When it comes to tightening the screws on NGOs, the NDA government at the Centre is proceeding in circumspect manner, fine-tuning its policy and getting set to frame a new law. While anticipating opposition both in and out of Parliament, the Modi regime also has to keep in mind how NGOs linked to religious groups, including saffron ones, will react to any move to regulate their activities and keep tabs on their funds. After all, it came out in Parliament last year that while Christian NGOs attracted some of the largest foreign funds in the country in 2015-16, a group linked with the RSS-VHP was also among the top five. However, the Supreme Court is asking what is the Centre doing about NGOs working with government funds. In an order on April 26, the apex court had asked the Centre to examine ecting a law to regulate disbursal of public funds to over 33 lakh NGOs and voluntary organisations (VOs) in the country, and to prosecute them in case of misuse or misappropriation. It had also suggested that the law can be framed under Entry 97 of Seventh Schedule of the Constitution, which provides the list of issues on which the Centre or States or both can make laws to regulate NGOs. Hearing advocate ML Sharma’s PIL alleging misuse of funds by An Hazare’s NGO Hind Swaraj Trust, the Supreme Court had expanded its scope to include the status of all NGOs. This came after the SC bench was informed with facts and figures that from 2002 to 2009, the Centre — through the Council for Advancement of People’s Action and Rural Technology (CAPART) — had disbursed Rs 4,756 crore to NGOs and VOs, while States had given Rs 1,897 crore, which worked out to an average of Rs 950 crore a year.
Reining in NGOs
However, a CBI report filed in the Supreme Court said only 10 percent of 33 lakh NGOs have filed annual income and expenditure statements. On its part, the CAPART informed that it had blacklisted 718 NGOs for not following due process and not submitting accounting details, and that it had recommended lodging 159 FIRs against various NGOs for alleged misappropriation or misuse of funds. Taking a stern view of the Centre’s failure to ensure any sort of accountability at all with such large sums of public money, the apex court made it clear that “mere blacklisting” of rogue organisations would not suffice, that civil and crimil action must be initiated against misappropriation of funds received by them from various government departments. The Centre has now sought some time from the Supreme Court to frame appropriate legislation ‘to give more teeth’ to regulations on NGOs, which means pel provisions will be included. Earlier, the Modi regime has sought to rein in foreign-funded NGOs like Greenpeace and Amnesty, drawing much flak from activists in various sectors for ‘shooting the messenger’. The allegation is that the NDA government is seeking to bring such NGOs to heel to hide failures in protecting environment and human rights, that it perceives them to be following an agenda drawn up by rich countries to stall development in India. They have pointed to foreign funds being well utilised for rural development, children’s welfare, construction of schools and colleges and research in the country. In turn, the government has said that actions like freezing Greenpeace’s bank accounts were taken because it had broken tax laws and worked against India’s economic interests.
What needs be remembered here is that the Congress-led UPA government in 2010 had ected the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) in place of the 1976 law by the same me. Back in 1976 at the height of Emergency, the FCRA was ected to restrict foreign funding to civil society groups. Later on, successive governments used this law to keep such groups under tight leash, but the UPA regime took the stand that foreign-funded NGOs must be prepared for more scrutiny. The FCRA 2010 ended the system of permanent registration of NGOs, requiring them to seek renewal of licence every five years. So when the first 5-year term ended in September 2015, the NDA regime at the Centre cancelled the registrations of more than 11,000 NGOs for not filing annual returns for 3 years in a row, while many among them were defunct or did not want to be registered. Since then, the Centre has been tweaking FCRA Rules, making it mandatory for all voluntary organisations to have dedicated accounts in preferably public sector or desigted banks with core banking facilities, and that no NGO gets foreign funds under prior permission category more than once. In particular, the Union Home Ministry has declared that NGOs must make it clear that the foreign aid received by them “will not be used for any activities detrimental to tiol interest, likely to affect public interest, or likely to prejudicially affect the security, scientific, strategic or economic interest of the State.” This has got activists questioning the government what it means by terms like ‘tiol interest’ and ‘public interest’ without defining these first. So the government’s intent behind proposed FCRA changes will remain an issue that political parties will likely capitalise upon, even though both UPA and NDA have sought to rein in NGOs receiving foreign funds. The Supreme Court has now made it clear that when it comes to NGOs and VOs funded by public money, there can be no compromise either with transparency and accountability.