New Delhi: Civil society organisations on Friday accused the Narendra Modi regime of creating a disabling environment for organisations that are “inconvenient for the government” and blocking crucial aid that was going to some of the most marginalised sections of society, particularly Dalits and Adivasis. Under the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act, 2010, licences of 10,557 NGOs have been cancelled in the last year. In addition, many organisations have been issued suspension orders or cancellation notices.
At a conference on the shrinking space for civil society and the changing regulatory environment, speakers talked about how the government has systematically sought to control the funding and working of NGOs. Due to the government’s actions, several NGO programmes at the grassroots level have had to be shut down.
The Modi regime has said “don’t encourage donations” and “India wants to be a trade partner, not an aid partner,” speakers said. Unfortunately, this had meant that billions of rupees in funding, which could have gone towards strengthening marginalised communities who need and deserve this aid, has been blocked.
The quantum of funding of NGOs has dropped sharply from Rs 13,600 crore in 2013-14 to Rs 7,600 crore in 2014-15 (the figures for 2015-16 are yet to be compiled), said Mathew Cherian, chairman of the Voluntary Association Network of India, the largest federation of NGOs in the country.
Cherian said there are about 12.7 million people working in the 1.2 million development NGOs, which have made contributions ranging from the hand pumps to laws (such as the Right to Information Act and the Right to Education Act). “There are many NGOs doing a great service to this country, but this government has started creating a non-enabling environment. They began with FCRA and they have continued with tightening the tax laws,” he said.
He added that the Centre was making use of sections 12 and 13 of the FCRA which state that NGOs should not be participating in political activity. “If I work for Dalits or the marginalised, that is political activity. How can this sector survive such a thing? All around the world people say India has the best civil society, but this government is stifling the flow of funds to NGOs, while allowing [funds] freely for all other sectors.”
Donors are under pressure to not fund the NGOs, he added. “The Ford Foundation were asked not to donate, so that has stopped. Besides, there were 17 organisations which were put on another list where the RBI blocked their accounts. Many organisations now think India is not the right place to give [funds] due to these restrictions. Moreover, organisations now have to get MHA approval for every grant they make. Three more major funding organisations were put on the watchlist recently, so they too cannot fund without prior permission [from the home ministry],” said Cherian.
He also talked about how the impact is being felt on the ground, as nearly 50% of work has stopped. “Many NGOs in rural areas have not got their certificates renewed. This is an organised way of weeding out organisations they are not comfortable with.”
Venkatesh Nayak of Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative said the FCRA places discretion in the hands of decision makers because it does not define permissible activities but only has a list of activities that are not allowed. Also, he said, no one knows under which list – Centre, state or concurrent – it was drafted in 1977 or amended in 2010.
Nayak also wondered how the law is being used to prevent donations from coming in, since the FCRA regulates the recipients of foreign contributions and not the donors, who are mostly based outside the territorial jurisdiction of India.
Anand Grover, senior advocate and founder of advocacy and law firm Lawyers Collective, which had their FCRA licence suspended by the Ministry of Home Affairs, said his organisation would not take the blow lying down. “We will be furnishing a reply within the 30 day period and will challenge it,” he said.
Targeting “inconvenient” organisations
Grover said a comparison between the Foreign Exchange Mainternance Act, which deals with corporate investment, and the FCRA 2010, which deals with donations to NGOs, is very important. “FEMA deals with corporate investments and interests. The corporate sector will get a seat on any table of the government, they can lobby without any questions asked. Are we saying that the corporates are working totally in national interest?” he asked.
While the government has been taking credit for the work done by NGOs, it has been unnecessarily harsh on those it perceives to be inconvenient. “In his recent speech, union health minister J.P. Nadda has spoken about access to medicines which are available to HIV positive people at affordable rates. Who did that case? Lawyers Collective. Who won that case for the government? Lawyers Collective. They are priding themselves on that and we are told that you are paid by Novartis, you can’t appear for them. Where did they get that from? Nowhere. It is just that I say so, so that is a law. But where is the law? There is no answer,” said an agitated Grover, questioning the Centre.
Similarly, he said, noted lawyer Indira Jaising has been targeted on the complaint of a politician who said she is a government servant and therefore can’t receive foreign funds. “First of all, she is not a government servant. Has she received foreign contributions? No. Lawyers Collective has. She has only received remuneration from Lawyer’s Collective for work done as senior counsel. It is not in conflict of interest with any law because she has taken permission and because she has been working on women’s rights, which the government wants us to do. But if they don’t like you, they will discredit you,” he said, talking about the Centre’s approach.
Remembering how he had given up British citizenship to serve the country, Grover said that though his NGO has been targeted, it still continues to work for the government and advise it on crucial issues. “Even today we are willing to give advise if the government asks for it. We do not see it as a political party. Even on Mr. Nadda’s speech we guided him. We will not look at the colour of the party, because you are the government. We believe if an elected government has come to power, they deserve our support for the work that has to be done.”
Stating that 80% of Lawyers Collective’s funding was coming from abroad, he said though its work has got impacted, it would continue to work on core issues like women’s rights and right of marginalised communities.
Shutting down programmes
Biraj Patnaik of the Civil Society Organisation Support Cell said that when government cancelled licences of 9,000 organisations in March last year, letters were written to the prime minister and home minister, but there was no response. However, he noted, whenever NGOs with cancelled or suspended licences approached the courts, they got very favourable orders. “So I would say that the need of the hour is a structured dialogue between the government and the civil society,” he said. He also pointed out that the big worry now is about the renewal process, as there is no transparency, no grounds are being given for renewals or rejections and no prescribed time limit for the clearances.
In response to a question, Patnaik said that while it is a fact that the money for corporate social responsibility has gone up after the FCRA Act was introduced, a lion’s share of this funding goes to the foundations set up by big companies. Also, it is dependent on net profits, which can be manipulated. “Besides, it can only be used for certain purposes. So the money for building toilets has gone up but funding for right of food has gone down. There is nothing for rights of sex workers because the corporates do only the comfortable things,” he said.
Sexual health activist Mona Mishra said that in the absence of funding, most NGOs have been forced to lay off staff and stop programmes. She said the government desperately needs to reinvent its relationship with civil society. “Just about every transformative change has been brought about by the people on the ground, be it women’s empowerment, rape law, environmental activism, HIV/AIDS or access to medicines. None of this would have happened had people not worked on the ground. Change does not occur by lording over people working on the ground,” Mishra said.
Paul Divakar of the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights made a fervent appeal for allowing funds to come in so that the marginalised communities do not continue to suffer. “The state has failed in its responsibility to support the real democratisation happening at the community or panchayat level. Tribal and Dalit budgets are diverted. As much as Rs 37,000 crore for Dalits and Rs 17,000 crore for tribals is diverted every year. Today, we are a nation because of the strength of civil society that is contributing to these areas. It was only in the last decade that we began getting some funds from abroad, but now these restrictions will come in the way again. We say we are the largest democracy, but please let that democracy reach the communities which are on the margins,” he said.