In the past eight years, since the twilight of the UPA regime and especially after the NDA assumed office at the Centre in 2014, the environment for civil society activism has seen a marked constriction. The government has raised the spectre of “western funders’ interests” — like the “foreign hand” of an earlier era — and wielded the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) like a blunt instrument to shrink the space for NGOs that campaign for environment protection, human rights advocacy groups, outfits that speak for the rights of marginalised sections or take up workers’ and farmers’ causes. On Tuesday, India joined Russia in an ignoble league — of nations from which the global human rights organisation, Amnesty International, has ceased operations. That Amnesty claims it was forced to shut shop because the Enforcement Directorate has frozen its accounts while the Union Ministry of Home Affairs accuses the outfit of financial impropriety only speaks of the acute trust deficit between civil society groups and the government.
The FCRA is an Emergency-era law — in its 1976 avatar, it was used to “regulate” foreign funding of political parties, electoral candidates, judges, newspaper publishers, cartoonists. In 2010, the ambit of the law was expanded to include “any organisation of political nature”. This definition — embracing an array of groups, including trade unions, women’s and civil rights outfits, farmers’ groups, even youth forums — allowed the government to scrutinise any foreign-funded organisation that could be critical of it. In 2012, at least three NGOs lost their licence in the wake of the protest against the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant. Then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s criticism that foreign-funded NGOs are “not fully appreciative of the country’s development challenges,” has taken on a sharper edge after the NDA assumed office. Armed with changes in the FCRA law — an amendment in 2016 made it incumbent on NGOs to renew FCRA licence every five years, it was permanent earlier — and by deploying the false binaries of development vs environment, civil rights vs national interest, the Centre has increased its stranglehold on civil society activism. At least 10,000 NGOs have, reportedly, lost their licence. Now, changes introduced to the law last week place further restrictions on the use of foreign funds by non-profits.
Their involvement in grass roots activities means NGOs can raise the uncomfortable questions, hold government to account, enforce corporate responsibility. The government needs to engage with civil society groups — not label them as opponents or disruptors.
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