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'Cease Needless Harassment of NGOs': Former Civil Servants Urge Amit Shah on FCRA License Row

'Every expression of difference of opinion or dissent cannot be construed as violating the integrity and sovereignty of the country or as being against the public interest,' 86 former bureaucrats wrote to Amit Shah in an open letter.

New Delhi: Over 80 retired civil servants have called on Union home minister, Amit Shah, “to adopt a cooperative rather than an adversarial relationship” with nonprofit organisations working towards the cause of India’s marginalised sections.

Expressing concern over the cancellation or suspension of the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) licenses of several NGOs in the recent past, the former bureaucrats in an open letter said, “Every expression of difference of opinion or dissent cannot be construed as violating the integrity and sovereignty of the country or as being against the public interest. The actions of your [Home] Ministry and the various law enforcement agencies give rise to a strong suspicion that independent assessments of or perspectives about socio-economic indicators of the country are not welcome.”

Referring to the cancellation or suspension of four well-known nonprofits – Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), Oxfam India, Centre for Policy Research (CPR), and Centre for Equity Studies (CES) – the former bureaucrats said, their activities are aimed at addressing the problems of the most marginalised sections of Indian society.

“The cancellation/suspension of the FCRA licences of these organisations and the initiation of punitive action by various law enforcement agencies of the Government of India is an outcome of the highly flawed provisions of the FCRA,” they said.

The statement further went on to say that it seems as though, using the FCRA, the Government of India seeks to deter civil society organisations from seeking funding from foreign sources while allowing the private sector, digital and print media, and political parties freely access foreign funds.

Calling for a drastic overhaul of the FCRA, they said it should be made more “facilitating rather than a restrictive piece of legislation”.

“We hope your government will take steps in this direction and direct agencies under your control to cease needless harassment of organisations serving the people of India, especially its most marginalised and disadvantaged sections,” the retired civil servants urged Amit Shah.

The letter and full list of signatories are reproduced below.

§

Dear Home Minister,

We are a group of former civil servants of the All India and Central Services who have worked with the Central and State Governments in the course of our careers. Our group has no affiliation with any political party, and we, as its members, believe in impartiality, neutrality and commitment to the Constitution of India.

We write today to express our concern over what appears to us to be the very negative approach of the Government of India in renewal of FCRA licences of nonprofits engaged in different sectors in India. Newspaper reports indicate that the FCRA registrations of nearly 5933 NGOs lapsed as of 1 January 2022. While there are undoubtedly cases where NGOs have not applied in time for renewal, the denial of renewal to a number of internationally reputed NGOs occasions cause for concern.

In the recent past, FCRA licences of four well-known nonprofits – Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), Oxfam India, Centre for Policy Research (CPR) and Centre for Equity Studies (CES) – have been cancelled or suspended. These are all institutions whose activities are aimed at addressing the problems of the most marginalised sections of Indian society.  Rights to food, work, wages, health and shelter and the right to lead a dignified life based on the fundamental rights guaranteed under the Constitution of India feature prominently in the work of these organisations. Oxfam has been working in India since 1951 and has been involved in a number of humanitarian and development activities over the past seventy years in various parts of India. CHRI activities range from advocacy of the right to information of citizens to prison and police reforms and promoting media freedom and the right to free expression. CPR is a prominent public policy think tank, with distinguished former civil servants and corporate professionals on its Governing Board. CES, set up in 2001, aims to influence public policy and law for sustainable long term solutions towards the rights and care of underprivileged sections of society.

The cancellation/suspension of the FCRA licences of these organisations and the initiation of punitive action by various law enforcement agencies of the Government of India is an outcome of the highly flawed provisions of the FCRA. It seems as though, using the FCRA, the Government of India seeks to deter civil society organisations from seeking funding from foreign sources, although such access to foreign funds, through other legally sanctioned means,  is freely available to the private sector, digital and print media and political parties. Section 3 of the FCRA virtually prohibits the free expression of opinion by anyone associated with an NGO obtaining foreign contributions. Section 5 gives sweeping powers to the Government of India to declare any organisation as “of a political nature”, thereby rendering it ineligible to receive foreign contributions. The scope of Section 7 of the FCRA has been narrowed down, by its 2020 amendment, to prohibit transfer of foreign contributions from one FCRA-registered party to another. Section 12 uses broad terms like “sovereignty and integrity of India” and “public interest” to give the government full discretion to decide whether to permit foreign contributions to any organisation/person.

All these restrictive and vaguely worded clauses in the FCRA have been used to act against organisations that take an independent view on economic, social and political issues, which may not be to the liking of the government. Thus, columns by persons like Harsh Mander and his associates, relating to their professional areas of competence, have been deemed to be violative of Section 3. The provisions of Section 7 have been broadly interpreted to exclude even collaboration between CES and other non-FCRA organisations in the joint publication of reports. Payments received by Harsh Mander and his associates for specified outputs (and not for articles written by them) have been deemed to violate Sections 3, 8 and 12(4)(vi) of the FCRA. The Central Bureau of investigation has reportedly alleged violation of Sections 8 and 12(4) of the FCRA in payments made by Oxfam India to CPR. Detailed clarifications from all four organisations to queries by the Ministry of Home Affairs have elicited no meaningful response from your Ministry.

The Government of India should clarify how nonprofit organisations can access foreign contributions if every moment is spent in complying with restrictive legislative provisions. Every expression of difference of opinion or dissent cannot be construed as violating the integrity and sovereignty of the country or as being against public interest. The actions of your Ministry and the various law enforcement agencies give rise to a strong suspicion that independent assessments of or perspectives about socio-economic indicators of the country are not welcome. It ill behoves a government professing adherence to democratic ideals to be intolerant of criticism of its policies and encourage its agencies to adopt intimidatory practices, such as searches, seizures, inquisitorial questioning and information leaks to the media aimed at damaging the reputation of these organisations in the minds of the public. These organisations are helmed by persons with an impeccable and rich record in public life.

Rather than facilitating socio-economic initiatives by civil society organisations, the hobbling of the operations of major nonprofits and entangling them in tortuous, long-drawn legal battles will lead to a drastic reduction in the involvement of such organisations in catalysing community involvement in socio-economic development. The Government of India stands to lose valuable inputs it can obtain in planning policy initiatives if it fails to develop a healthy interaction with field-level and public policy nonprofit institutions.

The relentless harassment of voluntary organisations amounts to cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face. For what these organisations are doing is to supplement the government’s efforts in crucial areas of health, education, employment, human rights, conservation of nature etc. They work in areas where the government’s own reach is limited or ineffective. The government should view them as partners and not as adversaries. Most importantly, these organisations work at the lowest levels of our society, with mostly marginalised groups who have fallen through the cracks in the government’s own welfare schemes, and have no safety net to take care of them. Deliberate denial of even this modicum of assistance or advocacy to them does not do credit to a government whose rallying cry is “sabka saath, sabka vikas, sabka vishwas“.

As former civil servants closely associated during our careers with development processes at different levels of government, we would urge you to adopt a cooperative rather than an adversarial relationship with these essential components of any civilized society. The FCRA need to be drastically overhauled to make it a facilitating rather than restrictive piece of legislation. We hope your government will take steps in this direction and direct agencies under your control to cease needless harassment of organisations serving the people of India, especially its most marginalised and disadvantaged sections.

SATYAMEVA JAYATE

Yours faithfully,
Constitutional Conduct Group (86 signatories, as below)

 

1. Anita Agnihotri IAS (Retd.) Former Secretary, Department of Social Justice Empowerment, GoI
2. Anand Arni RAS (Retd.) Former Special Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat, GoI
3. G. Balachandhran IAS (Retd.) Former Additional Chief Secretary, Govt. of West Bengal
4. Vappala Balachandran IPS (Retd.) Former Special Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat, GoI
5. Gopalan Balagopal IAS (Retd.) Former Special Secretary, Govt. of West Bengal
6. Chandrashekar Balakrishnan IAS (Retd.) Former Secretary, Coal, GoI
7. Sushant Baliga Engineering Services (Retd.) Former Additional Director General, Central PWD, GoI
8. Rana Banerji RAS (Retd.) Former Special Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat, GoI
9. Aurobindo Behera IAS (Retd.) Former Member, Board of Revenue, Govt. of Odisha
10. Madhu Bhaduri IFS (Retd.) Former Ambassador to Portugal
11. Ravi Budhiraja IAS (Retd.) Former Chairman, Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust, GoI
12. Sundar Burra IAS (Retd.) Former Secretary, Govt. of Maharashtra
13. Maneshwar Singh Chahal IAS (Retd.) Former Principal Secretary, Home, Govt. of Punjab
14. R. Chandramohan IAS (Retd.) Former Principal Secretary, Transport and Urban Development, Govt. of NCT of Delhi
15. Rachel Chatterjee IAS (Retd.) Former Special Chief Secretary, Agriculture, Govt. of Andhra Pradesh
16. Kalyani Chaudhuri IAS (Retd.) Former Additional Chief Secretary, Govt. of West Bengal
17. Gurjit Singh Cheema IAS (Retd.) Former Financial Commissioner (Revenue), Govt. of Punjab
18. F.T.R. Colaso IPS (Retd.) Former Director General of Police, Govt. of Karnataka & former Director General of Police, Govt. of Jammu & Kashmir
19. Anna Dani IAS (Retd.) Former Additional Chief Secretary, Govt. of Maharashtra
20. P.R. Dasgupta IAS (Retd.) Former Chairman, Food Corporation of India, GoI
21. Pradeep K. Deb IAS (Retd.) Former Secretary, Deptt. Of Sports, GoI
22. M.G. Devasahayam IAS (Retd.) Former Secretary, Govt. of Haryana
23. Sushil Dubey IFS (Retd.) Former Ambassador to Sweden
24. A.S. Dulat IPS (Retd.) Former OSD on Kashmir, Prime Minister’s Office, GoI
25. K.P. Fabian IFS (Retd.) Former Ambassador to Italy
26. Prabhu Ghate IAS (Retd.) Former Addl. Director General, Department of Tourism, GoI
27. Arif Ghauri IRS (Retd.) Former Governance Adviser, DFID, Govt. of the United Kingdom (on deputation)
28. Suresh K. Goel IFS (Retd.) Former Director General, Indian Council of Cultural Relations, GoI
29. S.K. Guha IAS (Retd.) Former Joint Secretary, Department of Women & Child Development, GoI
30. H.S. Gujral IFoS (Retd.) Former Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, Govt. of Punjab
31. Meena Gupta IAS (Retd.) Former Secretary, Ministry of Environment & Forests, GoI
32. Ravi Vira Gupta IAS (Retd.) Former Deputy Governor, Reserve Bank of India
33. Siraj Hussain IAS (Retd.) Former Secretary, Department of Agriculture, GoI
34. Naini Jeyaseelan IAS (Retd.) Former Secretary, Inter-State Council, GoI
35. Sanjay Kaul IAS (Retd.) Former Principal Secretary, Govt. of Karnataka
36. Ish Kumar IPS (Retd.) Former DGP (Vigilance & Enforcement), Govt. of Telangana and former Special Rapporteur, National Human Rights Commission
37. Sudhir Kumar IAS (Retd.) Former Member, Central Administrative Tribunal
38. Subodh Lal IPoS (Resigned) Former Deputy Director General, Ministry of Communications, GoI
39. Amitabh Mathur IPS (Retd.) Former Special Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat, GoI
40. Aditi Mehta IAS (Retd.) Former Additional Chief Secretary, Govt. of Rajasthan
41. Malay Mishra IFS (Retd.) Former Ambassador to Hungary
42. Noor Mohammad IAS (Retd.) Former Secretary, National Disaster Management Authority, Govt. of India
43. Satya Narayan Mohanty IAS (Retd.) Former Secretary General, National Human Rights Commission
44. Jugal Mohapatra IAS (Retd.) Former Secretary, Department of Rural Development, GoI
45. Deb Mukharji IFS (Retd.) Former High Commissioner to Bangladesh and former Ambassador to Nepal
46. Shiv Shankar Mukherjee IFS (Retd.) Former High Commissioner to the United Kingdom
47. Gautam Mukhopadhaya IFS (Retd.) Former Ambassador to Myanmar
48. Nagalsamy IA&AS (Retd.) Former Principal Accountant General, Tamil Nadu & Kerala
49. Surendra Nath IAS (Retd.) Former Member, Finance Commission, Govt. of Madhya Pradesh
50. P. Joy Oommen IAS (Retd.) Former Chief Secretary, Govt. of Chhattisgarh
51. Amitabha Pande IAS (Retd.) Former Secretary, Inter-State Council, GoI
52. Mira Pande IAS (Retd.) Former State Election Commissioner, West Bengal
53. Maxwell Pereira IPS (Retd.) Former Joint Commissioner of Police, Delhi
54. Alok Perti IAS (Retd.) Former Secretary, Ministry of Coal, GoI
55. G.K. Pillai IAS (Retd.) Former Home Secretary, GoI
56. R. Poornalingam IAS (Retd.) Former Secretary, Ministry of Textiles, GoI
57. Rajesh Prasad IFS (Retd.) Former Ambassador to the Netherlands
58. R.M. Premkumar IAS (Retd.) Former Chief Secretary, Govt. of Maharashtra
59. T.R. Raghunandan IAS (Retd.) Former Joint Secretary, Ministry of Panchayati Raj, GoI
60. V.P. Raja IAS (Retd.) Former Chairman, Maharashtra Electricity Regulatory Commission
61. K. Sujatha Rao IAS (Retd.) Former Health Secretary, GoI
62. Prasadranjan Ray IAS (Retd.) Former Chairperson, West Bengal Electricity Regulatory Commission
63. Satwant Reddy IAS (Retd.) Former Secretary, Chemicals and Petrochemicals, GoI
64. Vijaya Latha Reddy IFS (Retd.) Former Deputy National Security Adviser, GoI
65. Julio Ribeiro IPS (Retd.) Former Adviser to Governor of Punjab & former Ambassador to Romania
66. Aruna Roy IAS (Resigned)
67. Manabendra N. Roy IAS (Retd.) Former Additional Chief Secretary, Govt. of West Bengal
68. A.K. Samanta IPS (Retd.) Former Director General of Police (Intelligence), Govt. of West Bengal
69. Deepak Sanan IAS (Retd.) Former Principal Adviser (AR) to Chief Minister, Govt. of Himachal Pradesh
70. S. Satyabhama IAS (Retd.) Former Chairperson, National Seeds Corporation, GoI
71. N.C. Saxena IAS (Retd.) Former Secretary, Planning Commission, GoI
72. Abhijit Sengupta IAS (Retd.) Former Secretary, Ministry of Culture, GoI
73. Aftab Seth IFS (Retd.) Former Ambassador to Japan
74. Ashok Kumar Sharma IFS (Retd.) Former Ambassador to Finland and Estonia
75. Navrekha Sharma IFS (Retd.) Former Ambassador to Indonesia
76. Pravesh Sharma IAS (Retd.) Former Additional Chief Secretary, Govt. of Madhya Pradesh
77. Raju Sharma IAS (Retd.) Former Member, Board of Revenue, Govt. of Uttar Pradesh
78. Rashmi Shukla Sharma IAS (Retd.) Former Additional Chief Secretary, Govt. of Madhya Pradesh
79. Avay Shukla IAS (Retd.) Former Additional Chief Secretary (Forests & Technical Education), Govt. of Himachal Pradesh
80. Sujatha Singh IFS (Retd.) Former Foreign Secretary, GoI
81. Tirlochan Singh IAS (Retd.) Former Secretary, National Commission for Minorities, GoI
82. Anup Thakur IAS (Retd.) Former Member, National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission
83. P.S.S. Thomas IAS (Retd.) Former Secretary General, National Human Rights Commission
84. Geetha Thoopal IRAS (Retd.) Former General Manager, Metro Railway, Kolkata
85. Ramani Venkatesan IAS (Retd.) Former Director General, YASHADA, Govt. of Maharashtra
86. Rudi Warjri IFS (Retd.) Former Ambassador to Colombia, Ecuador and Costa Rica