As the government pushes the Foreign Contribution Regulation (Amendment) Bill in Parliament amid criticism from the Opposition, its provisions have caused a lot of discomfort among NGOs, which argue that their space will increasingly shrink if it becomes law.
NGOs are specifically rattled by the proposed ban on transfer of foreign contribution from one FCRA-registered NGO to another. They argue that this has the potential to wipe out smaller FCRA-registered NGOs working at grassroots level in remote areas, as they do not have access to large amounts of foreign funds.
Bigger NGOs, which have greater access to such funds but lack as wide a grassroots network, often collaborate with the smaller NGOs, partially subletting the work, sources said.
It will also impact work at the grassroots level, they argue.
“The FCRA bill, 2020 will be a death blow to development relief, scientific research and community support work of the NGO community, as it prohibits collaboration with other Indian organisations,” Voluntary Action Network India (VANI), the apex body of Indian voluntary development organisations, said in a statement on Monday.
Referring to the role provided by NGOs during the pandemic, VANI stated, “When India is battling a deadly disease, with so much at stake and collaborations internationally that are to be encouraged, this would be a model of control, over and above the rules, regulations and certification processes, that stifles this important sector.”
The Bill seeks to make FCRA-2010 more stringent with proposals to include “public servants” in the prohibited category, decrease administrative expenses through foreign funds by an organisation from the earlier 50 per cent to 20 per cent, make Aadhaar mandatory for registration, and give the government powers to stop utilisation of foreign funds by an organisation through a “summary enquiry”.
Earlier, utilisation of funds could be stopped only after the NGO was “found guilty”.
Referring to the last point, a representative of an NGO said, “You were already conducting these probes and declaring guilt within months. Now how fast do you want it that you need a ‘summary enquiry’? The demand of Aadhaar is nothing but a tactic to intimidate people from joining the board of NGOs.
“Also, the government wants to extend suspensions beyond 180 days. The period had been kept for enquiry. Now you want to conduct summary enquiry, but extend suspension beyond 180 days. Even UAPA cases are given 180 days for chargesheeting.
Referring to the Bill reducing foreign fund spending on administrative expenses to 20 per cent, VANI stated, “This amendment will be a major blow to organisations in terms of payment of salaries, professional fees, utility bills, travel and other such expenditure.”
On government asking all FCRA NGOs to open accounts in SBI, Delhi, VANI stated that it will be “hugely disruptive”, and many organisations |”will not be able to operate these accounts properly, as the home branch will be in Delhi”.
According to the organisation, the Bill assumes that “all NGOs receiving foreign grants are guilty, unless proved otherwise”.
According to data available with the Home Ministry, FCRA registration certificates of 20,675 NGOs have been cancelled between 2011 and 2019. Of these, 16,746 (81%) were cancelled under the Narendra Modi regime (see box).
Nearly 30,000 organisations are registered with the government under FCRA at present.
The data shows that the first crackdown on NGOs came in 2012 when the then UPA government was facing protests over the Kudankulam nuclear power project. The then Manmohan Singh government had cancelled registration of close to 4,000 NGOs that year. In 2011, the government had made only four cancellations.
The second big crackdown came in 2015, under the first Narendra Modi government, when the Intelligence Bureau came out with a report on “anti-national” activities of NGOs. That year, in one sweep, the government cancelled more than 10,000 registrations. Since then several prominent NGOs, such as Ford Foundation, Amnesty International, Lawyers Collective, Greenpeace India Society and Sabrang Trust have faced government heat.
A report by foreign consultancy firm Bain & Co last year had said that foreign contribution to NGOs in India had dropped by 40 per cent under the Modi government.