Almost a year ago, 40 teenage girls from Bihar’s Nawada and Darbhanga districts showed up at the office of state Health Minister Mangal Pandey, demanding that the government provide them sanitary napkins, and set up adolescent centres to help them on issues of physical and mental health.
Pandey sanctioned both — and the government procured sanitary napkins that were distributed in villages in these districts, said Bijit Roy, associate director for community action and accountability at the NGO Population Foundation of India.
Founded half a century ago, Population Foundation seeks to build capacities in panchayats in Bihar, and educate women and girls on health services available to them. Across India, several such large nonprofits work to mobilise funds and design strategies of social intervention, which are then implemented by their smaller partners on the ground, often in collaboration with state governments.
It is an effective model that has over the years given some of India’s most vulnerable groups a hand. However, the model is now under threat, the nonprofits say – from a new amendment to The Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act (FCRA) that Parliament passed in its Monsoon session.
The amended FCRA, which was notified on September 29 after it received the President’s assent, makes sub-granting – a system by which a bigger NGO can pass on funds that it has received from foreign donors to smaller grassroots NGOs – illegal.
“This (the new law) makes it absolutely impossible for us to implement these projects,” Roy said. “Population Foundation has the capability of raising funds and conceptualising projects, and we then give the grassroots NGOs the funds to implement these projects. The grassroots NGOs do not have the capacity or the capability to apply for foreign funding themselves, so they rely on us.”
For its project in Darbhanga and Nawada, for example, Population Foundation partners with four grassroots NGOs that implement the project, and a technical organisation that collates information on the effectiveness of state health schemes – which Population Foundation hands over to the Bihar government.
“Workers of the grassroots NGOs belong to the community, live in the same area, and can implement and monitor the project round the clock,” Roy said. “Under the changed law, we can only do projects of direct service delivery – such as distributing food or blankets to the needy, but not capacity-building projects like in Bihar which led to the girls organising themselves and demanding the sanitary napkins. For that you need a presence on the ground,’’ he said.
The project, which has been running for five years, was to be extended for another three years – but that is no longer possible, Roy said. Population Foundation gave grants of Rs 49 lakh to each of its four grassroots implementing NGOs for the project.
Arvind Kumar, general secretary of Gram Nirman Mandal, one of the four partner NGOs, said the Bihar government earlier this year gave Rs 50,000 each for two adolescent health centres in Nawada and Darbhanga. Gram Nirman Mandal has a strength of 148, Kumar said, adding that if grants from Population Foundation stop, they may have to shut down.
Poonam Muttreja, executive director of Population Foundation, said much of the nonprofits’ work supplements state projects and ensures that government schemes are properly implemented.
“Our work is evidence based, involving research and data collection, which will be severely impacted if sub-granting is not allowed, and we are unable to partner with universities or research organisations,” she said.
Giving an example of the way Population Foundation collaborates with the government, Muttreja said: “In 2016, we collected information and data on (methods of family planning) and submitted it to then Health Minister J P Nadda. He found it convincing and the government eventually introduced injectable contraceptives in the public health system. This is how we work… and this turnaround by the government (in the new FCRA) is baffling.”
In Nagaland’s Tuensang, Mon, Longleng, and Noklak districts along the Myanmar border, the grassroots NGO ECS works with the global nonprofit ActionAid. Mon and Tuensang have among the country’s lowest immunisation rates, and ECS founder Chingmak Kejong, used a Rs 15 lakh grant from ActionAid to set up Tuensang’s first public health centre.
Editorial| The G in NGO
The project was so successful that the Nagaland government approached Kejong for a “part in it” – and the project now covers 73 villages in the four districts, with seven PHCs along the Myanmar border. “We told the government that the villagers would be in charge of appointing the staff, including doctors, nurses, sanitation workers and ambulance drivers. That way they will be accountable to the community,” Kejong said.
ECS also receives funds under the National Health Mission now.
In Jharkhand, Life Education And Development Support (LEADS) receives Rs 8 lakh annually from Germany-based Bread For The World to strengthen the school system. LEADS runs the project through four sub-grantee organisations.
“We ensure that government schools have management committees that include teachers, parents, and a student… The schools that we deal with cater to adivasi and Dalit students. We keep track of whether the teachers turn up, how classes are running, whether there are toilets and running water, whether dropouts are happening, etc.,” LEADS founder-director A K Singh said.
Singh said he has been approached by the Jharkhand government to scale up from the current 50 schools in Latehar, Simdega, Singhbhum and Lohardaga, to 100.
Alok Sahu of Sahbhagi Vikas, who runs the LEADS project in 20 villages in Simdega, said that apart from ensuring that the schools run well, their work gradually extended to strengthening the panchayat system and gram sabhas, and empowering them to solve many problems themselves without having to approach the police or government.
This project will now stop, Singh said – and two grassroots NGOs that are entirely dependent on LEADS will shut down.
In Assam, the 127-strong NGO GVM, with support from ActionAid and National Foundation for India, works in over 100 schools in the Bodo areas along India’s border with Bhutan. GVM head Prithibhushan Deka said the NGO also worked in calamity relief, including the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, building shelters and providing dry rations.