s “repressive law on foreign contributions stifles NGOs” and “must be revised or scrapped”.
Several international bodies have raised concerns about the FCRA law in the past too. Most recently, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said, “The FCRA has been invoked over the years to justify an array of highly intrusive measures, ranging from official raids on NGO offices and freezing of bank accounts, to suspension or cancellation of registration, including of civil society organisations that have engaged with UN human rights bodies…I am concerned that such actions based on the grounds of vaguely defined ‘public interest’ leave this law open to abuse.”
In March this year, the Supreme Court ruled in Indian Social Action Forum (INSAF) v Union of India that resorting to legitimate means of dissent like bandh, hartal etc. cannot be enough to deprive an organisation of its legitimate right to receiving foreign contributions.