Govt's indiscriminate crackdown on NGOs will affect the 'marginalised'

  • samar halarnkar
  • Updated: Apr 27, 2015 01:03 IST

They are called cafeteria sessions. At lunch time, Greenpeace fund-raisers wander among hundreds, sometimes thousands, of young men and women packing the cafeterias of Indian companies. It’s not a good idea to name these companies. Greenpeace’s activities include forest preservation, renewable-energy promotion and fighting on behalf of local communities. These appear to be popular causes among young professionals. Donations of Rs 300 to Rs 500 constitute about 80% of Greenpeace’s Indian contributions, generating Rs 7 of every Rs 10 the NGO receives. This year 30,000 Indians have contributed.

Small donations, from cafeteria sessions and city streets, continue to pour in, and this is where the government crackdown on Greenpeace is hurting. With its seven bank accounts suspended, there is no way to receive the money.

The government accuses Greenpeace of a raft of violations related to foreign contributions, procedures and income tax. Some tax questions: What does the funding of mangrove plantations in the Sunderbans have to do with your work? What does payment to a photographer have to do with your work? Suspend accounts, and keep the query flood coming. “It’s quite a brilliant way of decimating us,” says one staffer.

Greenpeace is not known to avoid a fight, but the disquiet is evident: How long can it withstand State hounding? It is among 15 organisations that must now get prior approval from the Union home ministry before receiving money from abroad. This onslaught has set off a quiet turmoil: A host of other non-profits that receive foreign contributions and substitute for the government in places and situations where it is absent are preparing for crackdowns and reviewing procedures, or — in the case of Sutradhar, a decade-old, non-profit educational resource centre that trains teachers — shutting down.

Since Indians are not generous enough, Sutradhar survives on foreign generosity. Unlike Greenpeace, it does not want to fight, or even answer questions. No longer will artists, storytellers, teachers and caregivers gather at its centre in Bengaluru. The greatest loss will be to children who live on the city’s margins, including the poor and disabled.

At the other end of the spectrum is the Infosys Foundation, whose funding includes healthcare, destitute care, cancer clinics and toilet construction in remote regions of several Indian states. It is in a quandary because unlike many other NGOs, the Infosys Foundation does not accept money from donors — it receives an annual grant from Infosys Ltd, the IT giant, which is now, technically, a foreign company. That means both the foundation and its recipients must have clearance under the Foreign Contributions Regulation Act (FCRA), 1976.

Foreign funding is a term made fraught by India’s government — unless the organisation receiving money from abroad happens to be the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).

“You must remember that the FCRA came into being during a dark period of Indian history,” a former bureaucrat with extensive experience with the law told me. “It was born out of a paranoid mind, Indira Gandhi’s.” Until 1976, foreign funds were not regulated. The FCRA gave New Delhi the powers to block funds, of intrusive auditing and powers of prosecution. It became progressively intrusive.

Intended or inadvertent default — even if caused, say, by officials not putting papers submitted in the relevant file — does not matter, the former official said. The government’s actions may not be fair or stand scrutiny of the law, but they reflect its policies. On September 30, 2014, as many as 10,331 NGOs receiving foreign aid were warned of the FCRA licence cancellation for not filing annual statements.

The return of such paranoia betrays a great insecurity of a supposedly confident government. India cannot hope to better the lot of its poorest people — more than 200 million, for example, are without an officially recognised ‘asset’, neither bicycle, nor radio — without help from NGOs. Of course there are spurious ones, but the ones I refer to serve as a bridge between the state and its people.

That is the role played by one of the oldest foreign NGOs, the Ford Foundation, which entered India in 1952 at the invitation of then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru (which, to Nehru haters, makes it suspect), part-funded the Green Revolution and is now on a watchlist for reasons of ‘national security’. It has handed out $508 million to 1,250 institutions in India, Nepal and Sri Lanka, in areas as diverse as dryland framing and folklore conservation. Among its aims — incendiary to the insecure — are ‘to combat the socioeconomic marginalisation of tribal communities, women and adolescent girls, and religious minority communities’. In a country where emerging middle-class discourse would rather ignore the ignored, it’s easy to see why the focus on minorities is particularly abhorrent and why the Centre quickly responded to the Gujarat government’s anger.

Gujarat accused the Ford Foundation of ‘direct interference…in the internal affairs of the country and also of abetting communal disharmony in India’ and of ‘a religion specific and Muslim supportive criminal code (sic) and also keep the 2002 riots incident alive’, a newspaper reported.

The Danish government’s aid agency, DANIDA, is one of the 14 under watch. An example of its work: Providing drinking water and toilets to 35 Tamil Nadu panchayats. The state government’s contribution: 12.7%; DANIDA’s: 78.19%. The agreement was signed by the government of India, which, since 1963 received many interest-free loans for industrial development from DANIDA, repayable after 35 years. India made full use of such generosity when it was a basket case. It is no longer an economic wreck, but millions are still mired in hopelessness. The new paranoia can only keep them there longer.

Samar Halarnkar is editor,, a data-driven, public-interest journalism non-profit
The views expressed by the author are personal

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