The foreign hand is in the news again. Earlier it was suspected of supporting terrorist activity and destabilising society by funding NGOs. Now an Intelligence Bureau report, submitted to the PMO, has accused several foreign-funded NGOs of “negatively impacting economic development” by “using people-centric issues to create an environment which lends itself to stalling the development projects”. The report also accuses foreign donors of using NGOs’ field reports to build a record against India and to internationalise and publicise alleged violations by government to discredit India. The report shows that the foreign hand remains an all-time favourite bogey.
What is disturbing about the report is that the room for legitimate dissent by civil society seems to be shrinking. It is only when governments refuse to listen to grievances that peaceful protests turn ugly and civil society organisations resort to action to hold up projects. The action initiated by NGOs is on behalf of the sections of society that have no voice in corridors of power. If the political representatives play their role well then civil society would not need to resort to agitation. Besides, it is not necessarily foreign money which is used for agitations. The anti-corruption movement was genuinely a people’s movement, funded by small donations, and even those donations that were received were from Indians settled abroad. Even here foreign funding was used to discredit the movement.
As for NGO field reports giving a handle to foreign governments to discredit India, is the government not aware of the power and outreach of the media and the Internet, not to mention the intelligence agencies of the foreign countries? Will the government gag the media as well as disallow foreign investment in this field? No doubt, there are instances of foreign donors giving funds to covertly influence government policy, and even to support illegitimate activity, but our intelligence agencies can handle this without using a sledgehammer for all NGOs?
As it is, NGOs are caught between a rock and a hard place. Only a few receive foreign grants. According to the latest FCRA statistics (2011-12), out of the 3.5 million NGOs said to exist in India, only 22,702 associations reported a total amount of `11,546.29 crore as foreign contribution. This includes 9,509 associations that received ‘Nil’. This means only 0.64% of NGOs receive foreign funding. The bulk of NGOs work on donations and grants from within India.
If, as a matter of principle, they don’t accept money from government or foreign donors but rely only on charitable or corporate donations, NGOs will be unable to go to scale, their impact will be limited, and even their survival may be at stake. If they try to supplement grant funds from income-generating activities they fall foul of the 2008 amendment of the IT Act, which narrowed the definition of charitable activity exempted from tax to mostly service-oriented work, leaving out all other fields.
So how is legitimate dissent to be funded? At risk particularly are research and advocacy groups engaged in rights work of all kinds. Because the line between advocacy and political action, especially in the field of human rights and governance, is thin, their work is often suspected. If an organisation becomes too critical of government, it finds government funds simply dry up.
To lessen dependence on foreign funding, the public must be prepared to give more for people’s movements, and the government must incentivise private funding by improving the legal environment and fiscal policies; it must also encourage corporations to support more such work as a part of their social responsibility. Otherwise the foreign hand will continue to haunt us all.
(Pushpa Sundar is the author of Foreign Aid for Indian NGOs: Problem or Solution? The views expressed by the author are personal.)