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Govt's witch-hunt against NGOs

The Non-Governmental Organisations which receive foreign funds have been under the scanner, particularly since the Narendra Modi government took over a year back. The tone was set in June, last year, by a leaked Intelligence Bureau report identifying NGOs which promoted agitations against projects like nuclear plants and large industrial units, thus “negatively impacting economic development.” The report even quantified the “negative impact,” saying it set back India’s GDP growth by 2-3 per cent per annum. Almost as a follow-up, came a perceived crackdown on NGOs under the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) – a law which goes back to then prime minister Indira Gandhi’s times and has been invoked by all governments. In April, the Centre announced cancellation of licences of nearly 9,000 NGOs and other institutions under FCRA. Recently, another 4,000-odd organisations, including universities, joined the list of entities now barred from accepting foreign funds.

The action has invited accusation that the BJP government is trying to muzzle criticism. The perception is reinforced by the case of Greenpeace India. Its foreign funds have been frozen. In January, India-based activist Priya Pillai was barred from taking a flight to London, where she was to make a presentation before British parliamentarians on protests against multinational Essar Group’s coal mining project in Mahan forests in Madhya Pradesh. And just a few days back, another Greenpeace staffer Aaron Gray-Block was sent home to Australia after landing in Bengaluru with a valid visa. It appears that he is on the government blacklist along with many other activists. The Pillai case earned the government unflattering references from the international community and a rap from the Delhi High Court.

These airport dramas should be avoided. A mature democracy like India should take criticism from pressure groups with equanimity. The government has the right to do what “national interest” requires, but contrary opinion should not rattle it. In fact, it should be factored in while taking decisions. But as the Modi government battles the perception of being high-handed, the recent developments also reveal that all is not well in the world of the non-profits. Though the FCRA allows a government to act against NGOs for a variety of reasons, most licences were apparently cancelled because the organisations failed to file their financial returns over three consecutive years. When the April ‘crackdown’ took place, show-cause notices had been sent to over 10,000 entities.  Reportedly, only about 230 replied: by keeping mum, the others seemed to invite government action. It is important that the government doesn’t use the FCRA to mount witch-hunt against inconvenient NGOs.

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