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Bringing NGOs to heel politically

Sentinel Digital DeskBy : Sentinel Digital Desk

  |  4 Oct 2015 12:00 AM GMT

As far as non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are concerned, the NDA government at the Centre seems to fine-tuning its carrot-and-stick policy. There are indications that new rules being framed for NGOs will simplify the process for seeking approvals to use foreign contributions. The amended Foreign Contribution Regulation Rules (FCRR), 2015 will give the Intelligence Bureau up to three months for verification; if the IB clearance doesn’t come within this period, the NGO will automatically get an FCRA licence. There are also proposals for online filing of information, fewer forms for registration and renewal, filing digitally signed report to the government — all of which are expected to the cut red tape for NGOs. These measures to make it easier for NGOs to work in the country seem an attempt by the Modi government to answer critics that it is cracking down on NGOs for ulterior political motives. At the same time, Union minister of State for Home Affairs Kiren Rijiju has sounded a dire warning to NGOs ‘violating FCRA rules’. Singling out Greenpeace India for ‘unnecessarily inciting innocent people against crucial projects without any valid reason’, Rijiju has said that such activities are opposed to FCRA rules and will therefore invite tough government action. ‘Some of the NGOs, if they are designed to work against a particular party or government, or they misuse the contributions, then they will attract provisions,” he has warned in a recent interview. Rijiju’s comments are thus a continuation of the hard-line the NDA government has taken against NGOs, beginning with top players like Greenpeace, Ford Foundation and Actioid.

About 13,000 NGOs, many working with communities in tribal, forest and other chronically backward areas, have had their licenses cancelled since last year. The charges against these NGOs mostly relate to misuse of foreign funds or working against the country’s economic interests. Greenpeace India’s troubles reportedly began after it supported protests against coal mining in the Mahan forests in Madhya Pradesh, which resulted in a court denying permits for Essar and Hindalco to develop the project. The NDA government retaliated by freezing some Greenpeace accounts, charging that the NGO had iccurately mentioned and under-reported the amounts of foreign contributions received. Greenpeace is now fighting cancellation of its registration under FCRA at the Madras High Court. As for the Ford Foundation, it is said to have been put on the ‘watch list’ by the NDA government for doting to the NGO Sabrang Trust, run by social activist Teesta Setalvad who has fought several cases against rendra Modi. It is only in July this year that Ford Foundation was allowed to partially resume its operations in the country, supposedly after some lobbying by the Obama administration. But observers believe that the NDA government was forced to adopt a softer line after the Ford Foundation also suspended aid to a number of its projects, including those providing clean water in slums, feeding childbearing women and fighting child marriage. The Ford Foundation is said to have contributed to nearly 1,250 institutions since coming to India in 1952. More than 50,000 Indian NGOs are estimated to depend on foreign aid for a variety of projects.

Questions have been repeatedly raised whether some NGOs are operating in the country with their own hidden agenda while bringing in foreign funds for developmental work, and whether these NGOs are maintaining clean practices in spending such funds. But the underlying concern of the government of the day seems to be primarily political. During the dark days of the Emergency, the Indira Gandhi government suspected that a number of NGOs in the country received money from the US foreign intelligence agency CIA and aligned with the opposition movement. The Purushottam Das Kudal Commission was set up to probe this angle after Indira Gandhi returned to power in 1982. During the two UPA regimes from 2004 to 2014, the Left Front alleged that several NGOs were working with ‘neo-liberal’ agendas to push mega projects. However, several other NGOs espousing people’s causes, came to be involved with the tiol Advisory Council led by Congress president Sonia Gandhi. It is the political clout of such ‘Left and Left-of-Centre’ aligned NGOs that the Modi government now seems to be hell bent in neutralising. After the NDA came to power last year, there was much brouhaha over an Intelligence Bureau report which pointed at some foreign-funded Indian NGOs ‘using people-centric issues to create an environment which lends itself to stalling development projects’. These projects included nuclear and coal-fired power plants, uranium mines, genetically modified organisms, mega industrial projects, as well as hydro-power projects and extractive industries like oil and limestone in the Northeast. These NGOs were estimated by the IB to have caused a loss to the country totalling 2-3 per cent of its GDP. However, the silence of the IB report about many NGOs working to advance the cause of Sangh Parivar parties, gives a strong political colour to the government’s drive against NGOs.

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