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Coming soon: Big Brother to watch over NGOs, civil society groups worried

india Updated: Jul 12, 2016 11:48 IST
Aloke Tikku and Kumar Uttam , Hindustan Times

Govt has cracked down on the Ford Foundation, saying the US charity can no longer give money to local organisations without government permission, the latest move against a foreign NGO. (AFP Photo)

The Narendra Modi government is set to create a central database of NGOs in the country and will tell states this weekend to get the voluntary sector to log in to the portal started by NITI Aayog.

The move – that comes after a crackdown on the government’s critics among foreign-funded non-governmental organisations – has triggered worries among civil society groups that the database could be used to target other NGOs as well.

Read:NGOs: An extension of the government, not an adversary

Under the Centre’s plan drawn up in close coordination with the Prime Minister’s Office, the National Institution for Transforming India Aayog-run portal would issue a unique number to each NGO.

“Provision has been made to enter the details of members of the (NGO’s) governing body as well,” a government document circulated ahead of Inter-State Council meeting on Saturday said.

Read: Indira Jaising’s NGO ‘Lawyers Collective’ suspended for 6 months

But the Centre needs to get the states on board as they have the power over NGOs. and the discussion on Saturday was aimed towards this objective. The NDA government wants the states to issue instructions to their regulatory bodies such as the Registrar of Societies and Charity Commissioner to mandate that the NGOs enrol on the portal.

Read: Modi government tightens grip on NGOs with recast rules

“This will enable to have a good repository of such organisations, their areas of work and their members,” the agenda note said.

Most states are expected to readily agree to the database as it will help them too. The UPA government had conceived the idea but did not force the NGOs to register.

Read: NGOs receiving over Rs 1 crore govt grant to be brought under Lokpal

But within the voluntary sector, the crackdown targeting NGOs that criticised government policies and its leaders has them worried.

Rajesh Tandon, founder president of PRIA that works for the empowerment of the excluded and policy advocacy, said his primary fears around the database arose due to the government’s recent actions, a reference to the crackdown on foreign-funded NGOs.

In the last two years, the government has tried to squeeze several foreign-funded civil society groups that had been its loudest critics.

Greenpeace India was the first to feel the heat. In the months that followed, the government also suspended or cancelled the registration of activist Teesta Setalvad-headed Citizens for Justice and Peace as well as Sabrang Trust.

Last month, it suspended foreign contribution registration of Lawyers Collective run by Indira Jaising and her husband Anand Grover. An unusually graphic home ministry order cited purchase of personal effects such as a sanitary napkin as one of the grounds for its decision, an order that has been criticised by eminent people in India and abroad.

“Lawyers Collective bore the brunt because its founders had got on the wrong side of the government due to their strong opinions on certain matters ... But dissent is the fundamental characteristic of a democracy,” Tandon, an IIT-IIM alumnus, said.

Harsh Jaitli, chief executive officer of VANI - the apex body of the voluntary sector, wondered why the government did not consult the stakeholders before trying something as ambitious as this.

If the government wants to strengthen the sector, there are many other problems that it needs to address. This, he said, includes overhauling the 19th-century laws such as Societies Registration Act 1860 that regulate the voluntary sector.

“There is a need for looking at the ease of doing business in the voluntary sector too,” Tandon added.