Recently, the US warned India of the “potentially chilling effects” of regulatory steps taken by the NDA government against certain NGOs, on the ground that such “vocal civil society organisations” are important as watchdogs. Though European governments have expressed similar concerns, they have not been as aggressive in making their displeasure public as the US government, indicating the clout foreign-funded NGOs (FFNGOs) enjoy with power-wielders in Europe and America, primarily because these agencies act with the backing of their governments.
The comparison by the US of FFNGOs with civil society organisations in the US is misleading, as civil society organisations must have roots in and draw sustenance from the said society. FFNGOs are hot-house growths that depend solely on the largesse of foreign agencies. UPA leaders and NGO representatives have also expressed outrage, claiming that action against them is part of a larger BJP scheme to “crush dissent” and establish “totalitarian control” over society, conveniently ignoring the fact that the Intelligence Bureau probe into NGOs began in 2011, under the UPA government. The amounts involved are in themselves revealing. The home ministry’s report for 2011-12 states that some 22,702 institutions received Rs 11,546 crore as foreign contributions (not counting contributions from UN agencies).
It is notable that the NDA government has not put a blanket ban on NGOs or cracked down on dissent. It has merely called to account those NGOs that have not submitted their financial documents, thereby violating Indian law. Freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution, such as the right to dissent and organised opposition to government policies, have not been curbed. All that is being checked is the violation of the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act plus foreign-funded and engineered dissent by certain agencies out to influence the polity and economy of India.
The following charges against FFNGOs under scrutiny need to be investigated through an independent and transparent inquiry commission.
One, misappropriation of funds, lack of transparency and accountability. A CBI analysis of NGOs across the country showed that of the 22,39,971 NGOs functioning in 20 states, only 10 per cent submitted annual returns. Of 5,684 NGOs in the six Union territories, only 50 filed their balance sheets. No NGOs in Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Nagaland and Tripura filed returns. The Citizens for Justice and Peace is only one among many NGOs that face charges of using funds for victims of disasters to purchase personal luxuries. In 2014, notices sent to 21,493 NGOs registered under the FCRA for failure to submit accounts were arrogantly ignored by a majority, resulting in their registrations being cancelled. It is worrisome that the US government and UPA members defend non-compliance with the country’s laws.
Two, political activism with foreign funds. Breaching FCRA norms that forbid the use of foreign funds to undertake “political activities”, a large proportion of FFNGOs have actively taken part in political campaigns, including working as proxies for certain political parties.
Three, motivated interventions in economic policies. Leading NGOs have been at the forefront of mobilising resistance against development projects (for instance, in the power sector), allegedly at the behest of foreign agencies, thus damaging India’s growth potential.
Four, endangering the geopolitical security of India and proselytising under the guise of “development”. Of the 20 lakh NGOs registered in the country, it is estimated that only about 1.5 per cent actually undertake developmental work. Claiming involvement in “human rights initiatives” or “social empowerment”, these organisations are allegedly fronts for foreign-supported extremist and secessionist groups. A large part of these funds is also being used for religious conversions, which is forbidden under the FCRA.
Under the UPA government, FFNGOs were granted an unprecedented role in policy- and law-making. Under the guise of strengthening women’s rights, minority rights, protecting secularism or the environment, promoting education or tribal welfare, we have been saddled with a whole range of impractical and draconian laws. Aren’t all these activities “political” in nature? While our former colonial rulers at least made a pretence of consulting natives when enacting new laws, FFNGOs, as the self-appointed representatives of Indian civil society, don’t even allow affected communities the right to have an opinion on the matter.
Some of us have petitioned the prime minister to ban foreign funding of NGOs and set up a national social service fund managed by an autonomous agency to support genuine do-gooders. Given the excessive dependence of NGOs on foreign funding, we seem to have forgotten that our society has supported lakhs of social organisations that have built numerous educational institutions, healthcare services and much more. Personally, I decided against accepting support from Western donors for Manushi because I felt that change in India must be brought about with resources from within.
The writer is founder, Manushi, and professor, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies.